It has long been said the Kennedy dynasty is as close America gets to a Royal family. Now the famous clan has produced a new crown prince who is aiming take on the mantle of his illustrious forebears by taking on a mission to heal a bitterly-divided United States.
After a lifetime in the political shadows, 69-year-old Robert F. Kennedy Jr has challenged President Joe Biden for the Democratic nomination in the hope that the stardust and the tragic history of his family name can propel him all the way to the White House.
But unlike his uncle President John F. Kennedy, who was assassinated in November 1963 and his father Bobby, who was gunned down in 1968 while mounting his own presidential bid, RFK Jr is regarded as the dark horse of the 2024 electoral race despite opinion polls that have shown him as the most popular candidate – beating both Joe Biden and Donald Trump in one survey with a net positive rating of 19 points.
Remarkably, the former environmental lawyer has built a cross-party appeal that could turn increasingly partisan American party politics on its head.
His championing of Republican-friendly causes such as vaccine scepticism and his opposition to U.S. support for the Ukraine war has attracted the support of conservative-leaning Americans. But his views have also alienated sections of the Democratic base, leading to fears that a Kennedy candidature would fatally wound Biden and result in a triumphant Trump returning to the White House.
Daphne Barker’s interview with Robert Kennedy Junior (right) will be broadcast on the Camilla Tominey show on GB News Sunday August 13 at 9.30am
Robert F. Kennedy Jr, 69, (pictured) has challenged President Joe Biden for the Democratic nomination in the hope that the stardust and the tragic history of his family name can propel him to the White House
However things eventually turn out, it now seems certain that he’ll be playing a significant role – in one way or another.
While his father and uncle ran with the Hollywood ‘Rat Pack’ and vied for the affections of Marilyn Monroe, RFK Jr has generated stardust of his own. Last week the actor Woody Harrelson was photographed in a Kennedy 2024 baseball cap alongside RFK’s wife, the Curb Your Enthusiasm actress Cheryl Hines.
British blues legend Eric Clapton is said to be preparing to perform at a Kennedy rally and film maker Oliver Stone has been seen at RFK events.
But for most Americans, RFK will always be associated with the assassinations of his uncle and father – two senseless murders that bookended the 1960s and for many people spelled the end of their dream of a new America.
RFK Jr was just nine years old when his Uncle Jack was shot dead in Dallas, Texas, on 22 November 1963. In an exclusive interview, he recalls how his mother Ethel picked him up from school just as the Stars and Stripes on the flagpole outside was lowered in respect.
He said: ‘While we were leaving, we saw a man in front of the school lowering the flag to half-mast.
‘I asked my mother why that was, why he was doing that. And she said that a bad man had shot my uncle, Uncle Jack.’
John Kennedy listens to his nephew Bobby Kennedy Jr (RFK Junior) explain how the plane flies from Los Angeles to Boston as they return home from the Democratic National Convention
The assassination of President Kennedy remains immersed in a tangle of conspiracy theories to this day. Today RFK Jr reveals that his father – JFK’s brother Robert F Kennedy – initially suspected an inside job.
Kennedy Jr, 69, said: ‘My father actually that day, the first call that he made was to the CIA to the desk chief and he asked him, ‘Did your people do this?’ That was his first thought.’
When Robert and his mother Ethel returned to their Virginia mansion, he found his father in the garden with the then-director of the CIA John McCone.
The Kennedy name still has the old magic
When it comes to star power, the Kennedy name still has the old magic.
JFK famously ran with the Rat Pack and was serenaded by none other than Marilyn Monroe for his birthday.
Now Robert F Kennedy Jr has his own Hollywood appeal.
His wife, actress Cheryl Hines, is a star in her own right – and his environmentalist credentials chime with many in the entertainment industry.
So I was not that surprised to bump into Oscar-winning film writer Oliver Stone at a recent RFK Jr event.
Now I can reveal that Eric Clapton will be performing a special set at a campaign event next month
But what connects the candidate to one of the world’s greatest guitarists?
