Robert F. Kennedy Jr. has been publicly fomenting suspicion and misinformation about vaccines since about 2005, when he ran a now-infamous and subsequently retracted story, “Deadly Immunity,” in both Salon and Rolling Stone. (Salon formally retracted the story, while Rolling Stone deleted it from their website.) Nine full years after his campaign began, he married Cheryl Hines, a pleasant-seeming actor most famous for her ongoing role in Curb Your Enthusiasm. As RFK’s infamy has grown, Hines has never publicly commented on her husband’s leadership of the anti-vaccine movement—that is, until Tuesday morning, when she was moved on Twitter to call some of his comments at the Defeat the Mandates rally in D.C. “reprehensible and insensitive.” Kennedy had intimated that vaccine mandates were worse than the Holocaust, telling the audience, “Even in Hitler’s Germany, you could cross the Alps to Switzerland. You could hide in an attic like Anne Frank did.”
On Tuesday morning, Hines issued the following statement on Twitter: “My husband’s reference to Anne Frank at a mandate rally in D.C. was reprehensible and insensitive. The atrocities that millions endured during the Holocaust should never be compared to anyone or anything. His opinions are not a reflection of my own.”
At the time that Hines and Kennedy got married, his anti-vaccine activism didn’t make up the whole of his public profile; the New York Times referred to him in their genteel Vows column as “the president of the Waterkeeper Alliance, an international water protection organization, and a senior lawyer for the Natural Resources Defense Council, both in New York,” all of which was broadly true. But as Kennedy continued a crusade that caused his own family members to publicly call him “tragically wrong,” those more mainstream alliances have slowly began to fray; he finally resigned as president of the Waterkeeper Alliance in 2020.
His fondness for likening vaccines to the Holocaust, though, began well before yesterday. In 2013, before he and Hines got married but after they’d begun their relationship, at the infamous anti-vaccine conference Autism One, he told the crowd, “To my mind, this is like the Nazi death camps,” a remark first reported approvingly by anti-vaccine blogger Dan Olmstead and preserved by the blog Useful Insolence.
Two years later, in 2015, Kennedy generated intense criticism for referring to childhood vaccines as “a holocaust” during a screening of Trace Amounts, an anti-vaccine documentary.
“This is a holocaust, what this is doing to our country,” he told the crowd then, after falsely claiming, of children who get vaccinated, “They get the shot, that night they have a fever of 103 [degrees], they go to sleep, and three months later their brain is gone.”
Kennedy apologized at the time, writing in a statement, “I employed the term during an impromptu speech as I struggled to find an expression to convey the catastrophic tragedy of autism which has now destroyed the lives of over 20 million children and shattered their families.”
Now he’s done it again, on a large enough stage and at a fraught enough time that it generated actual backlash: The U.S. Holocaust Museum Memorial and the Anti-Defamation League both registered their displeasure, as did Israel’s Yad Vashem.
And now Hines has finally joined the discourse, beginning with a puzzling Twitter exchange last night with NBC reporter Ben Collins. Hines had responded to a Twitter user urging her to speak up on her husband’s inflammatory remarks, to which she responded, “My husband's opinions are not a reflection of my own. While we love each other, we differ on many current issues.”
But when Collins characterized that remark, reasonably, as a response to RFK Jr.’s Holocaust statements, Hines told him, “I assure you that’s not what I was commenting on.” After a bit of back-and-forth, in which Collins vainly tried to clarify what she was commenting on, he wrote,“I think you should probably be clear here about what you disagree with him about instead of just doing this dance. So what do you disagree with him about, exactly?”
Hines didn’t respond at the time, but Tuesday morning she issued her Twitter statement, which will, among other things, surely generate a round of debate about whether someone is obligated to speak publicly about their spouse’s controversies or very bad historical metaphors.
But it still remains a bit of a mystery why this was the Holocaust metaphor that broke the camel’s back. Could it be that she’s a star on a show written and directed by famous Jewish comedian Larry David? Is the disapproving weight of multiple organizations devoted to fighting anti-Seitism a tongue-loosener? Perhaps another cryptic Twitter statement awaits us, or else another near-decade of silence.