Most of the attendees at Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s presidential rally on Thursday afternoon arrived long before the candidate did. While potential voters crammed into the Sky SLC nightclub in Salt Lake City, awaiting the rally’s start, Kennedy walked around downtown.

Sixty years prior, his uncle — then-President John F. Kennedy — delivered a famous speech at the Tabernacle, the historic meeting hall on Temple Square. Kennedy’s 1963 speech, part of a tour through the western U.S., was considered by those in his inner circle to be among the best he ever gave. Two months later, Kennedy was assassinated.

“He did this national tour, and one of the stops that he made that was really earth-shaking is here,” Robert F. Kennedy Jr. told the Deseret News Thursday, in an interview prior to the rally.

50 years later does JFK's Tabernacle speech still resonate? (+photos)
RFK Jr.’s big gamble

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is running for president himself, marking a major deviation from the longtime Kennedy political tradition: when his bid for the Democratic nomination proved futile, he left the party to run as an independent. The move drew ire from many of his family members, who have publicly denounced his candidacy.

But Kennedy continues to view himself as a continuation of the Kennedy legacy. He told the Deseret News last month that he is “able to love my family without agreeing with everything they believe in.” And on Thursday, while walking through Salt Lake City, he rhapsodized about his uncle’s famous speech, drawing parallels through John F. Kennedy’s foreign policy and his own.

Sixty years ago, at the peak of the Cold War, John F. Kennedy pled with his Utah audience for support for his stance on the Soviet Union, including a newly negotiated ban on nuclear testing. Kennedy told Utahns that the country “cannot turn our back on the world outside.”

Now, with the U.S. backing Ukraine in its ongoing war against Russia, the younger Kennedy says that were his uncle alive today, “I think he’d be very much against the Ukraine War.”

President John F. Kennedy speaks at the Tabernacle in Salt Lake City on Sept. 26, 1963. | Deseret News Archives

Kennedy claimed the war in Ukraine is “really about us trying to extend NATO into Ukraine.” He argued that negotiation with Soviet leaders was a central tenet of his uncle’s foreign policy, and he accused President Joe Biden and other Western leaders of refusing to cooperate with Putin — a leader Biden has called a “murderous dictator” and a “thug.”

“We won’t even talk to Putin,” Kennedy said. “Putin wants to negotiate. ... I think it’s the opposite of what my uncle was trying to do, which is to try to find peace with Russia.”

When discussing another critical foreign policy issue, Kennedy said it is “pretty clear” where his uncle would stand.

“My uncle was very strong supporter of Israel,” he said. “My uncle ended a very cold period toward Israel during the Eisenhower years, in U.S. relations, and he made the historic security guarantees to Israel.”

During his presidential campaign, Kennedy has expressed allegiance to Israel. In the hours after the Oct. 7 Hamas attack, Kennedy called on the U.S. to “provide Israel with whatever it needs to defend itself.” He decried the “tsunami of misinformation and moral bankruptcy” that has led to acts of antisemitism on college campuses.

The disturbing rise of antisemitism on elite U.S. campuses
Independent presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. speaks at a rally in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Nov. 30, 2023. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

In recent months, Kennedy has made several controversial statements about Jews. In January, he compared those who did not receive the COVID-19 vaccine to Anne Frank and other European Jews during the Holocaust. He later apologized for the remarks. And in July, he referenced a study that claimed Ashkenazi Jews were “most immune” to COVID-19, a comment that drew outcry from the Anti-Defamation League and other prominent Jewish organizations. Kennedy later said the story was “mistaken” and written to “smear” him.

During his walk through Salt Lake City, I asked him how he could expect support from religious minority communities, like Latter-day Saints, who are acutely sensitive to offensive comments toward other religious groups.

“I don’t think anybody took seriously that I ever have said an antisemitic statement in my life,” he said. “I support religious freedom. I’m against any kind of religious bigotry.”

When asked what the biggest threat to religious liberty in the U.S. is currently, he pointed to the COVID-19 lockdowns. Kennedy has been an outspoken critic of Dr. Anthony Fauci and the COVID-19 vaccines.

“I was disturbed during COVID, that we shut down every church in this country without any scientific citation, without any due process,” he said.

John Stockton, other vaccine-skeptical athletes are endorsing RFK Jr.

Later, at his rally, Kennedy spoke about homelessness in San Francisco, rising house prices, U.S. spending in Ukraine, environmental issues and the need to find unity amid nationwide polarization.

The line to enter the rally’s venue, the nightclub Sky SLC, stretched down the block. Red, white and blue lights illuminated the stage in the dimly lit space. It was a full house: attendees crowded around, some sitting, others standing, to hear Kennedy’s remarks.

Referencing Matthew Desmond’s book “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City,” Kennedy said “this epidemic of homelessness that is in California” is “going to sweep across this country.” He said the rising home prices were one factor driving homelessness.

He said one reason younger generations are priced out of buying homes is inflation, which he stated was affected by COVID-19 spending and funding of wars. “And the way they pay for it is through a hidden tax, a self-taxed inflation, which lands on the middle class and people in fixed income,” he told the crowd.

The crowd cheered as Kennedy criticized corporations and described agencies as “captured.” He said agencies “have a strategy.”

“And what is that strategy? It’s keeping us all at each other’s clothes,” he posited.

These comments segued into the conclusion of his speech, which focused on unity. “I’m going to stop the division and I’m going to stop name calling people. I’m going to start identifying the values that we all share in common, rather than focusing on these cultural issues that keep us all apart.”

Some of the rally’s attendees spoke about their frustration with the two-party system and said that there was something they liked in Kennedy that they didn’t see in other candidates.

A self-described “big supporter of Kennedy,” Beth Peacock said she supports him because “if you listen to the speech, it’s everything that I believe in.”

“He seems honest,” Peacock said. “It just sits well with me, his message. I don’t really hear that from the others (candidates).”

While getting in line to take a selfie with Kennedy, Wesley Kennington said his experience living in Iowa for a couple years fueled his attendance at the rally. He spent time “around a ton of farmers who are being really just hurt by the government.”

“Kennedy is the only person I’ve ever heard say the things that will help those farmers who I know and love,” Kennington said.