Back in the dawn of the Trump era – just prior to his 2017 inauguration – the line of would-be suck-ups queuing up for face time with the president-elect included a man with a distinguished name.

He was Robert F. Kennedy Jr., scion of one of the leading families of Democratic Party politics. What brought him together with Trump was their shared interest in the anti-vaccination movement.

At least Kennedy, who had been an anti-vaccine crusader for well more than a decade and was pushing a long-discredited claim that the MMR vaccine caused autism, thought so. He announced upon emerging from the meeting that Trump had asked him to chair a commission “on vaccine safety and scientific integrity.”

Trump promptly denied that, but acknowledged that he was “exploring the possibility” of such a commission and “look[ing] forward to continuing the discussion about all aspects of autism with many groups and individuals.”

Kennedy has never backed off from pushing the vaccine-autism link, which can be traced back to a British study that was eventually retracted because of charges that the data were fabricated. Its main author was stripped of his medical license in Britain amid accusations of research fraud.

Kennedy has now paddled back into the American political discourse by announcing his candidacy for president in April on the Democratic ticket. His family connection appears to have brought attention to his campaign; the question is whether the dazzlement of the Kennedy name will be sufficient to blind voters to his history of promoting spectacularly dangerous health policies through misrepresentations and outright lies.


Kennedy certainly can’t claim to lack a platform to disseminate his misinformation and disinformation. On June 15 he received a tongue bath on Spotify from that outstanding ignoramus Joe Rogan, who allowed him to spout his anti-science spiel for three hours with virtually no pushback.

After vaccine expert Peter Hotez of the Baylor College of Medicine tweeted a link to a comprehensive takedown of the Spotify webcast by, Rogan challenged Hotez to participate in a public debate with Kennedy. Hotez has quite properly refused, which led to his being accosted at his home by some misguided soul demanding that he take the bait.

The dangers from Kennedy’s campaign should be clear. One is that a Kennedy candidacy that gains any real traction alone will increase the political credibility of anti-vax claptrap, which already has more than enough.

Another is that it could cut into the vote in 2024 for a responsible Democrat, whether President Biden or anyone else, which could sweep Trump or a Trump clone into office, along with the thuggish attacks on diversity, inclusion and voting rights that have become the alpha and omega of Republican politics.

It’s proper, in other words, to take a close look at Kennedy’s record on health policy and the real consequences of his anti-vaccination crusade.

Kennedy first made a splash as an anti-vax figure in 2005, when and Rolling Stone jointly published an article under his byline headlined “Deadly Immunity.” The article asserted a link between a purported increase in autism and the presence of thimerosal, a compound of mercury used as a preservative, in childhood vaccines.


The fact is there has never been any scientifically valid evidence for this link, and in any case thimerosal ceased to be used in childhood vaccines in the U.S. in 2001. The rise in autism diagnoses before then or since has been attributed by experts to a broadening of clinical definitions for the condition and more awareness of its multiple manifestations.

Salon ended up appending no fewer than five corrections to Kennedy’s article, and finally bowed to proliferating professional critiques of the piece by removing it from its website in 2011.

In trying to make his case, Kennedy misrepresented a conference about vaccines held by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention at the Simpsonwood conference center outside Atlanta in June 2000. He implied that it was a secret conference, though the entire transcript was published by the CDC later that month. He used selective quotations from participants to suggest that their purpose was to hide evidence about vaccines and autism, when in truth it was nothing of the kind.

Kennedy continued to spread anti-vaccine hysteria, emerging as a walking public health hazard. In June 2019 he visited Samoa, appearing in public with a prominent local anti-vaccination figure.

By that September, the island nation was in the grip of a measles outbreak that eventually took the lives of more than 80 people. Experts blamed the outbreak on a sharp drop in measles vaccination rates, which had fallen to about 34% in 2018 from 74% the year before.

While the epidemic was still in full cry that November, Kennedy wrote to the Samoan prime minister denying that the outbreak could be blamed on “the so-called ‘anti-vaccine’ movement,” and pointed his finger instead at “a defective vaccine” that failed to target a “mutated” virus and allowed it to spread to children.


“It is a regrettable possibility that these children are (casualties) of Merck’s vaccine,” he wrote. The veteran pseudoscience debunker David Gorski described the letter as “a masterpiece of antivaccine dissembling, misinformation, distortion, and lies,” seemingly aimed at providing cover for anti-vaccine quacks trying to deflect responsibility for “discouraging people from vaccinating their children.”

Kennedy’s spiel has become only more febrile and inflammatory over the years. At an appearance in Sacramento in 2015, while the California Legislature was debating a measure to narrow the ability of parents to avoid immunizing their children (it passed), he called the impact of vaccines on children a “holocaust.”

Kennedy claims not to be “anti-vaccine,” but says he is merely “a vaccine safety advocate.” That’s a well-worn dodge of the anti-vaxxer movement. In 2017, Kennedy told Helen Branswell of Stat that he wanted to ensure “that vaccines are subject to the same kind of safety scrutiny and safety testing that other drugs are subject to.” As vaccine expert Paul Offit observed in response, “in fact, vaccines are subjected to greater scrutiny than drugs” by the Food and Drug Administration.

During the Rogan webcast, Kennedy expanded his attack to encompass electromagnetic, wireless and 5G technology: “Wi-Fi radiation” could be causing autism, food allergies, asthma, eczema or other chronic conditions, he said. “I think it degrades your mitochondria and it opens your blood-brain barrier.”

He also promoted ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine as treatments for COVID-19, medicines that have been approved for other conditions but have been found through repeated, painstaking studies to be useless against COVID. He retailed the familiar anti-vaccine trope that those nostrums have been deliberately suppressed by the pharmaceutical industry and government authorities.

“They had to discredit ivermectin,” Kennedy told Rogan. “Because there’s a federal law, the emergency use authorization statute, says you cannot issue an emergency use authorization to a vaccine if there’s an existing medication that has been approved for any purpose that is demonstrated effective against the target illness. So they had to destroy ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine.”


That’s a baseless claim. The truth is that there is no such rule.

Kennedy’s anti-vaccination and anti-government spiel appeals to prominent entertainment and business figures who like to be thought of as iconoclasts. For instance, he’s been embraced by Elon Musk, whose apparent determination to tell it like it is has been hampered by his towering ignorance.

One group of people who are immune to Kennedy’s influence is his own family. In 2019, his sister Kathleen Kennedy Townsend (a former lieutenant governor of Maryland), brother Joseph Kennedy II (a former congressman from Massachusetts) and Kathleen’s daughter Maeve Kennedy McKean, who died in 2020, upbraided Kennedy in Politico for having “helped to spread dangerous misinformation over social media” and being “complicit in sowing distrust of the science behind vaccines.”

As they pointed out, President John F. Kennedy, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy Sr. were leaders in improving access to vaccines and better health care to Americans and others around the world.

“The fact is that immunizations prevent some 2 million to 3 million deaths a year, and have the potential to save another 1.5 million lives every year with broader vaccine coverage,” they wrote. “On this issue, Bobby is an outlier in the Kennedy family.”

Voters, take heed.

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