The Jillster as is her wont looks upon the past years and finds that Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) echos both Eugene Victor Debs as well as Ronald Wilson Reagan as Sanders pursues the Donkey nomination for POTUS 45. The United States is the only possible place in the world to find such a combination in a single political candidate. It is matched only by the combination of sea salt and dark chocolate on grocery store shelves. Such juxtapositions are not alien to our experience. If this is a (fair & balanced) case of strange bedfellows, so be it.
[x New Yorker]
Bernie Sanders’s Long Run
By The Jillster (Jill Lepore)
Tag Cloud of the following piece of writing
Bernie Sanders formally announced that he was running for President on May 26, 2015, in a stern thirty-five-minute speech he delivered in Burlington, Vermont, on the green-gray shores of Lake Champlain. But, really, his campaign began nearly five years earlier, on the floor of the Senate, on December 10, 2010, when Sanders spoke—without eating, or sitting down, or taking a bathroom break—for eight and a half hours. The “filiBernie,” people called it—“the most Twittered event in the world on that day,” Sanders wrote later–though it wasn’t, technically, a filibuster, since it wasn’t holding up any vote. “You can call it a very long speech,” the Senator suggested. Or: you could call it a manifesto.
“When I walked on to the floor, I had no idea how long I would stay there,” Sanders explained. At the time, he was sixty-nine. The longest speech he’d ever given, he said, was an hour. He wondered, “Would I last three hours, five hours, twenty hours?” He didn’t have a speech written out, though he had pages, scraps, and notes, and he knew what he wanted to say. He had only one rule: No “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” (“I wasn’t going to read from the phone book or sing songs.”) He figured he’d just riff off bits and pieces of old speeches until he dropped. The idea seems to have been to talk for as long as it would take for people to hear what he had to say. And that, more or less, is his plan for this election, too.
How long will he last? Sanders, who used to be a long-distance runner, has always said that he intends to run a very long campaign. Up until now, the press hasn’t taken that, or him, seriously. “Who Is Bernie Sanders?” CNN asked, in a video posted to its site in April. Who cares? Was the answer of a lot of pundits in May, and into June. Sanders, though, has been drawing huge crowds. And in polls in Iowa and New Hampshire, he’s steadily gaining ground against Hillary Clinton. It’s all very Aesop’s Fables. (You can easily kill two or three torpid summer afternoons trying to pick animals for a parable about Clinton and Sanders. The Armadillo and the Hornet?)
Sanders was born in Brooklyn in 1941. In the nineteen-sixties, at the University of Chicago, he became a civil-rights and antiwar activist. He led sit-ins against segregated housing on campus; he worked for SNCC; he went to the March on Washington. He graduated with a degree in political science in 1964, the year that Ronald Reagan gave a speech on behalf of Barry Goldwater, called “A Time for Choosing,” that was aired on television the week before Election Day. The choice, Reagan said, was between the Johnson Administration, which Reagan called “socialist” (because of the War on Poverty), and Goldwater, representing the Founding Fathers, who, as Reagan imagined it, knew that “outside of its legitimate functions, government does nothing as well or as economically as the private sector of the economy.” Among Reagan’s speechwriters, “A Time for Choosing” became known as “The Speech,” since every speech Reagan gave was essentially a version of it. (For more on The Speech, see Robert Schlesinger’s White House Ghosts: Presidents and Their Speechwriters .) In 2011, when Bernie Sanders had the transcript of his quasi-filibuster published as a book, he titled that book “The Speech.”
In 1968, Sanders moved to Vermont, where he worked as a writer, documentary maker, and carpenter, and, beginning in 1971, ran for office. In 1979, he produced a twenty-eight-minute audio documentary on Folkways Records: “Eugene V. Debs: Trade Unionist, Socialist, Revolutionary, 1855-1926.” The liner notes [PDF] describe the record as “An historical narrative written and produced by Bernard Sanders, Director: The American People’s Historical Society, Burlington, Vermont.” It begins:
It is very probable, especially if you are a young person, that you have never heard of Eugene Victor Debs. If you are the average American, who watches television forty hours a week, you have probably heard of such important people as Kojak and Wonder Woman, have heard about dozens of different kinds of underarm spray deodorants, every hack politician in your state, and the latest game between the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees. Strangely enough, however, nobody has told you about Gene Debs, one of the most important Americans of the twentieth century. Why? Why haven’t they told you about Gene Debs and the ideas he fought for? The answer is simple: more than a half century after his death, the handful of people who own and control this country, including the mass media, and the educational system, still regard Debs and his ideas as dangerous.
