Tuesday I continued with the can’t-put-it-down sleazefest that is Jerry Oppenheimer’s RFK Jr. – Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and The Dark Side of The Dream. Sometimes your first impressions of a book are wrong, but – at least so far – Oppenheimer has thrown me very few curve balls. The first few pages a tabloid-like wallow in the mud and I haven’t been disappointed.
The chapters that I read Tuesday (9 through 25) take Jr from his first prep school (Millbrook) all of the way to the 2000s when he has become an avid environmentalist. The timeline of the book has been a great surprise to me. It takes Oppenheimer about 140 pages to get Jr out of high school and another hundred pages (to page 238) to get him married for the first time. After the marriage, Oppenheimer picks up the pace quite a bit in the last 25 pages that I finished.
There is a lot to tell from Jr’s salad days. He attended three different high schools before finally graduating from a pricey, alternative school (Palfrey) with minimal standards. Despite a dismal high school record, Jr got an acceptance from Harvard. Oppenheimer writes that rumor has it that Jr’s admissions “essay” for Harvard consisted of nothing more than writing his name.
Drugs, Marriage, and Saving the Earth
Along the way, Jr chases a lot of women, has some adventures on the road, and becomes deeply enmeshed in drugs. By the end of Chapter 24, Jr has been arrested for heroin possession and has been through treatment. So far, Oppenheimer has offered few details of Jr’s new, clean-and-sober life.
Most curious is Jr’s first marriage to Emily Black. Also curious is Oppenheimer’s discussion of the marriage. Before meeting Emily, Jr had been involved with many glamorous, jet-set women. Black was a quiet, smart classmate of his at the University of Virginia’s law school. She was a sharp contrast to the other women whom he’d dated and the reader wonders why he chose her. (Jr was sinking deeper into drugs; did he want someone on whom he could lean?).
Oppenheimer doesn’t even speculate on Jr’s motives. What he does do is recount in excruciating detail Jr & Emily’s 1982 wedding (on pages 216 – 238). The reader wishes that Oppenheimer had cut this material by half, if not two-thirds.
By page 264, Jr has become a leading environmentalist. Oppenheimer makes much of Jr’s attempts to shoulder aside those who opposed his ideas. None of this material is shocking. People in non-profit organizations still angle for advantage and no one ever said that the Kennedys lack ambition.
Ethel as Cruella de Vil
As the story has progressed, Jr’s mother, Ethel, has gradually moved into the background. But she still remains the book’s central villain. One great anecdote is that Ethel was such an absentee mother that she didn’t even bother to call Jr on his birthday when he was a high school senior. Also, when Jr got married, Ethel attempted to cheat the restaurant that she chose for the rehearsal dinner. She paid the bill only after the restaurant filed a lawsuit and the suit ended up on the front pages. (So I must admit that I did enjoy some of Oppenheimer’s coverage of Jr’s wedding).
Summing Up – So Far
In RFK Jr., the Kennedy clan emerges – yet again – as a family that is strong and accomplished in public life but weak and grossly dysfunctional in private. Unsurprisingly, readers will be ambivalent about Jr. For all of Jr’s flaws, Oppenheimer’s account strongly suggests that anyone been raised by Ethel would end up carrying some major baggage into adulthood.
The book is still a page turner, but it definitely could have used some editing. So far, I’d give it 7.5/10