Weekend at Bernies 3, Vote 4 Bernie!
Weekend at Bernies 3, Vote 4 Bernie!
My favorite candidate. ..
How Bernie Sanders Learned to Be a Real Politician
A portrait of the candidate as a young radical.
Bernie Sanders in 1981, a few months after being sworn in as mayor of Burlington, Vermont Donna Light/AP
Sometime in the late 1970s, after he'd had a kid, divorced his college sweetheart, lost four elections for statewide offices, and been evicted from his home on Maple Street in Burlington, Vermont, Bernie Sanders moved in with a friend named Richard Sugarman. Sanders, a restless political activist and armchair psychologist with a penchant for arguing his theories late into the night, found a sounding board in the young scholar, who taught philosophy at the nearby University of Vermont. At the time, Sanders was struggling to square his revolutionary zeal with his overwhelming rejection at the polls—and this was reflected in a regular ritual. Many mornings, Sanders would greet his roommate with a simple statement: "We're not crazy."
"I'd say, 'Bernard, maybe the first thing you should say is 'Good morning' or something,'" Sugarman recalls. "But he'd say, 'We're. Not. Crazy.'"
Sanders eventually got a place of his own, found his way, and in 1981 was elected mayor of Burlington, Vermont's largest city—the start of an improbable political career that led him to Congress, and soon, he hopes, the White House. On Tuesday, after more than three decades as a self-described independent socialist, the septuagenarian senator launched his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination in the Vermont city where this long, strange trip began. But it was during Sanders' first turbulent decade in Vermont that he discovered it wasn't enough to hold lofty ideas and wait for the world to fall in line; in the Green Mountains, he learned how to be a politician.
Not long after graduating from the University of Chicago, and fresh from a stint on an Israeli kibbutz, Sanders arrived in Vermont in the late 1960s on the crest of a wave. The state's population jumped 31 percent in the 1960s and '70s, due largely to an infusion of over 30,000 hippies who had come to the state seeking peace, freedom, and cheap land. Sanders and his then-wife bought 85 acres in rural Vermont for $2,500. The only building on the property was an old maple-sugar house without electricity or running water, which Sanders converted into a cabin.
Free-range hair and sandals notwithstanding, Sanders never quite fit the mold of the back-to-the-landers he joined. "I don't think Bernie was particularly into growing vegetables," one friend put it. Nor was he much into smoking them. "He described himself once in my hearing as 'the only person who did not get high in the '60s,'" recalls Greg Guma, a writer and activist who traveled in the same circles as Sanders in Burlington. "He didn't even like rock music—he likes country music." (Sanders did say in a 1972 interview that he had tried marijuana.) "He's not a hippie, never was a hippie," Sugarman says. "But he was always a little bit on the suburbs of society."
What Sanders did share with the young radicals and hippies flocking to Vermont was a smoldering idealism forged during his college years as a civil rights activist—he coordinated a sit-in against segregated housing and attended the 1963 March on Washington—but only a fuzzy sense of how to act on it. Sanders bounced back and forth between Vermont and New York City, where he worked at a psychiatric hospital. After his marriage broke up in the late 1960s, he moved to an A-frame farmhouse outside the Vermont town of Stannard, a tiny hamlet with no paved roads in the buckle of the commune belt. He dabbled in carpentry and tried to get by as a freelance journalist for alternative newspapers and regional publications, contributing interviews, political screeds, and, one time, a stream-of-consciousness essay on the nature of male-female sexual dynamics:
This 1972 Sanders essay, published in an alternative newspaper called the Vermont Freeman, reflected his affinity for Sigmund Freud. Vermont Freeman
Sanders was aimless. Then he discovered Liberty Union.
The Liberty Union party was conceived in 1970 as part of an informal network of leftist state parties that would uproot the two-party system and help end the Vietnam War. In Vermont, the party's leaders hoped to find a receptive audience amid the hippie emigrants. Its cofounder, a gruff, bushy-bearded man named Peter Diamondstone, had predated Sanders at the University of Chicago by a few years; Diamondstone likes to joke that they "knew all the same Communists" on the South Side.
