Somewhere Down the Crazy River
The recovery he helped bring upon the Hudson has been far more personal for Robert F. Kennedy Jr. than the process of simply cleansing a river. It has washed him of his sins, returning his birthright charm and political pedigree to full shiny view — and leaving onlookers wondering what's next.
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Bobby Kennedy Jr. vanishes behind a small barn on his 11-acre estate north of New York City, scales a covered shed, and in two hops reappears on the barn’s roof, bounding to the peak to retrieve an injured crow that a minute ago he was feeding from a can of cat food. It’s midmorning and already stifling, the third day of a July heat wave, and Kennedy is wearing black chalk-stripe light-wool pants, a creaseless blue button-down, a red tie embellished with bluebirds, and sleek black oxfords that the excited crow just missed spattering as Kennedy loped from his house to a cluster of outbuildings with the bird feeding from a perch on his finger. At six-foot-two, the 43-year-old Kennedy is rail-thin and erect, with blazing blue eyes, an impeccable tan, and the unmistakable, iconic face of his late father, Robert F. Kennedy. A lifelong naturalist and immediate past president of the New York State Falconer’s Association, he has been nursing the bird back to health in order to release it.
Balancing easily on the ridgeline, Kennedy approaches the crow.
“Ohboyohboyohboyohboy … ” he warbles. It seems an oddly humble, even goofy salutation — a sweet, Doctor Doolittlish half-coo, half-yodel — but the bird is charmed, hopping onto his finger and gobbling some more food. Seconds later, Kennedy is again on the ground and depositing the crow in a homemade aviary before turning back toward the house.
He is running late — he has three speaking dates on Long Island, the first one more than an hour away even without traffic — but you wouldn’t know it. He moves in his own oxygen, taking time to point out his last pair of guinea fowl (a coyote got the other four) and to explain why a pet peacock nuzzles the bumper of a guest’s car (it thinks its reflection is another peacock). Kennedy bought the estate 14 years ago just as he was launching his career as an environmental lawyer — a career that has lately made him perhaps the best-known environmental advocate of his generation. He moved in not long after leaving Fair Oaks Hospital in New Jersey, where he had completed a five-month drug rehabilitation program following a much-publicized arrest for possessing a small amount of heroin. He has found — earned — his place here, correcting youthful excesses, overcoming his addiction, struggling to live responsibly in this wooded section off a busy road in suburban Bedford, and especially, crusading to protect the surrounding Hudson River Valley. The area has become Kennedy’s habitat, his base, a kind of regained paradise. He seems in no hurry to leave it.
It’s also his custom not to telegraph his moves. As the one in his fabled family upon whom the most momentous hopes have been heaped since he was a child, Kennedy is instinctively wary, like the raptors he cherishes. Another environmental activist at this stage of his career would be angling for a bigger job, maybe as an aide on Capitol Hill or in the national leadership of a large environmental group. But Kennedy has already spurned an offer to become regional head of the Environmental Protection Agency and repeated invitations to run for Congress. He is assumed to have his sights set much higher. Twice in recent years, self-identified environmentalists have emerged as top-tier political leaders. The first, Vice-President Al Gore, has been reduced to explaining why he made 86 fund-raising calls from the White House. The second, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, is preoccupied with unsnarling traffic at Yosemite and the Grand Canyon. Given this void, and given Kennedy’s blend of skill, charisma, name, connections, and ability to frame environmental issues in human terms — and considering especially the nostalgic yearning for a return to the romantic idealism ignited by his father — it’s easy to imagine him as the movement’s next savior. Standing in his elegant driveway, absorbing his inscrutable, above-the-noise gaze, you hear him say he has no long-range ambitions beyond what he is doing now and you wonder how he couldn’t.
Finally, after ducking back into the sprawling white colonial house for his things, he bounds out to his car, a dinged-up red Plymouth Voyager with 80,000 miles, and races off. Kennedy in action is much like Kennedy at rest. Realizing he’s late, he strongarms the steering wheel like a New York cabbie: pushing the gas pedal, weaving through traffic, thinking aloud, rattling off statistics on water quality, and citing case law. Someone once wrote of his father that he found his center in kinesis. The younger Kennedy has lately developed a more reflective side, but arriving at his first engagement, in the small north-shore city of Glen Cove, in less than 60 minutes, he yanks his keys from the ignition, grabs his jacket, and lunges into the broiling heat like a firefighter into a burning house.
His audience and the media await him with equal fervor; 15 or 20 people spill up the driveway, elbows flying, upon news of his arrival. The event is an all-day conference on cleaning up Long Island Sound, held at the Webb Institute, a converted Jacobean-style mansion built by Standard Oil cofounder Charles Pratt, and hosted by Glen Cove’s remorselessly ambitious young mayor, Tom Suozzi. Fast-walking stiffly as a result of two back operations and trailed by a camera-toting aide, Suozzi easily outpaces a local television crew to be first to greet Kennedy, his keynote speaker. Suozzi has grand plans in which Kennedy plays a part. He wants to revive his financially strapped city as a jewel of a resurgent Long Island Gold Coast. He also wants to run for the U.S. Senate seat currently held by Alphonse D’Amato and formerly by Kennedy’s father. To do either, he needs to show solid progress on the Sound, which sparkled 70 years ago but has since been devastated by pollution. In the last month, spills from two of New York City’s 14 wastewater treatment plants poured as much as nine million gallons of untreated sewage into the 110-mile-long estuary, closing beaches and momentarily clouding Suozzi’s hopes.
