BY ED RAMPELL
Robert F. Kennedy Jr., son/nephew of a political dynasty and current candidate for president running in the Democratic Party primaries, is widely portrayed by the press as a kooky conspiracy theorist. But he has scored as high as 20% in the polls. Is Bobby Jr. being accurately represented or a serious competitor to Joe Biden for the Democrats’ nomination, who is being maligned and misrepresented? To find out for myself, I attended a press conference/campaign rally for the presidential contender on August 3 at the Saban Theatre in Beverly Hills.
High Profile Political Journeys
The almost two-hour event focused on one topic: The so-called border crisis, which, if he’s elected president, Kennedy Jr. promised “will be one of my highest priorities.” The 874-seat Saban Theatre is only 4.4 miles from where the candidate’s father, RFK Sr., was shot at Los Angeles’ Ambassador Hotel 55 years ago, as Bob Jimenez, who introduced RFK Jr. referenced, identifying himself as an eyewitness of the assassination, plus as a 78-year-old Latino Vietnam War veteran and former NBC correspondent. (Rather despicably, Bobby Jr. himself has been denied Secret Service protection during his race for the presidency; members of the press were subjected to metal detectors and bag checks before gaining admittance into the Saban.) But before Kennedy Jr. addressed his enthusiastic supporters sitting in the front of the Saban with news media relegated to the theater’s rear, the 19-minute film Midnight at the Border was screened.
In this short the presidential aspirant seems to be (literally) following in the footsteps of his father, who made well-documented trips as a U.S. Senator. In February 1968, a month prior to tossing his hat into the ring, RFK Sr. made a two-day trip to one of America’s poorest pockets located in Eastern Kentucky, which had 20 of the nation’s 30 poorest counties.
Less than a month later, the youthful junior senator from New York made another excursion far from the Empire State that was extensively covered by the media. On March 10, Cesar Chavez ended his 25-day fast to draw attention to the grape boycott when the United Farm Workers leader accepted bread from RFK Sr. at Delano, CA. Less than a week later, Bobby Kennedy Sr. announced his candidacy for president on March 16, 1968 at the Senate Caucus Room, where his older brother, John F. Kennedy, had announced he was running for president in January 1960.
The media savvy Bobby Jr.’s Midnight at the Border shares much in common with his father’s travels. While I don’t believe that RFK Sr. commissioned filmmakers to shoot a campaign piece as RFK Jr. appears to have done with Midnight, his dad’s trips to Appalachia and Delano received lots of press coverage. But despite the similarities between the image conscious, frequent flyer father and son, there is a glaring difference. While Senator Kennedy’s forays expressed sympathy with the poor and downtrodden, Bobby Jr.’s trip to Yuma has resulted in his campaign promise to shut the southern border to economic migrants seeking a better life in the USA, as well as to most applicants for political asylum.
“Midnight” for Migrants
Co-made by documentarian Robert Campos, Midnight at the Border chronicles RFK Jr.’s trip last June to Yuma at the Arizona-Mexico border to take a firsthand look at the border situation. He starts in the dead of night, emerging in a pair of jeans out of a black SUV near the border where he’s met by Jonathan Lines, Arizona Supervisor District 2, a former chairman of the Arizona Republican Party. They drive to a stretch of the border wall, where most of the migrants appear to be from Africa and Asia, places like Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Georgia, Bangladesh, Senegal – not primarily from Latin America. Bobby Jr. notes, “Of all these people only one said he is here for asylum. The rest said they are here for work, for better lives.”
RFK Jr. meets with Chris Clem, retired Chief Border Patrol Agent, who defends Trump’s “wall system” that included steel, sensors, etc., but laments it was put on hold when Biden became president, leaving gaps in the wall. Kennedy Jr. goes on to point out millions of dollars-worth of infrastructure, such as steel girders, that have languished since the advent of the Biden administration, which purchased steel fencing (that also seems to lie idle) that unlike the Trump material, doesn’t have underground foundations to prevent tunneling. Lines says the Trump- provided surveillance cameras are inactive. Onscreen figures claim Yuma border crossings rose from 68,269 in 2019 to 114,000 in 2021 and 310,000 in 2022.
Kennedy Jr. refers to “This dystopian nightmare of this uncontrolled flow of desperate humanity” and after visiting the border, the descendent of Irish immigrants concludes “the open border policy is just a way of funding a multi-billion-dollar drug and human trafficking operation for the Mexican drug cartels. When I’m president I’ll secure the borders… and I’ll build wide doors for those who wish to enter legally so the U.S. can remain a beacon to the world…”
“Those Immigrants Shouldn’t Be Allowed into the Country”
After the film ends, looking fit in a grey suit, white shirt and tie, Kennedy Jr. takes the Saban’s stage to elaborate on his immigration policy, assuring voters that he’s not trying to “stir up xenophobia” and he “comes to the issue with a perspective of compassion, humanitarianism and just common sense.”
