HAS celebrity environmentalist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. taken leave of his senses, or did he ever have any to begin with?
The question arises given the furor that has broken out in Iowa after Kennedy flew in to inform state residents that - as the Des Moines Register last week quoted him as saying - "large-scale hog producers are a greater threat to the United States and U.S. democracy than Osama bin Laden and his terrorist network."
Kennedy offered that bizarre comparison at an April 5 rally on hog farm issues in Clear Lake, Iowa, sponsored by his Waterkeeper Alliance. The White Plains-based alliance, which benefits mightily from the visibility of Kennedy's name, has been pushing a nationwide campaign against large animal-raising operations, teamed up with wealthy trial lawyers to pursue massive lawsuits against pork, chicken and beef producers for their alleged environmental sins.
With all the adoring press coverage he gets in his backyard, Kennedy may have had no idea how his remarks would go over in a Midwestern state that prides itself on both patriotism and pork production. His remarks were reported last Wednesday by the Des Moines Register, the state's leading paper.
The next day the paper minced no words in an editorial entitled "Kennedy's outrageous rhetoric": his "idiotic" and "ridiculous" likening of pig-lot operators to the Sept. 11 murderers would succeed only in "blowing up his credibility and hurting the cause he represents," it said.
Hog farmers themselves weren't sure whether outrage or derision was the right way to react. "To compare pork producers with a regime that kills and terrorizes Americans, that blew my mind," said Craig Christensen, a hog raiser who attended Kennedy's speech. "He put Grant Wood and Osama bin Laden side-by-side and said they were the same." Luke Kollasch of Algona, Iowa, whose family is also in the swine line, was pithier: "You have to be a complete wandering idiot to make that statement."
While Kennedy claims his target is just big companies' hog operations, Scott Tapper, whose family raises squealers near Webster City, Iowa, said the confinement methods Kennedy assails describe "90-plus percent of the family farms in Iowa."
On Sunday, veteran Des Moines Register political columnist David Yepsen joined in, hinting that presidential candidates seeking to woo Iowa caucus voters might wish to distance themselves in future from the wayward scion. The statement "has to be one of the crudest things ever said in Iowa politics . . . [Kennedy] made an ass of himself."
A fixture of Iowa political journalism, Yepsen is not someone easily brushed off as a Kennedy-basher. His column went out of its way to express admiration for the life's work of other members of the family, including Senator Ted. Which lends all the more force to his pummeling of the hapless nephew: "Kennedy looks to be cashing in on his family's name. What's his expertise on hogs or Iowa? If his name were Bob Fitzgerald, he'd be dismissed as another one of the kooks on the fringe of this debate."
According to Yepsen, "some of the environmentalists [in the state] were furious" at RFK's outbreak of foot-in-mouth disease, fearing that it could imperil pending action in the state legislature to tighten environmental controls on animal-raising. "What was one of the finest hours of this legislative session was marred by this fool from the East."
Kennedy's local Riverkeeper affiliate, which is currently campaigning to shutter Westchester's Indian Point nuclear plant, is considered respectable enough to sport a list of supporters including not only the predictable Ben & Jerry's but also the clothing chains Patagonia and Eddie Bauer and even Tiffany & Co.
When New Yorkers learn about Kennedy's willingness to trivialize the evil of the author of Sept. 11, it's hard to believe that popularity won't suffer a blow.