Bernie Sanders — the guy who admits he can be grumpy and “nasty” and a “real son of a bitch,” the guy who’s known for giving the same speech over and over again — that guy is trying to win this campaign, maybe his last, by making people feel less alone.
Ruby CramerBuzzFeed News Reporter
Posted on December 16, 2019 (buzzfeednews.com)
He doesn’t bother explaining why he’s here.
This is early on, late May, a few months into the race, but he is already of the belief that he is doing something extraordinary with his presidential campaign — something that’s never been done before. The trouble is describing it. There’s no word for this in modern politics. It is, he believes, “a new way to communicate with the American people” — though he won’t say this until later, and only when asked. Even now, long after he’s put this work at the center of his campaign — at his events, in ads, on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube — he won’t talk about it much. He isn’t sure it’ll work, or if people are “picking up on what we’re trying to do here.” The media, he believes, has always believed, can’t fathom what’s at the heart of this.
So when he arrives at the house, a small mobile home 40 miles outside Montgomery, Alabama, over the Lowndes County line, in one of the poorest places in the country, with five reporters and his own camera crew, he steps through the front door, greets his host, and begins with no clear mention of what he hopes to accomplish here or how it will help him become president.
Pamela Rush, a 49-year-old mother of two, is showing him the problems with her home: the floor tilting visibly to one side, the sheets of plaster peeling off the wall, the broken pipes, the broken cabinetry. He stops in the room where her daughter sleeps. “Do you guys wanna…?” He motions for everyone to come closer. His videographer shuffles forward. On the bedside table, there’s a ventilation machine, the kind used for sleep apnea. A tube of ribbed plastic connects the device to a mask resting on the bedspread, which is patterned cheerily with tiny elephants. Because of mold in the house, Pamela’s daughter needs the device to breathe in her sleep. “How old is she?” the candidate asks. She’s 10. Pamela holds up the mask so he can see up close.
“Show them, not me,” he says, gesturing toward the camera.
She shows the camera the mask.
The visit continues like this. “Show them,” he keeps saying. “Show them.” He speaks only to ask questions, prompting Pamela to “explain” this or that, pointing her to an unseen audience on the other end of his camera lens. It’s like he’s directing his own video — except the video isn’t about him or his campaign or his policy agenda. He is, it seems, somewhere offscreen, an omniscient narrator, felt maybe, but not seen or heard. This is not a public event. There is no crowd. There is no podium, no speech. Mostly, there is silence. The leader of the political revolution — a man who has spent 50 years of his life trying to talk about his ideas — is not saying much at all.
There is no crowd. There is no podium, no speech. Mostly, there is silence.
In his first campaign, a third-party bid for US Senate in 1972, he lugged around a 2,000-page, two-volume study by the House Banking and Currency Committee, liberally quoting its findings to the people of Vermont. He spent that year telling anyone who would listen about the fact that a mere 49 banks were trustees of $135 billion and held 768 “interlocking directorships” with 286 of the country’s largest 500 industrial corporations. To him, the phenomenon of interlocking directorships was not arcane or irrelevant to daily life in Vermont. It was an urgent outrage.
In Congress, he developed “the oligarchy speech,” a bleak overview of income inequality in America. The speech became the basis of his public events, his lengthy posts on Facebook, of an entire book — title: The Speech — consisting solely of the transcript of an eight-hour speech he delivered on the floor of the Senate.
And in 2016 — the rallies? The arenas? He had 2,600 in Iowa’s hulking Mid-America Center — largest crowd of the caucus season. He hit every city he could: 5,000 people in Houston, 8,000 in Dallas, 10,000 in Madison, 11,000 in Phoenix, 15,000 in Seattle, 27,500 in Los Angeles, 28,000 in Portland — plus overflow! All those people showing up to hear an hourlong speech they already knew by heart: wages down, median income stalled, one family with more wealth than the bottom 130 million… As he spoke, they’d mouth along to their favorite lines: “Congress does not regulate Wall Street—” “WALL STREET REGULATES CONGRESS,” the crowd would shout back. “Enough is—” “ENOUGH!” they roared. The succession of grim facts — “but let me tell you what is even worse!” he’d say — became a ritual. When a small bird, later identified as a common house finch, once landed on his lectern, an entire stadium full of people cheered wildly, mouths open, their arms raised to the sky, eyes turned upward — not to God, but to the image of the bird and their candidate on the Jumbotron. There was power in the speech. He believed, aides have said, that he was literally changing a generation, person by person, line by line, with every rally.
That was the whole thing — Bernie Sanders, talking.
This is something different.
“Pamela,” he says gently, “why don’t you explain it.”