With the shorter Suozzi wincing and hobbling to keep up, Kennedy glides into the building, a Gatsbyesque palace with 14-foot ceilings, 14 chimneys, and terraced lawns cascading down to the water. He warrants no introduction, though Suozzi eagerly makes one. Since 1984, Kennedy has been chief counsel for the Hudson Riverkeeper, a watchdog group that investigates polluters and is largely responsible for bringing the Hudson, once one of America’s most defiled rivers, back to life. The story of this effort — which Kennedy calls “the central battleground of the environmental movement” and which other environmentalists laud, though not so hyperbolically — has been widely, voraciously, amplified by the New York-based global media. Recently, Kennedy and John Cronin, the designated riverkeeper himself, cowrote a book (published by Scribner this fall) that offers their side of it. Kennedy is also credited with brokering the landmark 1995 deal that saved New York City’s vaunted water supply. Because of his brother Michael’s rumored affair with an allegedly underage babysitter and his brother Joseph’s messy divorce and subsequent annulment, a rash of magazine and newspaper stories has lately scrutinized Bobby and his brothers, sisters, and cousins, questioning their moral focus. But this crowd of more than 150 knows Kennedy and admires him, the region having already installed its own “Soundkeeper,” one of 13 attempts nationally to clone the Hudson River model.
Kennedy looks like a Kennedy but doesn’t sound like one. Raised largely by nannies in the Virginia suburbs and at a succession of boarding schools, he doesn’t sound like a New Yorker, either. He does, however, chop at the air for emphasis, and watching him, affectionate audiences tend to get carried away. Speaking quickly and passionately and without notes, he extols the Riverkeeper story, which boils down to this: The Hudson is a small waterway but, because of its abundant fisheries, vital role in American culture, and proximity to New York City, a historic and important one. By the midsixties the river had all but died, until angry fishermen began organizing to investigate and sue polluters. These efforts not only revived the river and the fish, but spawned a new model for ecosystem protection: aggressive, community-based legal advocacy. The basis for that model — the landmark federal environmental laws of the 1970s — is now under attack by Republicans in Congress and their corporate masters, who oppose environmental regulation as being bad for business.
“And that,” Kennedy says, his voice rising, “is a false choice. In 100 percent of the situations, good economic policy is good environmental policy — if we want to measure our economy, and this is how we ought to be measuring it, based on how we produce jobs, and the dignity of jobs, over the generations. If, on the other hand, we want to do what the leadership is urging us to do on Capitol Hill, which is to treat the planet as if it was a business in liquidation, convert all our resources to cash as quickly as possible, and have a few years of pollution-based prosperity, we can generate an instantaneous cash flow and the illusion of a prosperous economy. But our children are going to pay for our joyride. And they’re going to pay for it with denuded landscapes and huge cleanup bills that they simply won’t be able to afford.
“My fahther,” he says, lapsing into the familiar diction of an earlier Kennedy generation, “had a notion that our civilization would be judged not so much by the size of our armies, or the throw weights of our weapons, or the power of our industry, or the wealth of our citizens, but rahther that we’d be judged by how we care for the least fortunate members of our society, how strongly we adhere to the principles upon which this nation was founded — civil rights and human rights — and how much we try to preserve the things that belong to our children, including…the opportunities for health and the bounties of the land, the clean air and the clean water and the things that represent so much a part of American heritage, our contact with nature.”
Kennedy says a few more words and then falls silent as the room erupts with applause. Women seem to clap loudest. As he makes his way to the veranda, he’s besieged by people wanting a minute with him. With no breeze off the Sound, it’s beastly now, and Kennedy, jacket flung over his shoulder, squints and wipes his brow. He’s sweated through his shirt. But he patiently poses for dozens of pictures and takes the cards of well-wishers with offers and proposals to make, trying, because he travels without an aide, to connect names to faces and personalize the small talk.
“Very inspirational speech,” a man near the end of the line says when he finally reaches Kennedy. “I wish I had said what you said.”
“It’s public domain now,” Kennedy tells him, shading his eyes. “You’re welcome to it.”
A small man in a khaki jacket and smoking a pipe adds, “If you ever run for president, I’ll set up a local committee.”
“Thanks,” Kennedy says, “a lot.”