By the winter of 1971, Liberty Union was floundering. "We were lost as a political party," Diamondstone says. That January, Sanders showed up with a friend at the Goddard College library, for a Liberty Union meeting. (The school was a favorite lefty gathering spot, and its alumni include Mumia Abu-Jamal and the members of the band Phish.) It was a large crowd by the group's standards—maybe 30 people. The party was struggling to field a candidate for the upcoming Senate special election. Sanders, with dark hair, thick black glasses, and his two-year-old son in his arms, stood up impulsively in a room full of strangers. "He said, 'I'll do it—what do I have to do?'" Diamondstone recalls.
Sanders lost that race, the first of four losing campaigns over the next five years (twice for Senate, twice for governor). In addition to opposing the war, the party pushed for things including a guaranteed minimum wage, tougher corporate regulations, and an end to compulsory education. (Vermont's schools "crush the spirits of our children" Sanders once remarked). Sanders floated hippie-friendly proposals, such as legalizing all drugs and widening the entrance ramps of interstate highways to allow cars to more easily pull over to pick up hitchhikers.
But through these campaigns, Sanders emerged as one of the leading voices within the organization and as its spokesman to the rest of the state. Within a few years, he was named Liberty Union's chairman. "He was a mouthpiece, he was an orator—we called him 'Silvertongue,'" Diamondstone says. During his 1972 campaign for governor, Sanders crisscrossed the state with the party's choice for president—the child-rearing guru Dr. Benjamin Spock.
During his years with Liberty Union, Sanders' uncommon political views helped him get headlines, but not votes. Bennington Banner
In those early years, Sanders, a member of the Young People's Socialist League at the University of Chicago, was a true believer in what might be called small-s socialism, and had little patience for lukewarm allies. He believed in the need for a united front of anti-capitalist activists marching in step against the corrupt establishment. Guma recalled meeting Sanders for the first time at a campaign information session and asking why the candidate for Senate should get his vote. Sanders, in effect, told Guma that if he even needed to ask, Liberty Union wasn't for him. "Do you know what the movement is? Have you read the books?" he recalled Sanders responding. "If you didn't come to work for the movement, you came for the wrong reasons—I don't care who you are, I don't need you." In interviews at the time, Sanders suggested that dwelling on local issues was perhaps counterproductive, because it distracted activists from the real root of the problem—Washington. Sanders started a small monthly zine to promote the Liberty Union's agenda. It was called Movement.
"I once asked him what he meant by calling himself a 'socialist,' and he referred to an article that was already a touchstone of mine, which was Albert Einstein's 'Why Socialism?'" says Sanders' friend Jim Rader. "I think that Bernie's basic idea of socialism was just about as simple as Einstein's formulation." (In short, according to the physicist, capitalism is a soul-sucking construct that corrodes society.)
Before there was the 1 percent, there was the 2 percent. This lo-fi 1972 ad pitted the young Senate candidate against the elite few who control the nation's wealth. Bennington Banner
Sanders built his campaigns against a theme that would sound familiar to his supporters today—American society had been pushed to the brink of collapse by plutocrats and imperialists and radical change was needed to pull it back. "I have the very frightened feeling that if fundamental and radical change does not come about in the very near future that our nation, and, in fact, our entire civilization could soon be entering an economic dark age," he said in announcing his 1974 bid for Senate. Later that year, he sent an open letter to President Gerald Ford, warning of a "virtual Rockefeller family dictatorship over the nation" if Nelson Rockefeller was named vice president. He also called for the CIA to be disbanded immediately, in the wake of eye-popping revelations about the agency's misdeeds.
But Sanders was beginning to question whether Liberty Union had a future. He drew just six percent of the vote when he ran for governor in 1976 (the three other campaigns didn't fare any better), and he was drifting away from the global ambitions of Diamondstone, who was now advocating "a worldwide socialist revolution." After the last American troops left Saigon in 1975, the anti-war party was faced with an existential crisis. And Sanders faced one of his own. Liberty Union could claim a few victories—it helped to defeat a telephone rate increase and secured more funding for state child dental programs. But he believed that absent a serious change, the party would never be anything more than symbolic.
"That's what distinguished [Sanders] from leftists who were more invested in the symbolism than in the outcome," Sugarman says. "He read Marx, he understood Marx's critique of capitalism—but he also understood Marx doesn't give you to