On the Moral Responsibilities of Political Spouses
People will die, and it will be your fault.
You may have seen the New York Times profile this weekend of Cheryl Hines, the beloved “Curb Your Enthusiasm” actress who is married to Robert F. Kennedy, Jr, the anti-vax Harvard legacy admit who is currently running for president. The story was a good example of how to write a balanced profile of a tentative and unsure subject who will probably start rejecting interview requests very soon. More importantly, this story gives us an ideal platform from which to excavate the moral responsibilities that we should assign to public figures in Hines’ position.
Let me state up front that I do not care for Robert F. Kennedy Jr. His decision to run for president makes me care for him even less. Political dynasties are bad. They are poisonous to democracy. They thwart broad public participation in the democratic project. They concentrate power. They resemble a hereditary monarchy more than a meritocracy. They are just no good for a nation. Kennedy Jr. has every right to be alive and to live his life. He was an environmental lawyer and nonprofit leader for much of his career. That’s a decent job. He could have kept on doing that and I would not have complained. But the siren song of being born as a member of a political dynasty inevitably lures these family members into electoral politics, where they perpetuate and continue their dynastic reign. Hey, Kennedys and Clintons and Bushes: give it a rest. Go get a real job. Let some of the vastly more qualified leaders who are also at least minimally in touch with life in the real world give politics a try. Chill.
That element of my distaste holds true regardless of what the political beliefs of these royal family types is. In Kennedy’s case, I additionally dislike his political beliefs. He is one of the most prominent vaccine skeptics in America. As with a number of other public figures, the Covid pandemic pushed him fully into conspiracy theorist land. It is fine and proper to rail against “Big Pharma” for being greedy and downright evil in their business practices and their effect on the awful American healthcare system; but when you slide into harangues about why people should not take effective, lifesaving medicines, you are a crank. I am not going to turn this breezy internet column into a forum about vaccine skepticism except to say that the Covid vaccines saved millions of lives in the US alone and to the extent that anyone—particularly people who are not trained doctors or virologists or scientists—is involved in convincing the public not to get vaccinated, they are very much subjecting those people to a higher risk of death. There is little doubt that Donald Trump’s vocal denigration of vaccines helped kill hundreds of thousands of his biggest fans. Just for example.
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Many voters are disillusioned with the Democratic Party for very good reasons. Many voters hold genuine progressive beliefs and they anguish as they watch the Democratic Party sell out those beliefs. Many voters rightly want our government to take stronger action on the environment. To attract those voters into your outsider presidential campaign and then convince them that “vaccines are bad” should be a consistent part of their political beliefs is, frankly, evil. If you spend time in left wing spaces you know that there is a persistent slice of people who are there for very noble reasons but who may not have thought through the entire universe of political issues with clarity, and who can be lured into fringe conspiracy theories easily from the starting point of “Don’t believe the lying government.” RFK Jr. is effectively ushering this part of the electorate down the road to infectious disease. Thanks a lot dude.
Cheryl Hines is his wife. She has her own successful career in Hollywood. She is well liked and involved in a number of charitable endeavors and seems to be a good person. By all accounts, she did not marry RFK Jr. because of his political beliefs. I make no judgments about other people’s relationships. Marry who you want! These two rich and famous and successful people have the right to live their lives as private citizens, as long as they give away most of their money, as morality demands all rich people do.
The moral calculus faced by a person like Hines, though, changes immediately when her husband decides to run for President of the United States. Caitlin Moscatello, the NYT reporter who wrote the profile, asked Hines repeatedly about Kennedy’s political stances, and she demurred or declined to give meaningful answers. The story does note, though, that Kennedy said he would not run for President without her permission, which she gave. And it quotes Kennedy himself saying, “I think ultimately if I get elected, Cheryl will have played a huge role in that.”
Let us give Cheryl Hines all the benefit of the doubt. Let’s say she is a truly ethical and caring person with a genuine love for humanity who has found herself unexpectedly swept into the world of electoral politics. We can even imagine her, for the sake of argument, as utterly blameless for anything that her husband has said or done up to today. (I don’t want the point here to get lost in the fog of “But Cheryl Hines is so great!”) The question is: With all of RFK Jr.’s political positions fully articulated and his campaign launched, what is her responsibility now?
