RFK, Jr. The Power of One
Two days before Wednesday, April 19, 2023, I booked a flight from Tampa to Boston on instinct, then texted
Two days later, we stared at each other’s faces for the first time in person, laughing at the providential magic that had brought us together. It was nuts, but the kind of nuts that felt just right.
It’s been a few days since we stood together in the Park Place Ballroom with at least a thousand other people, listening to Robert F. Kennedy Jr. speak extemporaneously for almost two hours.
As I’m not a news reporter, I can only offer you my impressions, from my own experience of the event. I trust there will be “journalistic” articles written about the event — though there was almost no coverage of it by the major broadcast news networks. Truly. See if you can find footage on it.
I know other Substack writers were there, like
Others were probably present as well.
I also know, thanks to Celia, that Epoch News was there. You can watch the whole event by clicking that link, or you can skip ahead to his speech. Whatever you do, don’t miss this one. It’s not like any politician’s speech I’ve ever heard in my lifetime.
If you took away the video monitors, and the bank of impassive newspeople standing on a raised platform with their video equipment pointed at the stage (who were they, other than Epoch News?), and the profusion of cell phones being held aloft… it could have been another, earlier age.
A simpler time. A rally for a hometown candidate, perhaps, complete with obligatory red, white, and blue bunting and a live brass band toodling out old patriotic standards like “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.”
The 1920’s era ballroom set the stage, too, hearkening to a more decorative time, before minimalism became synonymous with chic. Gilded carvings and plaster cherubs, sparkling chandeliers, and balconies floated above the exuberant crowd, spilling over into the room adjoining.
From purely a set-design point of view, I would not have been surprised to see his uncle John F. Kennedy or his father Robert F. Kennedy walk out on that stage, to the wild cheers and the tinny horns and oompah pahs of that little brass band. There was No Fleetwood Mac here. No swelling, emotionally triggering strings. No hip hop, or anything that was even remotely hip. Or slick. Or “produced.” None of that.
When Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. walked out, it felt… real.
I know, I know, I can hear the cynics now: it probably was stage-managed to feel that way. Okay, maybe. But what if it wasn’t? What if he and his campaign managers said, “Let’s keep it simple”?
And what is real, anyway? I think I’ve forgotten what real looks like, particularly in the realm of politics.
But I know what real feels like, and so do you. We all know, because we all are born with an ability to differentiate bullshit from sincerity. We are socialized to ignore that ability, we don’t often trust it, and it can be drowned out by noisy, flashy, heart-string manipulation, but it’s there.
Watching RFK, Jr. talk for that long with no teleprompter and no apparent notes gave me and everyone else in the room plenty of time to evaluate that man’s authenticity. And to me, he felt like the real deal.
Either Kennedy is a brilliant actor who somehow memorized the Monologue to End All Monologues and then delivered it flawlessly as a “Sincere Candidate,” or he just got up there and told it like he sees it. I’m inclined to believe it’s the latter.
He’s a man who has never run for office yet knows Washington inside and out, having grown up in and around its players and its machinations. The stories he told about world events like the Cuban missile crisis felt casual and intimate, and thus supremely believable; his version of events smacks of backstage authenticity.
He’s also a man who at nine lost his uncle John, and at 14, his father Bobby, to shadowy assassinations that most of us suspect were at the very least government-sanctioned, if not downright orchestrated, as retributory acts to simultaneously stamp out the empowerment of the masses and issue a warning to would-be reformers: see what awaits you if you step out of line?
From the multiple ominous deaths in the 60s (let’s remember MLK and Malcolm X) until recently, the U.S. presidential candidates have heeded that warning. It’s been a dull, docile parade of polished candidates, the majority of whom have aimed their lives like varnished arrows at the White House bullseye.
These candidates, these “haircuts-in-search-of-a-brain,” to borrow James Howard Kunstler’s indelible phrase, have had much to lose, and their rhetoric has shown it. They’ve played it safe, behaving themselves on Sunday morning talkshows and coughing up managed talking points on cue to appeal to their bases. As Sting sang, “they all look like game show hosts to me.”
