Bernie Sanders Is Cold As Ice

He’s chilly with staff, frosty with fans, and regularly ices out reporters. So how is the socialist firebrand from Vermont suddenly torching Hillary Clinton in the race for president? —By Harry Jaffe
bernie sanders

AP Photo by Michael Dwyer

On a campaign swing through New Hampshire in late June, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders mounted the podium at Nashua Community College and looked out over a sea of expectant followers—students and seniors, professionals and tradesmen—and seemed, well, shocked. Just a month earlier he’d kicked off his campaign for the White House. Now, hundreds, even thousands, were coming to lap up his diatribes against the rich: “This campaign is bringing about a political revolution which transforms politics in America,” he shouted in his trademark Brooklyn deli-counter lingo. “Bruthuhs and sistuhs, now is not the time to be thinking small.”

He paused. His lips pursed into a thin, straight line. His eyes narrowed behind his thick, rectangular glasses. His shoulders drew closer to his ears. He pointed to the audience and raised his voice: “In New Hampshire and Vermont, we have people who are not working one job, they’re working two jobs, they’re working three jobs trying to cobble together an income and some healthcare.

“Bottom line is, that type of economy is immoral, it’s unsustainable, and it’s -un-American, and together we’re going to change it!”

As the crowd shot to its feet and cheered, Fred Teeboom, a Republican and former Nashua alderman, turned to me and said, “This guy speaks to me.”

When Sanders announced his candidacy for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination in late May, political pros yawned. How could an avowed socialist hope to draw more than a smattering of votes? Sure, in Vermont Sanders had managed to ascend from mayor to congressman to U.S. senator. But could a relative unknown from a small, rural, largely white New England state really challenge Hillary Rodham Clinton’s formidable political machine on the national stage?

Five months later, the political chattering classes here in New Hampshire have snapped to attention. On his first whistle-stop tours, supporters mobbed Sanders. Thousands showed up to cheer him in Iowa, South Carolina, and Nevada. By late summer the 74-year-old firebrand was attracting crowds approaching 30,000 in L.A. and Portland, 15,000 in Seattle, 11,000 in Phoenix, and 10,000 in Madison, Wisconsin, spurring the Washington Post to wonder, “How does he do it?”

So how does he? For starters, he can thank Elizabeth Warren, who took herself out of the race. Her exit left Sanders as the loudest Democrat tapping into a populist fury over the growing gap between the super wealthy and the rest of the country. And he picked the perfect moment. In a cycle in which voters seem to be recoiling from slick, coiffed, poll-driven candidates, Bernie Sanders comes across as he is: a gaunt, frazzled, Brooklyn-born Jew whose rage is authentic, genuine, and delivered with Socratic give-and-take.

In Nashua, Sanders arrived the same way he would in Rochester and Henniker, Durham and Laconia: in the back seat of a Ford Fusion piloted by Phil Fiermonte, his longtime aide and campaign field director. Michael Briggs, his press guy, rode shotgun. His son, Levi, who lives in Claremont, was waiting for them. Sanders had no entourage, no police escort, no advance team, no rope line. Other candidates carry dozens of advisers and advance men, but this ragtag bunch made up the bulk of Sanders’s top staff.

As usual, Sanders was short with the media after his speech. In response to questions from a CNN correspondent, Sanders said, “We want to bring people together. Nothing fancy. Seeya.” Then he ducked into the Ford Fusion and drove off.

Sanders, it turns out, has little patience for reporters—or, for that matter, anyone who disagrees with him. Among his faults, this could be the one that most weakens his presidential bid. Former aides have called him strident and never satisfied, to the point of being abusive, especially during his first years in Congress. “Bernie is a very demanding guy,” Fiermonte tells me. “He has very high expectations, and he expects people to meet them. But he’s a good boss. I wouldn’t be with him otherwise.” Or, as more than one Vermont politician told me, “Bernie’s an asshole, but he’s our asshole.”

That belief, shared by his supporters and by a Democratic electorate that’s loath to give Clinton a cakewalk to the nomination, has served Sanders well up to this point. But how will he react when the press inevitably pounces, as it did when fellow Vermonter Howard Dean ran for president in 2004? The permanent scowl lines etched onto his brow may show him to be the same humorless curmudgeon that he reveals to colleagues, reporters, and allies. “Bernie has no social skills, no sense of humor, and he’s quick to boil over,” says Chris Graff, who covered Sanders for 25 years as Vermont bureau chief for the Associated Press. “He’s the most unpolitical person in politics I’ve ever
come across.”

That much was clear in July, as Sanders began a speech to an audience of die-hard progressives at the Netroots Nation conference in Phoenix, Arizona. Some people chanted, “Black lives matter” and “Say her name!” urging Sanders to speak about police killings and beatings of unarmed black men and women.

Sanders paused briefly. He seemed at once both annoyed and perplexed. “Let me talk about what I’m going to talk about for a second,” he growled. The chants came louder.

“SAY HER NAME! SAY HER NAME!”

