You Frickin’ Kidding Me?
He’s a Commie.
Is That Even Legal, a Communist President?”
There were a few changes in that same speech Bernie Sanders freely admits he’s been giving for the past four decades, give or take a j’accuse or two.
Beginning in 1981, when he was first elected as the democratic-socialist mayor of Burlington, a.k.a. “the People’s Republic of Burlington,” the only U.S. city then maintaining a pro–Nicaragua-Sandinista foreign policy, Bernie, as he is universally known there, often railed against “the ruling class.” These days, with the condition-red Republican hegemony hard upon the land, the 73-year-old U.S. senator has upped the ante, going with “the billionaire class.” Likewise, well-worn jeremiads against the Rockefellers, big oil, and the Bush neocon cabal have been replaced by broadsides decrying corporate media and the moneybag Koch brothers, Chuck and Dave, wielders of the Citizens United truncheon.
“The Koch brothers say, ‘Oh, you want to run for the Senate?’ ” Sanders thundered during a recent speech in New Hampshire, the early presidential-primary state where prospective candidate Sanders has been spending a good deal of time of late. “ ‘Okay,’ ” Sanders continued. “ ‘Here’s your hundred million dollars. Here’s your speech. … You’re not an elected official, you’re an employee.’ …Does their greed know any bounds?”
The question is rhetorical. Almost everything Bernie Sanders says, in his incongruous Brooklyn-deli-man accent that dates to his 1940s Flatbush upbringing, is rhetorical. Small talk and false ingratiations are not his thing.
Like a rabbinical Man in Black, a lone truth teller, Bernie fired the rat-a-tat of bone-chilling bullet points: how nearly 46 million Americans are now in poverty, “more than at any time in the history of our country”; how, “despite the modest gains of the Affordable Care Act,” some 40 million citizens still will likely have no health insurance. Did you know that the top 25 hedge-fund managers in the country make enough to pay the salaries of more than 425,000 public-school teachers? No? Well, it’s true, Sanders said. Is anything likely to change? Not really. As Bernie explained, “60 percent of the people don’t vote; 75 percent of low-income people don’t vote; 80 percent of people between 18 and 21 don’t vote.”
Like his fellow senator on the left, Elizabeth Warren, the white-haired Sanders is a reigning campus hero, but his testament brings only gloom to his audience at the University of New Hampshire auditorium. Could things really be that bad? Could the American experiment, the New Jerusalem of Thoreau and Emerson, have been reduced to this snarling, cobalt-hearted thing? What kind of country have we bequeathed to our children, the poor debt-ridden college students/suckers who filled much of the hall?
As for the upcoming 2016 election, what could a matchup of Hillary and Jeb Bush decide except who sat at the temporary head of the Illuminati table? Sanders is on record as saying he respects Hillary, that they became “friends” when she was First Lady and then a senator. But what difference could someone as connected to power as Hillary make in the present dire situation? “If you talk about the need for a political revolution in America, it’s fair to say that Secretary Clinton probably will not be one of the more active people,” Sanders has said.
It is at about this point in the Bernie Sanders speech that someone asks the Question. The query might come from a man with a graying ponytail, or a lady in a hand-knit sweater, the sort of people who regularly contribute $25 to $50 to Sanders, who won’t take money from major corporations. (He still has about $4.5 million left over from the $8 million he raised during the 2012 election cycle.) Or it could be asked by a student, an earnest, fresh-faced scholar looking into the abyss of an uncertain future. The fact is the Question is not quite a question at all. It is more of an entreaty, a plea.
Are you going to run for president? That’s what everyone wants to know.
At the UNH speech, the supplicant was a middle-aged registered nurse. “Will you do this for us?” she beseeches. “We’re begging you, Bernie. Save us. Please.”
At any given time there are but 100 individuals who can call themselves U.S. senators, and only one of them decorates his office with a large portrait of Eugene V. Debs, the five-time presidential candidate of the Socialist Party of America. Then again, there aren’t many states in the Union that would elect someone like Bernie Sanders to the Senate.
To know why we may soon be living in a however unlikely Bernie Sanders moment, it is useful to know Vermont, the state Sanders has represented in Congress for 24 years, the last eight as a senator. It is helpful to understand that long before Sam Houston and the loutish Lone Star State, before the “patriot” secessionists of Arizona, there was the Republic of Vermont, a sovereign nation with its own constitution. Signed in a tavern during a raging thunderstorm in 1777, the Vermont constitution forbade slavery and guaranteed suffrage to male non-landowners. In other words, it offered more freedom than the famous document promulgated by the vaunted U.S. Founding Fathers and ratified in 1789.
By the 20th century, Vermont had settled into a pious, flinty New Englander sort of pre-Goldwater Republicanism (tough on money, liberal on social issues). But these stately agronomic rhythms were well in flux by the time Bernie Sanders arrived for good during the tumultuous year of 1968.