Enter RFK, Jr., who does not expect to win and cheerfully says so. On Wednesday, he likened himself to his dad in that way, saying, “My father, when he declared [his candidacy for president], had not a single molecule in him that believed that he could win the democratic nomination.”
He went on to say that since Bobby Sr. didn’t expect to win, he had nothing to lose: “hopelessness in his campaign freed him to tell the truth to the American people.”
And tell the truth Bobby Sr. did, no matter what reception he got. College students all across the country booed him because they didn’t like what he was saying, then reversed course by the end of his speeches.
“The day he died, he won the California primary — the most urban state in this country— and the same day, the South Dakota primary — the most rural. He had succeeded in uniting America, and building that bridge just by telling the truth,” said his son, who seems to be inhabiting that free place now, starting with stating his mission: “to end the corrupt merger of state and corporate power that is threatening now to impose a new kind of corporate feudalism in our country.”
It was at that moment that I thought, wow, this is not going to be your average campaign kick-off speech.
And it wasn’t. Here’s another example:
“When I was a little boy, nobody in this country would dream that our government would ever lie to the American people. [laughter from audience] That’s not a joke — nobody believed that back then…
In 1971, when the Pentagon Papers came out we realized, oh, this is what they do. My father, just before he died told me very sadly, people in authority lie. And the government now lies to us, we all know it, we take it for granted… the media lies to us now and everybody knows that…
When the corporate captive media and the corporate captive government sees other sources of truth, they have to brand those “misinformation” because they threaten their paradigm, they threaten that orthodoxy.
And of course there is a lot of genuine misinformation, but as we know, a lot of the misinformation is just statements that depart from government orthodoxy, so they have to either censor us or they have to lie about what’s true and not true.”
Over those two hours, he hauled out incendiary truth after incendiary truth: regulatory agencies are captured; corporate interests have corrupted democracy; the middle class has been hollowed out; we have a huge trust problem in the government and in media; we have a chronic illness problem; presidents are beholden to their own bureaucrats; corporations are polluting our environment while average citizens pay for it economically, psychically, and spiritually; lockdowns devastated our civil liberties, harmed children, and paved the way for the biggest shift of wealth in human history; we have invested in wars and defense instead of our people and infrastructure; we are no longer admired by other countries… to name some highlights. You can cover a lot of ground in two hours.
What I found fascinating was that his litany of American woes did not seem to engender despair in the crowd. What I sensed was something else entirely: relief. It felt to me like the relief of: finally, someone isn’t lying to us.
I think the crowd was relieved because it was being fed something real. We’ve been so glutted with grandiose promises from candidates and flat-out lies from government and the media for so long that we’re starved for truth — even if that truth isn’t what we think we want to hear.
I’ve used this metaphor before, but it’s apt again here: sickened by eating too many brightly-colored gummy bears, we are now desperate for a bowl of homemade soup.
It may seem uncharitable to liken Kennedy to a bowl of soup, but I see it as the highest compliment. Perhaps it’s not quite right, though, as soup rarely makes me cry.
I cried three times during those almost-two hours.
The first time was when Renese King soared through a high note of “America the Beautiful” and shattered my heart. The livestream doesn’t do it justice.
The second was RFK, Jr.’s description of accompanying his father’s coffin in 1968 on the train ride from New York City to Washington, a two-and-a-half hour trip that took seven and a half hours because of the two million mourners on the tracks. He talked about how he will never forget what he saw from the windows of the train: endless lines of people — poor people, black, white, kids, standing with their hands over their hearts, or saluting, or holding signs that said “Goodbye, Bobby” or “Pray for us, Bobby.” Tears slid down his cheek as he spoke.
The third came near the end of his speech, when he talked about being a little kid at the dinner table, listening to his father Bobby Sr. describe that day’s experience in the Mississippi Delta to him and his siblings:
“He said, ‘I was in a tarpaper shack today that was smaller than this dining room, and there were two families living there, and the children get one meal a day… And when you get older, I want you to help these people.’”