I believe it is their experiences with grief that has united them.
I interviewed both Eric Clapton and Lory Del Santo, the mother of the musician’s child Conor, who died tragically when he fell from the 53rd floor of a New York high rise in 1991.
Lory told me: ‘Conor had such a short life. I want the world to remember him.’
Eric ensured that would be the case when he wrote Tears In Heaven for his four year-old son.
Meanwhile, tragedy is synonymous with the Kennedy name – there are more than 13 instances of family members who were taken too soon.
When Bobby described the moment his father died, I could see the pain etched on his face.
Grief is the ultimate leveller – money, connections and fame mean nothing when you lose someone you love.
It’s something both men know all too well.
After interrogating the senior intelligence chief, Robert senior ran up to the family and held them in an emotional embrace.
Kennedy Jr recalls: ‘There was a cedar tree at the bottom of our yard and we all stood under that together, and hugged my dad because we could see how upset he was, that he was destroyed.
‘It took him many, many months to recover. He walked around like a ghost for several months after that.’
Tragedy struck again when their father Robert F Kennedy was gunned down in June 1968 while making his own run for the presidency.
The New York senator was shot by Sirhan Sirhan in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles – Kennedy Jr, then aged just 14, rushed to be by his side.
He recalls how he was woken up at 5am by priests at his private Washington boarding school, before being hurried onto Air Force Two – the plane belonging to the vice-President – and flown to California.
He is grateful for those final moments at the Good Samaritan hospital, revealing for the first time: ‘I was with my father when he died.’
After Senator Kennedy, a former U.S. attorney general and civil rights campaigner succumbed to his injuries, the Kennedy family flew him to New York for an all-night vigil.
His son acted as one of the pallbearers for a service at St Patrick’s church the following day.
Kennedy Jr said: ‘I remember while we were carrying, struggling with his coffin down the steps of St. Patrick’s, a black woman collapsed on the steps… she was waving a handkerchief at the coffin and saying to him: ‘Well, you’ve done your best. You’ve done your best.’
‘It was a moment that just stabbed me in the chest.’
His body was then transported by train from New York to Washington – with millions of Americans lining the tracks to pay their respects.
Kennedy Jr said: ‘People were holding American flags. People were holding their children up, their babies up to see the train. And people were holding signs that said, ‘Goodbye, Bobby’ or ‘Pray for us, Bobby’.’
Bobby Kennedy was buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, close to his brother John’s final resting place.
But not all Americans shared the mass shock and revulsion at the Kennedy assassinations. Robert Jr revealed his mother and his ten siblings had to deal with threats and horrifying hate mail for years afterwards.
He says: ‘We received hate mail, we received death threats, even the kids in the house. We received hundreds of letters a day from people at that time.
‘And I remember showing a letter to my brothers David and Michael, and it said something about killing Ethel and her ten little pigs.’
It was a difficult time for RFK Jr, who started using heroin to fill ‘an empty space inside of me’.
RFK Jr attends his father Robert F Kennedy’s funeral service on June 8, 1968. RFK Jr has revealed how he started using heroin to fill ‘an empty space inside of me’ after his father’s death
But he insists: ‘I would not blame drugs on those tragedies. It may or may not have contributed.
‘I feel like I was born an addict… that I was an empty spiritual hole.’
Candidly discussing his addiction to the Class-A drug for the first time, he admits: ‘I was shooting, I was doing intravenous heroin, that was my drug of choice from when I was 15. And I could not understand why I could not stop.
‘The most demoralising feature of addiction for me was that incapacity to keep contracts with myself. I tell myself, ‘Okay, I’m never going to do that again,’ at nine o’clock in the morning.
‘I would say it honestly, sincerely, earnestly – and at four o’clock that afternoon I would be doing it.
‘I could not understand why that was happening… it is conning, baffling, powerful.