It’s Suozzi who finally extricates him. He pulls Kennedy aside, smiles conspiratorially, and says, “So, you want to go fishing?” Kennedy does, but doesn’t see how Suozzi can leave his own conference. Undeterred, Suozzi sidles into his official car and tells Kennedy to follow him. Their destination, a struggling marina on Glen Cove Creek, is the site of Suozzi’s boldest and most heralded project. The silty creek runs an oily black through 214 acres of toxic waste, sewer facilities, and garbage. “I’ve got a Superfund site over there, an incinerator over there, where I already took down the stack,” he explains, and then announces grandly with a wave of his hand, “Someday this is going to be the Newport of Long Island.” Then suddenly he is off, abandoning Kennedy and waddling painfully down the ramp to the slips, where he hopes to cadge his famous guest a ride on a good boat so he can cast for flounder or bluefish on the Sound. He says hi to the few men working alone on their decks, waiting for them to recognize him, but they don’t. Finally, with his hopes sagging, he marches up to a man standing in the doorway of a cabin cruiser and says, “Hi. Tom Suozzi, mayor of Glen Cove. How’d you like to take a friend of mine out fishing — Bobby Kennedy Jr.”
“If I take him out, he may not come back,” the man says laconically. “Supposed to be a hell of a storm coming.”
Downcast, Suozzi climbs the ramp to announce the bad news to Kennedy, who, suppressing his amusement, sits in his minivan drinking a root beer. “I owe you one,” Suozzi says, although he had hoped it would be the other way around.
In the open season that now besets his family, and with his own complicated past, a Kennedy presidential campaign seems unlikely just yet. But Judith Hope makes no secret of who she would prefer to challenge D’Amato in the Senate race. A compact, vital woman of 57 with a high-wattage, Sally Field smile, Hope chairs the New York State Democratic Committee. She knows that despite D’Amato’s low voter approval, scraping bottom at about 30 percent, and abysmal voting record on the environment — in 1996, the League of Conservation Voters gave him a rare zero percent rating — running against him will be bruising and expensive, possibly costing more than $20 million. So far several less than fresh candidates have been positioning themselves, notably Congressman Charles Schumer, former vice-presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro, and New York City Public Advocate Mark Green. Meanwhile, Suozzi and a couple of others are pacing in the wings. Hope is too professional to confess to being uninspired, but it’s easy to sense her longing. “One of the frustrations of my job,” she says dispiritedly, “is trying to come up with candidates when the best guy’s not running.” She’s talking, she explains, about Kennedy.
Kennedy dismisses the suggestion of a Senate run next year with a faraway stare and a shrug. He says he loves politics but doesn’t feel compelled to run for office now, which of course only fuels the speculation that has dogged him ever since his father declared him the member of the younger generation of Kennedys most like JFK. Now, with his environmental credentials drawing increasing publicity, the speculation about his future comes not just from garden-variety Kennedy-watchers, but from a new set of onlookers as well.”It’s probably going to take some charismatic figure to seize attention for the environment,” says Dave Foreman, who cofounded the radical green group Earth First! in 1980 and now serves on the Sierra Club’s board of directors. “What’s really needed is someone unlike Al Gore, who just talks good. [Kennedy] has worked in the business. He knows it from the inside. That’s impressive.” Kennedy has attempted to shield himself from others’ expectations all his life; as he says, “I won’t do something I don’t want to because other people want me to.” But grandly themed speeches like the one in Glen Cove raise the questions: What does Kennedy want? And how does he plan to get it?
His official, un-Kennedy-like answer is that he doesn’t know, that he takes life “one day at a time.” It’s tempting to think he’s being disingenuous, that he harbors the full Kennedy complement of desire and ambition. But as Salman Rushdie, who knows how severe dislocation can cause people to remake themselves, says, “Our lives teach us who we are.” For the past 14 years, ever since his arrest, Bobby has structured his life with small, carefully chosen steps taken to achieve a larger purpose and to keep from backsliding. He has worked hard to be a good Catholic and attends meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous, where he has quietly helped dozens of other recovering addicts. His rehabilitation suggests he’s sincere when he says he has no master plan.
So does his and Cronin’s book, which some will inevitably view as Kennedy’s attempt to recast his own myth, but which tells a more interesting story. Titled The Riverkeepers: Two Activists Fight to Reclaim Our Environment as a Basic Human Right, the book is a blueprint for ecosystem protection. It’s also Kennedy’s first public self-accounting. To help personalize the book, the authors each contributed an autobiographical chapter, and Kennedy’s in particular is intriguing for how his work on the Hudson stands as a metaphor for his own recovery. In light of his flirtation with a larger public role, the book serves as a kind of mission statement, a campaign autobiography without a campaign.
Kennedy has always been the one in his family most involved with the natural world. In The Riverkeepers he notes that his mother’s family, the Skakels, was “a clan of unruly Republican outdoorsmen” and that he took his earliest cues from them, not the more politically minded Kennedys. “When I was nine, my tiergarten included raccoons, possums, squirrels, mice, and rats, and various reptiles and amphibians,” he writes. ” I spent my monthly allowance on the 2,000 crickets needed to feed my lizards.” Growing up a scion of one of America’s wealthiest, most powerful, and most adventuresome families afforded Kennedy rare opportunities as a young naturalist. A giant leopard tortoise wandered the rooms of Hickory Hill, the family’s Virginia estate; he had captured it in Kenya in 1963 during a safari with his uncle, Peace Corps director Sargent Shriver, and brought it home in a suitcase under “diplomatic protection.” Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, the country’s foremost environmental jurist, took him backpacking. When he announced at age ten that he wanted to write a book on the environment, “a well connected uncle” arranged for him to interview Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall. On vacations Kennedy rafted on the Colorado, the Snake, the Salmon, and the Upper Hudson, fishing for his meals.