“My hair was long, but not long for the times. I smoked marijuana, but was never part of the drug culture. That wasn’t me,” says Sanders as we sit together in his office on Church Street in Burlington, a pleasant burg of more than 40,000 and the largest settlement in the state.
Good luck prying anything personal beyond the basic bio from Sanders. He does, however, allow that his early life in Flatbush, where he grew up in a three-and-a-half-room apartment on East 26th Street and went to James Madison High School (Chuck Schumer also went there), bore little resemblance to the left-leaning intellectualism often associated with the New York Jew.
“My father was a worker,” Sanders says dispassionately. “He came here in 1917 without a penny, didn’t speak English, yet managed to send me and my brother to college. My mother wanted a house of our own, but he couldn’t provide that. I suspect they voted Democratic, but it wasn’t anything that was ever discussed.”
Sanders says it was only after leaving Brooklyn to attend the University of Chicago—and when the civil-rights movement hit—that he became politically aware. He began marching and protesting. In the mid-’60s, he lived on an Israeli kibbutz for six months.
When Sanders arrived in Vermont at age 27, it was among the whitest and most rural states in the country, as it still is today. He was one of thousands of “flatlanders” (what the “woodchuck” locals call out-of-staters) fleeing the “hassle” of New York and Boston. Sanders fell in love. This wasn’t Brooklyn. “In all the years I’ve been here, I’ve never once heard anyone loudly cursing in the grocery store.”
He did odd jobs and began to raise a family. In 1971, a friend invited him to a meeting of the then-fledgling leftist Liberty Union Party. Sanders remembers: “I stood up, said a few words. I can’t remember what. Two hours later, I was a candidate for the United States Senate.” He got in his $200 car and went out to campaign. “Here I was, running on this tiny party, with no money, but I was allowed to participate in the debates, I was on the radio, interviewed in the newspapers, actually taken seriously. Could you imagine that happening today?”
Sanders ran as an “unabashed socialist,” got 2 percent, kept at it, got 4. He did considerably better in the blue-collar areas of Burlington. Switching from the socialist Liberty Union Party to become an Independent, he ran for mayor and, in what became a nasty standoff between liberal flatlanders and old-line woodchucks, managed to beat the five-term incumbent Gordon Paquette by a count of 4,030 to 4,020.
Ben Cohen of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, another Brooklyn-born flatlander and Vermont icon, recalled the scene. “Our first store was in an old gas station. We wanted to show movies, but the city said no. We’d be competing with the theater. It was that old-boy cronyism, like playing a Betty Boop cartoon on a wall was going to wreck anyone’s business. When Bernie came in—his followers were called Sanderistas—things loosened up quite a bit.”
As the flatlanders kept coming, making Vermont into perhaps the bluest of blue states, Sanders became the beneficiary of a rare political calculus. Unlike almost every other modern pol, he hasn’t had to change with the times. The times came to him. After four terms as Burlington mayor, 16 years in the House, and eight years in the Senate (he was reelected in 2012 with a steamrolling 71 percent of the vote), Sanders says his views are “basically the same” as during his Liberty Union days.
In a way, he is the living embodiment of the ’60s credo “What goes around comes around,” because it is Sanders’s unchangingness that has landed him a bumper crop of press and appearances on national media like The Colbert Report. His message of equality in the face of massive inequality strikes many as an echo of a nearly forgotten yet more hopeful time. As another hippie phrase goes, “It’s so old it’s new.”
“You could say moving to Vermont was the best decision I ever made,” Sanders says. “What would have happened if I’d stayed in Brooklyn? How far could I have gotten? The State Assembly?”
Although he was admittedly no more than “a foot soldier” in the great movement battles of the ’60s, Sanders is the last pure man standing of his most political generation. The highly compromised examples of Bill Clinton, John Kerry, Jerry Brown, and even Jesse Jackson notwithstanding, he alone has been able to keep the outsider faith. Even though he votes with the Democratic Party more often than many actual Democrats, he is the longest-serving Independent member of Congress in the history of the country.
Sanders estimates he’s personally conversed with “a very high percentage” of the state’s 620,000-plus inhabitants. Everyone you meet can tell you of the time Sanders came into their store, addressed their town-hall meeting, or stepped out of character to play a garbageman in a Bread and Puppet Theater extravaganza up in Glover.
This doesn’t mean he is universally beloved. Stories abound about Sanders’s highhandedness, his sheer I-am-right-and-everyone-else-is-wrongness. You look for the Brooklyn in the man, a hint of the haimish, a few laughs to make the medicine go down, but find little. Even though many younger progressive pols in the state have worked for him, they approach him with wariness. “He’s the king, they owe him, they don’t want to cross him,” says one close observer. A commonly heard phrase is “Bernie Sanders is a man of the people who doesn’t particularly like people.”
