The Quiet Voice in R.F.K. Jr.’s Ear: A Former Aide to the Clintons

The Quiet Voice in R.F.K. Jr.’s Ear: A Former Aide to the Clintons

In his outsider bid for the White House, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is flanked by a team of unlikely political characters: new age health gurus, anti-vaccine activists, social media influencers, veterans of fringe third-party campaigns, cryptocurrency evangelists and militant environmentalists.

Jay Carson may be the most unexpected.

Now a Hollywood screenwriter, Mr. Carson, 47, has the résumé of a Democratic insider. He was the press secretary for Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign. He worked for Bill Clinton, Chuck Schumer, Tom Daschle, Howard Dean and Michael Bloomberg. He describes Anita Dunn, a senior adviser to President Biden, as his political godmother and “one of my favorite people in the world.”

He left politics more than a decade ago for show business, becoming a producer on “House of Cards” and the creator of “The Morning Show.” He got divorced, got sober — he met Mr. Kennedy at one of his first 12-step meetings — remarried and settled into a new life in Topanga Canyon, Calif., with no plans to return to a campaign.

But over the past year, he has become a quiet, steadying force behind a candidate who is at war with the Democratic Party.

As an informal adviser, Mr. Carson has offered Mr. Kennedy encouragement and guidance on campaign staffing, communications and field operations. He produced and appeared in a 30-minute advertisement about Mr. Kennedy, paid for by a super PAC backing him. He was involved in running-mate discussions. Mr. Kennedy often texts him, “Please call Bobby,” and he does.

In early April, Mr. Kennedy drew fierce criticism after his campaign released a statement that appeared to express his support for the Capitol rioters. He reached out to Mr. Carson, who suggested: “If it’s not what you believe, just say you messed up.”

Mr. Kennedy did so, on live television.

“He has his finger on the public pulse,” Mr. Kennedy said of Mr. Carson in an interview. “He is very gifted about predicting how the public and the press will react to certain things.”

Mr. Carson’s dedication to Mr. Kennedy is partly personal. They are close friends, a bond forged early in Mr. Carson’s recovery. But Mr. Carson’s turn away from the Democratic Party also reflects a broader disenchantment with mainstream politics that could help define the November election.

Like many Kennedy supporters, Mr. Carson experienced a crisis of faith during the coronavirus pandemic — a conviction that the vaccine push, the business closures, the stifling of disinformation were all part of a creeping authoritarianism. For some, including Mr. Carson, this coincided with a sense of estrangement from the Democratic Party, whose leadership they felt had been consumed by identity politics.

“My sense is that there’s never been a greater dissatisfaction in our electoral process and our government and our elected officials and their choices for president than there are right now,” Mr. Carson said in a series of interviews in the spring, including at a Los Angeles climbing gym and on a hike near his house. “If not now, then when — when would you challenge the two-party system?”

His latest project is the subject of much hand-wringing among his friends, creative partners and former colleagues, many of whom see Mr. Kennedy as a dangerous egomaniac pushing anti-vaccine messages and antigovernment conspiracy theories. They see him as a Republican-funded stalking horse for former President Donald J. Trump, and as a direct threat to Mr. Biden, to say nothing of democracy and the rule of law.

“It’s disappointing,” Dr. Dean, the former Vermont governor and presidential candidate, and one of the few people in politics who agreed to be quoted about Mr. Carson, said by email. “But I have a high regard for Jay, and that’s all I’m going to say.”

The sentiment is not so much one of betrayal but of concern. A few declined to speak at all, sometimes after wondering aloud: “What happened to Jay Carson?”

Mr. Carson had a fast rise to the political big time.

A native of Macon, Ga., he interned as a Columbia University student for George Stephanopoulos, found his way onto Mr. Schumer’s 1998 Senate campaign staff and got his big break handling advance work for Bill Bradley’s 2000 presidential campaign kickoff. He worked on Mrs. Clinton’s successful run for the Senate that year, then as press secretary for Mr. Daschle, the South Dakota Democrat who in 2001 became the Senate majority leader.