“And be loud so everyone can hear you…”
Bernie Sanders is sorry for your troubles, but that’s not the reason he’s asking you to talk about them — which he is, everywhere he goes. He wants you to talk about your medical bill — the one you can’t pay. He wants you to talk about losing your house because you got sick. He wants you to talk about the payday loans you took out to keep your kid in school. About the six-figure student debt that’s always on your mind. About living off credit cards, or losing your pension, or working multiple jobs for wages that won’t be enough to support your family.
He would like you to talk about this publicly, in detail, and on camera. He will ask you to do this in front of reporters, or in a room full of strangers at one of his town halls. Of course, the Bernie Digital Team will be there — they are always there — taping your story on camera, or streaming it in real-time to his own mass broadcast system on YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter. On any given day, he is capable of reaching millions of people.
“Who wants to share their story?” he’ll say. “Don’t be embarrassed. Millions of people are in your boat.”
He has, it turns out, built an entire presidential campaign around an open invitation to speak — to talk plainly about the “reality of life” in this country — to be “loud so everyone can hear.”
He believes his presidential campaign can, he says, help people “feel less alone.”
His suggestion, by asking you to speak up about your private anxieties, many of them financial, is that you and the millions of people in the proverbial audience will begin to see your struggles not as personal failings, but systemic ones. He is less interested in explicitly presenting solutions than naming the problem — that “we have millions of people in the richest country in the history of the world who are struggling every single day,” which is a phrase he repeats daily, almost like an exhortation, as if to grab the American working class by its shoulders. He doesn’t deal in pity or reassurance. Yes, he’ll give hugs — one arm, from the side, other hand still clutching the mic. But mostly he’ll just listen and nod, gaze lowered. Or he’ll shake his head at the crowd, like can you believe this? And then, from the gut, a clipped scoff, like of course you can believe it. That’s the point. He has heard your story before, because it’s all part of the same story: a broken system, driven by profit and greed, built to reinforce the notion that if you’re bright enough, if you work hard enough, then you can travel the path to the middle class. And if you don’t make it there…well, maybe you’re the problem. And who wants to talk about that?
He believes his presidential campaign can, he says, help people “feel less alone.”
He is trying to change the way people interact with private hardship in this country, which is to say, silently and with self-loathing. He is trying, in as literal a sense as you could imagine, to excise “shame” and “guilt” from the American people. These are not words you hear often in politics, but in interviews this year with the candidate, his wife, and his top advisers, they are central to his strategy to win. He is imagining a presidential campaign that brings people out of alienation and into the political process simply by presenting stories where you might recognize some of your own struggles. He is imagining a voter, he says, who thinks, “I thought it was just me who was struggling to put food on the table. I thought I was the only person. I thought it was all my fault. You mean to say there are millions of people?”
He still has his rallies, but “it’s a different campaign, and we do things differently,” he says. “I can give the greatest speech in the history of the world, but it will not have the significance and the impact that the real-life experience of ordinary Americans will have.” At many of his events, the antiseptic macro focus of the “oligarchy speech” — the anonymous actors on Wall Street, the greed of the American corporation, the rigged system — has been replaced by the most intimate details of someone’s life. The outrage in his voice, a booming rasp amplified across three tiers of an NBA-size venue, is softer now. The arena itself has morphed into a digital platform for one voter’s story.
Show them, he says. Show them, not me.
We understand presidential campaigns, in their most basic form, as a conversation between a candidate and the American people. The conversation is happening all the time, in person and online, directly, indirectly, at every possible scale: It’s a handshake, a speech, a television ad, a sponsored post on Facebook. It’s a policy rollout. It’s the signage at a rally, the way an American flag is steamed and hung just so on a stage. Every dollar of every campaign is spent on shaping or beautifying or amplifying some message from the candidate. Bernie’s first presidential bid, in a sense, was the unprocessed, stripped-down version of that conversation: It was the speech. In terms of the mechanics of the thing, as he put it in late 2016, he wasn’t “reinventing the wheel.”
Four years later, he is attempting to run a presidential campaign that facilitates an entirely different conversation — one between people like Pamela and the American people. The stories he collects and broadcasts across the internet aren’t just voter testimonials produced to validate the campaign or its policies — they’re aimed, in Bernie’s mind, at people validating one another.
After 50 years, this is an unlikely place for the political revolution to land. It’s more human. More empathetic. More personal than what you’d expect from a man who’s willingly played along with his persona as a perma-“outsider” and, as he put it in 2015, “grumpy old guy.”
There’s this idea that Bernie Sanders is “a man of the people who doesn’t like people” — just issues. That’s not exactly right, though the precise balance between the two can be difficult to pin down. “Policy, policy, policy,” says his wife, Jane, who is a strategic partner on her husband’s campaign. “Fight, fight, fight — which is true, but he’s also about people.”
