Born into a political dynasty (the third of Robert and Ethel Kennedy's 11 children), Bobby didn't always plan to work in environmental law—his career grew out of personal adversity. In 1983, when he was a 29-year-old assistant district attorney in Manhattan, he was arrested for possession of heroin. Sentenced to community service following rehab, he volunteered with Riverkeeper, a group fighting industrial pollution in New York's Hudson River. He quickly became the organization's chief prosecuting attorney. Today he is also president of the Waterkeeper Alliance, an international network of groups protecting the world's waterways.
He is also clearly a family man, married to second wife Mary Richardson and the father of six kids: Robert F. III, 22; Kathleen, 18; Connor, 12; Kyra, 11; William, 9; and Aidan, 5. On the day of our visit, he has just returned from taking Connor to hockey practice. The Kennedys' miniature long-haired dachshund, Cupid (born on Valentine's Day), scurries through the living room, where a chair cushion reads BORN TO FISH. Home is a priority, which is why he has never considered a bid for public office—until now.
Start reading Oprah's interview with Bobby Kennedy Jr.
Note: This interview appeared in the February 2007 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine.
Bobby: I was asleep. I was in boarding school, and I was woken up and told to get in the car.
Oprah: Did they say why?
Bobby: No, but when I got home, I found out.
Oprah: And you were flown immediately to California?
Bobby: Yes. I was brought to the hospital.
Oprah: Were you there when he died?
Oprah: Before he was assassinated, did you fear he'd be killed?
Oprah: You and I are the same age. And I remember that I was 14 and living in Milwaukee, and I was worried that your father would be assassinated because Martin Luther King and John F. Kennedy had been killed. But you were never afraid?
Oprah: I just recently saw the movie Bobby [directed by Emilio Estevez], about your father. Have you seen it?
Bobby: No. My sister Kerry saw it. The filmmakers were very considerate of my family. I think most of my family won't see it because parts of it are so painful—it's just not worth it. But I'm very happy that Emilio made the film. Everything I've heard indicates that it's a wonderful tribute to my father.
Oprah: It makes people think about what the world would have been like if he hadn't been shot down. Do you ever think about that?
Bobby: You know, I think about that a lot as it applies to the kinds of decisions being made in our country today. To the fact that America is now involved in torturing people; that habeas corpus, which is a fundamental civil right guaranteed since the Magna Carta, has been abandoned; that we're imprisoning people without proper trials. My father thought of America as the last best hope for humanity. He believed we had a historical mission to be a paragon to the rest of the world, to be about what human beings can accomplish if they work together and maintain their focus. He was never afraid of debate; he was willing to debate with Communists because he believed this country's ideas were so good that we shouldn't be scared of meeting with anybody.
When I was boy, my father took me to Europe—Greece, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Italy, Germany, England, France. Everywhere we went, we were met by huge crowds, sometimes hundreds of thousands of people who came out because they loved our country. They were starved for our leadership. They looked to us for moral authority. They proudly named their streets after our presidents: Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, Kennedy. And I remember after 9/11, the headline in the French newspaper Le Monde was WE ARE ALL AMERICANS. For two weeks after 9/11, there were spontaneous candlelight vigils in Tehran, initiated by Muslims who loved our country. It took more than 200 years of disciplined, visionary leadership by Republican and Democratic presidents to build these huge reservoirs of public love. We were the most beloved nation on the face of the earth. And today—in six short years, through monumental incompetence and arrogance, this White House has absolutely drained that reservoir dry. America has become the most hated nation on earth. There are five billion people who either fear or just don't know what to think about the United States. For me that's the most bitter pill to swallow.
Bobby: I think we can, but it's going to take a generation to recover, particularly in the Muslim world. In Tehran there was a nascent democratic movement; most observers were betting that Iran would be a democratic nation by now. But after the war in Iraq, that movement disappeared. The war allowed the radicals to say to the moderates, "Here's proof that all the bad things we've been saying about the United States are true." The radical, Islamofascist leaders were empowered.
Oprah: Do you fear for our country?
