Worth the Wait

On a day that was inspiring on several levels, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. visits Spokane to talk about water, the corruption of government by corporate power, and the fight for democracy.

By Tim Connor


For a good part of Thursday, it was hard to hear Robert F. Kennedy Jr. speak over the roar of the Spokane River. He didn’t seem to mind at all.

Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., vigorously making a point during a speech in downtown Spokane Thursday afternoon.

Within seconds after arriving in the lobby at the Davenport Hotel a little after 4 p.m., Kennedy recognized the tall figure of an old family friend, Jim Whittaker, and his face ignited with a broad grin. Whittaker is the first American to climb Mount Everest and, though now 82, he still looks like a world class athlete.  The two embraced and, within minutes, were being led toward the torrent in the middle of town. It was the Spokane River, near peak flow, throwing a refreshing geyser of spray onto tourists and natives who crowded the west end of the park today to witness (and photograph) the fury of the whitewater.

In a talk he gave to river enthusiasts in a private suite near the Flour Mill, Kennedy delivered some fury of his own. His signature achievement as the prosecuting attorney for the Hudson Riverkeeper has been the remarkable resurrection of the Hudson. But he recounted the gross pollution and official indifference that the Riverkeeper founders experienced in their early years with flashes of anger and contempt.

That passion is not new. When Jim Whittaker introduced Kennedy later Thursday evening at the Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox, he engaged the large audience with the story of how he met Kennedy’s father, then-Senator Robert F. Kennedy, Sr. After he conquered Mt. Everest, Whittaker was given a medal by President John F. Kennedy, who was assassinated not long afterward. In 1965, Whittaker was heading up a National Geographic-sponsored expedition to climb Mount Kennedy, an as yet unclimbed, 14,000 foot peak in the Canadian Yukon.

For the audience at the Fox, Whittaker recounted the story of how he learned from National Geographic that the fallen President’s younger brother, RFK, Sr., wanted to go on the expedition with Whittaker.

“Has he ever climbed before?” Whittaker says he asked.

“No,” came the answer from National Geographic.

“Does he know it’s a first ascent, that it’s never been climbed?

“Yes,” he was told.

“Okay,” Whittaker said, laughing as he recalled the moment.

Kennedy sharing a story with Jim Whittaker in Riverfront Park Thursday.

But off they went. About a hundred yards below the summit Whittaker said, he invited the Senator to go up first.

“Bobby go,” he says that he remembered saying, “it’s your peak. So he went to the top and he was the first human being to stand on top of the peak named after his brother.”

“I’ll tell you,” Whittaker continued, “that’s one where the tears freeze on the parka.”

From that expedition, Whittaker became close friends with RFK, Sr., and was a frequent guest and guide for the Kennedy family. And he well remembers RFK, Jr., who, even as a child, was showing a passion for the outdoors and wild animals.

“He just got caught up in this wonderful, magical planet,” Whittaker said. “But the most important thing about all of this, is that we have an individual who’s willing to fight for us. I has been said that courage is the first and foremost of all human attributes, because with that one attribute come all of the others. Here’s someone who can go out and confront people who are polluting the planet, that are taking a healthy lifestyle away from our children. Here’s a guy who will go out and do it.”

He then introduced RFK, Jr., as a “champion of the planet.”

Kennedy then spoke for an hour and a half, starting with the story of the Hudson and became the inspiration for the world wide Waterkeeper movement. He even reported that the latest addition to the Waterkeepers is a new project in Iraq, to protect the upper Tigris River. But then Kennedy shifted to a withering critique of how the political and corporate elites in the United States have undermined not just the environment, but democracy itself.

He devoted much of his impassioned talk outlining the devastating environmental and public health effects of coal mining and the burning of coal for energy. His message: cheap coal is a scandalous myth, in that the coal mining companies and the utilities that burn coal have been enormously successful in externalizing the social, economic, environmental, and public health costs of coal.

He was similarly critical of large oil companies and the enormous public subsidies the companies receive through the federal tax code. He railed against corporations who buy political influence to tilt the economic playing field in their favor to ensure that they collect the benefits of public subsidies while the public pays the costs. He criticized politicians in both parties for “sitting on their hands” rather than confronting these excesses and working to level the playing field so that emerging, green energy technologies get at least an even chance to compete.

Spokane Riverkeeper Bart Mihailovich with RFK, Jr.

His talk was not all gloom and doom. Much of the latter part of his presentation was devoted to laying out a vision of an America energy future in which the nation  would be losing its dependence on foreign oil more quickly than people think, because emerging technologies for electric vehicles are so promising. As candid as his assessment are about the abuses of capitalism, Kennedy was very clear that he believes in free market capitalism and how it can be a dynamic force for positive change if the public can vigilantly protect against undue and deeply corrupting corporate influence on government. He clearly believes and worked to persuade his audience Thursday night that green energy will be the path to a new American prosperity, if citizens can overcome ominous developments like the recent Citizens United decision by the U.S. Supreme Court. Kennedy warns that Citizens United is a already a broad door for deepening corporate corruption of U.S. politics and a the means for a new “tsunami” of corporate money into U.S. electoral politics, reversing reforms that Theodore Roosevelt enacted during his Presidency in the early part of the 20th century.

The festivities at the Fox were introduced by Spokane Mayor Mary Verner who spoke briefly about the city’s connection to the river and how it continues to work to clean it up. The Mayor then introduced a playful video produced by Hamilton Studios and starring Riverkeeper Bart Mihailovich and a puppet Redband Trout. The light-hearted but informative video was followed by Mihailovich, in person, who drew warm applause and gave a short, live talk about his work as Riverkeeper before introducing Jim Whittaker.

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