Bernie might be a grump, but, as they say in the northern kingdom, “he’s our grump,” a durable brand. No one can say he’s not his own man. That’s what he’s got going for him as he trundles around the country with his decades-old speech, testing the waters for a long-shot presidential run. It could be that Warren is a better sell to those who feel disenfranchised by the soul-crush of money politics, but as of now she isn’t making the rounds for herself in Iowa and New Hampshire. So until someone else comes along, if you’re not crazy about the way things are going in this benighted land of ours, Bernie Sanders, grumpy grandpa, is your guy.
You know you’re in Vermont when you get off the plane and the first thing you see is a sign offering college students a chance to spend a semester abroad in Cuba. You know you’re in New Hampshire when your rental car bottoms out in a pothole 400 yards past the state line. Compared with the designer Eden west of the Connecticut River, things are a little scrabbly here in the “Live Free or Die” state. Maybe it’s that no-state-income-tax that keeps the roads so crappy, but everywhere was the hand of man: stilled factories, giant malls, and all.
Much of the anti-Sanders rhetoric in Vermont comes from the left, often from old comrades dating to the pre-mayoral days who consider “Bernardo” a sellout. He’s been lambasted over his rapprochement with upstate gun owners and his relatively moderate commentary on Israeli-Palestinian relations (he’s for a two-state solution, but the topic only makes him groan). There was widespread criticism, even from people like Ben Cohen, over Sanders’s support for basing Lockheed’s F-35 jets at the Burlington airport. But that’s Vermont. New Hampshire is a place more in tune with the prevailing American norm.
“Bernie Sanders for president? You frickin’ kidding me? He’s a commie. Is that even legal, a communist president?” says a man named Tom, sloshing back a margarita, watching Thursday-night football at Cactus Jack’s in Manchester, New Hampshire’s largest city and the home of the Union-Leader, the right-leaning newspaper (Hunter S. Thompson called it “America’s worst newspaper”) that plays a large role in the New Hampshire primary process.
“The rich get richer, the poor get poorer, everyone else gets fucked,” says one of Tom’s buddies who identified himself as “a dues-paying member” of the pipe-fitters union. “Things suck, I get it. I just don’t want to be yelled at by some socialist.”
I bring this up with Sanders. Is there something in the national DNA that words like socialism cause such seemingly instinctive abhorrence?
It has nothing to do with socialism, Sanders counters. It is all the fault of the Koch brothers and the media. The entire popular culture is a vast mind-control program.
“People care more about Tom Brady’s arm than they do about our disastrous trade policy, NAFTA, CAFTA, the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs. ISIS and Ebola are serious issues, but what they really don’t want you to think about is what’s happened to the American middle class.”
The excessive cost of higher education and the burden of “Mafialike,” shortsighted student loans are other staples of Bernie’s never-ending speech. He never fails to hit the note in his voluminous web presence, which is the pride and joy of his bare-bones staff, making sure that prospective younger voters know that, even if Sanders reminds them of their lovable-curmudgeon grandpa, he’s got a big and beefy Twitter feed. “Once America ranked No. 1 in turning out college graduates. Now we are 12th,” Sanders regularly tells his overflowing campus crowds.
When speaking to students, Bernie often stops mid-speech to ask “How much does it cost a year to go here?” At Plymouth State, a properly disgruntled computer major derisively shouted out, “$22,000.”
“Twenty-two thousand!” Sanders replied. “That’s a lot of money. A working family can have a hard time coming up with that.”
It’s at that point that Bernie, who paid nothing like that for his one year at Brooklyn College, unveils his belief that all colleges should be free. Predictably, the proposal gets a big cheer.
Another college appearance, this one within the Ivy League halls of Dartmouth, offered an opportunity for some old-time class analysis. With the room awash with fist-bumping Bernie energy, Sanders asked his “how much” question. Someone answered, almost apologetically, “$65,000, maybe 70.”
The number—it’s actually $62,000—seemed to stop even Bernie in his tracks. That was really a lot of money.
Then again, this is the alma mater of Nelson Rockefeller. Over in the stately Baker-Berry Library, with its 200-foot bell tower, was the renowned “Black Dan” portrait of the young Dartmouth man Daniel Webster, Sanders’s fellow senator and leading Federalist enemy of the American populism that would come to be known as “Jacksonian democracy.” Dartmouth’s endowment currently stood at $4.5 billion, returning 19.2 percent in the fiscal year that ended on June 30. Even at $248,000 for a four-year degree, it is unlikely that many of the students here will leave school in the condition Sanders sometimes calls “indentured servitude.” Here was the Establishment Sanders rails against.
But what could you do? There’s only so much power anyone, Bernie Sanders very much included, could challenge in America. Besides, the speech is the speech. Sanders pronounced himself happy with the turnout and the enthusiasm of the students’ response.
