AA meetings in the White House? Kennedy, a recovering addict, says it's just one of changes he'd make

YORBA LINDA, CA - JUNE 12, 2024: Presidential candidate Robert F Kennedy Jr. speaks at the Nixon Library on June 12, 2024 in Yorba Linda, California. The speech is part of the Richard Nixon Foundation's 2024 Presidential Policy Perspective series.(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)
Presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. speaks at the Nixon Library on June 12. (Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times)

Is America ready to elect a recovering addict as president? How about one who wants to hold 12-step recovery meetings in the White House?

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. hopes to be that president, the onetime heroin user saying he long ago left behind his dependency on “drugs, sex, alcohol or extreme behavior” to balm a wounded psyche. Thanks in large part to more than 40 years of 12-step meetings, Kennedy says, “I don't have a big empty hole that I'm trying to fill with things outside of me.”

The independent presidential candidate in recent days has said he wants to use his own 14-year addiction to heroin and more than four decades of recovery to help bring a new level of attention to the nation’s addiction crisis.

Kennedy recently premiered a documentary, “Recovering America,” in which he tours the country looking for programs that show the most promise of helping the nearly one in seven people who report having a substance use disorder.

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“Today, twice as many Americans die of addiction every year as died during the entire Vietnam War,” Kennedy has said. Nearly 110,000 died in the U.S. last year of overdoses, not quite double the 58,000 Americans who died in Vietnam. “And while there have been incredible innovations in recovery programs, as a nation we have failed to address the staggering magnitude of the crisis.”

Dating back to almost its founding, the United States has had presidents who drank to excess and at least a handful who reportedly used drugs, mostly before they entered the White House. But none of the nation’s chief executives acknowledged abusing drugs or being in recovery from addiction.

The former environmental lawyer has yet to qualify for the ballot in many states. And he is fighting a thus-far-losing battle to win a spot onstage for the nationally televised debates that will feature President Biden and former President Trump.

Kennedy, 70, has spoken about his addictive personality many times over the years. By his account, his recovery taught him humility and opened his heart toward God. But the redemption stories were preceded by years of darker media accounts about his reckless behavior — his serial adultery during his second marriage and claims that he helped lead his younger brother David into what became a fatal heroin addiction.

The candidate says his struggles have made him more empathetic and launched him on a life of service.

“My job as president of the United States will be to remind Americans that we're all part of a community,” he said during a panel discussion after the documentary premiered in Albuquerque on June 15. “We’ve got to go back and figure out how we include everybody and how we amplify and multiply the opportunities for service with each other.”

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Kennedy said his heroin addiction began at 15, not long after his father was assassinated on the night that he claimed victory in the California primary, as he campaigned for the 1968 Democratic presidential nomination.

Thrown out of two boarding schools, the younger Kennedy managed to make it through Harvard and the University of Virginia law school, despite multiple relapses. The cycle finally ended, by Kennedy’s account, after he overdosed on a flight to South Dakota and was arrested for heroin possession. He was 29.

“I feel like I was a one-dimensional human being. I was like a collection of appetites that needed to be fed all the time and that becomes like a full-time job,” Kennedy told YouTube host Sage Steele.

After a rehabilitation stay in New Jersey, Kennedy said 12-step meetings became key to his recovery. At one of the first sessions he asked a veteran how long he would have to attend.

“He said, ‘Just keep coming until you like it,’“ Kennedy recalled in an interview. “And I’ve been going for 40 years and I still don’t like it. But I go because the rest of my life works when I go.”

“I am careful about using any substance or behavior that tries to fix the uneasiness, the emptiness and the restlessness inside of myself with something outside,” he said. “And that’s really what the addictive mind is constantly looking for.”

He said he tries to attend nine meetings a week when he is home — seven morning sessions in Pacific Palisades and Tuesday and Thursday meetings at the Mandeville Canyon home he shares with his wife, actress Cheryl Hines.

While on the campaign trail, Kennedy said, he has made clear to his security detail that they need to make time every day for an AA meeting and a gym workout. Just hours before the premiere of his recovery documentary, he participated in an AA meeting at Monte Vista Christian Church in Albuquerque.

”As long as I’m unannounced at places, I can go almost anywhere,” Kennedy said. “The problem is, when you’re announced you have to screen people and do all of that.”

He said he “absolutely” would hold AA meetings in the White House, if elected. And he might even try to slip out occasionally to attend sessions in the community.

But he said his AA attendance is not meant to score political points. "The moment you are doing it out of material self-interest, the whole thing will turn on you," he said.

Such regular AA attendance is not unusual for people who recently entered recovery. A maxim of 12-step programs is “90 meetings in 90 days.” Experts said it is unusual for someone far into recovery to attend sessions religiously, but probably indicates Kennedy views himself as a mentor to younger addicts.

Kennedy described his recovery as part of a “spiritual awakening,” in which he willed himself to believe in God, a faith that was later fulfilled by finding “synchronicity,” a confluence of meaningful events in the universe. He was introduced to the concept after reading Carl Jung, one of the fathers of psychotherapy.

“With a spiritual awakening, you have to renew it every day by helping somebody else,” Kennedy said. “And the meetings are an organized framework that gives everybody there an opportunity to help somebody else. … That's why people go long after their compulsion to drink or drug has passed.”

He said he would take several steps to improve drug and alcohol treatment in the U.S. One would be trying to increase Medicaid funding for rehabilitation programs. He said that would be cheaper than funding later care for chronic disease, or in emergency rooms.

“Recovering America” featured several successful nonprofits, including Simple Mission Farms, a Texas rehabilitation program in which former addicts engage in “therapeutic farming and animal-assisted therapy," according to the nonprofit's website.

As a centerpiece of his anti-addiction program, Kennedy said he would open hundreds of such “healing farms” — places “where American kids can reconnect to America's soil, where they can learn the discipline of hard work, to rebuild self-esteem.”

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He said these centers would be built with government support but have substantial freedom to find their own best practices. “I don’t want to come in micromanaging it," he said, "because government never gets anything right.”

He said he would fund the farms by putting a federal tax on sales of legal marijuana, which he estimated would bring in $8 billion a year.

“There is hope for our nation to heal the scourge of addiction,” he concludes in the documentary. “We just have to make it an actual priority and when I'm in the White House, we will.”

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.