Debs ran for President, as the Socialist Party candidate, five times. He didn’t expect to get elected; he expected to be heard. On Sanders’s album, several speakers narrate, but it’s Sanders who reads Debs’s speeches, including this one, from 1915:
I am opposed to every war but one. I am for that war, with heart and soul, and that is the worldwide war of the social revolution. In that war, I am prepared to fight in any way the ruling class may make necessary, even to the barricades.
In 1918, Debs was sentenced to ten years in prison, on charges of sedition, for speeches like that. In 1920, he ran for President from prison, and got nearly a million votes. Sanders adores him; he has a plaque honoring Debs on the wall of his Senate office.
Sanders ran for office four times—twice each for governor of Vermont and the U.S. Senate—before running for mayor of Burlington and winning by ten votes. In 1981, he took office in Burlington; Reagan took office in Washington. Sanders isn’t a Debsian socialist; he’s a socialist in the sense that Reagan used that word to describe L.B.J. “He campaigned on the promise of a better life for the working man,” Alan Richman wrote in the Boston Globe. “Nobody seemed to mind that the dream Sanders believes in is called socialism.” He drew the attention of the national press when he ran for reëlection, in 1983. In the Wall Street Journal, for instance, Jane Mayer (who is now at The New Yorker) reported that Sanders began a speech at a fundraiser for the United Way by saying, “I don’t believe in charities.” (He later explained by pointing at the donors: “Most of them were conservative Republicans busy cutting services to low-income people. Then they go collect nickels and dimes, mostly from working people, and congratulate each other on their generosity. I find that hypocritical.”) The head of the Burlington United Way told Mayer, “His speech was, uh, a little longer than we expected.”
He was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1990, as Vermont’s only congressman. He told Elizabeth Kolbert, then a political reporter for the Times, that there were perks to being the only socialist in Congress. “I can’t get punished,” Sanders said. “What are they going to do? Kick me out of the party?” At the time, the most notable way in which he had bucked the Democratic Party had to do with gun control: Sanders opposed the Brady Bill, which placed regulations on the purchase of handguns, a position that’s come up, lately, now that the press is taking him a bit more seriously. (Sanders said then that he did not believe gun control was a federal matter; more lately, he has said that, as a man who holds a middle ground on the issue, he can broker a compromise. Many critics are unpersuaded.) After serving eight terms in the House, he was elected to the Senate in 2006. He is the longest-serving independent in the history of Congress.
Sanders’s eight-and-a-half hour speech in 2010 was a protest over a budget deal that the Obama Administration and congressional Democrats had made with Republicans, in which the Democrats agreed to extend the Bush-era tax cuts. Sanders said that the Republicans had been wildly successful in convincing the American people that these cuts were somehow good for the middle class and working people when, in fact, nothing could be further from the truth. So, he said, he intended to explain what was actually going on, not by speaking to his fellow Senators (who are not known for listening to Sanders) but, instead, by appealing directly to the American people:
President Obama has said he fought as hard as he could against the Republican tax breaks for the wealthy and for an extension in unemployment. Well, maybe. But the reality is that fight cannot simply be waged inside the Beltway. Our job is to appeal to the vast majority of the American people and to stand up and to say: Wait a minute.
This maneuver is Reaganesque: Reagan’s classic move was to ignore Congress and speak directly to the American people. But Sanders’s version of The Speech is upended Debsianism:
There is a war going on in this country. I am not referring to the war in Iraq or the war in Afghanistan. I am talking about a war being waged by some of the wealthiest and most powerful people against working families, against the disappearing and shrinking middle class of our country. The billionaires of America are on the warpath. They want more and more and more.
This is a war that’s been going on, oh, since 1968, which is when economic inequality in the United States, like the new right, began its long rise.
Sanders wants to say his piece. For the moment, he has found his audience. Ω
[Jill Lepore is the David Woods Kemper '41 Professor of American History at Harvard University as well as the chair of the History and Literature Program. She also is a staff writer at The New Yorker. Her latest books are The Story of America: Essays on Origins (2012) and Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin (2013). Lepore earned her B.A. in English from Tufts University, an M.A. in American Culture from the University of Michigan, and a Ph.D. in American Studies from Yale University.]
Copyright © 2015 Condé Nast Digital
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License..
Copyright © 2015 Sapper's (Fair & Balanced) Rants & Raves