Beginning with his father’s death when he was 14, Kennedy’s life took a series of tumultuous turns. He had always possessed great energy and courage, but in the late sixties, with his grieving mother, Ethel, unable to control her older children, he became consumed with adolescent rebellion and courting danger. He got expelled from prep school at 15 and arrested for marijuana possession the following year. His father’s ultimate compliment was “he’s got guts,” and Bobby — smart, gangly, brooding — became preoccupied with proving his.
It was a tall order, but Bobby, the alpha male of his generation, managed to be both the ablest and wildest of a troubled brood. Always competitive, he consumed more drugs than his brothers and cousins and led several of them into shooting heroin, yet he kept up stable enough grades to get admitted to and graduate from Harvard. He led first descents of South American jungle rivers spiced with dangerous heroics, like leaping between rafts in midrapids, and provoked fights with Harlem drug dealers, all while following his father through law school at the University of Virginia. Even as a recently married prosecutor in the Manhattan district attorney’s office, he donned a navy watch cap to avoid being recognized when he drove to Harlem shooting galleries to buy drugs.
The New York media widely reported it when he failed the state bar exam on his first attempt, walked out without finishing during his second, and soon after left his job as a prosecutor. But the public became fully aware of the depth of his problems only in September 1983, when he was 29. Traveling alone to Rapid City, South Dakota, where (he would say then and now) he was heading for treatment, he overdosed in the lavatory of a Republic Airlines Convair. He turned white; his heart rate weakened. After the plane landed, police obtained a warrant to search his bags, where they found less than a gram of heroin. Facing a felony charge that carried a maximum penalty of two years in jail and a $2,000 fine, Kennedy checked into Fair Oaks Hospital, where he detoxified. He passed the bar exam a couple of months later.
In February 1984, Kennedy pleaded guilty and was sentenced to two years probation and 800 hours of community service. He satisfied the conditions of the latter by becoming a full-time volunteer for the Hudson River Foundation, a spin-off of the Natural Resources Defense Council, a nonprofit group consisting mostly of scientists and lawyers. Through his work with the Hudson River Foundation, Kennedy eventually came into contact with the Hudson River Fishermen’s Association and its riverkeeper, Cronin.
Kennedy was still shaky and unsure of himself, and of the work. But the members of the HRFA, which had based the riverkeeper model on the old English noblemen’s practice of employing a gamekeeper to protect their private waterways from poachers, were determined outdoorsmen who had already won several legal battles. They were working-class people with a strong connection to the land, the kind of people Kennedy’s father had championed. Kennedy seemed a good fit, though he says he was conflicted about becoming an environmental activist. His family’s mission had been social justice. He worried that making water clean enough for fish to swim in might be too effete a cause.
Kennedy’s troubles were far from over. Two months later, his brother David, whom he describes as “my best friend,” died of a heroin overdose in a Palm Beach, Florida, hotel. By the end of 1984, The Kennedys: An American Drama, a biography by Peter Collier and David Horowitz, would hit the best-seller lists with lurid stories of how Bobby, the “drugmaster of his generation,” had led David to the abyss and then turned his back on him when he couldn’t handle it. But by now Kennedy was on the road to Damascus. He had started to discover the Riverkeeper’s “kamikaze” tactics and to mount his first project, the cleanup of one minor tributary. It was dirty, grinding, unglamorous work. But for the next several years it would immerse Kennedy in the most fundamental problems the river faced, which is why he apparently chose it.
“In the words of its current police chief, Newburgh is a ‘mean, sick, nasty, fetid little city,'” Kennedy writes. In 1984, as Kennedy was getting his bearings, a Newburgh secondhand dealer named Joe Augustine approached Cronin about the city’s waterfront, a wasteland of burned-out barges and rotting piers. Newburgh was poor and largely black and Hispanic, and Cronin believed that pollution, like most other crime, disproportionately afflicted poor people and minorities. He and Kennedy were especially concerned about the city’s plan to sell its boat ramp, the only public riverfront access, to a private developer who proposed to build a floating restaurant on the site. When they asked the developer whether he would still allow the public to use the ramp, they recall the man’s partner telling them, “We are not going to have spades drinking and screwing and swimming around our new boat ramp, if that’s what you mean by the public.”
“At that moment,” Kennedy writes, “I knew I wanted to be an environmental lawyer. Any ambivalence I’d felt about having abandoned the battle for social justice when I took up arms for a clean environment was gone.” Augustine had also complained to Cronin about sewage discharges at the foot of Quassaic Creek, a squalid, industrialized tributary along Newburgh’s southern border. Now, though the Riverkeeper project had barely enough money to pay Cronin’s salary, and though Kennedy knew little about civil litigation and “next to nothing” about environmental law, he resolved to identify all illegal sources of pollution along the creek and sue the polluters “as a catalyst to get government agencies” to act.