Apparently, Bobby Sr. took every opportunity to instill in his children an ethic of service to the less fortunate.
“He would say to us, ‘These are your people. These are Kennedy people.’ He said, ‘The other people — the big shots, the corporations, the millionaires — don’t need the Kennedys. They have lobbyists, they have PR firms, they have lawyers.’ And he said, ‘These are your people and these are the people you need to spend your life helping.’”
My tears — and the tears I saw being wiped away by many in that ballroom — are certainly no metric to judge a presidential candidate. They do, however, let me know that this Kennedy has inherited not only his dad’s moral compass but also his power to inspire, a quality necessary for any true leader.
Clearly, RFK, Jr. is a reluctant leader. He has studiously avoided running for office. (Given the fate of his father and uncle, who could blame him?) We all know that reluctant leaders are the ones you want; we know that the ones to watch out for are those who will do anything to win.
His is not the traditional path of a man gunning for the presidency, having chosen to dedicate his life to prosecuting corporations and organizations — including government agencies — that have harmed people, mostly people who do not have the resources to fight for themselves.
But now he says he can’t just stand by idly when there’s too much as stake:
“In normal circumstances, I would not do this. But these are not normal circumstances. I’m watching my country being stolen from me. I owe it to my children and my family and my legacy; I don’t want the democratic party to be the party of fear and pharma and war and censorship. We have to be more than just neocons with woke bobbleheads.”
He also isn’t willing to throttle it back to play it safe.
“I want to move on to another issue that nobody is going to want to talk about. But I need to. Listen, I gotta tell you right now, I’m about half-way done with this speech. This is what happens when you censor somebody for 18 years. I got a lot to talk about. They shouldn’t have shut me up that long, because now I’m really gonna let loose on them for the next 18 months.”
His voice — raw, imperfect — suits him. He can’t rely on sonorous tones, or the silky rhythm of a savvy orator to whip up a crowd. He actually sounds like a man who’s been metaphorically strangled for decades, a man who needs to speak his truth.
His vocal issue means that he has to rely on content rather than delivery; words are his weapon, and wield them he does, skillfully. On Wednesday, some of those words described his pain and disappointment, and some of them joked about his shortcomings:
“I have so many skeletons in my closet, that if they could vote, I could be king of the world.”
Rumors seem to be spreading about that closet, some of them pretty unsettling. I don’t know what to believe about them. But my purpose in this essay is not to investigate RFK, Jr.’s past; it’s to encapsulate the impact of those two hours on me and those around me, as honestly as I can.
Personally, it was the first time since 2020 that I was in a room that big, filled with that many people of my “political heritage” — liberal, for the most part— who believe what I believe. The health freedom rallies I’ve been thankful to attend generally have leaned conservative, and though I share many foundational beliefs with the participants, I’ve also felt a tiny bit fish-out-of-water.
At the same time, I kept looking around in disbelief: these people are democrats? There were signs everywhere that said, “I’m a Kennedy Democrat,” but were they speaking for all? Were there Republicans present? Independents? Mutts like me?
I brought home one of those signs, even though I don’t actually know what I am anymore and am thoroughly done with thinking about it. Labeling myself and others, making assumptions… I can’t be the only one who’s done. Here’s Kennedy’s take on it:
“We have a polarization in this country today that is so toxic and so dangerous in any time since the civil war… When I talk to both republican friends, and democratic friends, they talk about this division in almost apocalyptical terms. Nobody can see a safe way or a good way out of it, and people are preparing for kind of a dystopian future. One of the principle missions of my campaign and my presidency is going to be to end that division. And I’m going to try to do that by encouraging people to talk about the values that we have in common rather than the issues that keep us apart. And also, and this is the most important thing: I’m going to do that by telling the truth to the American people.”
There were other signs being held up all over, signs that said “Heal the Divide.” Now that’s one I wish I had snagged.
Someone famous said something like “Easy times make shitty leaders; hard times make good ones.” (I know, I should look it up, but you get the gist.)