Bobby: I think the worst thing this White House has done is to use fear as a governing tool. No, I don't fear for our country in terms of an attack. They've used the excuse that 9/11 suddenly put us in the most dangerous part of our history. That's nonsense. When you and I were raised, there were 25,000 nuclear warheads pointed at America, and we faced absolute annihilation. That was a dangerous time. When George Washington fought the British and his troops didn't have shoes, that was a dangerous time. And during the Civil War, if we had lost Gettysburg, the United States of America would have disappeared.
Oprah: That's right.
Bobby: Lots of countries, like Israel, live with terrorism every day, and it doesn't impact their integrity. The big threat to America is the way we react to terrorism by throwing away what everybody values about our country—a commitment to human rights. America is a great nation because we are a good nation. When we stop being a good nation, we stop being great.
Oprah: Why haven't you run for office?
Bobby: I've got six reasons running around this house. But at this point, I would run if there were an office open because I'm so distressed about the kind of country my children will inherit. I've tried to cling to the idea that I could be of public service without compromising my family life. But at this point, I would run.
Oprah: For what?
Bobby: I would run for the Senate or for the governor's office [in New York]. But my friends are in those offices, and I'm not going to run against them.
Oprah: Why didn't you run for New York attorney general?
Bobby: Because I really didn't want to be attorney general. I have the kind of life where I can take my kids on trips with me. I can involve them in my work. I've always avoided politics because I didn't want to make commitments that would take me away from raising these children. But now America has changed so dramatically that I'm asking myself: What's going to be left of this country? I'm spending time with my kids, but maybe my time would be spent just as well if I tried to save the country.
Oprah: What kind of father would your children call you?
Bobby: You can ask them.
Oprah: Your wife's not here with us today. What kind of husband would she call you?
Bobby: I think Mary would call me a pretty good husband. And by the way, Mary remembers you as a great sport, because she once picked you up in Boston to take you to Maria [Shriver]'s wedding....
Bobby: She said you'd just had your hair done. The convertible top wouldn't go up, so she drove you at 76 miles an hour with an open roof. She says you were gracious and good-humored about it.
Oprah: I remember that day. Do the Kennedys still have all those big family gatherings?
Oprah: If one of your children told you they wanted to run for office, what would you think?
Bobby: I'd think it was fine. My son Connor [age 12] is very interested in politics. He reads the papers, loves history, and knows what's going on.
Oprah: Would you ever run for president?
Bobby: I don't know what the future will bring. I really just try to live my life one day at a time and do what I'm supposed to on that day. But if opportunities came up for me to run for office, I would probably do it. If that doesn't happen, then I'll happily continue doing what I'm doing.
Oprah: An opportunity—meaning if none of your friends were running?
Bobby: If Hillary left the Senate, I might run for that seat.
Oprah: If you could create the perfect presidential ticket for 2008, what would it be?
Bobby: I can't answer that question now. The candidates are my friends, and I like all of them.
Oprah: Do you think this country would elect a woman for president?
Oprah: Would this country elect a black man for president?
Bobby: Yes. I think Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are terrific candidates. A lot of candidates are three questions deep on the issues. But Hillary is thoughtful. She's a problem-solver who has more than just surface knowledge. Though I disagree with her position on the war, I think she has an impressive depth that a lot of other candidates don't have.
Oprah: Including Obama?
Bobby: I don't know Obama that well, but I know him well enough to really like him. My father's best friend in Africa was a man named Tom Mboya, a labor leader from Kenya. I met him right after my father died—and a year later, Tom was assassinated. During his life, he was completely committed to human rights and democracy. His heroes were Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson. He was from a tribe called the Luo—lake people who are very gentle. When I met Barack, I asked him what tribe he was from, and he said he was Luo. I told him about my father's friend. He said Tom Mboya was the man responsible for his being in the United States.
Oprah: That's amazing. For two decades, you've taken a strong stand against what you call pollution-based prosperity. What does that term mean?
