There is a great magnetism to presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. I, my wife, and many of my closest friends—despite the hallucination publicitaire spawned by our mainstream media in an attempt to reduce the man to a cartoon—find ourselves moved by Mr. Kennedy in a way no other political figure has moved us before. I’ve been puzzling over why this is the case and feel I’ve found a clue in a recent interview Mr. Kennedy did with Charles Eisenstein.
Before I delve into the interview I think it would be helpful to share a bit about my wife and friends. My wife is a mother and elementary school teacher, and my friends are motley. One is a carpenter; one a real estate broker; one runs a local art center; one is a farmer; one is a beekeeper; one runs a landscaping business; one is a web designer; and one is a screenwriter. Some didn’t go to college; some went to Ivy League schools. Most are generally suspicious of what they read in “the papers” (though not a one, I’m sure of it, would call herself/himself “civilized”). Most are parents with young kids. And regarding Mr. Kennedy, all appear startled, almost sheepishly so, by their enthusiasm for the man. As my wife said to me one night recently, with a kind of groggy wonder: “I didn’t know how thirsty I was until I was shown a glass of water.”
About halfway into the above-mentioned interview, Mr. Eisenstein asks Mr. Kennedy: “How do you stay positive and upbeat and energetic? What’s your source of solidity?”
In light of Kennedy’s past—the loss of his father to murder, his uncle to murder, an ex-wife (and mother of four of his children) to suicide, his bygone struggle with addiction, and the current media-shelling—I’ve wondered the same thing. (And that’s not mentioning the stress of raising seven children and his high-stakes work as a lawyer on behalf of the Hudson River and other waterways; on behalf of Indigenous peoples; and on behalf of folks fighting against Goliaths like Monsanto and DuPont over their pollution. And that’s not mentioning the books he’s written and statements he’s made sharply questioning and criticizing our government and medical establishment.)
And this was Mr. Kennedy’s response to Mr. Eisenstein, delivered in his shaky catching voice with his grave, pointblank, glancingly wry demeanor:
A couple of things. I have a real spiritual discipline. I rely on Twelve-step meetings. I was going to nine a week during the pandemic. I’ve been doing that for forty years. That’s where I get spiritual renewal and confirmation and validation. And also the opportunity for service, which really is what keeps people sane. You know, if you’re feeling depressed or feeling discomfort or uncertain and anxious, the one thing that will transform that immediately like magic is if you try to help somebody else. And you get a lot of those opportunities in Twelve-step programs. I do meditation every day. And that also centers me spiritually. You know, I do a lot of whitewater kayaking and a lot of first descents on big rivers all over the world. And when you’re scouting a rapid you climb high above the rapid and you look at it for a long time and make a plan. You make a line—how you’re going to get through it, what moves you’re going to have to make. And then you try to stay on that line. And if you can do that, you’re going to be okay. A lot of times you wash out and you’re at the mercy of the river. And that’s what to me meditation is like: sitting still and planning your day and saying: How am I going to stay centered during this day and these difficulties, and ask for help? — And when I speak to this child: I’m not going to get angry; I’m going to be understanding. When I speak to this worker or business partner, I’m going to do it in a way that’s calm and not give in to anger or fear. And other times you can’t stick with your plan and you end up washing out. But you get another chance. God’s given us the gift of time but he’s cut it into these manageable units called days, and every day you can start over and try to do better…I try to stay spiritually centered. As long as I do that, I feel I can bear anything.
To which Mr. Eisenstein responds: “Have you been able to maintain the meditation practice during the rigors and daily intensity of the campaign?
Mr. Kennedy: “Yeah. I have to. It’s not an option for me.”
I quote from this interview extensively because I find it very rich. And very odd. I’ve never heard a possible American president speak like this before. Not even close.
Mr. Kennedy’s relation of his spirituality here is not a deftly dangled lure to snag votes (too undumbdowningly drawn-out, too indecorously frank), nor is it meant to signal a high score on a purity test (in his presidential announcement speech, Mr. Kennedy admits: “I told my wife the other day…‘I got so many skeletons in my closet that if they could vote, I could be king of the world.’”).
Nor is this spirituality a shibboleth to assert tribal identity, to proudly and cleanly distinguish himself from others. (With its mixture of Twelve Steps, daily meditation, whitewater kayaking, and “God,” his is too personal, too mongrel and eclectic, too much an embarrassment to a particular orthodoxy to do that.)
Rather, this is the spirituality of a man post-tragedy, post-heroin, post-forty-days-in-the-wilderness. Not the self-pleased, spick-and-span, airbrushed piety we’ve come to expect from presidential candidates these days but practical spirituality. Urgent spirituality. Un-optional spirituality.
And I wonder: How much of Mr. Kennedy’s appeal is because he so openly stands upon the groundless ground of the sacred?
And does his appeal disclose some kind of mounting revolt against the shallow orient of life these days (with its emojis, digital filters, and duck face selfies), a revolt against our chintzy breathless unexamined life of appearances? Is Mr. Kennedy scratching an itch for realness, for depth, for a life not merely horizontal but vertical, too?
And is Mr. Kennedy satisfying a want for a certain sort of light—the light that shines only through a great wound?