‘I knew I did not want to be taking drugs, and I did not understand why I kept doing it. I had iron willpower in every other part of my life.
‘I gave up candy for Lent when I was thirteen, and I never ate candy again until I was in college.I felt like I could do anything with my willpower, and I could not believe that it would not work against drugs.’
Pallbearers (including Robert F Kennedy Jr) carry the coffin of Senator Robert Kennedy to the grave site at Arlington National Cemetery on June 9, 1968 in Arlington County, Virginia
The addiction held Robert in its grip for 14 years before he finally got clean in September 1983, shortly after he was publicly arrested for heroin possession.
With the news splashed across the papers, Kennedy Jr felt able to embark on a 12-step programme with Narcotics Anonymous – where recovering addicts meet regularly to discuss their progress.
Kennedy Jr explains: ‘For me, it would have seemed insane to go into a group of strangers and start talking about anything private. Because the consequences for doing something like that in my position just seemed cataclysmic.
‘But I got arrested in September of 1983, and I got national, international publicity. At that point, privacy and anonymity was no longer an issue, so I was able to go into twelve step programs. And it had an immediate effect on me.’
‘I had a spiritual awakening a couple of months in and that compulsion that I had, it just disappeared.
‘It was almost like I had never had it before. For me, it was as much a miracle as if I had learned to walk on water, because it is miraculous.’
And he believes that his experience puts him in a strong position to understand the problems America faces, not least the lethal opioid crisis that has become the biggest killer of young Americans.
He said: ‘It is not just addiction, our country needs healing. The levels of mental illness in our country, the levels of addiction to psychiatric drugs or dependence on psychiatric drugs.
President JFK visits with his young nephew RFK Junior
‘We have a major public health, mental health problem in our country, and nobody’s dealing with it.’
In running to be President in 2024, Kennedy Jr is putting himself at odds with his family – with five of his relatives closely involved in Biden’s presidency.
He has drawn criticism from his own siblings for his scepticism of vaccines and US military support for Ukraine.
Daphne Barak is an interviewer and documentary film maker, whose subjects have included Nelson Mandela, Donald Trump, Hilary Clinton, Johnny Depp and Michael Jackson among many others.
Daphne’s best-selling book Saving Amy, based on her months’ filming with Amy Winehouse and her family, is being adapted into a scripted eight part TV series by Halcyon Studios
He said: ‘I love my family. I love my brothers and sisters. They do not agree with me on the war. They do not agree with me on the censorship issue.
‘They do not agree with me on foreign policy and the neocons who are now running the White House, and they are fine with that and I am not.
‘Joe Biden has been a friend and ally of my family for more than 40 years, and he has a bust of my father behind him in the White House. In my family, there’s tremendous affection for him.
‘I understand that people are alarmed that I am running against him as somebody who has that strong a tie to our family and that bond with our family.
‘But for me, I see our country going in a very bad direction and I see the Democratic party going in a bad direction on many issues.’
Knowing all too well the dangers of life in the spotlight, Kennedy Jr had several conversations with his wife, Curb Your Enthusiasm actress Cheryl Hines, 57, before standing.
The father-of-six said: ‘I think everybody in my family is aware of the risk. I think life is filled with risks.
‘I think once Cheryl was convinced that there was a path to victory – because I have a passion to do this, to solve some of these problems for our country and I am in a unique position to be able to do that – she gave me the green light.’
Sixty years ago, the Kennedy name was a byword for the politics of hope, the glamour of their ‘Camelot’ court and selfless service to the American nation. RFK Jr hopes that he can rekindle that dream.
Daphne’s interview with Robert Kennedy Junior will be broadcast on the Camilla Tominey show on GB News Sunday August 13 at 9.30am. Also available on gbnews.com
Daphne’s latest book, Struggling for One America, written with Erbil Gunasti, is published by Skyhorse Publishing and is available to buy here: https://www.simonandschuster.com/books/Struggling-for-One-America/Daphne-Barak/978151076808