Speaking confidently into a microphone with his trademark raspy voice, the 69-year-old states: “A country can’t exist if it can’t secure its borders… We need to close them… This assault on the local community. People told us they wouldn’t let their children out during the daytime… because they were afraid of these strangers running across their yard fleeing from the Border Patrol… The director of the local hospital told me that they had lost $27 million the previous year in unreimbursed expenses caring for migrants… [A local Yuma expectant mother] couldn’t get in because of 35 immigrant mothers who had filled up the maternity ward… This is now happening in communities across our country.”
Kennedy Jr. goes on to say that America has outsourced managing its borders to the Mexican cartels, who he accuses of child sex trafficking and selling fentanyl. Citing the New York Times, the candidate insists: “The tsunami of new immigrants, 90,000 people, were crushing the social service system in New York City… Bloomberg carried an article saying how officials in New York were… considering turning Central Park into an open migrant camp.”
Contending that there are up to 16 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. today, RFK Jr. stated that “there’s no way they can legally work in this country” and “will impact the price of labor and wages of labor for every other working American. They’re being paid $5, $6 per hour by unscrupulous employers.” Stressing how close his father and later he was to the UFW’s leader, Bobby Jr. says, “Cesar Chavez was… probably the lead champion for closed borders because he knew American farmworkers could not make any gains in terms of their wages and benefits… if there was an endless supply of new undocumented workers coming across the border who lacked the bargaining power” vis-à-vis employers, who could always turn them in to be deported.
Continuing his new stump speech, Kennedy Jr. says, “I was against Trump’s wall. I thought it was a crazy idea… I don’t think we do need a wall for 2,200 miles… but we need something. A lot of that technology was in place. We had towers… cameras, videos, lights, ground sensors, motion detectors. We can protect our borders, we have the technological capacity… We need the political will power and the personnel… We need to restore those [physical] barriers…” in urban areas along the border, and deploy the forementioned technology in rural regions.
“We need to be able to process legal asylum seekers. The one category that comes across the border undocumented [that is eligible for legal U.S. residency] are people who are fearing, who are fleeing political persecution… We have the methodology for processing those claims… We used to process them at the border. Only 15% of them are adjudicated as legitimate, the rest of them… [were] turned away.”
During the ensuing news conference in response to a question about “Afghans being denied at the border,” Kennedy Jr. adds: “We have a law in this country that says if you are being politically persecuted and you are fleeing political persecution abroad you are entitled to stay in the United States of America. That’s the law… As President, I will appoint immediately enough judges for those cases… to be fairly adjudicated at the border swiftly and let the people who are actually fleeing persecution into this country as soon as possible.”
Sounding tough on economic migrants, RFK Jr. asserts: “Only two families we saw that night said they were fleeing political persecution. The rest told us openly they were coming for money, for a better life. Those immigrants shouldn’t be allowed into the country. We should stop that at the border… We don’t have enough immigration judges… to process the claims… The people who do not have legitimate asylum claims should not be allowed in, allowed to cross.”
RFK Jr. asserted that he went south to the border to find out for himself about the situation there. However, his mission to Yuma as recorded onscreen is one-sided – while the self-proclaimed “Kennedy Democrat” interviews Republican and Border Patrol sources in Midnight, he never questions open borders advocates and pro-migrant activists for his commissioned campaign video that presenter Jimenez ballyhooed as “a magnificent masterpiece,” as if it’s Citizen Kane.
Meet the (Alternative) Press
After speaking for 20 minutes at the Saban, which was about two thirds full, the floor was opened for questions from reporters. In terms of news coverage, I didn’t notice any members of mainstream media present, nor did I see/hear/read any subsequent MSM reports (although I didn’t make an exhaustive search). Most of the press covering the event and who asked questions were alternative, independent journalists, of which the most prominent was probably Pacific Radio, in the form of KPFK’s “Rebel Alliance News.” (The day of the event, Breitbart.com posted Midnight at the Border and when the Kennedy Jr. campaign posted a video of the short and the candidate’s appearance at the Saban, the chat accompanying it included comments such as: “Need to go after Soros…”, “Trump was demonized.”)