Bobby: Good environmental policy is identical to good economic policy 100 percent of the time. We can measure the economy in one of two ways. We can base our assessment on whether the economy produces jobs of dignity over the long term and preserves our community assets. Or we can do what the polluters are urging us to do: treat the planet as if it were a business in liquidation and convert our natural resources into cash as quickly as possible. This is pollution-based prosperity. It creates the illusion of a prosperous economy, but our children will pay for our joyride. They'll pay for it with denuded landscapes, poor health, and huge cleanup costs. Environmental injury is deficit spending. It loads the cost of our generation's prosperity onto the backs of our children.
Bobby: Three of my boys. We have an asthma epidemic in this country. A 2003 study done in Harlem indicates that one in four black children in America's cities has asthma. The principal trigger is bad air—notably ozone and particulates that primarily come from the hundreds of power plants that burn coal illegally. It has been against the law for 17 years to burn coal without removing these two pollutants. But in states where corporations dominate the political process, the plants were not forced to clean up. The Clinton administration was prosecuting the worst 51 plants. But this is an industry that has donated more than $100 million to President Bush and the Republican Party since 2000, and one of the first things this White House did was to get the Justice Department and EPA to drop all those lawsuits. The top three enforcers at the EPA all resigned their jobs in protest. These enforcers weren't appointed by Democrats. They were people who'd worked through the Reagan and Bush administrations. Then the White House abolished the New Source rule, which was the heart and soul of the Clean Air Act. Now that there's no requirement for plants to clean up the ozone and particulates, the plants that already did it are at a competitive disadvantage in the marketplace. So the good guys are being punished! Plus I'll be able to watch my children gasp for air on bad air days because somebody gave money to a politician. The decision to abolish the New Source rule kills 18,000 Americans every year—six times the number killed in the World Trade Center attacks.
Oprah: Why is asthma so predominant among urban black children?
Bobby: There's a lot of suggestion that urban black neighborhoods are often next to incinerators, sewer plants, and highways, so children are breathing in diesel fuel. They don't put those coal-burning power plants in Beverly Hills. They don't put them next to golf courses. The poor always shoulder a disproportionate burden of environmental pollution. Four out of five toxic waste dumps in America are in black neighborhoods. The largest dump in America is in Emelle, Alabama, which is more than 90 percent black. The highest concentration of toxic waste dumps is on the South Side of Chicago. The most contaminated zip code in California is East L.A. Navajo youth develop sexual organ cancers at 17 times the rate of other Americans because of the thousands of tons of toxic uranium tailings that have been dumped on their reservations.
> Environmentalism has become the most important civil rights issue. The role of government is to protect the commons: the air we breathe, the water we drink, the fisheries, the wildlife, the public lands. Those resources are our social safety net. During the Great Depression when thousands lost their jobs in New York, they went down to the Hudson River to catch fish so they could feed their families. New York's constitution says the fish of the state belong to the people. Whether you're young or old, rich or poor, humble or noble, black or white, you have an absolute right to go down to the Hudson, pull out a striped bass, and proudly feed it to your family. But we don't own the fish anymore—the General Electric Company owns the fish. Because they put PCBs in the river, it's now illegal to sell those fish in the marketplace. So the battle is over whether we're going to continue allowing the commonwealth to be privatized by powerful political entities.
Oprah: I hear you don't even eat fish these days.
Bobby: No, I eat fish. I don't watch my diet. I eat fast food and potato chips.
Bobby: Listen, one out of every six American women has so much mercury in her womb that her children are at risk for a grim inventory of health issues, including autism, blindness, mental retardation, and heart and kidney disease. I had my levels tested recently, and they were more than twice what the EPA considers safe. Dr. David Carpenter, a national authority on mercury contamination, told me that a woman with my levels would have children with cognitive impairment—a permanent neurological injury and an IQ loss of about five to seven points.
Oprah: I know you became an environmental advocate after beating a heroin addiction. How did you get hooked?
Bobby: Pretty soon after my dad died, I started taking drugs. I was part of a generational revolution that looked at drugs almost as a political statement—a rebellion again the preceding generation, which had opposed the civil rights movement and promoted Vietnam. At the time, I don't think any of us were aware of how damaging drugs could be.
