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Scions of the times collide at Wheeler
Bashing Bush, corporate cronyism, and the national media, RFK, Jr. makes the case for environmental protection

RFK, Jr.  Watch the webcast: 1 hour, 24 minutes

| 10 March 2005


Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. (Peg Skorpinski photo)
George W. Bush is "the worst environmental president we've had in American history," proclaimed veteran conservationist Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. to an appreciative audience Thursday, March 3, at Wheeler Auditorium. The Bush administration, he charged, has "mounted a jihad against the environment," installing lobbyists for polluting industries at the helm of the agencies meant to regulate them. This relentless rollback of air, water, and wilderness protections, he maintained, is enabled by America's "indolent" media watchdogs, whom he derisively branded "stenographers for the White House."

And that, both literally and figuratively, was just throat-clearing.

Fighting laryngitis, Kennedy, senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council and a former New York City prosecutor, looked and sounded more like a fire-breathing courtroom advocate than the scion of one of America's two bona fide political dynasties. From virtually the moment he took the podium until he paused, some 50 minutes later, for a Q&A with audience members - and slowed only slightly by frequent bursts of applause - he staged a blistering verbal assault on the Scion-in-Chief, his key lieutenants, his agency heads, the corrupting influence of "crony capitalism," and a corporate-controlled press that fails to report the systematic "theft of the public-trust resources."

Americans, he declared, have become "the best-entertained and least-informed people on the face of the earth," blissfully unaware that they recently re-elected "a government of plunder."

In an appearance sponsored by the Goldman School of Public Policy, Kennedy, a longtime environmental activist who also heads the Waterkeeper Alliance, a clean-water advocacy group, trained most of his wrath on the Bush administration and its corporate backers for "a deliberate, concerted effort to eviscerate 30 years of environmental law." But he accused the media of complicity as well. Americans remain largely ignorant of the Bush agenda, he charged, "because of the negligence and the indolence and the banality of the American press, which has totally let down the American people and let down our democracy."

"We're living today in a science-fiction nightmare where my children, and the children of millions of other Americans who have asthmatic kids, are being brought into a world where the air is too poisonous to breathe because somebody gave money to a politician," said Kennedy, now 51 and the father of six children - three of whom are afflicted with asthma. He said 630,000 newborns annually have been exposed to dangerously high levels of mercury in their mothers' wombs and reported that his own blood levels are so high that if he were a child-bearing woman, his offspring would likely suffer significant cognitive impairment, including a five-to-seven-point drop in expected IQ.

The Clinton administration, he noted, reclassified mercury as a pollutant under the Clean Air Act, and would have required coal-burning plants, the nation's number-one source of mercury, to cut back drastically their emissions in the next few years. But President Bush recently reversed that decision, opting for a loophole-riddled law written, Kennedy said, by an industry lobbying firm whose former chief lobbyist now heads the air division of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Such cronyism, he charged, is business as usual for the Bush White House. "They have put polluters in charge of all the agencies that are supposed to protect America from polluters," said Kennedy, ticking off a laundry list of compromised government shops from Agriculture and Interior to the EPA, the Forest Service, and "even the relevant divisions of the Justice Department." While acknowledging that "there's nothing wrong" with enlisting the business community's expertise if it's done for the right reasons, he warned that Bush's appointments have more to do with payback than proficiency. "These individuals have not entered government service to serve the public interest," he asserted, "but rather, specifically to subvert the very laws that they're now charged with enforcing."

Speaking of fascism

Citing Franklin D. Roosevelt to the effect that "the domination of government by corporate power is the essence of fascism," Kennedy invited his audience to connect the dots to "the corrosive impact of excessive corporate power" in George Bush's America. He noted that Hitler and Mussolini were lifted to elected office by industrialists, and "the first thing they did is put industrialists in charge of the ministries."

"I'm not saying that Dick Cheney is Heinrich Himmler or [Joseph] Goebbels," he cautioned, alluding to two of Hitler's top henchmen. But while Bush, Cheney, and their ideological brethren regularly rail against government power, "the much larger threat has always been corporate power."

"There is no stronger advocate for free-market capitalism than myself," insisted Kennedy, lauding corporations as "the driving force behind our economy." But he quickly added, "They shouldn't, however, be running our government."

He also had harsh words for the much-touted "values" agenda of the Bush White House and its supporters. "All of the values they claim to embrace," he declared, "are just hollow facades that conceal the one value that they really consider worth fighting for, which is corporate profit-taking."

Kennedy, whose uncle was President John F. Kennedy and whose father was assassinated while seeking the Democratic presidential nod in 1968, has never held political office, and recently decided against a run for New York attorney general. But he did nothing to dispel the suggestion by philanthropist Richard Goldman - who, with his late wife, Rhoda, established the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize - that he is first-rate presidential timber.

"I'm flattered by that endorsement," said Kennedy, "particularly since [Goldman is] a lifelong Republican - the good kind of Republican, before they took the 'conserve' out of 'conservativism.'"

And though his take-no-prisoners rhetoric would make a political consultant wince, he took pains to distinguish himself from so-called deep ecologists and others who want to preserve "nature for nature's sake," calling America's environment "the infrastructure of our communities" and decrying the "false choice" between the environment and the economy offered by opponents of conservation.

"The polluting industries and their indentured servants on Capitol Hill have done a great job of marginalizing environmentalists over the past decade or so as radicals, as tree-huggers, as pagans who worship trees and sacrifice people," Kennedy said. "But there is nothing radical about clean air and water for our children."

In fact, he said, most Americans favor environmental protection, but are ill-served by a mainstream media that is less interested in informing them than in "appealing to the lowest common denominator, which is the prurient interest that all of us have in the reptilian core of our brain for sex and celebrity gossip."

The "gasbags" of the pundit class notwithstanding, Kennedy said, there is no difference in values between residents of red and blue states, only "a huge information deficit."

And that, he reasoned, means that 80 percent of Republicans "are just Democrats who don't know what's going on."