A 30-Second Kennedy Ad Collides With a Decadeslong Family Legacy

A Super Bowl advertisement promoting the presidential campaign of Robert F. Kennedy Jr. — a remake of a 1960 spot that helped put his uncle John F. Kennedy in the White House — has struck a nerve with Kennedy family members and friends, who worry that it exploits and potentially tarnishes the legacy of a storied political family.

The 30-second advertisement is built on the foundation of one of the most famous political ads in American history, still memorable to many in politics 63 years after it was first shown. That historic ad presents John F. Kennedy — then a senator from Massachusetts — as a young, vibrant and experienced challenger to Richard Nixon, the Republican vice president under Dwight D. Eisenhower.

The slightly altered version of the original ad superimposes pictures of Robert Kennedy Jr. over John F. Kennedy’s image and keeps the jaunty jingle — Kennedy, Kennedy, Kennedy — that remains burned in some people’s memories to this day. In the process, it repurposes an advertisement created for John F. Kennedy into one for his 70-year-old nephew, an appropriation of a legacy that many Democrats have long argued Robert Kennedy should not be able to claim.

Sign up for The Morning newsletter from the New York Times

Raymond Buckley, who has been chair of the New Hampshire Democratic Party since 2007, said he had viewed the vintage advertisement numerous times while visiting the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston, so his head shot up in surprise when he heard it during the Super Bowl.

“It was jarring,” Buckley said. “I was like, what? Eccch. And to see Bobby Jr.’s photo imposed over JFK’s was gross. Whoever would have thought to do such a thing? It was disrespectful.”

The Super Bowl advertisement is the latest chapter in what has been years of growing estrangement between Kennedy and much of his family. It began in earnest as he emerged as one of the nation’s leading skeptics of the COVID vaccine and intensified when he went on to challenge President Joe Biden, who has the support of some of the best-known members of the Kennedy family, for the Democratic presidential nomination.

As his long-shot hopes for winning the Democratic nomination evaporated, Kennedy announced that he would run as an independent, raising concern among Democrats that, should he get on the ballot in places like Pennsylvania and Michigan, he could siphon votes away from Biden and help the election of Donald Trump.

Prominent members of the Kennedy circle said that Robert Kennedy Jr. had repeatedly identified himself with the family legacy in promoting his own agenda over the past decade.

“He’s done this over and over again,” Robert Shrum, a longtime adviser to the Kennedy family, said. “RFK and Teddy went out of their way not to exploit JFK’s memory and loss. I almost fell out of my chair.”

A cousin of Robert Kennedy Jr., Bobby Shriver, noted that the ad included images of his mother, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, a sister of both the candidate’s father and the president, both of whom were assassinated. “She would be appalled by his deadly health care views,” Shriver wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter. “Respect for science, vaccines, & health care equity were in her DNA.”

Kennedy apologized on X “if the Super Bowl advertisement caused anyone in my family pain.” He asserted that the ad had been created by an independent political action committee supporting his campaign without his involvement or his campaign’s approval. Even so, he pinned a link to the ad at the top of his X feed, which has 2.7 million followers.

No matter how much the ad has riled up people in the Kennedy world, the actual political impact of the ad, which cost $7 million to run during the Super Bowl, is far from clear. “The Kennedys have long since passed into history, legend, lore and mythology,” said Evan Thomas, a historian and biographer of Kennedy’s father. “People barely remember World War II or the Vietnam War. One of the reasons for my double take is, I was put off by it, but also that most people are barely old enough to remember.”

That said, Kennedy has scored in the double-digits in many polls, owing in no small part to name recognition, political analysts said. And Kennedy would certainly benefit with being seen as the latest member of this family of Democrats looking to serve the nation.

Bill Carrick, a Democratic consultant and one-time adviser to Ted Kennedy, the former senator, said that the new advertisement, which he called distasteful, was particularly hurtful because the original had become part of Kennedy lore. It represented a turning point in how political advertisements were made.

“It’s a historic ad,” he said. “In the early days of television, and the Eisenhower campaign, the campaign ads were very cookie-cutter: still photography and portraits. The 1960s campaign changed all that.”

Shrum said he taught the advertisement in his political science class at the University of Southern California. “It’s a far more effective ad than people think,” he said. “It’s full of message: He’s old enough to understand and young enough to try something new. The message of the campaign is encapsulated in that ad.”

Buckley said he did not think, when all is said and done, that the new ad would damage the Kennedy legacy. “The only tarnish is to Bobby’s campaign in putting it on,” he said. “I don’t think it’s a permanent tarnish of the Kennedy legacy. It certainly doesn’t add to the legacy.”

c.2024 The New York Times Company