On the eve of Barack Obama’s inauguration, the latest issue of Newsweek features recollections of inaugurals past from the likes of Rep. John Lewis, Ari Fleisher, Franklin Graham, and my personal favorite, Karl Rove (who recalls how his first night on the job was capped by a stern warning from a West Wing janitor to “respect the house” — he should have heeded this advice).
Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is also interviewed for the article. Here’s what he had to say:
“I was only 7 years old when my uncle became president, but I remember his Inauguration Day better than any other. He didn’t say anything to me that day; there were too many people all over, and they all wanted to talk to him. But our entire family was there to watch him. After the inaugural ceremony and the parade, we were allowed into the White House to see where my cousins would be living. We saw their bedrooms and explored the whole house. We ran through all the halls—outside to the pool and down to the basement and into the bowling alley. That was the first time we were in the house and, as little kids, it felt enormous. It was a really big place. As time went on, my uncle invited us back frequently, about once a month. When I was a few years older, I met with him—just us—in the Oval Office and he talked with me about my interest in the outdoors, about pollution and environmental issues of the time. At one point after that, he arranged for me to interview Stewart Udall, who was the secretary of the interior. To thank my uncle, the next time I went to the White House I brought him a salamander.”
…uh, well…there’s more to that story. For reasons that might be obvious, RFK Jr. left out the best part. So we’ll turn to a 2006 New York Times article to provide the punchline:
“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). “
Here’s that famous photo now:
“He does not look well”: Seven year-old Bobby Kennedy Jr. with his clearly amused Uncle Jack (and a very dead salamander) just two months after JFK’s Inauguration, March, 1961.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr. (and in fact, the entire Kennedy clan) will be in attendance Tuesday when Senator Barack Obama is sworn in as the nation’s 44th president. Joking with reporter Kris Jenner about a “Kennedy invasion” of D.C. next week, Bobby quipped: “I think there’s four million people who are going to be in Washington this weekend, and probably around half of them are Kennedys!”
Without a doubt, the Kennedy clan will have more influence in this White House than with any administration since JFK. Bobby Jr. will likely be a frequent guest in Obama’s Oval Office, engaging in private discussions with the president about the environment. This time though, we think he should probably leave the salamander at home.