Some stories I pursue, others I let unwind a bit to make sure they are for real. The cover story I wrote on Robert Kennedy Jr. for this Sunday's Washington Post magazine falls into the latter category.
Kennedy during a 2007 talk. (Source: Wikipedia) You couldn't find a more unlikely author of this story than me. Last summer, I wrote two critical posts about Kennedy. The first was in response to a keynote talk he gave at an annual autism advocacy conference that is notorious for bringing half-baked diagnostic theories, anti-vaccine fervor, and alternative therapy boosterism under one tent. The second post discussed a phone call between myself and Kennedy, in which I learned he was hellbent on proving that increasing autism rates and an array of developmental disorders could be linked to thimerosal, a mercury-based preservative used in some flu vaccines and phased out of U.S. pediatric vaccines in the early 2000s. Kennedy said he amassed the proof in a new book and challenged me to read it. I said I would. He sent me the manuscript later in the summer. Shortly after that, we talked some more. He told me of several upcoming meetings in Washington D.C. that he had been able to arrange, relating to his book. One was with a senator and another with government health officials. This piqued my interest. Meanwhile, I started reading his manuscript and he kept calling me with updates. To this point, nothing I had heard from him or begun to read in his book dissuaded me that he was dead wrong, but his persistence was impressive. One day he texted and called to tell me about an upbeat phone conversation he just had with Kathleen Sebelius, then Secretary of Health and Human Services. She was going to read his book and maybe even meet with him. Kennedy seemed to be getting somewhere. I saw the story developing. Eventually I finished his book, which will be published in early August. I also followed Kennedy around DC to some of those meetings, scenes that are depicted in my Washington Post magazine story. I have much more to say about all this, particularly his book. But for space reasons, I had to keep my story narrowly focused on Kennedy's vaccine crusade as a defining issue in his life. In a follow-up blog post appearing tomorrow, I explore two claims at the heart of Kennedy's new book: 1) There is a body of science that indicts thimerosal--even in minute doses--as being harmful to the brain, and 2) thimerosal can be linked to an array of neurodevelopment disorders, including autism. I realize that for many (including myself) these questions have already been settled by science. But I promised Kennedy that I would read his book and consider anew the evidence he has compiled. Did he he uncover evidence that forced me to reconsider my position? Check back tomorrow morning. Meanwhile, read my story of Kennedy's crusade and let me know what you think.