“They say I can be nasty, I don’t know how to get along with people. Well, maybe there’s some truth to it.”
He arrived in Vermont in 1968, full of ideas about movement politics, and began his career by raising his hand at a local third-party meeting. He settled in Stannard, a remote town with no paved roads, populated by fewer than 2o0 people, where he learned to live in isolation. But in politics, he also discovered that he liked talking to strangers about the issues of the day. In the ’80s, he hosted his own public broadcast show as mayor of Burlington. In the footage, unearthed by Politico earlier this year, he can be warm and dryly funny. On the campaign trail in Vermont, he liked to take impromptu walks and kept a pair of trunks in the car in case he passed a swimming hole. In Washington, he kept more to himself. Interviewed in 1991, fellow members of Congress described him as a “homeless waif” with a “holier-than-thou” attitude who “alienates” his potential allies, who “screams and hollers,” one said, “but he is all alone.”
Part of the problem, of course, is that Bernie Sanders is not an open book. He will snap at reporters when they ask him to talk about himself or, god forbid, how he’s changed as a person, because what does that have to do with Medicare for All? “You’re asking about me, and I’M not important,” he once said in an interview. “What’s important are the kinds of policies we need to transform this country. OK?” The conversation was over after six minutes. His interior life, to the extent that it is acknowledged among his campaign staff, is a subject only a few people can address with any authority. A simple question on the subject — have you ever seen him cry? — recently reduced senior aides to various forms of lawyer-speak. “I’ve seen him emotionally affected,” one said after a long pause. Another, as if the question had been unclear and possibly even sinister, said only: “What do you mean?” With Jane, he’ll call from the road to talk about his day, but questions like “How did that make you feel?” are not a part of the discussion. “Oooh, no,” she laughs at the suggestion. “Oh no, no. Yeah, no. He doesn’t do that. No. No. Neeevver.”
He can be harsh with staff — short-tempered and demanding and sometimes rude. “Some people say I am very hard to work with. They say I can be a real son of a bitch. They say I can be nasty, I don’t know how to get along with people,” Bernie told his press secretary in 1990, according to a memoir by the former staffer. “Well, maybe there’s some truth to it.”
His mood is under careful observation. Aides are always noting things like “He’s in a good mood today.” When he is happy, everyone is happy. When he’s not, everyone is quiet, especially in the SUV, where he will ride shotgun with his iPad, a red Vitaminwater at his side, scrolling through tweets from @BernieSanders, maybe only speaking up to dispassionately observe that people must really care about education in this country because a tweet about education is getting a lot of engagement today. Everyone knows which staffers make him feel most at ease — a special currency on the campaign. Small signs of interpersonal comfort — watching an aide make him laugh, watching another gently brush dandruff from his navy blue blazer — can feel like extraordinary acts of intimacy. In 2016, when discussing the campaign at a bar, some staffers got in the habit of referring to him as “Earl” or “the old man,” because at the end of the day, he is 78 years old. And who would have expected this — the most emotionally driven, intimate, borderline touchy-feely campaign of the 2020 election — from “a real son of a bitch”?
“I don’t like the word ‘touchy-feely,’” Bernie Sanders says curtly.
Everyone is sensitive about how to describe this. There’s been a lot of “experimentation” with this, one of his advisers will start to explain — before doubling back to say that, actually, “I think ‘experimentation’ is the wrong word.” There’s no precedent for it. Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren often invite you to consider your story through the lens of their own. Bill Clinton said “I feel your pain,” but he never asked people to reorient the way they feel about their own pain.
Bernie says he is trying to “redefine our value system.” Jane talks about breaking down decades of societal muscle memory: “It seems to be the American way,” she says. “That we all think it’s our fault — instead of recognizing there is a system that is making it unfair for them.” They are, as they see it, trying to dismantle the ideal of “rugged individualism,” an entire era of political thought. Ari Rabin-Havt, a top adviser who travels with the candidate every day, puts it more tangibly: The campaign is a “megaphone” for working people, he says. Briahna Joy Gray, his national press secretary, has likened the effect to “catharsis” from nationwide “gaslighting.” On the podcast she hosts for the campaign, she compares her boss to Robin Williams in Good Will Hunting: the therapist who tells Matt Damon, a young man who was abused by his foster parent, “It’s not your fault. Look at me, son. It’s not your fault… no, no, no, it’s not your fault.”
“Don’t be nervous,” he’d tell the crowd. “You really are among friends.”
