Burlington, Vt. -- The senator was returning to the place where it had all begun for him. Almost 40 years ago, to the surprise of practically everyone, perhaps including himself, he had been elected mayor of Burlington, Vermont’s largest city and the only one with any real claim to the title. Back then, students from the University of Vermont, mobilized by his energetic grassroots campaign, had contributed significantly to his 10-vote margin of victory. Now he was back, at the student union, on a very cold night in February to speak of many things, including the possibility that he would run for president. He had been saying that he was thinking seriously about it. Which translated, if you lived in Vermont, into, “He’s running.” He had, after all, been running for something here in Vermont long before most of the people in his audience were born. Even before their parents were born.
Though Bernie Sanders wasn’t likely to say anything he hadn’t said before, many times, I had decided to make the two-hour drive up to Burlington to listen to him. The rough two-lane road was mostly empty, and the Adirondacks and Lake Champlain glowed in winter sunset colors off to the west. The big Champlain Valley dairy farms looked as if they had seen better days. Sanders and Vermont’s other senator, Patrick Leahy, make it something like a sacred trust to keep those farms in business. They survive but they do not prosper. Like just about everything else in Vermont, they look like they have seen hard use. Vermont is struggling.
Burlington (pop. 40,000), however, was bustling. My wife and I found a place to eat that could have been picked up and moved to any number of small, prospering American cities. It featured a wide selection of Vermont-made cheeses. While the big dairy operations work hard to get by, the boutique cheesemakers flourish. There were also a number of Vermont-brewed beers on the menu, and my Long Trail IPA was very good.
After dinner, we made our way to the student center. The Sanders event had brought out such a crowd that the room where he spoke was filled to capacity. The overflow was sent to another room, where the audience could watch the senator on a large television screen. This room was also nearly filled. My eyeball estimate put the turnout at 1,000 or so.
Sanders spoke only briefly, and it would be charitable to call it a speech. He made remarks around themes that are a constant in his political life. The fixed stars on his horizon are economic inequality and the essential unfairness of the political system. His Manichean universe consists—and always has—of Wall Street and the millionaires and billionaires in opposition to the middle class, the poor, and what he likes to call “working people.” American life consists of an unequal and ceaseless struggle, which the bad guys are always winning.
“I wish I could tell you my generation left this country in a better place, but it hasn’t,” he says to the students. “And now your job is to start thinking hard about these issues. Embrace democracy in its fullest form and do everything you can to make sure this country fulfills its potential.”
The students listened raptly as a 73-year-old man told them, among other things, that they need to step it up. “Sixty-three percent of the people who are eligible did not vote. Eighty percent of the eligible people in your age group.”
Sanders does not pander and he does not joke. If my generation made a mess of things, he tells his audience, then so far, yours isn’t doing much better.
The students, of course, lap it up.
One reason might be that, unlike the politicians they see on television, Sanders clearly speaks out of conviction. Also, he doesn’t deal in qualifiers or nuance or even complex sentences. He is direct and forceful. In his run for the White House—announced a few weeks after we heard him—he will certainly be underfunded. But, you think, he can save a lot on polling and focus groups and that sort of thing. There is no ambivalence in his DNA.
Sanders, tonight, is saying the same things to these students that he said to some of their parents and grandparents. You don’t go to a Sanders speech expecting to be surprised. His political thinking (the only kind of thinking that he seems to do) has not changed since he first ran for the Senate as a candidate of the Liberty Union party in 1971 and captured 2 percent of the vote. A reporter, now retired, who remembers covering Sanders back then, says today, “Even if you don’t like Bernie—and I don’t—you have to admire him for two things: his consistency and his determination.”