When I lived in Brooklyn back in the 90’s my wife and I would get fundraising letters from this old Jewish guy in Vermont. Bernie Sanders the socialist. He was fighting the good fight: equal rights for all people, gay, straight, male, female, black, white. He wanted economic justice and sensible gun legislation. He was running for a House seat in Vermont and yet he was sending fundraising appeals to me in New York City. Somehow this guy knew his audience. And not yet having taken on the bottomless financial pit of parenthood, I was happy to send him a few bucks. After all, the great Bill Clinton was busy giving away the store to any Wall Street capitalist that was willing to do his laundry. The line ran out the door and around the Rose Garden. Bernie Sanders? Sure. Who knows, maybe we’ll move to Vermont some day.
In the following years Bernie would pop up on my radar every now and then, usually on C-Span haranguing some smart-ass power broker. A neatly coiffed banker-lawyer, sitting before a congressional subcommittee expecting the usual puffballs but instead finding himself taken to task by some 60’s radical like a bad recurring dream. The rich toad who told his family and friends to watch him eat congressmen for lunch on cable TV was now fiddling with his Rolex and glancing nervously at his counsel while frumpy red-faced Sanders shuffled papers and wagged that finger. Go Bernie!
And then, lo and behold, we did move to Vermont. Well, sort of. We couldn’t resist a little New Hampshire town just across the river. But we were in Vermont every day, dropping our kid at daycare, working a job, visiting friends and looking for a reprieve from the Granite State of mind–that unfortunately selfish blend of libertarian pride and tight-lipped New England smugness.
And when you spend any amount of time living in Vermont, you’re going to run into Bernie. For me it was on a Sunday afternoon at a Race For The Cure event in Manchester. I was cooling my jets under a big empty tent fondling swag and looking for free power bars when this frail-looking old guy ambled up and said, in that now unmistakable voice, Hi, I’m Bernie Sanders I’m running for the U.S. Senate. I said, Hi, nice to meet you, unfortunately I live in New Hampshire otherwise I’d probably vote for you. (His hand was really warm but I felt if I shook it too hard his arm might come right off.)
Neither of us seemed to be interested in small talk, so after he mumbled some thanks to me for coming over from New Hampshire to help raise cancer research money, we sort of drifted away from each other. He seemed a little lost. The crowd he was looking for was over by the finish area so he ambled in that direction a bit reluctant.
Vermonters have a way of not getting too excited about politicians, or anybody else for that matter. It’s not that they don’t get excited about stuff, it’s just that they don’t put people up on pedestals and they don’t have any patience for self-aggrandizement. Okay, you’re running for office, what are you gonna do about the old copper mine that’s now a super fund site? I think Act 46 is a disaster, what do you think? If you’re a politician in Vermont, you better be ready to answer some pretty pointed questions. They’re a tough crowd. The typical promise-making jaw-boner just doesn’t make it in Vermont. To win over Vermonters you’ve got to be real, and you’ve got to have something real to offer. Bernie won 86% of the vote in the Presidential primary in Vermont. Enough said.
My encounter with him on that Sunday afternoon in Manchester was some ten years before Bernie would become a national phenomenon. From mayor of Burlington to the House of Representatives to Senator, he continued his work, justifiably outraged by the continued rightward movement of the nation’s politics–one of a few lonely progressive voices in the steaming money pit of Washington D.C.
When he announced his candidacy I was pleased because I thought his ideas might get a little national air time. Perhaps the rest of the country would get a glimpse of the progressive reality that is Vermont. Hillary Clinton and her juggernaut certainly needed some opposition and maybe with Bernie yapping at her heels others might be encouraged to enter the race. Like most people in America, I don’t really like Hillary Clinton. It’s just a feeling I have about people who have a different idea of the truth than I do.
Even though I follow politics like most men follow sports teams, I told myself to try to ignore the presidential campaign as much as possible. The whole thing looked depressing from the start. Obama had done a better job than any President in my lifetime and done it with class. I was sad that he was on his way out. All we had to look forward to was a bunch of right wing nutcases and a centrist former Goldwater Girl. More and more I was embarrassed to call myself a Democrat.
