Robert Kennedy, Jr. and his late father at President John F. Kennedy"s funeral in 1963. Kennedy"s father taught him to love and appreciate nature.
Kennedy, whose family’s summer home is on Nantucket Sound, has been accused of NIMBYism. Asked about this, he responded: "I"m a strong advocate of wind farms on the high seas. But there are appropriate places for everything. We wouldn’t put one of these in Yosemite, and I think environmentalists are falling into a trap if they think the only wilderness areas worth preserving are in the West. The most important are the ones close to our cities, where the public has access to them. And Nantucket Sound is a wilderness, which people need to experience. I always get nervous when people talk about privatizing the commons. In this case, the benefits of the power extracted from Nantucket Sound are far outweighed by the other values our communities derive from it."
Arriving back at his house around 9 p.m., and yet to have any dinner, Bobby pointed to a baby owl in its cage right outside the front door. "I have to feed this guy first," he said. The owl, found abandoned in the woods, is now a part of his licensed wildlife rehabilitation center. With his wife still attending a school open house for their daughter Kira, Bobby wandered into the kitchen and located a salad in the refrigerator.
The phone rang. It was his brother Max, 12 years Bobby’s junior. A professor at Boston College Law School, where he teaches a course called "Nature in American Culture," Max is also a co-director of the Urban Ecology Institute, which works with 17 Massachusetts schools, getting students involved in hands-on efforts to study local water quality and catalogue species diversity. Max was calling Bobby, as he often does, for some advice. "Would I be doing this if it weren’t for Bobby? I’m almost certain I wouldn’t be," Max would say later. "I don’t know if I’d have gone to law school. For sure I wouldn’t be a falconer, or have all the animals we keep at our house."
Now, on the kitchen TV, a commercial came on promoting the latest SUV. Bobby shook his head. "The checkbook diplomacy between Detroit and the White House, including about $30 million in campaign contributions from the big auto companies, has bought the auto industry immunity from making any sacrifices for our country. Franklin Roosevelt got on the radio and asked Americans to conserve gasoline, but now we have a President who goes on TV, asks Americans to go shopping, and gives them a $100,000 tax deduction for the worst gas-guzzling SUVs."
Bobby pulls no punches about what he sees happening under the current Bush administration. "I lived through the Reagan years, through [James] Watt and [Newt] Gingrich, and nothing has ever been as bad as this. What’s going on right now is the worst assault in history on our environment. These people have such narrow minds and are so filled with fear, and really have no faith in our country. Industry gave them $300 million to win the last presidential election, and you and I and our children are going to pay them back a hundred times."
His voice quavering with rage, Bobby continued: "Using what happened on September 11 to push forward their agenda is the most cynical thing I’ve seen in American history. Every time there’s any kind of crisis in this country, the Bush administration sees it as an opportunity to attack the environment."
Out the picture window in his "junk room," night had enveloped the trees and the lake stocked with fish. Kennedy continued to talk fervently about the White House commission, "whose purpose is to figure out ways to dismantle the National Environmental Policy Act." And about the efforts to gut key provisions of the Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act, allowing more mountaintop mining and letting coal-burning power plants off the emissions hook.
"Our big problem is getting the message out," Bobby said. "If the American people, Republicans and Democrats, hear the message, we win on the merits. The trouble is, industry has all the money and an extremely sophisticated public relations machine. That includes spending millions to create these phony think-tanks in Washington, D.C. They fill them up with these "biostitutes," marginalized scientists who make pronouncements that global warming doesn’t exist and the ozone hole is a myth and the oil industry is good for the fish."
Will He Run?
Kennedy’s knowledge, charisma, and ability to articulate all of this raises the obvious question: Can he, should he, run for political office himself? John Adams, NRDC’s president, has known Bobby for 20 years and says: "I think he has the potential to be a great political leader. If he were, he’d also be a great leader when it comes to values. He’s enormously attractive to a lot of people who care about the future of the planet, and people all across America talk to me about wanting to support him if he does run for office. But I think he has considerable reluctance. He’s got a wonderful family. And it could be dangerous."
Kennedy says his current lifestyle allows him to "hang out with my family and be a good father," and he worries about giving that up if he runs for office.
Author Jack Newfield thinks there’s more involved than the dangers inherent in a Kennedy running for high office. "I’ve sensed a real ambivalence in him about politics. And what you have to endure to go through an election, in terms of negative campaigning and fundraising. But given his name, intelligence and character, he could probably run for and win any office."
For his part, Bobby, who has endorsed John Kerry for President, admits having considered entering the political arena. "But really I just live my life one day at a time, trying to be effective doing what I’m doing. I have benefits from this lifestyle, which allows me to hang out with my family and be a good father. I think that would be more of a challenge if I ran for office. But maybe at some point I"ll get so angry about the way our politicians behave that I would make another choice."
As he spoke, bathed in the glow of the lamplight, the momentary resemblance to his father was positively eerie. He continued: "What I seek to impart to my students is the same thing I try to teach my own kids—to i
nstill them with noble thoughts. Which is, I think, the principal objective of parenthood, to make them feel like they can be heroes. And that the object of life is to transcend narrow self-interest, and to spend your resources on behalf of the community. That’s the key to personal happiness and fulfillment.
"You work as hard as you can for the right thing, and then let God be in charge of the results. We still have time to preserve a planet for our children that provides at least some of the opportunities for dignity and enrichment as those our parents gave us. My job is to be able to look myself in the mirror and say that I spent my short time on this planet trying to make it a better place for my children. I have to look my children in the eye. And I will be able to do that. Because I know I will never sell out, and I’m going to spend my life fighting as hard as I can. I will die with my boots on. That’s really all I care about."
DICK RUSSELL is the author most recently of Eye of the Whale: Epic Passage from Baja to Siberia (Simon & Schuster).