RFK Jr. Explains the Evolution of His Vocal Condition

RFK Jr. Explains the Evolution of His Vocal Condition
Robert F. Kennedy Jr. announces his 2024 presidential bid and Democratic primary challenge to President Joe Biden in Boston on April 19, 2023. (Madalina Vasiliu/The Epoch Times)
Jeff Louderback

His 2024 presidential campaign requires Robert F. Kennedy Jr. to travel across the country delivering speeches, conducting interviews with the media, and appearing at town halls and other special events. Many voters who have never heard the environmental attorney and Children’s Health Defense founder speak, eventually ask about his voice.

When Kennedy was 42, in 1996, he learned he had a neurological condition that causes the muscles that power his voice to experience periods of spasm, making his voice tremble.

At the beginning of a town hall in Chicago on June 28, NewsNation moderator Elizabeth Vargas got straight to the point.

“Your voice is raspy,“ she said to the candidate. ”Why don’t you explain to our audience why?”

“[In the 1990s], I was making a lot of my income doing public speaking and I could speak to the large halls without any amplification,” Kennedy explained.

As his voice gradually started to change,  he said, “At first, I didn’t know what was wrong.”

Then, Kennedy said, people who heard him speak wrote letters telling him about spasmodic dysphonia, and suggesting that he visit Dr. Andrew Blitzer, a physician known for treating that condition.

Blitzer, a Senior Attending Otolaryngologist and Director of the New York Center of Voice and Swallowing Disorders at Mount Sinai West, confirmed the diagnosis.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. appeared with SiriusXM talk show host Michael Smerconish at a town hall in suburban Philadelphia, Pa., on June 5, 2023. (Jeff Louderback/The Epoch Times)
Robert F. Kennedy Jr. appeared with SiriusXM talk show host Michael Smerconish at a town hall in suburban Philadelphia, Pa., on June 5, 2023. (Jeff Louderback/The Epoch Times)

Used to Be ‘Much Worse’

“I think it makes it problematical at times for people to listen to me. I cannot listen to myself on TV. I will never listen to this broadcast. I feel sorry for you guys having to listen to me,” Kennedy told the audience with a grin.

“My throat was much worse, and I went to Japan about six months ago and had a novel surgery in Kyoto. It made my voice much better, which you probably won’t believe, but it was much worse than this before.”

Dysphonia International, formerly the National Spasmodic Dysphonia Association, reports on its website that “people with spasmodic dysphonia initially notice either a gradual or sudden onset of difficulty in speaking. They may hear breaks in their voice during production of certain words or speech sounds, breathy-sounding pauses on certain words or sounds, or a tremulous shaking of the voice. They may feel that talking requires more effort than before. Often people say that their voice sounds as if they have a cold or laryngitis.”

The National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD) is part of the U.S. National Institutes of Health. On its website, the organization explains, “When we speak, air from the lungs is pushed between two elastic structures—called vocal folds or vocal cords—with sufficient pressure to cause them to vibrate, producing voice. In spasmodic dysphonia, the muscles inside the vocal folds experience sudden involuntary movements—called spasms—which interfere with the ability of the folds to vibrate and produce voice.”

The disorder is rare and typically starts appearing between the ages of 30 and 50, the NIDCD explained. Symptoms of spasmodic dysphonia generally develop gradually and with no obvious explanation, according to the organization.

Spasmodic dysphonia affects one in 100,000 people, the Cleveland Clinic estimates.

There is no cure for the disorder, but it can be treated through a Botox injection into the voice muscles, voice therapy, and surgery.

No Impact on Brain Function

When the question arises about a candidate’s fitness to serve, President Joe Biden’s age—80—and health are frequent talking points in the 2024 presidential election. Kennedy, who is 69, noted that spasmodic dysphonia does not impact brain function and thought process, nor does it impact physical ability.

Musician and vocal coach Darin Jolliffe-Haas lives in Ohio and learned he has spasmodic dysphonia in 2017, three years before he was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis.

“Although it has mildly interfered with classroom and private studio teaching, due to my vocal training, it’s never been that much of an issue for me because I’ve had techniques or methods to combat it,” he told The Epoch Times.

Haas applauds Kennedy for bringing attention to the rare disorder.

“I had never heard of it until I was diagnosed with it. Since he [Kennedy] is now more visible on the national stage, there will be an elevated understanding about what it is,” Haas said.

“He will have excessive demands made on his voice every day during the campaign. It’s inspiring to see someone running for the most important political job in the country openly talk about his challenges with the condition only a small percentage of us know about first-hand.”

Kennedy’s vocal challenges have not prevented him from gaining support in the early stages of his campaign.

He has the highest net favorability of all 2024 presidential candidates, according to a recent poll from The Economist/YouGov.

The survey, conducted June 10–13,  contacted 1,500 U.S. adults, and had a 2.7-point margin of error.

Kennedy was viewed favorably by 49 percent of the respondents, which translates to a net favorability rating of 19 points. He was seen as unfavorable by 30 percent.

Biden and former President Donald Trump, who is currently the frontrunner among Republican candidates, had 45 percent and 43 percent of the respondents view them in a favorable way.

Biden’s net favorability rating was minus 7 while Trump had a minus 10 net favorability rating.

Kennedy is currently polling at 14.4 percent in the Democratic primary, according to the Real Clear Politics average of polls.

Jeff Louderback covers news and features on the White House and executive agencies for The Epoch Times. He also reports on Senate and House elections. A professional journalist since 1990, Jeff has a versatile background that includes covering news and politics, business, professional and college sports, and lifestyle topics for regional and national media outlets.
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