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Robert F. Kennedy Jr. announces he's running for president


A familiar name has entered the 2024 presidential race to challenge President Biden for the Democratic nomination - Robert F. Kennedy Jr. He made his formal announcement earlier today in Boston.


ROBERT F KENNEDY JR: My mission over the next 18 months of this campaign and over my - throughout my presidency, will be to end the corrupt merger of state and corporate power...


KENNEDY: ...That is threatening now...

CHANG: Now, Kennedy isn't just a member of one of America's most famous political dynasties. He's also an anti-vaccine activist, who's been criticized by his own family. NPR's Shannon Bond joins us now to explain more. Hey, Shannon.


CHANG: So, OK. A lot of people, of course, know the Kennedy name, but can you remind us who exactly is Robert F. Kennedy Jr.?

BOND: Sure. He's the nephew of President John F. Kennedy and son of Bobby Kennedy. And Robert Kennedy Jr. is a lawyer, who is originally probably best known as an environmental activist. But as you said, he's not only become a central figure in the anti-vaccination movement, but he's also promoted other conspiracy theories, like the baseless idea that 5G telecom networks are being used to control people's behavior.

CHANG: Wow. OK. How did Kennedy wind up as a leader in the anti-vax movement, though?

BOND: Well, he said he is not opposed to vaccines. He frames his criticisms as being about safety. You know, and in his speech today, he didn't address vaccines directly, but he did raise concerns about chronic illnesses, autism, quote, "poisoning our children." And these are all references to these debunked and false and misleading claims that he has promoted for years that undermine trust in vaccines.

During - most recently, during the COVID pandemic, he opposed vaccine mandates and other public health measures. He promoted unproven treatments such as ivermectin. You know, and that did result in some of his social media accounts being taken down for spreading false health claims. He says that's censorship. But the pandemic also did a lot to raise his profile. And so we're in this sort of strange place now where Kennedy is this figure with this iconic Democratic name, but he's also now being embraced by many on the political right who have adopt anti-vax views.

CHANG: Right. But he is running as a Democrat. Let me ask you - President Biden's approval rating with Democrats, I mean, it's pretty strong right now. Polls find that Democrats are also more willing to get vaccinated than are Republicans. So what is the rationale for Kennedy here because (laughter) this sounds kind of like a long shot, right?

BOND: Yeah. And, you know, for a long time, Ailsa, vaccine opponents weren't particularly aligned with one political party. Here's how Annette Meeks, who's a lifelong Republican who runs the Freedom Foundation of Minnesota, a conservative think tank - here's how she put it.

ANNETTE MEEKS: In the early days, it really is kind of where the crunchy-granola left meets the far right.

BOND: But that started to change even before COVID. You saw vaccine opponents begin to rally under the banner of what they called liberty or freedom. That seems to have really resonated with conservatives. And then when COVID came along, resistance of vaccines became linked with resistance to other things, like closing schools, wearing masks. Everything was filtered through this partisan divide. And, in fact, Kennedy does have some surprising sources of support. Donald Trump's former adviser, election-denier Steve Bannon, has publicly suggested Kennedy should enter the Republican primary, and the conspiracy theorist and Trump ally, Roger Stone, has his own suggestion that Trump should pick Kennedy as his running mate.

CHANG: Huh. That is NPR's Shannon Bond. Thank you, Shannon.

BOND: Thanks, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Shannon Bond is a business correspondent at NPR, covering technology and how Silicon Valley's biggest companies are transforming how we live, work and communicate.