It really started late this spring, around the time he went to Alabama. The campaign YouTube page started pushing out stories like Pamela’s: a family living without clean drinking water in South Carolina; a family with inadequate low-income housing in San Francisco; workers at Walmart. On Twitter, he asked people to reply with stories of “their most absurd” medical bill. He got 50,000 responses in a week. By the fall, he was holding more town halls than rallies. In rooms from Iowa to Nevada, one person would raise their hand to speak, then another, and another, and another. “Don’t be nervous,” he’d tell the crowd. “You really are among friends.” Not every event has been as affecting as the next. On one trip, he visited a woman’s home in Des Moines to document her problems with contaminated well water. His host happened to be a fan and prepared two trays of homemade brownies for the occasion. Bernie, already late for his next event, declined to eat a brownie and left after 15 minutes. But more often than not, he is an attentive and genuine listener. At one event last month, a woman stood to say that people are “embarrassed if they don’t think they make enough money.” Bernie told her this had been “instilled” by “the system.” The campaign posted footage of the exchange on Instagram. As you watch the video, bold capital lettering runs across the top and bottom of the screen like an emergency weather alert: “THE SYSTEM WANTS YOU TO BE ASHAMED.”
“What we are doing,” he says, “is really speaking to the working class of this country in a way I’m not quite sure any candidate has ever done before.”
Eventually, when asked, he comes to describe this as core to his strategy to win.
“Here’s the gamble,” Bernie says. The gamble is there are millions of working people who don’t vote or consider politics to be relevant to their lives. “And it is a gamble to see whether we can bring those people into the political process,” he says. “One way you do it is to say, ‘You see that guy? He’s YOU. You’re workin’ for $12 an hour, you can’t afford health insurance — so is he. Listen to what he has to say. It’s not Bernie Sanders talking, you know? It’s that guy. Join us.”
And yet, on a Tuesday night, in one moment, the full force of the political revolution, all 50 years of it, came grinding so unquestioningly to a halt by one blocked artery. He will spend two and a half days in the hospital — and he will lie there hooked up to their beeping machines, and he will yell at the doctors when they try to ask him stupid questions, and he will quiz them about health care policy and obsess over what all this would cost without insurance — and there will be a crisis over what to say in the press release and when to say it and if it can wait until Jane is able to deliver the news in person to the seven grandkids before they see it on CNN, and there will be reporters stalking him outside the building, and all sorts of people will want to visit — and for days, he will say over and over again, “I can’t believe I had a heart attack… I can’t imagine how I had a heart attack… I can’t imagine…” like this is a fact he simply cannot accept, because he feels fine as soon as they finish the procedure and because he’s always had terrific “endurance”… Never thought it’d be his heart to cause him problems… Ran a 4:37 mile in high school…!
But not once, in all that chaos and frustration, will he consider dropping out.
Here is what Pamela explains to Bernie Sanders: that her family bought this mobile home in the ’90s for a trumped-up price of $114,000; that she lives on $1,000 a month; that she still owes $15,000 on the house; the house she fears will harm her daughter’s health; the house where her mother caught pneumonia and died; the house where, “when a storm comes,” she says, “we have to stay in the mobile home and just pray.” He learns that Pamela’s sister was arrested because she couldn’t afford to pay for the county garbage service. Another sister was arrested because she couldn’t afford to buy into the sanitation system. He turns to a reporter in the Alabama heat. “Really something, isn’t it?” he says. He is frowning, jowls gathered slightly at the neck, but there is no shock or judgment in his face. It will become a familiar expression over the summer and fall. He is not always an obviously comforting presence, but there is never judgment.
“So this is where the waste goes?”
Everyone is outside now, around back. Sanders wants to see where the waste goes.
He learns that Pamela, like many residents in Lowndes County, is also “straight-piping” her untreated sewage from the bathroom to her yard. She is here with Catherine Flowers, an activist who has worked with Congress on the pernicious tangle of issues facing Lowndes County: criminalized poverty, environmental degradation, inadequate infrastructure.
He peers down at a line of dark, matted grass where, a few paces from his feet, inches from the base of the trailer, sewage flows via exposed PVC pipes into a shallow open-air trench. “Is this uncommon in this part of the world?” he asks, steering the conversation for his unseen audience, and the cameras swing back to Pamela and Catherine.
The sun is beating down. Bernie rolls up his sleeves and starts talking gravely about how this is the richest country in the history of the world… “Today we’re in Lowndes County, Alabama, in an African-American community,” he is saying. “Tomorrow we’ll be in California in a Latino community, or in West Virginia in a white community, and the stories will be the same.” You can see his bald head turning shades of pink and red. Everyone is sweating. Pamela is talking about her mother’s death. It is not an easy conversation. “This is America,” he is saying.
