What Bugs Them About Bobby

What Bugs Them About Bobby
American Values 2024 | April 18, 2024

By David Talbot, columnist, The Kennedy Beacon

I used to be disgusted by the constant media attacks on Robert F. Kennedy Jr. – mostly from the left. Now I’m just confused.

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I’ve known Bobby for over 20 years. I see him as a lifelong champion of progressive causes, like his father. And someone also open to new ideas, when liberal policies fail. Yes, like his father.

Then why all the sound and fury about Kennedy in the press? He’s clearly the only intellectually-engaged candidate on a realistic path to the White House. The only leader who grasps the severe problems and challenges that bedevil America. The only one willing to confront the forever war makers and billionaires who have taken over Washington and turned the American Dream into a nightmare for most of us.

By contrast, Biden and Trump are just “changing deck chairs on the Titanic” as Kennedy has said, “and the ship is sinking.”

In some cases, I must admit, my confusion about this Bobby-hating is personal. Some of the prominent journalists who have gone on the offensive against Kennedy are former employees of mine at Salon, including Joan Walsh, now at The Nation, Michelle Goldberg of The New York Times, Jake Tapper of CNN, and Rebecca Traister at New York magazine. Salon alumnus Steve Kornacki is a political correspondent for MSNBC, which regularly inveighs against Kennedy, echoing the talking points of the Democratic National Committee. Indeed, Salon itself – which is under very different editorial management these days – has become a platform for frequent anti-Kennedy invective.

At Salon – which I founded in 1995 and editorially led until 2005 – we created a freewheeling newsroom. Even though I was on the left (and still am), we published conservatives and libertarians and none-of-the-above. We defended President Bill Clinton against the impeachment hanging party – including the Beltway press – even though we disagreed with many of his policies, because he had been elected twice and because the alternative was even worse. (Newt Gingrich. Enough said.)

But a lot has happened since I left Salon and those who worked for me went their separate ways. I wrote two New York Times-bestsellers about the inspiring rise and violent fall of the Kennedy era in the 1960s. And these days my former staff members work for very different employers than Salon.

Am I too close to the Kennedy dynasty (even though many members of his own family have turned against RFK Jr.)? Or did my former Salon colleagues become “careerists,” to use the term invoked by one of them. Are they now attacking Kennedy because their new bosses – at corporate media outlets, and liberal ones too – expect them to toe the anti-Bobby line?

I must admit that my feeling of political alienation from many of my former Salon staffers started back in 2015, long after I left the publication, after its new editors decided to disappear an article by Kennedy on thimerosal, the mercury-containing preservative used in some vaccines. In an open letter to Kennedy that year, I stated I was “dismayed” by Salon’s decision.

“I founded Salon to be a fearless and independent publication – one that was open to a wide range of views, particularly those that were controversial or contested within the mainstream media,” I wrote in my letter. “Removing your article from the Salon archives was a violation of that spirit and smacks of editorial cowardice. If I had been editor at the time I would not have done so – and I would have offered you the opportunity to debate your critics in Salon’s pages.”

Many of you have undoubtedly experienced this alienation, too. Am I wrong – or do my friends and family members and colleagues refuse to see the truth?

The Salon staff were my people. We endured political witch hunts and bomb scares and advertising boycotts together. We were often accused of being incorrect. Of being wrong. Dangerously wrong.

So, I decided to talk with a couple of my former Salon reporters, who now work for big media corporations. At least both of them have tried to examine and understand Kennedy’s campaign – unlike CNN host Jake Tapper (my former Washington D.C. correspondent), who has proudly announced he will not moderate a town hall with Kennedy “because he spreads dangerous misinformation about childhood vaccines.” (For the record, Republican presidential hopefuls – including Donald Trump, Nikki Haley, Ron DeSantis and Vivek Ramaswamy – were featured in CNN town halls this past year. Apparently Tapper’s outrage is selective.)

I spoke to these former Salon journalists across what was soon revealed to be a wide chasm. Although I still remember them fondly as young reporters, our views about Kennedy were obviously far apart and unshakeable. We didn’t want our conversations to descend into arguments. I felt sad afterwards, but I’m glad we at least had the dialogue. Even if it was mostly for old time’s sake.

I’m not naming either one because they asked me not to. One offered no explanation for this ground rule. The other said their editors would expect their comments to be included in a future article. OK. Whatever. I’ve given multiple interviews about my support for Kennedy and I’ve never asked fellow journalists for these restrictions on my comments. But when you go to work for the mainstream media, as we used to say at Salon, you have to be…careful.

(By the way, I’m using “they” and “them” to hide the two journalists’ gender identities.)

