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Robert Kennedy Jr. Speaks Out on the Mounting Threats to American Democracy

San Francisco

ONE of Robert F. Kennedy Jr.'s family mementos is a boyhood photo of himself in the Oval Office with his uncle President John F. Kennedy. Then 9, Mr. Kennedy  who is still known as Bobby  had just given the president a spotted salamander in a small vase. The salamander appears to be dead.

"He does not look well," President Kennedy told Bobby as they observed the slimy pet. The president is prodding it with a pen, to no avail. "I was in denial," Bobby Kennedy said, explaining that he had probably doomed the salamander by keeping it in chlorinated water.

Not to attach too much significance to a dead salamander, but, oh, what the heck: the photo distills some Bobby Kennedy essentials  his matter-of-fact presence in royal circles, his boyish chutzpah and a lifelong appreciation for animals (even those he has killed).

Now 52, Mr. Kennedy, is one of the country's most prominent environmental lawyers and advocates. Clearly he was traumatized by his youthful act of environmental insensitivity and vowed as an adult to become a fervent protector of all the planet's salamanders. Or perhaps this is overreaching, seeing too much in a simple picture. (Sometimes a dead salamander is just a dead salamander). But it goes with the family territory  the speculating, overguessing  and it would seem particularly inevitable for anyone burrowing through life with the name Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

Mr. Kennedy presided last week at the annual conference of the Waterkeeper Alliance, an assembly of 153 "keepers" from around the world charged with protecting the planet's most vulnerable watersheds, largely through litigation or threat thereof. On Wednesday the riverkeepers, baykeepers, coastkeepers, deltakeepers, channelkeepers and inletkeepers packed into three zero-emission hybrid-electric buses bound for Treasure Island on San Francisco Bay. There they ate dinner on biodegradable plates and took turns giving brief speeches. They spoke with earnest commitment, contempt for industrial polluters and awe for Bobby Kennedy.

"Thank you for fighting for our waterways, Bobby," said Leo O'Brien, executive director of San Francisco Baykeeper. "And thank you for fighting for democracy."

Recently, much of Mr. Kennedy's public focus has been on democracy, and he has taken increasingly audacious leaps into political swamps that transcend the environment. He roiled the blogosphere and cable news shows this month after declaring  in an article he wrote in Rolling Stone  that Republicans stole the 2004 presidential election through a series of voting frauds. "I've become convinced that the president's party mounted a massive, coordinated campaign to subvert the will of the people in 2004," Mr. Kennedy wrote in the exhaustive, strenuously footnoted article, which relied heavily on the published research of others.

He has repeated the accusation on Air America, the liberal radio network on which he is co-host of a program, and on a procession of television talk-'n'-shout fests (with Stephen Colbert, Wolf Blitzer, Tucker Carlson, Chris Matthews). Mr. Kennedy is hitching his iconic name to a cause that has largely been consigned so far to liberal bloggers and which nearly all Democratic leaders and major news media outlets have ignored and which, unsurprisingly, Bush supporters have ridiculed. Tracy Schmitt, the Republican National Committee press secretary, accused Mr. Kennedy of "peddling a conspiracy theory that was thoroughly debunked nearly two years ago."

Farhad Manjoo, of, wrote: "If you do read the Kennedy article, be prepared to machete your way through numerous errors of interpretation and his deliberate omission of key bits of data."

It is impossible to read the Rolling Stone article without wondering how Mr. Kennedy's audacious accusations might relate to his philosophical evolution or even affect his political viability. Naturally he is asked all the time what he envisions next for himself, specifically, what he plans to run for.

"I'd say daily," he says of how often he's asked. As if the mantle of one of the country's top environmental advocates couldn't be enough to satisfy a Kennedy. Mr. Kennedy came close to running for attorney general of New York State this year. "Very, very close," he said, but he decided not to, fearing its effect on his wife, Mary, and their four children. (He has two other children from a previous marriage.)

Nonetheless, perhaps more than any other Kennedy of his generation, he is looked upon as the next potential vessel for Something Bigger. In words, temperament and actions, he conveys a frenetic vibe of restlessness that invites the questions "What else?" "What next?" "What more?"

At the Waterkeeper Alliance meeting he bounced from conversation to conversation, introducing people, touching bases, jiggling his right foot on the floor in rare idle seconds. He is also possessed of Kennedy looks and a riveting speaking style, despite a genetic neurological condition, spasmodic dysphonia, that he developed at age 40, which strains his speech and can make it sound as if he's choking up.

"He's the only speaker in the environmental movement who can say he'll speak for 20 minutes, then speak for 40 and you want him to go on longer," said Carl Pope, the executive director of the Sierra Club.

Senator Edward M. Kennedy said in a phone interview that his nephew "has a certain Pied Piper quality about him" and described a typical scene at the family compound in Hyannisport, Mass., in which his nephew transfixes 30 children with nature demonstrations, usually involving animals or fish.

One of the recurring themes within Mr. Kennedy's orbit of friends is the "Bobby story," an action or vignette that is quintessential to the man. In most cases a "Bobby story" involves some kind of spontaneous, often daredevil act, on the order of impatiently jumping off a chairlift, jumping off a cliff or being host to more than 100 people for hypercompetitive Capture the Flag games at his 10-acre home in Mount Kisco, N.Y. (which inevitably yield at least one emergency-room trip).

"He has a really intense metabolism," said Andrea Raisfeld, a close family friend and frequent participant in what she described as "these adult play dates."