Kennedy attacked the project with his usual guts and brio — plus a newfound sense of penance and self-abnegation. “Our investigation,” he writes, “took us into pipes and culverts and underneath ancient factories. We mounted 24-hour surveillance of intermittent pipes. We sat for days on lawn chairs to sample factory and sewer plant outfalls, and set traps to catch liquids being dumped at odd hours … We scuba dived in the Hudson to collect evidence of illegal dumping and donned wet suits to swim across a pond on a cold winter night to collect samples from an unpermitted pipe. We carried backpacks filled with sampling vials, flashlights, maps, note pads, a camera, and, occasionally, fishing rods to avoid suspicion.”
Donning waders, Kennedy walked every foot of the Quassaic’s “Dantean” seven-mile length. He seined for fish among “brown trout” and “river pickles” — human fecal matter — until the cuts on his hands began to fester. Seeking the source of the raw sewage, he discovered another pipe belching volatile chemicals, had Cronin lower him into the culvert, sampled the dregs, and discovered quantities of naphthalene, a toxic solvent known to cause mutations and blood disorders in animals. After tracing the effluent to a textile company that had illegally connected its discharge pipe into a city sewer line, he and Cronin scaled the company’s roof to check its emissions sources and found 24 illegal pipes and stacks discharging liquid and chemical fumes. Eventually Kennedy and his coworkers identified 24 separate polluters on the Quassaic. They brought 16 lawsuits, all settled before trial, yielding pledges from each defendant to stop polluting and clean up the creek, and hundreds of thousands of dollars in penalties and fines.
Kennedy and Cronin exulted, but Kennedy chose not to attend the press conferences announcing the outcomes. He avoided taking public credit — his policy throughout his first five years with Riverkeeper — because, he writes, he feared “press interest in my involvement might distract from the central issue.” But there were other reasons for his silence as well. “Bobby didn’t want it to appear as if he was using this issue as instant rehabilitation,” Cronin says. “He put himself in the situation we all go through, just the opposite. We struggle to get our stories in the paper. He had to struggle to keep his story out.”
Riverkeeper was becoming famous not because of Kennedy, but because of Cronin. A few years older than Kennedy (he’s now 47), he had been recruited into environmental advocacy on the Hudson a decade earlier by the folksinger Pete Seeger, who during the late sixties began traveling the river as a sort of green minstrel. After volunteering for a pair of river projects — the rebuilding of the city of Beacon’s crumbling ferry dock and People’s Pipewatch, a watchdog effort to make sure polluters complied with the federal Clean Water Act of 1972 — Cronin worked as an environmental lobbyist, a congressional aide, a state legislative aide, and a fisherman. He was net-fishing for shad near the Tappan Zee Bridge and living in the back of his pickup when the fishermen hired him as riverkeeper.
In many ways it was an absurd idea: The Hudson, three and a half miles across in places, is heavily industrialized along much of its 315-mile length. The fishermen’s association didn’t even have a boat, nor did Cronin have any official authority. All the group had was its sophistication in bringing polluters to court, and its story: that the Hudson was a God-given resource belonging to the people and that those who dared to take it from them were no better than thieves.
It was the story, with the swashbuckling Cronin as hero, that put Riverkeeper on the map. In mid-1983, the group heard a complaint that oil tankers would enter New York Harbor and travel more than 90 miles up the Hudson to siphon fresh water. In April, a New York Times story about Cronin’s hiring had attracted the interest of the networks. Now, accompanied by an NBC crew, he proposed that they go out on the river to look for oil tankers, though he wasn’t sure there would be any. There was. A 750-foot tanker belonging to Exxon, the Palm Beach, was anchored near Hyde Park, oily liquid gushing from its ports. He approached its mammoth hull in his 25-foot patrol boat, screwed up his nerve, and got on his ship-to-shore radio to the tanker captain.
“I’m the Hudson riverkeeper,” Cronin said. “I would like to know what you’re discharging.”
“Fourteen thousand tons of seawater, riverkeeper.”
Cronin couldn’t believe his luck. “After all,” he writes, “what are the chances that a network news crew would take a ride with some guy claiming to be a riverkeeper and catch the largest corporation in the world polluting the Hudson in broad daylight?” The story turned out even better. Exxon’s tankers would leave its refinery in Aruba loaded with oil and sometimes jet fuel. They’d off-load in New Jersey, journey up the Hudson, rinse their tanks, and reload with fresh river water to use in the refinery or sell in water-poor Aruba. Over three years, Cronin determined, Exxon had stolen 700 million gallons of water from the Hudson.
The Exxon story made news around the world. Within months, movie producers Peter Guber and Jon Peters bought the film rights. A screenwriter flew in from Hollywood and followed Cronin around. Warner Brothers spent $2 million on development, Cronin says, though no movie ever came of the project. Meanwhile, a children’s book was published celebrating his David and Goliath battle with Exxon.