At 24, he was at the center of Democratic power. Sometimes what he saw disappointed him. He recalls in particular watching senators rationalize their votes for the Iraq war.

“I came to politics as a really idealistic kid,” he said. “I would hear very powerful people — senators, members of Congress — say: ‘I know the right thing to do. But I’m just a lowly senator, how could I possibly — me making a stand won’t make a difference.’”

Disappointments piled up, including the meteoric rise and flameout of Dr. Dean’s 2004 campaign, for which he was press secretary.

Then there was Mrs. Clinton’s grueling 2008 campaign.

The identity she had scrupulously built — a moderate woman steeped in experience — was rejected in favor of Barack Obama’s new voice. Mr. Carson was with her as she dragged herself through primary defeats, angry and weary but fighting to the end.

Shaken by the loss, Mr. Carson tilted away from politics. He took a job on a climate initiative with Mr. Bloomberg, then the New York mayor, and turned his attention to Hollywood.

He says he created “The Morning Show” as a kind of “thematic tribute” to Mrs. Clinton — about the difficulty of being a woman in power.

Mrs. Clinton did not respond to requests for comment. Mr. Carson left “The Morning Show” over creative differences in 2018, long before its premiere.

With distance, he began to discern some trends: That “risk-averse” Democratic insiders tended to back candidates who failed to capture voters’ imaginations: Al Gore, John Kerry and Mrs. Clinton. “I know, because I used to be one of those insiders,” he said.

And that elite, liberal America routinely underestimated candidates who did not seem intelligent or sophisticated.

In May 2016, Mr. Carson wrote on Instagram, under a picture of Mr. Trump: “Here’s the really bad news — this guy can win a general election pretty damn easily.”

This year, Democrats have often responded to voter discontent with incredulity. On “The Tonight Show” in April, Mrs. Clinton had blunt words for those upset about the Biden-Trump rematch: “Get over yourself.”

Mr. Carson does not like to criticize Mrs. Clinton. But asked about that remark, he said: “It’s evidence, honestly, of a cynicism I began to feel.”

He paused. “There’s a mind-set, especially in the Democratic Party: Why won’t these morons just realize that we’re the better party for them and vote for us?” That question, and the disdain it implies, he said with rising passion, “is the reason they’re not voting for you.”

Last year, he changed his voter registration to “no party preference.”

In 2017, Mr. Carson was in the early stages of a divorce and newly sober. At one of his first 12-step meetings, he said, Mr. Kennedy, a former heroin addict, asked Mr. Carson if he wanted to go on a hike.

They discussed the challenges of divorce and the work of recovery. “We established a real friendship, really quickly,” Mr. Carson said.

When the pandemic hit, Mr. Carson says he went “all in.” He and his new wife — they have four children between them — holed up at home. They bleached their groceries in tubs outside. They wore masks long after they ceased being mandatory. They didn’t see their families.

“I was arguing with people and telling them how wrong they were if they didn’t follow every rule that came down from on high,” he said.

When vaccine shots became available, he drove into central Los Angeles before dawn to wait in line. “I believed that I would kill my parents if I saw them without this,” he said.

In those early months, Mr. Carson said, “I started to read that my old friend Bobby had gone crazy.”

Mr. Kennedy had long been a prominent skeptic about vaccines and the public health establishment, pushing widely disproven claims. The pandemic gave him a broader audience, even after social media platforms suspended accounts associated with him for spreading misinformation.

By late 2021, Mr. Carson was having his own doubts about the government’s response to Covid-19.

“We were realizing that maybe we shouldn’t have kept our kindergartners apart from each other,” he said, that lockdowns had shut down small businesses and that the pandemic had occasioned an “erosion of the First Amendment.” While well intentioned, Mr. Carson said, the policies were harmful — “and we had a really hard time letting go or admitting they were flawed.”