Her moral responsibility now is to say publicly that she does not support her husband’s presidential campaign. This may sound like an absurd demand—being in a relationship means, above all, that we support our partner. For Hines to disavow her husband publicly right now may be akin to calling on her to get a divorce. Isn’t this just too much to ask of anyone, honestly?
Well, let’s do some very rough math. If RFK Jr.’s campaign progresses and scales up nationally and he runs ads and does many interviews with national media outlets and participates in presidential debates, let’s say 50 million people become familiarized with him. Let’s say a small sliver of those people—5 million—become fans of his. Of these five million new acolytes, let’s say that only one million are newly swayed by his anti-vax and anti-psychological medication views. Of those million, let’s say only 100,000 become convinced to not get themselves and their families vaccinated, or decide to reject the antidepressants they or their children were prescribed, because of a chain of belief that can be traced directly to Kennedy’s decision to run for president and promote his views more widely than ever.
Of those 100,000 people, some will die as a result. There’s no way around it. Some will get Covid or another disease and die, and some with mental health problems will refuse proper treatment and end up committing suicide or overdosing on illegal drugs that they self-medicate with. A larger number will have their mental or physical health severely damaged as a result of these decisions. How many dead bodies lie at the end of all this? One thousand? Ten thousand? Does it really matter?
We treat politics as an exasperating, ridiculous game, but it is not a game. At the level of presidential campaign, the stakes are so high, and the power wielded is so potent, that the ripple effects are life and death. There is, of course, an entire universe of political positions that end up killing regular people: Governors refusing Medicaid expansion, discriminatory acts that increase poverty and lead to deaths of despair, loosened air pollution regulations that are statistically certain to raise death rates. This is why it’s not fucking funny when politicians support atrocious policies for their own political gain. In the case of RFK Jr., the most obvious specific danger is that he injects anti-vaccine and anti-science beliefs even deeper into mainstream discourse than they already are, and as a result, innocent or misguided people far away from his Brentwood mansion end up dead.
Is Cheryl Hines willing to sit down with the children of someone who listened to RFK Jr. and decided not to get vaccinated and died—or with the mother of a depressed teenager who didn’t take their antidepressants and fell prey to suicide—and say to those people, “Your family had to die, so that I could have peace in my own family?”
Some things are more important than the normal going-along-and-getting-along of human relationships. Right? Do we not all believe this, even though we generally prefer not to face these realities? This standard applies just as much to the families of Republicans as it does to the families of Democrats. (The extended Trump family should be shunned from polite society for all of eternity.) But Cheryl Hines is an ideal person to focus this discussion on. Because people like her. Because it is harder to judge her. Because it requires a sharper clarity about the material consequences of political action in order to trace the line of responsibility back to her. It’s easy to condemn political spouses who aren’t as charismatic. It’s much harder to condemn Larry David’s charming and hilarious television character.
The morality, though, is the same all around. If you contribute to the success of a political campaign, you carry part of the responsibility for its results. In the case of Cheryl Hines, there are two pieces of good news: One, her public disavowal of Kennedy’s beliefs would probably have a very real impact on his popularity; and two, it’s not too late for her to speak up.
It has always seemed to me that the media has never fully absorbed the fact that Donald Trump’s very own personal idiotic behavior is directly responsible for a number of deaths greater than those sustained in most American wars. Just because people are goofy morons doesn’t mean that the consequences are not deadly serious.
Okay, fun talk!!! In other news, I wrote about last weekend’s Josh Taylor-Teofimo Lopez fight for Defector. If I were to give young journalists a formula for having an unsuccessful career in journalism it would be “Make sure to write about two different beats like ‘labor’ and ‘boxing’ where all the people who are interested in half of your work have zero interest in the other half of your work.” This strategy is what has made me such a rich and famous media titan. Still, I like to think that I write about boxing in a way that anyone can, perhaps, read and enjoy it, even if you have never given a single fuck about boxing, ever. More of my Defector boxing stories are here.
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