Back in his Washington headquarters, the digital team is waiting for the footage.
In the supercharged world Bernie inhabits, the decision to stay in the race was considered not only reasonable, but obvious. Here, there is no confusion about “what we’re trying to do here.” The candidate moves amid a swirl of people you would classify uncynically as “true believers.” It’s a lot of passion in one place. The stakes always feel high. But the hard and fast question of whether they can win the nomination is, to a certain extent, supplanted by the general sense that the movement is a just and right cause and, therefore, in the end, the cause will prevail, likely in a shocking fashion when no one anticipates it or believes it can be done, à la Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. And so they are always on guard against outside forces — people who will doubt them, or underestimate them, or try to actively destroy them.
This is how things go in “a politics of struggle.”
In “a politics of struggle,” as Sanders explains it in a 2015 foreword to his first memoir, setbacks are expected. There will be defeats before there can be the “breakthroughs” few people imagine possible. In a politics of struggle, the goals are “transforming a city, a state, a nation, and maybe the world.” It is already understood that this is “about more than winning an election.”
It’s in this environment that the advent of the heart attack became another motivational “setback.” Ocasio-Cortez decided to endorse. Supporters only hung on tighter. Campaign staffers spoke in grave tones about the “sheer terror” of a world without Bernie. “What is happening right now,” Briahna Joy Gray told her subscribers on the campaign podcast, “is that an old man is carrying the most colossal imaginable weight on his shoulders.” By the time he is back on the trail, the mission of the campaign takes on newly urgent, almost philosophical importance.
He’s in Iowa — a town called Toledo, Tama County, population 2,341 — coaxing people to talk to him about how they feel. “What about health care?” he says at a local civic center, roaming out from behind the podium. “Don’t tell me what I wanna hear! — I want YOU to think about it. Should health care be a human right?” The crowd, not quite warmed up yet, signals a yes. “WHY?” he replies, voice booming. “Who wants to tell me why? Don’t be shy…”
This is his first campaign swing since the heart attack. Five events in 24 hours.
He has to address the age question, of course, so he does. “I’ve been criticized for being old. I plead guilty. I am old!” he says at his first stop of the trip. Reporters ask him about it. Pundits analyze why it matters. Dr. Oz, the heart surgeon and television host, provides his unsolicited opinion that Bernie’s “protoplasm is strong,” a you-know-it-when-you-see-it term in the medical community for physiological sturdiness. Voters also weigh in, as if to offer reassurance. “Seniors rock!” a woman says at a town hall in Marshalltown, Iowa. Moments later, a middle-aged man raises his hand to tell the candidate that, by age 39, he’d had three heart attacks, a stroke, and a triple-bypass surgery — “and it doesn’t have to get in the way of living, all right?” Bernie takes these remarks in stride, smiling back gamely. He is in a good mood. Though you get the distinct impression that he would rather not be discussing the state of his protoplasm, or himself, at all.
During the town hall in Toledo, Jane and a few staffers can hear Bernie speaking through the walls of an adjacent hold room. She and Ari Rabin-Havt, the deputy who was with Bernie in the hospital through the whole ordeal, are sitting at a small table talking about the heart attack like family members who, maybe years later, are finally able to look back at the whole thing and laugh. Except here, it’s been days, not years. Jane is going into her own Bernie impression: “He’s like, ‘I feel fine. I don’t understand… You’ah tellin’ me I had a heart attack?? I don’t — I, I don’t understand.’”
The thing that bothered him so much about it was the relative smallness of it — like this was needlessly, stupidly about him, “and I’M not important,” remember? What did his aging body, in his mind a vessel of little consequence, have anything to do with the reality that “millions of people in the richest country in the history of the world are struggling every single day”? The answer, of course, is everything: This, like any endeavor in electoral politics, hinges on the will and presence and personality of its leader. The political revolution is no less human or fallible.
And there he was, having to ask for a chair during an event in Las Vegas — he rarely sits on stage — because of chest pains. “Ari, can you do me a favor?” he looked around the room for Rabin-Havt. “Where’s Ari? Get me a chair up here for a moment. I’m going to sit down here.” Staffers found their jobs suddenly transformed. They were dealing with the questions of a health crisis: Should they take him to the hospital? And which hospital? The closer one, or the one with the better cardiology center? But this was Bernie. Everyone knows Bernie. There would be a scene. People would ask for selfies in the waiting room. Reporters would hear about it. They did not want that. It was Rabin-Havt, in the end, who approached the front desk at the urgent care center behind the MGM Grand and discretely flashed his boss’s driver’s license — 09/08/1941, SANDERS, BERNARD — so the nurses would usher him into the back quietly and without delay.
