Robert F. Kennedy Jr. Is Where Paranoia Meets Legacy Admissions

It feels dangerous to write about Robert F. Kennedy Jr.: In the lag between when I put the finishing touches on this and when it becomes publicly available, I could be a conspiracy theory or two behind.

I could be mulling his apparent belief that the coronavirus was diabolically engineered to spare Chinese and Ashkenazi Jewish people while he has already moved on to the hypothesis that Ron DeSantis is a hologram gone haywire (I could buy into this one), the revelation that earbuds deliver subconsciously perceptible government propaganda through our auditory canals or the epiphany that French bulldogs cause global warming. He’s a crank who cranks out whoppers the way Taylor Swift disgorges perfect pop songs.

But we hang on her words for her craft. We hang on his for his clan. Kennedy is where paranoia meets legacy admissions. Like Donald Trump, with whom he has much more in common than he probably cares to admit, he’s an elitist hawking anti-elitism, an insider somehow branding himself an outsider, a scion styled as a spoiler, a populist as paradox. Why do Americans keep falling for these arrogant oxymorons?

Oh, I understand the appeal of the perspective that narcissists like Trump and Kennedy peddle: that sinister operators deploy nefarious tricks to shore up their own dominance and keep hard-working, well-intentioned, regular folks in their places. It’s an exaggeration of inequities and injustices that really do exist, and it simplifies a maddeningly complex world. Ranting about George Soros or Anthony Fauci feels a whole lot better than raging at the vicissitudes of fate.

But why turn to preachers like Trump and Kennedy for this anti-gospel? It’s like consulting sharks about veganism. Trump commenced his career with a big, fat wad of money from his rich father. He attended business school in the Ivy League. He hobnobbed with big-name politicians before he turned against them. He has an eagle’s nest of a penthouse in the financial capital of the world.

And Kennedy? He belongs to perhaps the most storied family in American political life. His uncle’s White House was nicknamed Camelot, for heaven’s sake.

That legacy is suffused with immeasurable heartache. I can’t imagine his pain at seeing that uncle murdered and then having his own father meet the same fate. I bet it stings to this day.

But Kennedy’s place in a bona fide dynasty has also meant access, influence, mulligans. “Kicked out of an elite roster of prep schools, he still managed to arrive at Harvard in 1972,” Rebecca Traister wrote in an excellent recent profile of him and his presidential campaign in New York magazine, where she also described how he is “leaning hard into his family in this contest; his logo even borrows the iconography of his father’s 1968 campaign.”

In an insightful column in The Times, my colleague Michelle Goldberg noted how, at a June rally in New Hampshire, Kennedy pitched his presidential bid as a return of his family’s magic and majesty. “We can restore America to the awesome vitality of the original Kennedy era,” he told an adoring crowd.

It takes a yachtload of nerve to flaunt that pedigree while disparaging an entrenched political class, but across his speeches and interviews, Kennedy tries to have it all ways. He’s marginalized! He’s royalty! He’s the skunk at the garden party! He’s the cucumber sandwiches!

All of which makes him an especially incoherent opportunist. Let’s be clear: As Kennedy promotes the specter of microchips in vaccines, as he posits that H.I.V. may not be the sole cause of AIDS, as he says that Anne Frank had it better than Americans under Covid lockdown, as he claims that Covid vaccines are often deadlier than what they’re supposed to prevent, as he fingers the C.I.A. for his uncle’s assassination and Prozac for mass shootings, he can portray a society in which the deck is stacked against all the little people because the deck has been stacked so heavily in his favor. His rapt audiences and his shimmering Kennedy-ness are inextricable.

He has complained of being “deplatformed” for his, um, unconventional thinking, but he has conventional platforms aplenty. He does interviews galore. If there’s a conspiracy afoot, it’s working to his advantage. His visage, voice and views are everywhere I turn.

And they speak to what a strange and scary time this is. So many Americans are so angry and distrustful that they’ll look for answers in the strangest of places. They’ll bow down to and elevate the unlikeliest of prophets. Trump and Kennedy are the self-proclaimed martyrs of the moment. There will be more where they came from.

For the Love of Sentences

Diane Keaton in the 1984 film adaptation of the John le Carré novel “The Little Drummer Girl.”Credit…Everett Collection

As someone who has barely scratched the surface of John le Carré’s oeuvre, I very much needed Sam Adler-Bell’s recent guide in The Times to the best plotted, best written and most alluring of the prolific novelist’s works. It was, additionally, a lode of deft prose, such as his pitch for “A Perfect Spy,” published in 1986: “This is a great, whooshing thrill of a book! I recommend it constantly, the way annoying people recommend hydration.” (Thanks to Eric Andrus of Chelmsford, Mass., for nominating this.)

Also in The Times, Kevin Roose wrestled with the grim undercurrent of the work done at a company trying to develop safe, responsible A.I. tools: “Not every conversation I had at Anthropic revolved around existential risk. But dread was a dominant theme. At times, I felt like a food writer who was assigned to cover a trendy new restaurant, only to discover that the kitchen staff wanted to talk about nothing but food poisoning.” (Ralph Begleiter, Ocean View, Del.)

And Nick Kristof contrasted the dynamism and visual vibrancy of Eastern European countries today with their drabness when he traveled through them during the Soviet era and his “main impression was that in the Communist bloc you didn’t need color film.” (Jim Grout, Brentwood, Tenn.)