Both were adamant. The two find nothing “appealing” about Kennedy. (Both used the same word.) One admitted the Democratic alternative is no better.

“I can’t stand Biden,” they said. “I’m extremely open to an alternative. Here’s the thing, David, I don’t share your view of [Kennedy]. I know he’s smart, and incredibly well-read. He has context, history – all that stuff. But my impression of him – and I’m telling you from the bottom of my heart – he did not strike me as fit. That’s not to say that he’s not smart, and that’s not to say that his heart isn’t in it. I really believe that he’s in it with every fiber of his being. But I do not believe he would be a good steward.”

This journalist explained that they strongly disagreed with him on several issues. “For instance, he’s a hawk on Israel, which is crazy. And I know he’s not anti-vax, he’s about ‘vaccine safety.’ But fundamentally it’s dealing in bad science and bad history, the stuff around AIDS, the stuff about [Anthony] Fauci. You can have all sorts of valid critiques of how the pandemic was handled, but I think he’s dealing in bad science. I think he’s dealing in a lot of bad politics.”

The other one said they disagree with Kennedy about the war in Ukraine, which he would end diplomatically as president. “I think he’s incredibly glib and purposely naïve about Putin’s intentions. And I absolutely don’t want to see Americans betraying Ukrainians… I feel intense admiration for (the Ukrainian people’s) revolution.”

As progressives, they both agree with Kennedy that Washington regulatory agencies have been “captured” by the industries they’re supposed to oversee. But they don’t believe he knows how to drill down and reform government. They believe this despite the fact that Kennedy has tilted against corporate polluters throughout his career as a crusading environmental lawyer and has repeatedly said he knows who should run these federal agencies on behalf of the public good.

I told them I agree with a couple of their Kennedy critiques – such as his adamant support of Israeli policy, even as the Gaza crisis widens. But both of them made clear their opposition to Kennedy is virulent, even personal.

“This is one of the things I don’t like about Kennedy – the presentation of himself as an outsider,” one of the journalists said. “I get that he’s outside the political system – the Democratic Party doesn’t want him there, his own family doesn’t want him there. But I bridle a little bit about the presentation of a guy who’s always been at the center of various kinds of power – academic power, economic power, political power, Hollywood power, media power – describing himself as an outsider. In a country where the vast majority of people who need better representation are actual outsiders.”

Yes, I said, but Kennedy is an outsider when it comes to the political status quo – just like his father was in the 1968 presidential race. As Kennedy observed in a recent campaign ad, he had spent only $15 million on the current race by the end of last year, while Biden and Trump are projected to spend a staggering $2 billion each on their 2024 campaigns, about twice what they spent in 2020.

I added that it takes someone with RFK Jr.’s brand name and connections to win the White House, a next-to-impossible task for any outsider, even one named Kennedy.

“That to me is like saying Joe Biden is the best we’re going to get,” the journalist replied, which I didn’t think was a very good answer.

Both of them concluded that Kennedy’s rallies were dominated by ex-Trump supporters, Trump-as-second-choice voters, and a puzzling mix of Bernie-to-Trump-to-Bobby people. But that was not my experience when I attended Kennedy’s introduction of running mate Nicole Shanahan in Oakland, or that of other political reporters who’ve covered his campaign. We found many understandably-worried young people, disillusioned Democrats, and other disenfranchised members of what should be the progressive constituency.

At least the two journalists and I agreed that Bobby is no spoiler, as the DNC keeps blaring.

One thinks Kennedy is primarily hurting Trump, based on their own reporting. They don’t believe Kennedy is even a factor. “I would bet everything I have that Bobby Kennedy is never going to be president. I don’t find him inspiring in the least.”

The other insists they too are not kept up at night by the Kennedy factor. “I have an enormous amount of fear about November. And I have huge critiques of the way that the Democratic Party is run that have nothing to do with Bobby Kennedy,” this journalist said. “Whatever my criticisms of Bobby are, they don’t include feeling he shouldn’t be doing this. I’m curious about his campaign and why he’s running it, but I’m not a person who has ever said or argued that he shouldn’t be running. And I think it’s a fantasy that if he weren’t running, any of us would feel more secure about what’s going to happen in November.”

There you have it – the mainstream media wisdom about the Kennedy campaign, as conveyed by two former outsider journalists.

How would Salon cover the 2024 presidential race if it were still the scrappy, independent publication that I ran? Like the Kennedy campaign was a gift from heaven, because he alone is raising the vital issues in an otherwise somnolent rerun race enlivened only by Trump’s court appearances.

The truth is that after talking with my two former employees, I’m still confused. Why are mainstream newspapers, magazines and TV networks so passionately, so uniformly opposed to Kennedy? I guess you have to ask their owners for the full answers.

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