The mainstream media called him “ruthless” and an “opportunist.” He was “divisive” for challenging a sitting Democratic president and risked turning over the White House to a dangerous Republican. He was bitterly opposed by the Democratic Party establishment. Nearly all of the major elected officials in his party lined up behind the incumbent president. His presidential campaign “bordered on treason” for criticizing the administration’s war policy. In fact, the very first question from the crowd of reporters after his presidential announcement was whether he would accept the endorsement of Gus Hall, the leader of the Communist Party in the U.S.

He was “controversial,” nothing like other members of his legendary family. He crusaded against corporate power and polluters. He angered the liberal elite by advocating for policies considered conservative and not politically correct. He was not called “conspiracy-obsessed,” but he could’ve been. He was the first prominent official in the country to investigate the assassination of President Kennedy (very quietly), suspecting CIA involvement in the crime and planning to reopen the case if he made it to the White House. In a way, you could say he was the first JFK conspiracy theorist.

Nowadays, Robert F. Kennedy is widely revered as a political saint, a man who sacrificed his life in the 1968 presidential campaign to heal the deep wounds of the nation. President Biden displays a bust of him in the Oval Office. On the 50th anniversary of RFK’s assassination, The Hill, one of the voices of conventional wisdom in the nation’s capital, trumpeted that “Bobby Kennedy personified America’s better angels.” The Century, a leading establishment think tank, used the occasion to herald Bobby’s “inclusive populism.” In a pointed rebuttal of President Trump, the Century noted that RFK appealed to working-class whites without alienating racial minorities.

But when Senator Kennedy announced his presidential candidacy on March 16, 1968, the official Democratic reaction,and that of the corporate press, was withering. RFK was challenging not only President Lyndon Johnson, who had sunk his own War on Poverty by siphoning off billions to pay for the disastrous war in Vietnam. Kennedy was also taking on Senator Eugene McCarthy, whose own dissident campaign had nearly upset LBJ in the New Hampshire primary just four days earlier. McCarthy’s campaign was widely regarded as doomed but noble—the type of losing cause that wins the hearts of liberals. Kennedy’s was a different story—a potential game changer. And, thus, a threat to the political status quo.

After RFK jumped into the 1968 race, liberal journalist Murray Kempton sent an acidic telegram to Senator Ted Kennedy, saying, “Your brother’s announcement makes clear that St. Patrick did not drive out all of the snakes from Ireland.” West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd—a Democratic power player despite his racist views—acknowledged the popularity of JFK within the party, but dismissed Bobby. “(We) don’t like him,” Byrd flatly said.

“Virtually all the liberal media from the New York Times to the Village Voice opposed my father’s candidacy,” notes Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who says his father was dubbed “Ho Chi Kennedy for his opposition to the Vietnam war. In death, those same outlets deified him.”  

These days, it’s the son’s turn. The Democratic National Committee denies RFK Jr. the right to debate Biden, even though the majority of the party’s rank and file yearn for such a debate and worry about the president’s reelection chances. Biden administration officials reject Kennedy’s request for Secret Service protection, despite his high ranking in polls and obvious security concerns. Democratic representatives try to shut up RFK Jr. at a censorship hearing. The corporate media smears him every day and social media giants oust him from their platforms.

Free speech is a cornerstone of our democracy, RFK Jr. has emphasized. But it’s being erased by the Biden government, Republican demagogues and media corporations that care only about profits.

By the end of the 1968 campaign, the press pack began to soften toward Bobby Kennedy. They saw there was nothing “ruthless” about the way he touched people, and the hungry way they rushed to him, hoping to be saved, hoping for national redemption. They wanted him to complete his brother’s mission for peace and justice. They wanted to be proud of America again.

Pete Hamill was one of those reporters who became a Bobby believer. Hamill, a tough, hard-drinking New Yorker, encouraged Kennedy to run for the White House. He’d seen how the New York senator had become the tribune of the nation’s poor and forgotten, of young people hoping for peace. He wrote Kennedy a letter saying “the country might be saved” by his candidacy. Hamill even helped write some speeches for Bobby’s campaign—that was the kind of line that RFK inspired some journalists to cross.

I don’t expect the media scrum covering RFK Jr.’s campaign to become his advocates. That would be unethical. But I expect these reporters to be fair, to actually listen to what Kennedy and his supporters are saying. Not to repeat the same lies and distortions and gotcha’s that get repeated in every article, in every broadcast.

There’s a reason that Bobby Jr. is connecting with so many Americans. It’s why his father also became popular, even winning over cynical reporters. He spoke the truth.

Research assistance by Karen Croft and Margot Williams