When Mr. Carson saw an article that described Mr. Kennedy as a liar, something sparked. “I had found him to be painfully, scrupulously honest.” He reached out. They went for a hike. And he found Mr. Kennedy to be measured and reasonable.

When Mr. Carson’s friends speak about his support for Mr. Kennedy, this is where they invariably sigh: To them, Mr. Kennedy seems neither measured nor reasonable. He once likened the Covid lockdowns to Nazi rule, remarks for which he later apologized.

Mr. Carson says he has gotten through only the first few chapters of “The Real Anthony Fauci,” the book Mr. Kennedy wrote in 2021, which depicts Dr. Fauci, who was the face of the federal government’s Covid response, as the conniving leader of a “vaccine cartel.”

Mr. Carson also does not engage on the issue with which Mr. Kennedy is most closely associated: vaccine safety.

“It is not an issue that animates my life in any way,” Mr. Carson said. He and his children are vaccinated. Last year, when Mr. Kennedy told him he was considering running for president, Mr. Carson said he would not be part of a single-issue campaign focused on vaccines.

Mr. Kennedy assured him it would not be that.

When Mr. Kennedy began his campaign in April 2023, as a Democratic challenger to Mr. Biden, his only top aide with major political experience was his campaign manager, Dennis Kucinich, the former Ohio congressman.

In September, at Mr. Kennedy’s request, Mr. Carson took an advisory role. “I basically did management consulting,” he said. He was paid $45,000 over two months. Several weeks in, he presented Mr. Kennedy with a memo, about 10 pages, outlining how the campaign should redeploy its talent. Among the recommendations: Jettison Mr. Kucinich.

The next week, days after Mr. Kennedy announced he would run as an independent, Mr. Kucinich, who declined to comment for this article, abruptly left the campaign.

Soon after, Mr. Carson also left. He said he had found it limiting and exhausting. But when a pro-Kennedy super PAC asked him to make advertisements about Mr. Kennedy, he did so and was paid nearly $500,000 in November for the work.

The result was a 30-minute film released in early May, narrated by the actor Woody Harrelson, that charted Mr. Kennedy’s path from Camelot to media darling to pariah.

Mr. Carson’s friends are conflicted about his work for Mr. Kennedy.

“Jay is a searching soul — he always has been,” said Matt Bai, a journalist (including formerly for The Times) and screenwriter who has been a friend and collaborator of Mr. Carson’s for 25 years. “He has taken many turns in his life. This is one that not everybody can see the logic behind.”

“I love Jay,” said Lawrence Bender, an Academy Award-winning producer who is working with Mr. Carson on a television project. But when he learned that Mr. Carson was working for Mr. Kennedy, he was shocked. “What are you talking about?” he recalled asking, punctuated with an expletive.

Mr. Bender describes himself as a “true Biden fan.” But he said of Mr. Carson, “I’ve got to respect him.”

Like many Democrats, Mr. Bender fears that Mr. Kennedy could draw votes from Mr. Biden in critical battleground states and throw the election to Mr. Trump.

Mr. Carson says it is too early to make such judgments.

“I joined up with Bobby because I believed he was the best chance of beating Donald Trump. And I still do believe that,” he said. “Talk to me in September.”

Despite his admiration for many leaders in the party — including, he says, Mr. Biden — Mr. Carson is, in his own way, as much at war with the Democratic Party as Mr. Kennedy is.

“It is a very interesting shift,” he said, that Republicans are now more likely to say the system is broken. “And Democrats are kind of like, ‘OK, if we could just, like, increase the E.I.T.C.’” — the earned-income tax credit — “‘if we could just tweak this around the margins, we could fix it.’”

“The system in Washington is broken, and Americans know it,” he went on. “It’s not Joe Biden’s fault, but it’s not fixable in four years. And I don’t think you can fix it if you’re a creature of the culture that created it.”

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