Speaking into a microphone, I asked two questions. The first was whether the candidate had ever seen Winter Kills, a 1979 film starring Jeff Bridges that aired the previous night on Turner Classic Movies, and if so, what he thought about it? As Kennedy Jr. said he’d never seen the movie – which 12 years before Oliver Stone’s JFK, is a satire about the assassination of “President Kegan” and covert political intrigue, based on a novel by Richard Condon, who’d also written The Manchurian Candidate – I moved on to my main question:
“It seems… you’re making border issues and migration a cornerstone of your campaign which, in some ways, is similar to what Trump did in 2016. Rumors have been bandied about in media that you may end up running on a ticket with Donald Trump as his vice president. What is your response to those rumors? And do you definitively say you will never run on a ticket for the White House with Donald Trump?”
RFK Jr. responded: “I experience a lot of the stuff repeated in the mainstream news, the corporate news, as what I’d call ‘conspiracy theories.’” At this, the candidate’s supporters burst out laughing and applauded, given that Kennedy Jr. is widely derided by MSM as a fringe figure spouting controversial hypotheses about vaccines and more. He continued: “There’s an entire industry made up of conspiracy theorists and a direct answer to your question: No, I will not be Donald Trump’s vice president.” The contender did not go on to comment on the fact that at that precise moment, across the continent, the ex-prez was en route to a Washington, D.C. courthouse to be federally indicted for attempting to overturn the 2020 election.
After the next reporter’s inquiry at the press conference, Bobby Jr. returned to my query saying: “Let me… add an addendum to the previous question, the previous questioner started out with an observation that I – that the border was some sort of Trump issue… It should not be a partisan issue. [Applause.] …I went down to the border feeling that Trump made a mistake on the wall. But people need to be able to recalibrate their worldview when they’re confronted with evidence… When I’m president what I’m going to do is bring in Republicans and Democrats, get the best Republican ideas and the best Democratic ideas and put everything on the table… [more applause] and avoid the ideological pettiness that has been so damaging to our country. What we’re seeing on the border today is the outcome of that… and not branding Republican issue or Democrat issue, just say let’s deal with this, it’s an existential threat to our country…”
During the almost two-hour border-centered event Kennedy Jr. didn’t discuss the causes of immigration until prompted to by Craig “Pasta” Jardula, co-host of @theconvocouch, asking: “According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, 87% of migrants… are still coming from Latin America. Why? Because U.S. foreign policy has over 80 bases in Latin America… funding death squads… Why is there so much attention paid to what’s happening at the border instead of looking at the cause of migration, which is U.S. foreign policy? …And the cartels are run by the CIA…”
RFK Jr. delivered a lengthy response: “Something I’ve been very outspoken about is we need to take responsibility… for a foreign policy that has supported death squads in Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua for many years and has supported military juntas… that has punished political leaders in those countries… when they tried to initiate land reforms, education reforms… that will empower the poor… We should be encouraging those policies; my uncle [JFK] understood that… changed support for those violent dictators to support instead for the Alliance for Progress and USAID program before it became a CIA front… You don’t need to put bases in their country to ensure their friendship… All it’s doing is bankrupting the middle class in this country.” During the press conference, RFK Jr. lamented the decline of the middle class and called for “ending the war economy, which is draining our country, the closure of these bases around the world and bring that money home.”
(At a 1961 OAS conference, Che Guevara “denounced the Alliance for Progress as a vehicle designed to separate the people of Cuba from the other peoples of Latin America, to sterilize the example of the Cuban Revolution, and then to subdue the other peoples according to imperialism’s instructions…” Guevara later wrote in an essay posthumously published in 1968, “the projects of the Alliance for Progress are nothing more than imperialist attempts to block the development of the revolutionary conditions of the people by sharing a small quantity of the profits with the native exploiting classes, thus making them into firm allies against the highly exploited classes.”)
After the press conference I spotted Dennis Kucinich, RFK Jr.’s campaign manager, and asked him if he’d care to comment on the federal indictments of Trump, happening that very afternoon. Kucinich, who had carefully cultivated an image as a fighting liberal, said “No,” and turned away. Genuinely surprised, I asked him why he wouldn’t comment, and he said, “Because that’s my answer.” But I shouldn’t have been surprised; Kucinich was a mayor, congressman, presidential candidate and is now managing the campaign of a White House hopeful. In other words, he’s a politician, now supporting a contender who is a scion of the ruling class, running on a curious mixture of right and left.
Ed Rampell was named after legendary CBS broadcaster Edward R. Murrow because of his TV exposes of Senator Joe McCarthy. Rampell majored in Cinema at Manhattan’s Hunter College and is an L.A.-based film historian/critic who co-organized the 2017 70th anniversary Blacklist remembrance at the Writers Guild theater in Beverly Hills and was a moderator at 2019’s “Blacklist Exiles in Mexico” filmfest and conference at the San Francisco Art Institute. Rampell co-presented “The Hollywood Ten at 75” film series at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures and is the author of Progressive Hollywood, A People’s Film History of the United States and co-author of The Hawaii Movie and Television Book.