God knows these are some hard-ass times. I have no idea whether RFK, Jr. has even a snowball’s chance of overcoming the titanic odds stacked against him to lead this country; it doesn’t matter. But if he does get that chance, I think he might be just what these times are calling for, skeletons and all.
Tonika and I had never met, or even talked on the phone. But Kennedy brought us together. Actually, the events of the past three years brought us together, and recognizing ourselves as kindred spirits, we have supported each other from afar. But Kennedy put us both on planes to meet face-to-face.
That is what good leaders can do. They can coax us out of our comfort zones into growth, not by telling us to reach higher or dig deeper, but by leading by example. By having the courage themselves to show up and do the damn work — including telling the truth, even if it is hard for others to hear, or hard to tell.
A good leader isn’t a Mighty Mouse “here I come to save the daaaay” superhero. (Tonika wrote a wonderful essay on this topic.) A good leader can actually foster decentralization and non-hierarchical governance by inspiring individuals, in RFK Jr.’s words, “[to] find the hero we all have in each of us.”
My son experienced Easter in Greece a week ago, including the Holy Fire ceremony that starts with a single candle flame brought from Jerusalem. The fire is passed from candle to candle until the light spreads and grows from one to a thousand. All it takes is that first flame.
Could Kennedy be that flame? Maybe.
Look, I was born a hopeful person. My parents called me Little Mary Sunshine, and while that saccharine moniker thankfully faded as I grew, the essence of optimism remained, with a few exceptions. The biggest casualty? My hope for the U.S. political system.
A deep slough of despair settled into me sometime in the mid-2000s when I became convinced that it really didn’t matter who was president — in my mind, they were all sanctioned puppets, dutifully doing their job of keeping us meek, divided, fearful, and in constant argument over relative nothingburgers while the puppeteers laughed their way to the Central Bank. The deck just seemed impossibly stacked against the masses.
Then, the U.S. response to covid kicked me down the basement stairs. I honestly didn’t see how the current system could continue. It seemed like our nation, like alcoholics who don’t know they’re alcoholics, was doomed to hit rock bottom before it could rebuild anew.
And I suppose that still might need to happen.
But that’s also the solitary, isolated me talking. An individual can easily despair when confronted by what seems like a global Goliath. Which is, also of course, what the Goliath wants me to believe: resistance is hopeless. Surrender to the Borg.
In Celia Farber’s recent article about RFK, Jr.’s announcement, she sympathizes with the hopeless:
“I understand those who can’t hope any more, I have had “hope” crushed more times than I can ever recount, these past 3 surreal decades. I have felt like a fool, moron, and neon idiot, more times than I can recount. For believing in the power of truth to conquer lies. I’ve been called those thing and much worse things, by the legions of besserwissers, who objected to my chronic naïveté, or my love of people they said were fatally flawed…”
I sympathize with them, too. Hope is a complicated word. I find myself writing about it a lot — here, for example —because I believe there is no such thing as “false hope.” Hope is not a thing, it’s an openness to possibility. Vaclav Havel called it “an orientation of the spirit.”
In that ballroom on Wednesday, something monumental shifted. I imagine it was like being on a battlefield when all seems lost, then seeing someone pick up the flag from the mud and raise it high. The gesture reverberates: one person believes this battle can be won. It almost doesn’t matter who.
The spirit re-orients.
The power of one. Isn’t that all it takes?
No matter what happens — whether RFK, Jr. continues to be vilified by the mainstream media or not; whether his campaign really takes off or not; whether his flaws turn out to be deservedly fatal or not; whether the DNC pulls a Bernie and shuts him down or not — I know that my new friend Tonika and I were changed by witnessing his courage to step into the ring.
As we raced back to the airport to catch flights back to our respective cities, we compared notes in the cab: Moved, yes. Inspired, yes. Hopeful? I can’t speak for Tonika, but I’m choosing to adopt his orientation of spirit into my own life and the lives of those I touch.
My guess is that at least a few of those thousand lit-up people are choosing to do the same.
But please: don’t take my word for it. See for yourself.
One of our country’s most important freedoms is that of free speech.
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