Sanders tried to continue on script, but as activists interrupted, he threatened to walk off.

“Exasperating and classic Bernie,” columnist Judith Levine wrote in Seven Days, Vermont’s alternative newspaper. “Man of the people treating the people like tiresome children, telling them what the issue is, instead of listening to what their issue, our issue, America’s issue is right now.”

Many of his colleagues in Congress would recognize the stubbornness. “I admired him for his willingness to take stands for what he believed,” former Massachusetts Congressman Barney Frank, a man not immune to professing unpopular opinions, tells me. “He went for the ideal, but he was not part of the legislative process. He chose to be an outsider.”

On Capitol Hill, Sanders has a reputation for being a pain in the ass. “Bernie believes that he’s right, and that what he wants is for the greater good,” says Houston consultant Susan Boardman Russ, formerly the longtime chief of staff for the late Vermont Senator Jim Jeffords. “Bernie is so certain that what he represents politically is unquestionably correct, therefore everyone should agree. Not much room for compromise…it was, ‘Play in my sandbox, or get out.’”

After Sanders’s 16 years in the House and almost nine in the Senate, there are not many legislators in his sandbox. Not a single major congressman, senator, or governor has endorsed him for president.

His monomania certainly hasn’t stopped him from rising in the polls. After Labor Day, Sanders held a 22-point lead over Clinton in New Hampshire and a 10-point edge over her in Iowa, according to a CBS News/YouGov poll. Which takes us to Sanders’s essential contradiction: He can reach crowds with soaring oratory, but, as Judith Levine points out, the business of being Bernie can make him seem disconnected and insensitive. Aides know he would rather bury himself in a budget than bounce a toddler on his lap. On the trail, Sanders has rarely seen a baby he wants to kiss, a hand he needs to shake, a back that would welcome a slap. With reporters or anyone who dares to ask, he stiff-arms questions about the source of his populist rage, his personal life, his influences, how he became a socialist, and his hopes and dreams beyond fomenting a political revolution. “Bernie has always been on a mission,” says Linda Niedweske, a former confidante who managed his first mayoral campaign. “He has no time for much else.”

 

Sanders had plenty of time on his hands when he first crossed the border into Vermont. In the late 1960s, the Green Mountains were a refuge for thousands of back-to-the-land hippies, spiritual searchers, and political progressives. Some came to work the land, others to fulfill their dreams. Sanders came to change the world. Even among the idealists and misfits, though, Sanders didn’t quite fit in. “He wasn’t freaky like the rest of us,” says Sanders’s friend at the time, Sylvia Manning, who had journeyed to Vermont from Texas. “He was straight, even then. No pot. He wasn’t a hippie. He was serious already.”

In 1972, Sanders began running for state-wide office for the Liberty Union Party, a radical group of antiwar activists. He crisscrossed Vermont in a Volkswagen bug, preaching from a playbook straight out of the Communist Manifesto: Oppressed workers of the world should unite and wrest power from the wealthy elites. Traveling from newsrooms to firehouses to town halls, he espoused leftist bromides about workers’ rights, income inequality, greedy bankers, and rapacious power companies. At first, “He ran so he could get air time. Not to win but to educate people,” Manning recalls. “He thought of himself as the educational candidate.”

He lost, again and again, but Vermonters got used to seeing Sanders’s mug. The wired New Yorker might have been a quirky character running on a radical slate, but in losing races for governor and the U.S. Senate, he gained a crucial ingredient for political success: name recognition.

During the 1976 gubernatorial race, he finished a distant third, but his friend and adviser, University of Vermont religion professor Richard Sugarman, pointed out that he had won 16 percent of the vote in Burlington’s poorest wards, most of those votes coming from the city’s Old North End. “You have a natural base there,” Sugarman argued.

Sanders decided to focus his efforts on an office he could win: Burlington mayor. Political operatives shocked by Sanders’s prospects in the 2016 presidential run might want to examine his tactics in that 1981 campaign. He ran against Democratic incumbent Gordon “Gordy” Paquette. “Nobody gave [Sanders] even a slight chance of winning,” recalls UVM political science professor Garrison Nelson.

Sanders and his progressive allies worked their base in the Old North End. But he also shrewdly departed from liberal dogma by promising not to raise property taxes. The Burlington police also backed Sanders—which inoculated him against being cast as a revolutionary. Sanders won by 10 votes: 4,030 to 4,020.

“It was the birthing of what we now see as the presidential candidate,” says Sam Hemingway, who chronicled Sanders’s political trajectory for the Burlington Free Press. John Franco, a longtime friend who has remained close with Sanders, adds, “He ran an asymmetric, insurgent campaign and surprised everyone. Including himself.”

The night of the election victory, Sanders almost came undone. He’d never had to govern anything more than himself. Mayor-elect Sanders, Franco says, “was in shock.”


Yiqing Shao Yiqing Shao, Digital Editor at Boston Magazine bmagdigital+yshao@gmail.com


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