In 1986, Exxon agreed to halt tanker traffic on the Hudson and pay $1.5 million to the state and $500,000 to the fishermen, half of which went to fund Riverkeeper. In less than two years, Riverkeeper had achieved the funding, favorable media attention, and worldwide presence that other local advocacy groups only dream about.
Kennedy didn’t stay out of the limelight for long. In 1989, having returned to Pace University Law School at night to earn a master’s degree in environmental law, he set up a program at Pace in which ten students a year helped Riverkeeper manage its burgeoning caseload — his first legion. He began working on other NRDC projects, including international cases. Quassaic Creek had given Kennedy experience, confidence, and a Mother Teresa-like story to tell, a story of redemption in battling squalor hand-to-hand. At 35, he began seeking a larger role on a wider stage.
He now had a powerful rubric for his public and private struggles: sustainability. Kennedy believed that the key to productivity, self-sufficiency, and survival — his own, the Hudson’s, the planet’s — was to use resources in a way that didn’t use them up. You didn’t have to conserve them, as earlier generations of environmentalists and some members of this one believed, just ensure their future use. “Putting water back in the ice tray,” he would call it.
This new ethos didn’t travel well at first. In the early nineties, he tried to negotiate an agreement between the Huaorani Indians, 200,000 indigenous people living in the remote eastern Amazon region of Ecuador, and Conoco, a DuPont subsidiary. The deal would have forced Conoco to spend several million dollars for environmental protection and for local hospitals and schools in exchange for oil-drilling rights. Kennedy thought the arrangement could provide a model for how environmentalists, native peoples, and multinational corporations might cooperate. “It was clear to us that Ecuador was going to develop that rainforest no matter what,” he says. “Conoco apparently was willing to lose money on the deal to make it an environmental showcase.” Rival green groups, however, saw the proposal as a sellout. The Sierra Club, arguing that drilling on native lands violated human rights, thought the plan jeopardized the ability of Indians “from Alaska to Tierra Del Fuego” to use human rights law to fight developers. The Rainforest Action Network claimed it would mean the Huaorani’s extinction and wanted the area to remain pristine. Eventually Conoco withdrew, a Houston-based oil company came in and drilled, the Indians got nothing, and Kennedy was left smarting from his first squabble with other environmentalists who disagreed with his approach and suspected him of being self-serving and arrogant, even though he had been working for the Huaoranis.
The Riverkeeper formula worked best where it was indigenous, on the Hudson. Kennedy and his band of Pace students now gave Riverkeeper the clout it needed to pressure more than 90 polluters. “You can’t swing a dead cat without hitting someone we have a case against,” Cronin says. And the cases brought results. Riverkeeper forced Westchester County to seal its festering Croton Point Landfill, develop methods for capturing leachate before it entered the Hudson, and create an estuarine research center, at a total cost of $40 million. After establishing that a trillion fish died each year nationwide from being sucked into cooling-water intakes for power plants, Riverkeeper sued the EPA for failing to enforce the Clean Water Act and then fended off a legal challenge by a coalition of 56 utilities. According to Kennedy, all the cases to date have forced defendants to spend more than $400 million on cleanup. The more Riverkeeper sued, the cleaner the Hudson got.
Just how clean is open to question. Kennedy likes to note that the Hudson is now swimmable for most of its length and is the only major river along the industrialized North Atlantic rim boasting major spawning stocks of all its historic species of fish. But other industrialized rivers in the Northeast have also been revived. “I’m not sure I’d put the Hudson ahead of the Potomac, the Susquehanna, the Connecticut, or a number of other rivers,” says Chris Brown, acting chief of rivers and watersheds for the National Park Service and former executive director of American Rivers, a leading conservation group. Brown praises Riverkeeper for helping define the debate over ecosystem protection, create media exposure, and establish a body of case law, but believes claims that the river is “the birthplace of modern environmental law” may be overstated. “I don’t know that I would put it in those terms,” he says.
The other risk in making too much of the Hudson’s rebirth is that it’s unfinished and may be unfinishable. In 1944, General Electric built two plants north of Albany to manufacture electrical capacitors and transformers. Over the next 30 years GE dumped an estimated two million pounds of polychlorinated biphenyls into the Hudson, which put more than 1,000 fishermen permanently out of work. Loaded with fish the PCBs have rendered inedible, the Hudson, says Robert Boyle, father of the Riverkeeper idea, is alluring but flawed, “like a beautiful woman with the clap.”
In any case, Kennedy’s breakthrough role would soon lift his reputation well beyond the Hudson Valley. Late in 1994, New York’s Republican Governor George Pataki, whom Kennedy had campaigned against, asked Riverkeeper to help resolve the problem of New York City’s water supply. During the campaign, Pataki had threatened to weaken laws that prevent development around the city’s upstate reservoirs, thereby forcing New York City, which had long boasted the nation’s cleanest drinking water, to build an $8 billion filtration plant. Now the federal government was demanding that the state either protect the reservoirs or build the plant. Given New York’s upstate-downstate political rifts, Pataki was hamstrung. He needed someone with credibility in both camps to try to broker a compromise. After long negotiations, Kennedy agreed to help.
