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What We Can Learn from the Kennedys
We can learn something about family values from the Kennedys.
That sounds like a stretch. America’s most famous political family has been a lightning rod for controversy, and a magnet for tragedy. Its members have combined public service with great wealth, great teeth, and great demonstrations of human frailty. It is sport to mock them. It is standard for conservatives to bemoan the Kennedy influence on our politics; it is equally obligatory for many of my feminist friends to narrow their eyes at the mention of the reckless womanizing of Jack, Teddy, and various less-celebrated cousins. (Even now, should I be feeling mischievous, I can provoke mild apoplexy in certain severe friends by confessing that I feel a particular kinship with several of the most wayward lads in the clan.)
Robert F. Kennedy Jr, son of the slain attorney general and senator, has announced he is running for president. RFK Jr (called Bobby by his family) is renowned for his environmentalism, and for his staunch defense of what his allies call “medical freedom” and his detractors call “anti-vax paranoid nonsense.” I’m not addressing the merits of his views here, though I note that many close to me are aligned with RFK’s stances. (From a socioeconomic and cultural perspective, Kennedy and Marianne Williamson are both competing for a demographic that skews female, middle-aged, affluent, spiritual-but-not-religious – and fond of home-brewed kombucha, Teslas, Pilates, homeopathy, and Lululemon. It is not a demographic big enough to win much, but it holds considerable sway in certain precincts of Santa Monica and Santa Barbara.)
The Kennedy family is huge. I do not know how many living direct descendants of Joe and Rose abound, but they are legion. Virtually none support RFK Jr’s quixotic campaign. Virtually all who have made public pronouncements have declared support for President Biden’s reelection.
This is a difficult situation for me. I love my older brother Bobby. He has extraordinary charisma and is a very gifted speaker. I admire his past work as an environmentalist – because of him, we can swim in the Hudson. But due to a wide range of Bobby’s positions, I’m supporting President Biden. – Rory Kennedy, Bobby’s youngest sister.
I love my brother Bobby, but I do not share or endorse his opinions on many issues, including the COVID pandemic, vaccinations, and the role of social media platforms in policing false information. – Kerry Kennedy, Bobby’s second-youngest sister.
For his part, Bobby told CNN:
It has been my difficult choice to put my principles ahead of my personal affections for the President which remain undiminished. Some members of my family agree with me, and others do not. I bear them no ill will. Families can disagree and still love each other. We hold that possibility for the entire country too.
One can imagine Kerry texting her brother: “You’re a big idiot, and I love you anyway. When you come to Hyannisport again, bring a case of the good stuff and we’ll drink it and laugh. But I might kick you before I hug you.”
The stakes are high. The disagreements are real. The love and respect are stronger.
In an age where we are told that politics are so important that we should cut off loved ones whose views do not align with our own, the Kennedy family provides a sterling, praiseworthy, and countercultural example. I grew up in a far less celebrated but still large family where we were expected to welcome in John Birchers, Communists, Mormons, unfaithful spouses, Kabbalah students, vegans, Pentecostals and teenage cousins with unfortunate piercings and even more unfortunate boyfriends.
Love is not love that alters when it alteration finds, said Shakespeare, and political differences, as real as they are, are the inevitable alterations that test every family. How we respond to loved ones with whom we disagree says a lot about us, and it says a lot about how we see love itself.
I do not hold up the personal virtues of the Kennedys as exemplary. I do celebrate their collective loyalty, and their willingness to openly and firmly disagree while remaining devoted to each other.
“Families can disagree and still love each other. We hold that possibility for the entire country too.” Whatever you think of Bobby, or his vast and notorious cloud of kin, we would do well to heed him on this, if nothing else.