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Sanders in ’85: ‘I am Not Now, Nor Have I Ever Been, a Liberal Democrat’

T-shirt on sale in 1985 (Photo by Walter Shapiro)
T-shirt on sale in 1985 (Photo by Walter Shapiro)

“I am not now, nor have I ever been, a liberal Democrat.”  

Bernie Sanders stressed that self-definition as we sat in his drab mayoral office in Burlington, Vermont, which featured two separate pictures of early 20th century socialist Eugene Debs on the walls. It was the summer of 1985 and I was in Burlington to profile the three-term socialist mayor for New England Monthly.  

What struck me at the time, though, was how politically shrewd it was for Sanders to portray himself as just beyond the fringe. In the 1980s, just like today, America was brimming over with earnest liberal Democratic mayors of boutique college towns like Burlington. But being a socialist mayor — that was the Bernie badge of distinction.
Sanders the Socialist was partly the creation of an Associated Press night editor trying to spruce up a 1981 election story on the unlikely victory of an independent mayoral candidate in Burlington. “Are you really a socialist?” the man from the AP asked in a telephone interview. When Sanders said, “yes” without hesitation, the ballad of Bernie was born.  

By 1985 — even though vendors were still selling “People’s Republic of Burlington” T-shirts — the local business community had made an uneasy peace with Mayor Sanders. As I wrote at the time, “Seeping through Burlington is a growing suspicion that Bernie Sanders is a bit eccentric but fundamentally no more radical than, say, Gary Hart.”  

Because New England Monthly folded in 1990, my Sanders profile was never digitized. Retrieving a microfilmed copy after 30 years was a curious exercise — a time warp trip back to an era when the leading shops along the Church Street pedestrian mall in Burlington were Laura Ashley and Benetton.  

Striking are the then-and-now continuities in how Sanders presents himself, down to an irascible impatience with politics. “I’m more tired today than I was four years ago,” the 44-year-old Sanders told me in 1985. “The pettiness of politics gets you down after a while, the silliness of people trying to make you look stupid.”  

You can almost hear the 74-year-old Sanders saying exactly the same words today after another day of being pummeled by the Hillary Clinton campaign.  

By 1985, Sanders was already restless with his role as the Commissar of Potholes in a small Vermont city. But his thoughts at that point were directed not at Congress, but toward running for governor.  

“What I find appealing about being a governor is that you’re closer to the people,” he said. “You can vote the right way in Washington and still be a million miles away from the people.”  

In reality, Sanders was elected to a fourth term as Burlington’s mayor in 1987 and won Vermont’s lone House seat in 1990.  

Much has been made of Mayor Bernie’s idiosyncratic decision to celebrate his 1988 honeymoon in Mikhail Gorbachev’s Soviet Union.  

But far more radical was the week in 1985 that Sanders spent in Nicaragua as a guest of the left-wing government of Daniel Ortega.  

(At the time, Ronald Reagan had begun secretly funneling military aid to the contras battling Ortega. This illegal operation gave rise to the Iran-contra affair, but I digress).  

By all accounts, Sanders reveled in his time in Nicaragua, especially in his 75-minute audience with Ortega himself. But back in Burlington, Sanders artfully distanced himself from the Sandinistas. “I am not sure whether my position on Nicaragua is conservative or radical,” he told me. He went on to say, “If you don’t like the Sandinistas — fine. I really couldn’t care less. What I care about is that you don’t go and destroy these people and commit the American people to a war there.”  

Even three decades ago, Sanders had developed the political skill of appealing to voters who accepted little of his radical worldview. An early 1985 poll found that 35 percent of local Reagan voters would support Sanders for another term as mayor.  

It is a small reminder — one that is lost on too many politicians, including Hillary Clinton — that authenticity sells. More than almost any politician in America, Sanders is the same today as in 1985.  

Some of that reflects the continuing pull of his working-class roots in Brooklyn. Some of it speaks to his self-image going back to high school: “I was always a rebel. I didn’t fit in.” And some of it may be a shtick that he developed on the fly in the 1980s — and that is still working for him.  

We are at a point in the political calendar when press attention to Bernie at the Barricades has been sharply dropping off in anticipation of a Hillary Clinton sweep in Saturday’s South Carolina primary. The wave of March 1 primaries, mostly in the South, are expected to fatten Clinton’s delegate lead.  

The next week may leave the Sanders candidacy reeling. Or it may prove yet again the folly of the rush to Premature Certainty that governs so much of media coverage. But either way, it is worth marveling at how far Bernie Sanders has come from his tiny mayoral office in Burlington, in which the only personal touch was two pictures of Eugene Debs.  

Roll Call columnist Walter Shapiro is covering his 10th presidential race. A fellow at the Brennan Center at NYU, he is lecturer in political science at Yale and is the author of the forthcoming in June ‘Hustling Hitler: The Jewish Vaudevillian Who Fooled the Fuhrer.’ Follow him on Twitter at @MrWalterShapiro .  

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