Back in the 1960s, Bernie Sanders burned hot as a civil-rights activist. He led sit-ins against segregation and participated in the 1963 March on Washington. A few years later, he joined the exodus of countercultural lefties from the caldron of New York City to the bucolic hills of Vermont — the whitest state in the nation.
That’s Sanders in a nutshell. The senator from Vermont, now running for president, is a lovable talker, but talk is almost all he’s ever done. Other liberals found purpose teaching at inner-city schools. Sanders hung around coffee shops in picturesque Burlington, arguing the finer points of the socialist paradise he intended to create in a place that was already half there.
Shortly after arriving, Sanders and his then-wife bought 85 rural acres with the thought of living off the land. “I don’t think Bernie was particularly into growing vegetables,” a friend told Mother Jones magazine. Well, many a Vermont field went unplowed in those days.
During an early run for state office as a Liberty Union Party candidate, Sanders proposed ending compulsory education in Vermont. As he put it, Vermont schools “crush the spirits of our children.”
In fairness, Sanders did hold a serious executive office as mayor of Burlington. And he’s mellowed into pragmatism. Despite his anti-war views, Sanders has supported Lockheed Martin’s F-35 jet fighter, ignoring the hundreds of billions in cost overruns. It meant jobs in Vermont.
And he’s done some updating. In railing against the villains of the oligarchy, he’s replaced “Rockefeller” with “Koch.”
To his credit, Sanders never disavowed his socialist leanings. (He refers to himself as a “democratic socialist.”) Nor has he scrubbed the Brooklyn from his voice, another honest touch.
Dressed in the rumpled suit of the prairie populist, Sanders has tuned his rhetoric to resonate with middle-of-the-road Americans worried about growing economic inequality. The crowds enjoy him, and he’s doing surprisingly well in the polls.
Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, a Democrat also running for president, is understandably irked by the attention Sanders garners.
Portraying himself as the true liberal alternative to Hillary Clinton, O’Malley notes his success in raising his state’s minimum wage and legalizing same-sex marriage. Asked at a rally in Iowa how he differed from Sanders, O’Malley responded, “I’ve actually gotten these things done.”
Part of Sanders’s charm comes from his refusal to rewrite his story. But the story he tells is incomplete.
Writing in the Vermont Freeman back in the ’70s, Sanders explained his decision to leave New York City as follows: He couldn’t bear holding a “monotonous” office job among “the mass of hot dazed humanity heading uptown for the 9-5.”
No mention of what were probably the stronger motivations — the muggings, the racial tensions, the bodies sleeping (or dead) in the subway stations. The New York of the ’70s was a hard place for working people of all colors. As writer James Wolcott memorably put it, New Yorkers lived with “the sense that much of the social contract had suffered a psychotic break.”
Today, Gotham’s humanity is as dazed as ever and, if anything, hotter. Yet the city has become a magnet for young, ambitious, creative people. The difference is that New York has become an amazingly safe city — thanks in large part to the New Yorkers who stuck around to fix much of what went wrong.
It’s one thing to fight in the fray of urban disorder and another to shadowbox in the gentle hills of northern New England.
Sanders puts on a good show, though. Stagecraft may be where his greatest talents lie.