On the Trail with Bernie Sanders - Part I
Part I: Miracle Man
I first find Bernie at a workbench, sanding down a just-finished chair in a backyard shop graciously loaned by a supporter in Londonderry, New Hampshire. I’m not surprised by this—in my briefing I received via email from one of his aides before arriving, it mentioned that Sanders often used woodworking as a way to relieve stress on the campaign trail. I am, however, caught off guard. We so often think of politicians as pure extroverts, requiring the constant approval of outside forces to thrive, to survive, even. Still, there was something hypnotic about watching Bernie Sanders, the center of a movement growing stronger and wider every day, so absorbed in a project all his own, only for him.
Bernie Sanders is a walking oxymoron. He’s a socialist presidential candidate, a 73-year-old social media celebrity, a brutally honest politician. He’s fighting an uphill battle, up against rivals with more money and influence then him, who have established fanbases and deep pockets. Recently, however, the more he’s spoken, the more the people have listened. The news headlines started catching my eye about a month ago. A trip to Wisconsin where he filled a stadium that Hillary left 60% vacant. A steady shrinking of distance in the polls between him and Hillary. A tweet about the republican debate that got more attention than any words the republicans said during the debate. Look on Facebook, and you see posts proclaiming him the savior of the political process, a prophet of the people who can do no wrong. With that in mind, it’s understandable, I think, that I brought a healthy dose of skepticism to our first meeting, at a diner in Portsmouth in between rallies.
Bernie Sanders is a walking oxymoron. He’s a socialist presidential candidate, a 73-year-old social media celebrity, a brutally honest politician.
“So, who is Bernie Sanders?” I asked him as we sat down for dinner. His offstage persona is noticeably subdued in comparison to the fire he summons for crowds. Here, dressed in just a white t-shirt and khakis, he simply smiled beatifically back at me before taking a bite of his meal: a salmon fillet and a half a baguette. “It doesn’t really matter who I am,” he said between bites, “I’m not doing this for me. What I’m doing—this whole thing—is to make this country a better place for you, for everybody, however I can.” Sitting back, he took a sip from his cup. Bernie was an avowed water drinker on the trail, but in that moment, the evening sunset refracting in the glass, it looked almost like a light rosé, sipped by a confident man, adored by his fans, at the top of his game.
The next day was when things began to get truly weird. Bernie had just spoken for 15,000 strong at a rally, and we were returning to the bus when a man with a guide dog intercepted us in the parking lot. “Bernie,” he said, “I just wanted to thank you for the work you’re doing with health care. I’ve been blind for 20 years, and with your proposals, I’ll be able to afford care and treatment, even in retirement.” A mischievous smile I didn’t know was in his repertoire flitted over Bernie’s face. “My health plan is much simpler than that,” he whispered, and with surprising swiftness, Bernie leapt forward and placed his open palm over the man’s face, holding it there for a moment before pulling it away. The man shuddered, and then, unbelievably, his eyes, once vacant and muddied, suddenly focused on me staring dumbfounded at him. “I can…I can see!” he said. We both turned and stared at Bernie, who simply smiled, turned, and walked into the waiting bus. “What the fuck?” I said. “That’s what I was going to say,” said the man.
Apparently, this profile was not going to be as simple as I thought.
To be continued in Part II.