Oprah: When did you first know you were in trouble?
Bobby: When I was a kid, I'd always had iron willpower and the ability to control my appetites. At 9 I gave up candy for Lent and didn't eat it again until I was in college. After I started taking drugs, I earnestly tried to stop. I couldn't. That's the most demoralizing part of addiction. I couldn't keep contracts with myself.
Oprah: I think every addiction is a cover for an emotional wound.
Bobby: I'm not sure if I agree with that. I don't know whether addiction is principally genetic, a result of emotional injury, or a combination of both. But all that matters is what I do today. Insight doesn't cure the addict any more than insight cures diabetes. You may understand perfectly well how diabetes works, but if you don't take your insulin, you're dead. The same is true with addiction. It doesn't matter what got you there; it's how you conduct yourself today, day by day.
Oprah: Once you broke the habit, did you still crave heroin?
Bobby: No. I've been sober for 23 years, and I'm one of the lucky ones: I've never had a single urge since. Once I completed a 12-step program, the obsession I lived with for 14 years just lifted. I would describe it as miraculous.
Oprah: I've heard that you carry a rosary in your pocket. Do you use it?
Bobby: Yes. I say the rosary every day.
Oprah: I know that you have a genetic neurological condition called spasmodic dysphonia, which is straining your speech. Does it hurt when you talk?
Bobby: No, but it's an effort. The disease didn't hit me until I was about 43. I used to have a strong voice.
Oprah: So you just woke up one day and your voice was different?
Bobby: It began as a mild tremble for a couple of years. After people would hear me speak, I'd get all these letters, almost always from women: "I saw you on TV and you were crying—it was so good seeing a man share his feelings!" I'd think, Oh God. I knew for every woman who wrote, there were ten men saying, "Look at this friggin' crybaby!" [Laughs]
Bobby: I've been told that it's not supposed to, but I think it has. There's a treatment for it: Botox shots. They put a needle into your voice box every four months. They still haven't gotten my dose right.
Oprah: It's fascinating talking to you. What is the number one thing Americans need to focus on in terms of the planet?
Bobby: Global warming. The good news is that we have the technological and scientific capacity to avert the most catastrophic impacts. All the things we need to do to stop the globe from warming are also the things we ought to do for our national security and economy. For instance, if we raised fuel economy standards in American cars by one mile per gallon, we'd generate twice the oil that's in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. If we raised fuel economy standards by 7.6 miles per gallon, we'd yield more oil than is now being pumped in the Persian Gulf. We could eliminate 100 percent of our Persian Gulf oil imports simply by raising fuel economy standards! That's a tiny investment compared with the $2 trillion we're on track to spend in Iraq and compared with the $60 billion a year we spent on military protection of the Gulf before the war. It would preserve us from entanglements with Middle Eastern dictators who hate democracy and are despised by their own people. It would keep us out of humiliating and expensive wars like the one we're quagmired in now. It would reduce our national deficit by $20 billion a year. It would make us all healthier, because we'd be breathing cleaner air. And we'd all be richer. I used to drive a minivan that got 22 miles per gallon. I spent more than $2,000 a year on gasoline. I now drive a Prius, which gets 48 miles per gallon, and I spend less than $1,000 a year on gas. What if every American had an extra $1,000 in their pocket every year?
Oprah: Why is it so hard to get this message across?
Bobby: In part it's because the press in our country is sick. They don't explain the important issues. They appeal to the prurient interests at the reptilian core of our brains—the craving for sex and celebrity gossip. So they give us Laci Peterson and Kobe Bryant and Michael Jackson, Brad and Angelina, Tom and Katie. We're the best entertained and the least informed people on earth. You can't even get foreign news in America unless you go to the BBC.
Oprah: Let's end with the issue you've devoted so much of your career to—protecting our environment. What are the consequences if we don't?
Bobby: The environment is the infrastructure of our communities. As a nation, as a civilization, it's our obligation to create communities for our children that provide them with opportunities for dignity and good health. When we destroy nature, we diminish ourselves and impoverish our children. We ignore that at our own peril.