In The Atlantic, Matt Seaton described his area of Vermont after the recent deluge: “If you were close enough to the river on Monday, above the roar of millions of gallons of raging brown murk, you could hear the uncanny kerthunk of huge rocks being smashed into one another, like a terrifying subaquatic game of pinball played by angry rain gods.” (Donna Meadows, Houston)

Also in The Atlantic, Yair Rosenberg assessed Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s antisemitic rant about Covid: “Kennedy is a conspiracy theorist, and the arc of conspiracy is short and bends toward the Jews.” (Rhoda Leichter, Pacific Palisades, Calif.)

In The New Yorker, Susan Orlean conducted a funny, incisive tour of cooking gadgets come and gone: “The graveyard of kitchen fads is wide and deep, littered with the domestic equivalent of white dwarf stars that blazed with astonishing luminosity for a moment and then deteriorated into space junk.” (Ray Smith, Lutz, Fla.)

In The New York Review of Books, Jessica Riskin assessed the limits of a new kind of student shortcut: “My teaching assistants and I became expert at sniffing out A.I.-generated essays by their flat, featureless feel, the literary equivalent of fluorescent lighting.” (Paul Ansell, Tampa Bay, Fla.)

In The Los Angeles Times, Justin Chang managed, in his review of “Barbie,” to allude to its pink-and-purple palette and its opening on the same weekend as “Oppenheimer” in the same sentence: “I must point out the existence of Emma Mackey as Physicist Barbie, who presumably discovered the secrets of nuclear fuchsian.” (Bob Meadow, Los Angeles) That review also had an aptly playful headline that made rhyming reference to the movie’s stars, Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling: “With Robbie in pink and Gosling in mink, ‘Barbie’ (wink-wink) will make you think.”

And in The Wall Street Journal, Jason Gay appraised Carlos Alcaraz’s victory over Novak Djokovic in an epic five-set showdown at Wimbledon by noting Djokovic’s preternatural stamina. “There may be no harder opponent to close out in sports,” Gay wrote, adding: “Even after you defeat Djokovic, you should go up to the scorekeeper and get the result in writing, just to confirm.” (Barbara Gaynes, Harrison, N.Y.)

To nominate favorite bits of recent writing from The Times or other publications to be mentioned in “For the Love of Sentences,” please email me here and include your name and place of residence.

What I’m Reading, Watching and Doing

Credit…Frank Bruni
  • The work of the Washington Post columnist David Von Drehle is a mainstay of the For the Love of Sentences section. His recently published book, “The Book of Charlie: Wisdom From the Remarkable American Life of a 109-Year-Old Man,” is a gorgeously written examination of one centenarian’s eventful past as an example of all the disruption that life can mete out — and all the fortitude with which a human being can respond.

  • A line from Anthony Lane’s review in The New Yorker of “Master Gardener,” Paul Schrader’s latest movie, appeared in For the Love of Sentences in early June, but I hadn’t seen the film at that point. I subsequently watched it. While it doesn’t rise nearly to the level of “First Reformed,” the first installment of what Schrader has called a trilogy of movies about boxed-in, haunted men — the second was “The Card Counter” — it has one sublime supporting performance, by the actress who plays Norma Haverhill, the owner of an estate with extensive formal gardens “whose name is like a mash-up of Norma Desmond and Miss Havisham, and whose gaze could nip the buds off a damask rose at 40 yards,” as Lane wrote. Lane went on to pay fitting tribute to that performer: “One thing I do believe in is the power of Sigourney Weaver. She makes Norma authentically scary, investing every gesture with the fierce languor of entitlement.” (“Master Gardener” is streaming on several platforms and can, for example, be rented through Prime Video or Apple TV+.)

  • I don’t keep careful track, but it has apparently been about a month and a half since I gave you a report or photo of my four-legged companion. And you let me know it! I love that many of you miss Regan and ask after her and even worry that her absence from the newsletter means that something’s wrong. She and I recently hit the road for just a bit to visit a few friends, and as you can see from the picture above, Regan has an awful time trying to get comfortable in new surroundings. If only she could learn to relax.

On a Personal Note

Credit…Christopher Dubia/Gallery Stock

Almost every afternoon last week, I took a very long, very fast walk with intervals of running mixed in; just once, I didn’t bother to stretch when I was done. The next morning, I paid for that. My creaky knees! My knotted calves! There was no forgiveness for my lapse, not the way there was in years past, when my stretching was reliably unreliable.

Similarly, I get no allowance anymore for evenings of gluttony. Back when I was The Times’s restaurant critic in my early 40s, I could atone for an excessive dinner and erase its effects by just increasing my exercise in its immediate aftermath. Now I need the better part of a week to get back to where I was.

At 58, I reflect often on the differences between youth and age. One of the biggest is the margin for error. You have a big, broad one when you’re young, and that applies not just to muscles and midriffs but also to relationships, jobs and more.

You can be sloppy, and the wages are modest. You can be heedless and recover. You can squander an opportunity and still find another (and maybe even another) and make the most of it, having learned from your mistakes. You have time. You have flexibility. Everything is more elastic — your knees, your calves, your skin, your heart.

Don’t get me wrong: Age has its benefits. I much prefer 58 to 28. As I described in my most recent book, “The Beauty of Dusk,” age can bring a perspective and sense of peace that are so elusive in youth, when many of us are too distracted — by self-doubt, by want, by envy, by vanity — to learn the trick of contentment.

But age also compels us to proceed with caution. To take greater care. The flesh-and-blood vessels that we occupy are more fragile. The promises we mean to keep and the plans we intend to execute can be postponed only so much. Time is of the essence. Which is perhaps why we’re graced with the wisdom to see that.

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