Here was Kennedy’s emergence as a political player. He was no longer dodging river pickles and plunging into sewers at night. He was dictating the agenda for saving the country’s premier water system. His pragmatism — he told audiences, “We’re not anti-growth; we’re for a clean environment” — worried other environmentalists. But Kennedy persuaded New York’s Mayor Rudolph Giuliani to come up with hundreds of millions of dollars for watershed protection, which ultimately convinced them. In the end, Kennedy brokered a monument to sustainability. New York City got to control the lands surrounding the reservoirs; the city agreed to pay $1.5 billion to cover environmental safeguards and reimburse upstate localities for lost development opportunities; the people retained the right to sue whoever tried to undermine the arrangement.
The deal immediately ratcheted speculation about Kennedy’s ambitions. New York magazine put him on its cover with the headline “The Kennedy Who Matters.” The New York tabloids chattered about his recent divorce from his first wife, Emily, and remarriage to Mary Richardson, an architect. (Kennedy has four children, two from each marriage, with a fifth on the way. And though he says that as a Catholic he found obtaining a divorce painful, unlike his brother Joe, the Massachusetts congressman and former gubernatorial hopeful, he didn’t seek a more purifying but also more politically damaging annulment.) Kennedy tried to divert public guessing about his plans. “If my whole life’s work was to save a chunk of the New York City watershed and nothing more,” he says, “I would be able to face my children. I’d be able to face my God.” But now he seemed too large a figure, too motivated by new challenges, too effective and well positioned, not to move on to bigger things.
Kennedy perches on a chair in the packed dining room of a stylish restaurant in Long Beach, a salty-aired town of congested neighborhoods and beachfront condominium towers, as a favor to local Democrats, who are using his appearance to raise money for a slate for city council. Like Glen Cove, Long Beach’s economic cycles have tracked closely with its environment. In the fifties and sixties, sea-blue billboards at the city limits proclaimed “Long Beach: America’s Healthiest City.” By 1980, after tons of New York City garbage, dumped at sea, fouled the city’s beaches, the signs were changed to read “Long Beach: Future Home of Casino Gambling.”
It’s after 7 p.m. when he begins to speak, looking refreshed after working out for an hour at a local health club. He’s changed into a white shirt with a crisp collar and a blue tie, and his head is no more than 18 inches from a tilted floodlight that blinds him when he looks up. He launches into the same speech, lightly edited, that he gave in Glen Cove.
“Protecting the environment is about community,” Kennedy tells the crowd. “It’s not about protecting the birds and the fishes and the water. It’s about protecting communities. It’s about understanding that living in a community is painful, because we can’t make decisions that are based just on our own self interests.”
He goes on: “We are not protecting those northern forests in the Pacific Northwest, as Rush Limbaugh likes to argue, to protect the spotted owls. We’re protecting them because we believe that they have more value to humanity standing than they would have if we cut them down. And we’re not protecting the Hudson River and Long Island Sound for the sake of the shad and the stripers and the sturgeon, but because we believe our lives are going to be richer and our communities are going to be richer if we live in a world where there are shad and stripers and sturgeon in Long Island Sound and on the Hudson River, and where our children see commercial fishermen doing what they have been doing for generations in New York — 350 years.
“Look at the nations that didn’t pass those environmental laws after 1970,” he says, his voice clenching. “Look at the former Soviet Union where they didn’t have NEPA, which is the environmental assessments law, and where the Aral Sea, the largest inland fresh water body on earth except for the Great Lakes, is now a desert. They didn’t have a Clean Water Act, and the Sea of Azov in Russia, the second richest water body in the world after the Chesapeake Bay, is now a biological wasteland. They didn’t have a regulatory review process…, and one sixth of the state of Byelorussia, an area larger than the state of New York, is now permanently uninhabitable because of radiation contamination.
“In China they have oxygen bars now as a growth industry in Beijing, because they didn’t have a Clean Air Act…. The New York Times recently reported that the average child in Bangkok who reaches the age of six has permanently lost several IQ points because of the density of lead at street level, because they didn’t have a Clean Air Act that said you’ve got to get the lead out of the gasoline.
“In those nations,” Kennedy says, chopping the air with his fist, “environmental injury has matured into economic catastrophe.
“I don’t want my children,” he says, reciting lines he has said maybe a thousand times but still delivers with emotion, “to grow up in a world where there are no commercial fishermen, where we’ve lost touch with the seasons and the tides and the things that connect us to 10,000 generations of human beings who were here before there were laptops, and that connect us ultimately to God.
“I don’t think that nature is God,” Kennedy says, “and I don’t think we ought to be worshiping nature as God. But I think that nature is the way that God communicates with us most forcefully. I think God talks to us through many vectors — through each other, through organized religion, through great books, through art and literature and music, through wise people — but nowhere with such clarity and texture and richness and detail as through creation. And to me, therefore, when we destroy these resources like Long Island Sound, it’s the moral equivalent of tearing the last pages out of the last Bible and Torah and Talmud and Koran on earth. At a cost I don’t think we have a right to impose on our children. And I think it’s imprudent to impose this on ourselves.”