Mr. Kennedy has always lived his life close to nature and to the edge. The third of 11 children born to Ethel Skakel Kennedy and Senator Robert F. Kennedy, he used to fixate on ants from his crib, he said his mother recalls. As a boy he assembled a zoo at his family's home in Virginia, comprising about 40 reptiles and birds at any one time. He started racing homing pigeons at 7 and falconing at 9 and has always been given to the family penchant for recreational abandon: high-speed pursuits like skiing, water-skiing and hockey.

He was 14 in June 1968, when the rector of Georgetown Preparatory School woke him to tell him his father had been shot. He flew to California, where Senator Kennedy had just won the Democratic primary. He was at the hospital when his father died.

Mr. Kennedy graduated from Harvard College and the University of Virginia Law School. He received a master's degree in environmental law from Pace University, where he is now a law professor.

In 1983 he entered a drug treatment program after having been arrested for heroin possession in South Dakota. He has been clean ever since and attends regular meetings, Mr. Kennedy said, declining to discuss his sobriety further for the record.

"I think, in a very dramatic way, Bobby's surviving, and his determination to get to a state of mind where he can be constructive, has been central to him," Senator Kennedy said. "He has faced some enormous challenges, some enormously serious challenges."

In 1984 his younger brother David Kennedy died of a drug overdose. In 1997 another brother, Michael, was killed after skiing into a tree while playing football on the slopes of Aspen, Colo. They are among the litany of exhaustively documented Kennedy tragedies, which create a prism through which to view Mr. Kennedy's penchant for risk taking and full-on recreation. At what point is he tempting fate?

As is the family custom, he is not given to public hand-wringing about his family losses. "I think God's in charge of that," he said of whether he lives or dies. "You're supposed to do what you're supposed to do. And whatever happens, happens."

Peter Kaplan, the editor of The New York Observer and one of Mr. Kennedy's closest friends since they met as college roommates, said that he doesn't worry. "Bobby really loves life, so he takes good care of himself," Mr. Kaplan said. "The second part of the answer is, he really loves his life, and he wouldn't live it any other way than with complete engagement with himself and with the outdoors."

Senator Kennedy, who like his nephew lost brothers well before their time, said, "I think he feels he has to live for a lot of people who've been lost."

The senator made these remarks in the context of his nephew's lifestyle and political work. Friends say Mr. Kennedy has undergone a gradual adjustment to his priorities through the Bush years. He has broadened his notion of "what you're supposed to do." He has, through his professional life, been identified with the environmental movement.

"Now it's much more fundamental than protecting the environment for Bobby," said his friend Laurie David, the liberal advocate and producer of "An Inconvenient Truth," the Al Gore movie. "He fears that the country is being lost, that democracy is at stake."

Mr. Kennedy said that he had "continually expanded my realm of interest." His recent focus on the 2004 election exists on that continuum, he added.

He had heard low-grade rumblings about alleged abuses in Ohio, faulty voting machines and minority voters waiting hours in line at the polls. But he remained skeptical, or complacent. "I kept the same kind of deliberate blinders on that much of the media did," he said, bemoaning the news media's relative preoccupation with "Brad and Angelina and the Duke lacrosse team."

THEN Mr. Kennedy spent Christmas skiing in Sun Valley, Idaho, at the home of Ms. David and her husband, Larry David, the "Seinfeld" creator and "Curb Your Enthusiasm" protagonist. Mr. David urged him to read a book on the 2004 election by the news media critic Mark Crispin Miller.

Mr. Kennedy did, and a few days later he was skiing with the Rolling Stone publisher, Jann S. Wenner, an old friend and Sun Valley homeowner. Mr. Kennedy suggested that Mr. Wenner commission a story on the "stolen election." Mr. Wenner said he would, provided Mr. Kennedy wrote it. He had written a much-discussed and much-challenged story for Rolling Stone last year linking childhood vaccines and a rise in autism.

After some hesitation, Mr. Kennedy said, he agreed to write the election article. Since it was posted on Rolling Stone's Web site on June 1, the Web has been ablog with a split between those who believe this is the biggest unreported story ever and those who think it's old news, discredited long ago. Mr. Kennedy said it's hard to prove that any election had been "stolen."

"If you're looking for proof and certitude, you're not going to find it," he said. Either way, Mr. Kennedy said he is committed to stoking the outrage of 2004, wherever it leads. "This is going to remain one of my central concerns for a while," he said, adding, "America should be indignant." But is it, beyond certain liberal airwaves and blogs? Congress has not exactly been rocked with speeches on the matter or with calls for investigations.

In a phone interview, Mr. Wenner said that John Kerry, the big loser in 2004, "does not question the validity of the piece," hardly a signal of outrage.

Senator Christopher Dodd, the Connecticut Democrat and a longtime advocate of electoral reform, called the article "tremendously compelling." But not compelling enough to talk about it: Mr. Dodd's comments were relayed in a statement from his office.

Mr. Kennedy called the silence of leading Democrats "a great disappointment," but declared himself undeterred. If anything, he said, the experience has left him more likely to run for office than before.

"It's all in God's hands," he said on Wednesday night at Treasure Island, a lemony sun setting over the Golden Gate Bridge. He wassurrounded by environmentalists swapping stories about protecting the planet's liquid resources (and imbibing other liquid resources).

"I can only control my own conduct," Mr. Kennedy said, shrugging. "And I plan to go down fighting."

 Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company