In 1987, while still mayor of Burlington, Sanders made a record of ’60s folk anthems, his booming Flatbush-ese plowing through such movement favorites as “We Shall Overcome” and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” Asked why he did such a thing, Sanders says, “It appealed to my ego.” Nonetheless, Bernie is not known for letting his hair down. “The guy works 100 hours a week. Maybe he hit a golf ball at the driving range once or twice. That’s his fun for the year,” says a former political associate. Likewise, when Congress is in session, Sanders prefers to eat in the cafeteria of the Dirksen Senate Office Building, carrying a tray like back at James Madison High School. So it was a bit of an occasion, the famously frugal Bernie stopping for lunch at the well-appointed Hanover Inn.
“What’s this fennel?” Sanders inquires as he points to the Crossroads Farm roasted-tomato-and-fennel soup on the menu. It was kind of amusing: The senator from an artisanal hot spot like Vermont not knowing what fennel was. “Is it a seed? Is it an herb?”
“It has a tangy yet understated licorice flavor,” says the somewhat nonplussed server.
“Licorice? Like an old penny candy?” Sanders asks, deciding to order it.
Soon we are discussing a major question in the would-be Bernie campaign: Would he run on a third-party ticket or as a Democrat? The choice seems obvious. Not even Ross Perot could afford to launch a meaningful third-party national campaign these days. Beyond that, you risk what Sanders calls “the Ralph Nader dilemma.”
If there’s one thing that really bugs Bernie, it is the specter of Nader, who earlier this year sent a bizarre “open letter” to the Burlington Free Press whining about how Sanders won’t return his calls. Discounting the argument that the two-party system might be a big part of the status quo he so deplores, Sanders slaps down his soup spoon.
“Do you remember Florida?” Sanders half-shouts. “I won’t play the spoiler.”
Besides, being a Democrat gets you onto the primary stage with Hillary Clinton, a prospect that figures to keep political analysts palavering long into the night. The issue is how much Bernie can tap into what he calls “the profound anger” that has pervaded the nation from the tea party to Occupy, and how much that anger will play into the campaign narrative. Bernie could push Clinton to move left. Who knows, he could get hot. If Herman Cain could get hot, even for a moment, why not Sanders? He is already beginning to connect the mass protests following the Eric Garner and Michael Brown killings with his core economic-fairness issues.
If one thing is for certain, Bernie Sanders, for all his seeming marginality, is as savvy and hard-nosed a politician as you’ll find. He couldn’t have come through those early face-offs with the 100 would-be Bernies back in Burlington without a high percentage of cold-bloodedness. He’s a lone wolf, but won’t be caught howling at the moon like the last Vermonter to mount the big stage, Howard Dean.
Indeed, you felt you were beginning to root for him. It was the speech that won you over, that same old speech. It was the part about his father, “the worker,” who couldn’t earn enough to buy his wife the house she wanted yet still managed to raise a son who became a U.S. senator. “My father had a deep love for this country; he believed in it,” Sanders says.
Running was a matter of patriotism, Sanders says. He’ll be 75 in 2016. He has seven grandchildren. True, he’d been lucky, but America has worked for him, big time. Even now, the Republican takeover of the Senate was working in his favor. He lost his treasured chairmanship at Veteran Affairs, but seniority has landed him as the ranking minority member of the Budget Committee. Sanders called it “a bully pulpit” from which to push his anti-megacapital agenda. In Iowa in December, he was using his new position to buttress a call for the breakup of the big Wall Street banks.
Sanders is fond of saying that “anyone who wakes up in the morning with a burning desire to be the president of the United States is a little bit crazy.” (He says it to every reporter asking about a presidential run.) Still, it is worth asking what a Bernie administration might be like.
The question gives the senator pause. It isn’t part of the speech, not yet at least. But then it comes to him in a great, stirring flash.
“This is how it is going to be,” Bernie says, as if he were still in his $200 car, back in the Liberty Union days. “Suppose you want to raise the minimum wage to a fair level and know that change is not going to come from inside Washington. Not in this climate. So, as president, I’d invite millions of low-income workers to come to the capitol. Like a bonus march. I’d do the same thing about making college affordable. Put out the call, invite a million students. Make sure they’re all registered to vote. Then when these congressmen come by the White House and they’re beholden to the Koch brothers, the super-PACs, or the oil companies, I will say, ‘Do what you want, but first do one thing for me: Look out the window.’ ”
“Look out the window,” Bernie repeats, liking the sound of it, the call to arms, just the sort of phrase that might get the attention of a downtrodden, detached electorate and prompt them to raise a fist in the air.
“Look out the window. Because all those people are out there. They’re demanding their fair share and they’re not leaving until they get it.”
*This article appears in the December 29, 2014 issue of New York Magazine.