Then they asked for his glasses. And that’s where he drew the line. “JESUS CHRIST! I’m not gonna do that,” he said.
“They’re like, ‘Look, we’re gonna have to put him in the cath lab,’” Rabin-Havt says. Jane, seated to his right, hasn’t even heard this part of the story yet. So they got him in the cath lab. The doctor asked, how much pain are you in on a scale of 1 to 10, which Bernie rebuffed as a useless question. Then they asked him to please remove his wedding ring. “Really?” he growled, removing the ring. Then they asked for his glasses. And that’s where he drew the line. “JESUS CHRIST! I’m not gonna do that,” he said. That night, Rabin-Havt and another staffer took turns wearing the wedding ring so they wouldn’t lose it. “Oh my god,” Rabin-Havt says. “It was the scariest part.”
The next morning, when Jane arrived from Vermont, she found her husband unchanged. He was talking about how someone without insurance maybe wouldn’t have gone to urgent care at all because of how much it would cost. “That’s his brain,” Jane says. She turns to Rabin-Havt. “Did he say anything to you?” “Not during,” Rabin-Havt says. “The next day when he woke up, he was like, ‘What do you think this is going to cost?’”
His room became the center of activity in the hospital. He held policy discussions with the nurses. He asked the doctors about the hospital’s finances. That was a relief, Jane says — to see “the same old Bernie.” Back in Washington, the press team kept obsessive watch over the news coverage, demanding corrections from reporters who described the stent procedure as a “surgery.” There was no surgery, they said breathlessly. It was a procedure! “I’m talking to the doctors,” Jane recalls, “and they’re saying ‘procedure,’ not surgery. It was not a surgery.” Rabin-Havt nods: Not a surgery. Once they finally got the diagnosis — “heart attack” — they needed a statement. So they hunkered down in a hospital break room. The doctors (multiple) started dictating to Rabin-Havt, who tapped out notes on his iPhone. Their first draft was a bit medical — too much jargon. One of the physicians, an English major in college, cut in: “No, no, no — we can do this so the press understands.” So then that doctor tinkered. Once they had their finished product, Rabin-Havt emailed it to the doctors and asked for a formal reply affirming the statement as their own. Proof in writing, presumably, in case of conspiracy theories.
“Yeah, it was fun,” Jane says, laughing. “Well, it was — it was not fun.”
You might wonder, reasonably so, why a 78-year-old man would rather be here, back in Iowa, still doing this, likely at some risk to his health, when he could also just drop out, endorse Elizabeth Warren, and spend his days at the family home on Lake Champlain. Maybe this is especially true if you also believe that Bernie Sanders stands no real shot at winning the Democratic nomination and probably knows it — but will take his diehard supporters, his loyal 15%, a big enough chunk to influence the debate and stay relevant, as far as they can carry him. But then, of course, you would be ruining his good mood and missing the point entirely.
“Honestly,” his wife says, seated at the small table, “I think things are getting worse. Things are getting worse.” By which she means wages, costs, bills, just not knowing if you can keep a roof over your head. “And this is an opportunity. I don’t know that the opportunity was there in 2016, where it was so widespread in the same way, the feeling among people of, ‘Wait a minute. We deserve better. This is not OK. The system is completely broken.’ There were some people who saw it in 2016, but it has gotten so much worse over the last two or three years.”
“We’re losing ground as a people. And that angers him,” she laughs dryly, and from the other room, you can hear that he does sound angry — angry about how people go bankrupt for getting “CANC-AH,” angry about our crumbling “IN-FER-STRUCHRR,” angry about his colleagues in Congress who say everyone “LOOOOVES” their private health insurance. “THAT TRUE?”
He is yelling, yes, but Bernie Sanders is “happiest and most comfortable in rooms like this,” Rabin-Havt says, gesturing to the event across the hall. “When you put him in a room full of political hacks — like, phonies — that’s not his room. He’s not going to like it.”
Jane nods. “And he’s going to be gruff.”
“He’s going to be gruff,” Rabin-Havt says, “and he’s not going to know how to deal with it. You put him in a room with real people telling their real stories and—”
“And he’s a different person,” Jane says. “If you have politicians and, uh, media personalities just trying to play gotcha politics or talk about the polls or other candidates — and never asking the real questions about what’s affecting the people, he has no time. He has no time.”
