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Do You Remember 2005?

Twenty years ago, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. explained his views about vaccines on The Daily Show—and was met with respect and interest. In the years since, what’s changed?

Liel Leibovitz
June 09, 2023
Screenshot from Comedy Central
Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Jon Stewart speak on The Daily Show in 2005Screenshot from Comedy Central
Screenshot from Comedy Central
Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Jon Stewart speak on The Daily Show in 2005Screenshot from Comedy Central

Now that Succession is over, I’ve got something else to binge on. It’s only seven minutes and two seconds long, but it’s arguably less predictable and more dramatic. It’s an interview on The Daily Show—the original one, with Jon Stewart, before it soured into a mess so rancid it can’t even find a permanent host—from July 20, 2005. The guest? Robert F. Kennedy Jr., there to talk about thimerosal, the mercury compound used as a preservative in some vaccines and which Kennedy believes is the likely cause of various neurological disorders as well as the reason for the spike in autism in the U.S.

RFK Jr.’s message is the same one he delivers today. “It’s not all vaccinations,” he told Stewart, just the ones that use the substance he deems unsafe. Stewart pushes back, at one point asking why the government would conspire to suppress his arguments, even at the price of public health. RFK, Jr. responds. And so on and so forth. Which is to say: The entire interview is driven by curiosity and good faith and ends with respect: “It’s a remarkable story,” Stewart says. “I wish we had more time, but I appreciate you getting the word out and I know parents of kids with autism truly appreciate it. I know it’s a very difficult thing for them to be dealing with, so I’m sure they appreciate the help and support.”

That was 18 years ago.

Back then, the very same ideas, expressed the very same way, earned RFK Jr. a friendly, measured spot on the nation’s hottest television program. Today, it brings him smug condescension and often vicious contempt, from The New York Times announcement of his run for president informing readers that his campaign would be “built on re-litigating Covid-19 shutdowns and shaking Americans’ faith in science” to the Center for Countering Digital Hate placing him on its “Disinformation Dozen” list and demanding that his social media accounts be blocked. “He’s a crazy conspiracy theorist,” Times opinion columnist Farhad Manjoo shot back at someone on Twitter who dared to wonder why RFK Jr. might deserve attention, the smear rolling off Manjoo’s keyboard with the ease of someone receiving talking points from the Politburo instead of doing the work of having thoughts of his own.

What changed?

It’s a vitally important question for anyone wishing to understand our current collective lunacy, so let’s take the scientific approach. We know RFK Jr. is saying the same things he did in 2005, so he’s the constant in this equation. Could it be, then, that the years that passed since his Daily Show appearance brought with them a deluge of new facts and findings that make the same statements sound so much more odious? That, after all, is how science—the real deal, not the hashtag sort—works, constantly reviewing new information to test old hypotheses.

But the science concerning thimerosal has been largely settled since … 2001. Four years earlier, in 1997, the FDA revamped procedures and standards, and asked pharmaceutical companies to report on the thimerosal content in their drugs. The data came in mid-1999 and left the experts appointed to review it split. Here’s how Dr. Paul A. Offit, co-inventor of the RotaTeq vaccine, put it in that hotbed of radicalism, the New England Journal of Medicine: “Several attendees left the meeting concerned that infants might be receiving too much mercury from vaccines,” he wrote. “On July 9, 1999, after much wrangling, the CDC and AAP [American Academy of Pediatrics] decided to exercise the precautionary principle. They asked pharmaceutical companies to remove thimerosal from vaccines as quickly as possible; in the interim, they asked doctors to delay the birth dose of hepatitis B vaccine in children who weren’t at risk for hepatitis.”

A concern emerged that messaging the decision improperly would lead to reluctance to vaccinate children, which prompted the U.S. National Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Medicine to issue another report two years later. Here’s its conclusion (bold in the original text): “Based on this body of evidence, the committee concludes that the evidence favors rejection of a causal relationship between thimerosal-containing vaccines and autism.”

In the 2005 interview, Stewart brings much of this to the fore, and has a nuanced, interested, and thought-provoking conversation with RFK Jr., who fully acknowledges the concerns well-meaning public health officials may have about the ways the general population might misjudge risks and benefits if given information it doesn’t fully understand. Which is why, RFK Jr. concluded bluntly, the best policy is simply to tell the messy and complicated truth and trust that people are smart enough to make their own informed decisions.

If you’ve paid any attention during COVID, you know that RFK Jr.’s counsel went unheeded. There are too many examples of this to choose from, but my favorite one is CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky stating, in a White House press conference four months after the vaccines were first distributed, that her agency recommends that pregnant women get the shot. The agency’s own website, however, made it clear that the agency simply didn’t have enough data to make any sweeping guarantees, as pregnancies last nine months and as vaccines simply hadn’t been around long enough for anyone to say with any certainty that they would have no effect on fetal development.

And so, QED: Eighteen years after his Daily Show appearance, RFK Jr. is the same RFK Jr., and the science is the same science. That’s more than we can say for those who call themselves “liberal” or “progressive” or “left wing” and still fancy themselves smart or educated. Once upon a time, these cats were able to do as Jon Stewart had done all those years ago: ask probing questions, listen politely, and acknowledge that a person making an argument you dislike—even one you believe is wrong—is not necessarily a peril to be eliminated or a threat to be silenced but a voice to be engaged.

These formerly smart people also used to understand that “science” wasn’t an article of faith—as in Fauci’s “I am the science” or the COVID-era mantra “trust the science”—but a disinterested method involving constantly arguing about facts, even those that seem settled. No more: In 2018, for example, a senior Columbia University climate scientist, writing in Scientific American, thundered that she would no longer debate climate science. “Once you put the established facts about the world up for argument,” she wrote, “you’ve already lost.” Which is more or less what the Roman Inquisition said once Galileo suggested that the Earth revolved around the sun.

As Kennedy continues his presidential bid, it’s likely that we’ll hear more terms like “anti-vaxxer” or “conspiracy theory” or “disinformation” thrown about with cloying, sanctimonious gravitas. But if you want some real insight into the folks wildly brandishing these terms, just watch how they treated RFK Jr. not too long ago. He hasn’t changed a bit, but they, alas, have.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.