Editor’s note: Peter Bergen is CNN’s national security analyst, a vice president at New America, a professor of practice at Arizona State University and the host of the Audible podcast “In the Room With Peter Bergen,” also on Apple and Spotify. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. Read more opinion at CNN.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr. has made a career out of challenging the status quo. For some of that work, like his time spent cleaning up the Hudson River as an environmental lawyer, he has received widespread praise.
But in recent years, he has taken increasingly unorthodox positions, promoting conspiracy theories without any reliable evidence. He has suggested, for instance, that antidepressants may be to blame for school shootings, that vaccines cause autism, that HIV may not cause AIDS and that Wi-Fi causes “leaky brain” and cancer.
Kennedy also accepts little of the scientific consensus about the efficacy of Covid-19 vaccinations, and he caused widespread consternation when at a Washington, DC, rally in January 2022, he appeared to liken pandemic safety protocols to measures that Nazis put in place when they were in power in Germany. Much condemnation followed that statement — including even from his wife, actor Cheryl Hines — and Kennedy apologized.
Months later, he said that he was simply misunderstood. He said he was making a broader point that surveillance technology today is so advanced that any government can surveil its citizens to an unprecedented degree, telling CNN host Michael Smerconish in April that “… in the future totalitarian systems would be able to surveil us and intrude and control our lives in ways that had never happened in the past.” Of course, the level of surveillance that exists in our world is surely worrying to anyone concerned about privacy.
Now, Kennedy is running against President Joe Biden in the Democratic primaries. A CNN poll released this month had sobering news for Biden; two-thirds of likely Democratic voters say the party should nominate someone other than Biden, and about half of them said that Biden’s age was their biggest concern.
For a candidate such as Kennedy — who at 69 is a full decade younger than Biden and whose campaign has released footage of him doing push-ups on social media — that provides something of an opportunity. Yet in a CNN New Hampshire poll last week, Biden got the support of 78% of likely Democratic primary voters in that early primary state, compared with 9% for Kennedy.
I sat down with Kennedy for a lengthy interview in Manhattan at the end of last month for the Audible podcast “In the Room With Peter Bergen.”
When he enters a room, Kennedy is a commanding presence, tall and tanned with piercing blue eyes, his bodyguards discreetly in the background.
During our interview, he made several assertions that made it clear he isn’t qualified to be commander in chief. Among them: He disputes that Covid-19 vaccines saved many lives, he has doubts about the official explanation of the cause of the 9/11 attacks, he promises that he could settle the war in Ukraine by simply negotiating with Russian President Vladimir Putin and he thinks the media works for the pharmaceutical industry.
To boot, he would be only the second president (the first being Donald Trump) who has neither held prior political office nor had any military experience.
RFK Jr. and the media
During the interview, he made sweeping statements about the need for strong skepticism: “People should not trust the government now. It’s untrustworthy.” He also asserted that “the media habitually lies. … I don’t think you can survive in the mainstream media unless you’re willing to become a propagandist.”
In his response to me, Kennedy broadened this charge, saying that “technically, the entire news industry is working for the pharmaceutical companies.”
I’ve worked in the news business in some shape or form for almost four decades, and this was definitely news to me. I told Kennedy that I had never seen any evidence for this claim to which he asked, “Are you telling me that you could have this conversation with me on CNN?”
I asked him, “They haven’t booked you?”
He replied, “No, of course not.”
I pointed out that he had, in fact, done an interview on CNN with Smerconish in April. He conceded that was true, adding, “That’s the exception.”
Kennedy’s portrayal of the mainstream media as propagandists in the pocket of pharmaceutical companies is nonsensical. It’s part of his overall impulse to paint a picture of some kind of large-scale conspiracy to silence him when in fact, he has been the subject of significant coverage in a host of media outlets.
Kennedy questions who was behind 9/11, even though few events have been more exhaustively examined. The FBI conducted its largest criminal investigation in history, chasing down more than 500,000 leads and interviewing over 167,000 witnesses. The bipartisan 9/11 commission also produced an authoritative report after two years of hearings. Its conclusions that al Qaeda, led by Osama bin Laden, carried out the 9/11 attacks were based on overwhelming evidence.
Yet Kennedy told me, “I don’t know what happened on 9/11. I mean, I understand what the official explanation is; I understand that there is dissent. I have not looked into it.” He added some “strange things that happened,” such as that one of the buildings in the World Trade Center complex, Building 7, collapsed even though a plane didn’t directly hit it.
The government’s official report of how Building 7 collapsed was that it was hit with debris from the massive north tower of the World Trade Center after one of the hijacked passenger jets had crashed into it, creating a giant fireball. The debris from the north tower landed on Building 7, causing fires, which led to Building 7’s collapse. There’s nothing “strange” about it.
War in Ukraine
Kennedy is positioning himself as an alternative to Biden, in part, because he says he is worried that the president is moving the US closer to nuclear war with the Russians.
Kennedy said the Biden administration shares much of the blame for the current situation in Ukraine, pointing to “the neocons within the State Department and the White House. … They want a conflict with Russia.”
Kennedy added, “Putin did not want to take over the country. He wants us back at the negotiating table. But we won’t help because we don’t want peace.”
In fact, as is widely known, Putin brought the war on himself by unprovoked aggression, miscalculating that he would win a quick victory. Instead, the Ukrainians have resisted for a year and a half with help from the United States and other NATO countries.
Kennedy said he is worried that “we’ve got Putin’s back to the wall. He’s already said that if it’s existential, he’s going to use a nuclear weapon. Once he uses it, we’re going to use all of ours, and that’s it.”
He added that he had a plan to end the war in Ukraine and any chance of a nuclear exchange with Putin, asserting, “If I’m commander in chief, he’s not going to do that because he’s going to know he’s dealing with somebody who’s going to settle this war.”
As for his assertion that Putin really wants to negotiate, it seems like wishful thinking, given the Russian leader’s long record of aggression. For instance: ordering the Russian invasion of Chechnya in 1999; invading Georgia in 2008; invading parts of eastern Ukraine in 2014; and sending considerable Russian air power to Syria in 2015 to prop up the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad, not to mention the indiscriminate attacks on Ukrainian civilian targets over the past year and half.
It was Kennedy’s criticisms of the US g