Jane, like most everyone around her husband, is a true believer. The two grew up in the same area of Brooklyn — 10 blocks apart, where her father worked as a taxi driver — but they wouldn’t meet until 1980 in Burlington. She was a community organizer. He was running for mayor. She had never heard the name “Bernie Sanders” when she helped organize a debate for the candidates at a Unitarian church in town. “Nobody liked the incumbent mayor in the community groups. Being a good Catholic girl, I greeted him and made sure he was all set up. I didn’t even talk to Bernie! But everybody was interested in Bernie. And then I sat in the second row, and I listened to him, and so did the entire Unitarian Church,” she pauses, then continues slowly, “and I felt that he embodied everything I believed in. The first time I heard him speak. And I knew I would be working with him from that moment on.””When people heard that he had a heart attack, it was like, ‘Oh my god.’ And envisioning, OK, without Bernie’s voice, oh my god…”
There is a stunning intensity in the belief — one made very real by the heart attack, one held firmly by his staff, his wife, by the candidate himself — that if Bernie Sanders isn’t going to be telling the American people these stories, then no other candidate will.
“It was a gut check for a lot of people,” Jane says. “Everybody was thinking cerebrally, ‘well, you know, we’ll see how it plays out. The polls don’t seem to be doing that well right now. Who knows whether it’s gonna be Biden or Elizabeth or Bernie…’” She waves her hand in the air.
“And then when people — I mean, I felt it very strongly from so many people — when people heard that he had a heart attack, it was like, ‘Oh my god.’ And envisioning, OK, without Bernie’s voice, oh my god, this would be a totally different race. It would be a totally…” her voice trails off. “People understand that he’s the one that can affect real change…”
“This is not a, uh, an intellectual discussion.”
At some point, the sound of Bernie’s voice from the other room drops out.
Jane goes silent. The staffers go silent.
Everything is abruptly quiet, and there is an instant, a half of a split second, when the mind imagines that maybe something’s happened — and then there’s the sound of Bernie Sanders speaking again.
“Somebody was just asking a question,” Jane explains.
“Oh, OK,” Rabin-Havt says.
The video team is still rolling outside Pamela’s house.
After about 25 minutes, the visit is over. They are all standing in the front yard — Bernie, Pamela, and Catherine. Two campaign vans are idling silently in the driveway. Both women have dealt with politicians before: Catherine has worked on legislation with US senators, including another presidential candidate, Cory Booker, to address rural wastewater problems. Pamela has testified before a congressional forum on poverty convened by Elizabeth Warren.
“Thank you,” Pamela tells her guest.
“I want to thank YOU,” he replies. And suddenly, there are tears. Catherine is hugging him, and then Pamela is hugging him too and crying into his blue button-down shirt — and then they are all hugging together. “We won’t forget you,” he says. “This is just the beginning.”
After they leave the house, he turns to one of the political reporters with him. “Learning something?” he asks.
The visit is still heavy on his mind. There is some light conversation about the trip — and then you see his face turn to a grimace. The reporter asks about Joe Biden. At this particular juncture in the horserace, there is a thirst for conflict between the two candidates.
“One day at a time…” he responds.
The reporter tries again: “Do you think Biden’s message is resonating in the South?”
“We’ll take it one day at a time, I have no idea. Nor does anyone else.”
He is, of course, annoyed. “You have all heard me rant and rave,” he starts telling the group. “I don’t think that the media is the enemy of the people, that it’s fake news. God knows I don’t think that.”
“But I do think we have to do a better job in looking at issues that impact ordinary people.”
“There are millions of people in this country…”
Later in the day, he relays Pamela’s story to the crowd at his town hall. The following month, his campaign releases a two-and-a-half-minute video about the trip, titled “Trapped.” Eventually, it hits 750,000 views.
In the middle of an interview, he bats back a question to ask one of his own.
“Do you know what it’s like to live —”
He is about to say “paycheck to paycheck,” but he stops himself. As he sees it, the media doesn’t know anything about that. Reporters, even the well-meaning ones, he thinks, don’t have a clue. “I mean, I do,” he says. “I grew up in that family.” His father, a paint salesman, worked hard but never made much money. The family lived in a three-and-a-half-room, rent-controlled apartment in Brooklyn. Both parents died young. As a young politician in Vermont, Sanders had to borrow gas money to campaign. The windshield wipers on his Volkswagen bug didn’t work. He struggled to pay bills. After his swearing-in as mayor of Burlington, he bought his first suit at age 40. He was, in those days, the same voter he’s trying to reach now. His old notebooks, legal pads fished from the archives by a Mother Jones reporter earlier this year, include rambling notes on his inability to do better for himself and his young son. The internal commentary is scathing and unkind. “Not only do I not pay bills every month — ‘What, every month?’ — I am better now than I used to be,” he wrote, “but pretty poor…”
The secret, it turns out, is that in addition to taking this work very seriously, Bernie Sanders also takes it very personally. The secret is that a mostly solitary man — a man who has spent most of his political career on the outskirts, who’s never really fit into someone’s idea of a politician, who’s “cast some lonely votes, fought some lonely fights, mounted some lonely campaigns” — is now trying to win a presidential campaign, maybe his last, by making people feel less alone.