And then I noticed something happening on Facebook. Videos of Bernie’s harangues started floating around. There appeared to be some excitement about his candidacy. But it was Facebook after all. The great cultural echo chamber. I told myself the algorithm was playing tricks on me. Bernie was a socialist for god’s sake. People outside of Vermont weren’t going to take him seriously.
And then I saw an early video put out by his campaign. Free tuition to public colleges, single-payer healthcare, an end to fossil fuels, campaigns without Super PACs. It was like listening to a checklist of hope. And whoever had produced the damn thing was a genius. It didn’t look expensive but it didn’t look sloppy or hokey either. It looked real. It was artful. And the next thing I knew I had a lump in my throat. Oh boy, here we go, I thought. So much for staying away from the presidential campaign circus.
I started watching Bernie’s rise with an air of disbelief. Was this really happening? It made sense in the climate of a weak economy and Washington’s terrible disconnect with the reality of the shrinking middle-class. Bernie was speaking directly to people like me. People who knew the future was not bright in America given the current system. People who were losing hope that it could ever get better but knew change was possible if Washington would just wake up and do the right thing, or if a respectable leader would take the baton from Barack.
Bernie was speaking like he meant what he said. And he could say what he wanted. With his pledge of collecting from small donors, he didn’t have to worry about pleasing the big money.
The narrative of Bernie as a consistent fighter for civil rights and economic justice I knew was true. But I was still looking for some reason not to get excited about the possibility of him in the executive office. The last time I threw any weight behind a candidate it was for lyin’ John Edwards. I didn’t want to get burned again.
Even if Bernie was a little scant on details for his proposals, my research found that he did have a great track record as Mayor of Burlington. He was respected by people from both the right and the left for his time in office and he’s credited with helping to make Burlington the pleasant city it’s become.
OK, he may not be an intellectual giant but he can get things done. He can work with people he doesn’t always see eye to eye with. He’s practical. The New Hampshire primary was getting close. I sent him some money.
Presidential campaigns in New Hampshire are not like anywhere else. When the season comes you kind of sit around waiting for one of the candidates to show up in your town. You get to snicker at their attempts to show off knowledge of local issues and if you put in the slightest effort you can actually meet them and ask them questions. For me it’s consolation for life in the Granite State characterized by long winters, too many white people, and the right wing nut jobs that find their way into the State Legislature. New Hampshire people respond differently to politicians than Vermonters. We DO get excited about them. After all there’s a chance we’re one of them. New Hampshire has only 1.3 million people and one of the largest house of representatives in the western world. 400 people. The towns have select boards with as many commissions as they deem necessary. If you live here long enough you’ll likely hold some kind of political office.
And unlike Vermonters, we in New Hampshire get to feeling pretty important about ourselves around presidential election time. We love the media attention and the drama. We like being courted like old maids at the contradance. We start writing letters to the editor and putting signs in our yards. We debate with our friends and neighbors and pat ourselves on the back for our civility. After all, we’ve picked presidents for over 200 years. There’s something special about us. Isn’t there?
As winter approached, Bernie’s campaign was getting real traction. Canvassers started showing up regularly in the form of middle-aged and retired mothers, belying the media claims of gen Xers and Bernie Bros.
In January I went to see him speak at Dartmouth College, 10 miles from my tiny town. I was shocked at the numbers. I’d never seen so many people trying to get into the Hopkins Center for any event, never mind a political candidate. Weird. There were people of all ages and all walks of life. Usually the political rallies in Hanover are a smattering of privileged white college students and rich retired Dartmouth alums. This was a swarming mass of diversity. There was a real buzz in the air, as if maybe there really is a future to believe in and we’re all part of it.
It was a true festival atmosphere that night at the Hopkins Center. People had driven for hours to get there. The line snaked through the hallways doubling back on itself and then out through the doors into the frigid night and around the building. I started thinking I might not even get into the auditorium. The people around me in line were friendly and funny. We all were bemused by our own enthusiasm. We all seemed to fit, from the aging hippies to the farmer with the camouflage coat and John Deere cap. The resident physician to the studio art undergrad. Suddenly homogeneous New Hampshire was looking hip and varied.