Kennedy maintains a level gaze as the crowd claps vigorously. Hope, the admiring state Democratic party chief, mounts a chair to follow up.
“We all — all of us Democrats, all of us Americans — yearn for inspired leadership in public life, and for the kind of leader who asks us to lift our sights, to raise our standards, and to fight for the future,” she says. “That person in New York State is Bobby Kennedy, and I hope that someday I’ll be able to walk into a voting booth and pull a lever with his name on it.”
Hope says she’s never even talked with Kennedy about his political future. But clearly she’s moved. Kennedy has given a perfectly pitched campaign speech without a campaign. “Environmental policy is the central challenge of the twenty-first century,” Hope says afterward. “Few people have the grasp of it that he does.” And so she is undeterred by Kennedy’s insistence that he likes what he’s doing and believes in local, adversarial, grassroots politics, or by the idea that other environmentally minded pols — namely Gore, whom Kennedy got to write a foreword for The Riverkeepers — may stand ahead of him. “The guy has credentials that a career politician doesn’t have,” she says. “He’s paid his dues and showed his mettle. When you understand his appreciation about global problems…” Hope says optimistically, “That’s something he can do in the U.S. Senate. He can’t do that from where he is now.”
Maybe. Maybe not. His father decided to run for senator in a weekend. Still reeling less than a year after President Kennedy’s assassination, consumed with the terrible burden of expectation that he carry the family torch, miffed that Lyndon Johnson, whom he despised, would not choose him to run for vice-president, Bobby Sr. reportedly leapt after New York and its future bounty of electoral votes in desperation. Bobby Jr., by comparison, buried himself for years in trying to fix some of the state’s most intractable problems after his own brother’s death left him with a similar legacy of survivor’s guilt. To think that politics must claim his future, and that the Senate is the logical stepping-off point, may be to underestimate what he’s already accomplished or what other paths to power might be available. Certainly it neglects whether the electorate is ready to trust a recovering drug addict for high office, though in this 12-step era, that may be an asset.
Predictably, Kennedy’s and Cronin’s book seems to offer the clearest picture of where Kennedy may be headed. Cronin says he hopes the book will generate another hundred Riverkeeper projects. That, he says, would make him and Kennedy not leaders of a new national organization, since both believe the strength of the environmental movement is its decentralization and leaderlessness, but of something else, something more entrepreneurial and ambitious.
That something is worth considering, especially in Kennedy’s case. Next to Gore, he already has the highest visibility of any environmentalist — not hard when the president of the Sierra Club is 24. And he has Riverkeeper, which is not yet a household name but may soon become one. Several years ago, fearing co-optation by corporations seeking a greener image — “wolves in sheep’s clothing,” Kennedy calls them — the fishermen trademarked the Riverkeeper name. More recently, the organization cut a marketing deal with Sony to promote a line of Riverkeeper products — T-shirts, foul-weather gear, kayaks — to help fund its growth. Add the fact that Riverkeeper’s angels have included Ted Turner and late Disney president Frank Wells, and a picture emerges of a new type of movement, an international legal-aid service for the environment that’s wired through global media and is self-sustaining — a combination NRDC, Greenpeace in its heyday, and L. L. Bean. Sustainability Unlimited. Something like Turner’s Planeteers, only with the Hudson River model instead of cartoon superheroes.
And sitting atop it all is Kennedy — part Jacques Cousteau, part Ralph Nader, part Felix Rohatyn, part Turner himself — a globe-hopping pied piper, gadfly, consultant, lobbyist, and power broker who brings more to the table on sustainability and social justice as an outsider than he possibly can from the well of the Senate or some other government post. He could become like Jesse Jackson in the 1980s, a world figure, the one the media go to whenever anything happens on his beat, who with nothing but Operation PUSH behind him ended up making global headlines by flying into hot spots and negotiating hostage releases. Just as Jackson could claim to be the truest disciple and heir of Martin Luther King Jr., the sixties’ other great hope along with the slain Kennedys, so can Kennedy draw on his father’s inspired memory. With all of Jackson’s motivation and many times his resources, Kennedy could carve out a role for himself larger than any job he might hold, until like Jackson he decides that the only way to do more is to run for president. And should he decide not to run, knowing the price his family has paid, who could blame him?
Leaving the Long Beach event, Kennedy is energized. He poses for a last few pictures. Suozzi shows up, presumably both to be seen slapping Kennedy’s back and to keep an eye on him. Finally, Kennedy gets out on the road, shooting back to the north shore for a Democratic coffee in someone’s living room, another favor. With the sun setting over the lush salt marsh that divides Long Beach from the rest of Long Island, he scans the twilight for terns and notices some roadkills. “I’d like to pick up some of these dead seagulls for my skull collection,” he muses. But he doesn’t stop. There’s no time