This is his campaign, his theory of change, though he’s done very little to explain it to a wider audience. “I care less about the coverage, in one sense,” he says. “What I care about is that someone turns on the TV, and there’s someone who works at Walmart, or someone from Disney, or McDonald’s. And they say, you know, ‘that’s me.’” He wants those people to do the talking: the people who worry about their electric bill. The people who wonder if they can afford to have another kid. People for whom “the idea of taking vacation” — he scoffs as he says the word — “is not even in their imagination even though they work all the time.” In his mind, he was those people.
He is not among the politicians “whose mommies and daddies told them at the country club that they were born to be president,” as he put it last year. He suspects his parents were Democrats, but he isn’t sure — it’s not something they discussed. So he is not drawn to Washington in the usual ways. Which is not to say that he doesn’t have ego. In 2016, staffers watched him adjust with unexpected ease to his new power and popularity: The guy in the middle seat, coach class, was suddenly flying private and showing up to watch the Golden State Warriors play the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game 7. But he does not have what one former president called “that wretched mania, an itching for the White House.” He is driven by a different compulsion.
You get the sense, without exaggeration, that he will keep doing this for the rest of his life. That he would die before he stops. There are some signs, after the heart attack, that this is playing on his mind. “At the end of the day,” he told his supporters in a seven-minute video he recorded after his release from the hospital, “if you’re gonna look at yourself in the mirror, you’re gonna say, ‘Look, I go around once, I have one life to live. What role do I wanna play?’”
But for the most part, his mood is notably light. His return to the campaign trail, ever since the heart attack, aka “heart incident,” as senior aides refer to it in the press, has been a happy, bordering-on-joyous affair. He starts cracking jokes during his speech. He plays basketball. He hosts his staff at his house in Burlington, demonstrating the best way to build a fire in a tiny stove. He announces plans for his own New Year’s Eve party in Iowa with food, drinks, and live music: “Bernie’s Big New Year’s Bash.” Inexplicably, he ends up dancing at a labor solidarity dinner in New Hampshire. “Our revolution includes dancing!” he declares. And then, to the sound of ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” and The Temptations’ “The Way You Do the Things You Do,” he sways his hips from side to side, grinning, and twirls woman after woman across the banquet hall.
The major papers describe this period as a “renaissance” and “resurgence.” In polls conducted since the heart attack, he has either maintained his position or become even more competitive. He has a shot at Iowa. He looks good in Nevada and California. He remains the only candidate with more donations than Donald Trump. And he has some $1.67 million coming in each month from people who have signed up for automatic recurring donations.
On one afternoon in late October, he travels to Brooklyn to do a few interviews.
The plan is to walk up Henry Street to the Brooklyn Promenade, a pedestrian area overlooking the East River and downtown Manhattan, but he makes a turn onto Kane Street instead — spontaneous! — another indication of his good mood, which an aide quickly notes aloud.
He walks a few blocks, greeting passersby, before ducking into Francesco’s Pizzeria & Trattoria, where he orders a slice of pepperoni. His staffers also order pepperoni. “See!” Bernie says. “Can’t think for themselves!” Jane shrugs. “Well, I got cheese,” she says.
The guys behind the counter open the oven and pull out a slice of pepperoni, wet and shimmering in its own hot oil. No one is concerned, apparently, about whether pizza is a wise choice three weeks after a stent procedure. Jane doesn’t blink. His staff doesn’t blink. No one blinks. Bernie takes his plate to a corner table, where he sits for a brief interview, giving polite but clipped answers about his decision to stay in the presidential race after the incident.
In one swift hand motion, as if to dispense with this line of inquiry entirely, he lifts the slice from its white paper plate, folds the crust lengthwise, takes a large bite, and swallows.
“This is my life,” he says.
The statement is, for Bernie, as straightforward and uncomplicated as it sounds. Everyone seems to understand this. Of course he should eat pizza. Of course he is still running for president.
“Well,” Jane says a few days later, “I mean, it would be kind of ridiculous if it didn’t affect him in some way.”
“I think the way it affected him was, ‘OK, this… This is my mission in life. This is my purpose. I’m here for a reason.’”
On that long flight from Vermont to Las Vegas, she thought about what she should do when she saw him in the hospital. “If he wasn’t doing well,” she thought, she would put her foot down. She would tell him no. “If he was in danger, I would absolutely say, ‘I’m sorry. You can’t.’”
Jane pauses. “But honestly, I don’t know that he would have listened to me.” ●