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Late to Discern the Bern

'I felt like a film critic who'd slammed the Best Picture winner'

Bernie Sanders' words recall Bobby Kennedy's tragic 1968 campaign. (Photo By Al Drago/CQ Roll Call)
Bernie Sanders' words recall Bobby Kennedy's tragic 1968 campaign. (Photo By Al Drago/CQ Roll Call)

NEW YORK — Few aspects of political reporting are as ridiculed as drawing sweeping conclusions from the sentiments of friends.  

That explains why a bogus 1972 line from New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael is quoted almost as often as “The Godfather.” After Tricky Dick’s 49-state landslide, Kael supposedly said (but didn’t), “Nixon can’t be president. Nobody I know voted for him.”  

Sometimes, though, a friends-and-family poll can provide surprising insights. Especially before a New York Democratic primary pitting a carpet-bagging former senator against a granola refugee from Brooklyn who ended up in Vermont.  

Earlier this month, I was stunned to discover that many of the guys with whom I have been drafting fantasy baseball players for 30 years are fervent Bernie Sanders supporters. Our annual dinner (after six hours in the trenches bidding on shortstops) erupted into an uncharacteristic political argument, with Hillary Clinton backers in short supply.  

As I realized that I had misjudged the political allegiances of my grey-haired contemporaries, I felt like a film critic who’d slammed the ‘Best Picture ‘ winner.  

Every time I had covered a Sanders speech I had failed to discern the Bern.  But maybe I was missing something. Maybe I had been too dismissive of a presidential candidate who reminded me of the armchair Marxists I had known at the University of Michigan in the 1960s.  

Putting cynicism aside and bravely leaving Manhattan, I crossed the East River Saturday afternoon to attend a Sanders rally at LaGuardia Community College in Queens. My goal was to understand the enthusiasm that has transformed a backbench Vermont senator into a strong rival to Hillary of the Long Résumé.  

Sitting behind me in the jammed college auditorium was 32-year-old Chanel Mone from Jackson Heights, who had raced across Queens to see Sanders when she had heard about the rally. “When I first read about him on the Internet about a year ago, he seemed too good to be true,” she said. “The things that he is saying are the things that I have believed since I was a child.”  

So my goal in Queens was to channel Chanel. She was one of the hundreds chanting “Bernie, Bernie” as Sanders railed against apathy and the political status quo.  

“The reason I’m doing this is because for a variety of reasons people are demoralized. They’re told over and over again, ‘You’ve got no power. This is the way things are — and this is the way they will always be. You can’t do anything about it.’ Well, I think you can.”  

As I listened carefully, Sanders’ words reminded me of a long-ago Democratic presidential candidate far different in background, accent or speaking style. All through his tragic 1968 campaign, Bobby Kennedy used a quote that he freely adapted from George Bernard Shaw: “Some people see things as they are and say why? I dream things that never were and say, why not.”  

For Sanders, that why-not idealism produces air-castle oratory about the dream of tuition-free college and Medicare for all.  

Bernie’s role model has always been Eugene Debs — the quixotic American socialist and five-time presidential candidate — whose portrait adorned the wall of Sanders’ 1980s mayoral office in Burlington. Debs (who died in 1926) represents the triumph of political persistence and patience. Many of his seemingly outlandish leftwing ideas were codified into law by Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s.  

As the oldest major presidential candidate in American history, the 74-year-old Sanders is entitled to lapse into nostalgia. At the heart of his stump speech is a longing for the time when America seemed fairer and more welcoming to hard work than it is today.  

Sanders harks back to an era when the “billionaire class” did not control a major fraction of America’s wealth; when a unionized factory worker could support a family of four on a single income; and when City College in New York was tuition-free and great public universities like Berkeley were inexpensive. As Sanders put it as he justified his free-college-tuition plan, “This is not a radical idea … This virtually existed in this country 50 years ago.”  

That golden age of American equality (civil rights and feminism aside) was the turbulent 1960s. The very era that sent a certain young University of Chicago student to the library to study Marxism was a time — partly because of a strong labor movement — when America’s bounty was shared across class lines.  

To quote Joni Mitchell , a troubadour of those 1960s, “Don’t it always seem to go/That you don’t know what you’ve got/Till it’s gone.”  

In the middle of Sanders’ speech in Queens, his wife Jane raced on stage to tell him that the networks had just awarded him the Wyoming caucuses. Triumphant cheers filled the auditorium as he joked, “There are probably more people in this room than there are in Wyoming.”  

Wyoming looks huge on a map of the United States colored to reflect the states that have gone for Bernie and Hillary. But what few Sanders stalwarts initially realized was that — because of the Democratic Party’s rules on proportional representation — Sanders and Clinton ended up evenly splitting Wyoming’s 14 delegates.  

More than 200 pledged delegates behind and overwhelmed by Democratic super-delegates backing Clinton, Sanders has to be aware that he will almost certainly end up short of the nomination.  

So the biggest question — as I think of Bernie acolytes like Chanel Mone — is how the Vermont senator can let his most fervent supporters down gently. For the fall election may partly depend on how Bernie Sanders, that most unlikely presidential crusader, handles defeat.  

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