Campaign volunteers were working the crowd looking for more recruits but there were no hard sells and a lot of congenial laughter. Eventually a staffer came along the line announcing that the hall was full but we could watch on a video screen in an overflow theater. Nobody walked away. We all headed for the overflow and the buzz continued in that room until all of a sudden Bernie himself walked out onto the stage. The crowd erupted in cheers and jumped to their feet. I was near the front and I could sense both his appreciation and his impatience with the attention. He had become a veritable rock star. I felt a little scared for him.
He quieted us down and began speaking in a serious tone–not his campaign shout, but in soft-spoken concerned cadences. He laid out the problems facing us and what he thought was needed to set our country on the right track. All the festive buzz had suddenly turned to quiet seriousness. It felt like a pep talk before the clash of armies and he was bringing us all together; we were being called to be part of something big. He thanked us and apologized for our being in the overflow. But after his special appearance, we felt we were the winners that night. The last shall be first.
After that evening at the Hopkins Center I started to believe in the possibility of Bernie winning over the nation. I didn’t think he was the answer to all our prayers. I accepted that a Sanders presidency would be full of uncertainty. It might be messy and contentious. There would be missteps. But I was convinced that if enough people heard the message, they would agree that he was worth the chance and the groundswell could change the balance of power in Washington.
As the primary season wore on he proved to be a contender. Yet he was never taken completely seriously by the media. They didn’t know how to deal with him. He was so far out of what has become the narrative of mainstream American politics that they tried to pigeonhole him as a populist insurgent not to be taken seriously. When he became a threat to Clinton’s coronation, the pundit and media class simply stopped reporting on his campaign. Tens of thousands of people were showing up at his rallies and yet Hillary’s hopscotching from one private fundraiser to another was treated as equally credible. The Republican sideshow was too juicy and sucked all the air out of the room. A press that had become fixated on the horse-race couldn’t find their footing in reporting on how Bernie’s left of center ideas were actually gaining traction with the electorate.
By April and the New York primary he was still within striking distance. He had outperformed all expectations. There was real excitement among his supporters and real frustration with the lack of media time he was being given. Then questions of his competency started to bubble up. He was sandbagged by the New York Daily News. He paid a high price for his frank answers to pointed questions that seemed intended to trip him up.
That was all fair in the game of presidential politics but it infuriated his young supporters. Hillary Clinton began speaking innuendos suggesting he lacked competency. When he shot back with rhetorical questions about her own qualifications every media outlet pounced. He was characterized as shrill and railing against conspiracies. That he wanted equal pay for women in the work place and a real turn away from the fossil fuel industry was immaterial–too complicated for the news cycle.
New York was make or break really. He needed to prove his strength in Clinton’s own backyard. It wasn’t to be, though. He lost that important battle but vowed to keep fighting.
His supporters stayed energized and the strength of his message and his personal appeal proved itself by winning state after state. In Nevada, the arcane rules of choosing delegates infuriated his supporters and brought their frustrations with a dubious primary process to a head. Yelling and screaming captured on video including the opposing Barbara Boxer, Senator from California, giving the finger to enraged Bernie supporters went viral. The press reported violence though none was reported by police or eye witnesses. The narrative of unhinged populism was taking root.
There was hope that California would produce a miracle that would vanquish the Clinton juggernaut but a virtual tie in that state would not be enough. The game was all but over.
As we wait for the convention and the unenthusiastic coronation of Hillary Clinton, Bernie supporters are anxious for his next move. The more seasoned among us have accepted the disappointment and moved on, though still energized by the notion that his progressive voice has touched a nerve with voters. We’re all hoping that we haven’t seen the last of Bernie Sanders. We’re hoping that his wagging finger and hoarse shout will continue to demand a better life for the little guy, will continue to demand economic justice and equal opportunity and above all a nation characterized by love not greed. And that people will listen.