Many years ago I pitched a magazine editor on a story about Bernie Sanders, then a congressman from Vermont, who'd agreed to something extraordinary – he agreed to let me, a reporter, stick next to him without restrictions over the course of a month in congress.
"People need to know how this place works. It's absurd," he'd said. (Bernie often uses the word absurd, his Brooklyn roots coming through in his pronunciation – ob-zert.)
Bernie wasn't quite so famous at the time and the editor scratched his head. "Bernie Sanders," he said. "That's the one who cares, right?"
"Right, that's the guy," I said.
I got the go-ahead and the resulting story was a wild journey through the tortuous bureaucratic maze of our national legislature. I didn't write this at the time, but I was struck every day by what a strange and interesting figure Sanders was.
Many of the battles he brought me along to witness, he lost. And no normal politician would be comfortable with the optics of bringing a Rolling Stone reporter to a Rules Committee hearing.
But Sanders genuinely, sincerely, does not care about optics. He is the rarest of Washington animals, a completely honest person. If he's motivated by anything other than a desire to use his influence to protect people who can't protect themselves, I've never seen it. Bernie Sanders is the kind of person who goes to bed at night thinking about how to increase the heating-oil aid program for the poor.
This is why his entrance into the 2016 presidential race is a great thing and not a mere footnote to the inevitable coronation of Hillary Clinton as the Democratic nominee. If the press is smart enough to grasp it, his entrance into the race makes for a profound storyline that could force all of us to ask some very uncomfortable questions.
Here's the thing: Sanders is a politician whose power base is derived almost entirely from the people of the state of Vermont, where he is personally known to a surprisingly enormous percentage of voters.
His chief opponents in the race to the White House, meanwhile, derive their power primarily from corporate and financial interests. That doesn't make them bad people or even bad candidates necessarily, but it's a fact that the Beltway-media cognoscenti who decide these things make access to money the primary factor in determining whether or not a presidential aspirant is "viable" or "credible." Here's how the Wall Street Journal put it in their story about Sanders (emphasis mine):
It is unclear how much money Mr. Sanders expects to raise, or what he thinks he needs to run a credible race. Mr. Sanders raised about $7 million for his last re-election in Vermont, a small state. Sums needed to run nationally are far larger.
The Washington/national press has trained all of us to worry about these questions of financing on behalf of candidates even at such an early stage of a race as this.
In this manner we're conditioned to believe that the candidate who has the early assent of a handful of executives on Wall Street and in Hollywood and Silicon Valley is the "serious" politician, while the one who is merely the favorite of large numbers of human beings is an irritating novelty act whose only possible goal could be to cut into the numbers of the real players.
Sanders offers an implicit challenge to the current system of national electoral politics. With rare exceptions, campaign season is a time when the backroom favorites of financial interests are marketed to the population. Weighed down by highly regressive policy intentions, these candidates need huge laboratories of focus groups and image consultants to guide them as they grope around for a few lines they can use to sell themselves to regular working people.
Sanders on the other hand has no constituency among the monied crowd. "Billionaires do not flock to my campaign," he quipped. So what his race is about is the reverse of the usual process: he'll be marketing the interests of regular people to the gatekeeping Washington press, in the hope that they will give his ideas a fair shot.
It's a little-known fact, but we reporters could successfully sell Sanders or Elizabeth Warren or any other populist candidate as a serious contender for the White House if we wanted to. Hell, we told Americans it was okay to vote for George Bush, a man who moves his lips when he reads.
But the lapdog mentality is deeply ingrained and most Beltway scribes prefer to wait for a signal from above before they agree to take anyone not sitting atop a mountain of cash seriously.
Thus this whole question of "seriousness" – which will dominate coverage of the Sanders campaign – should really be read as a profound indictment of our political system, which is now so openly an oligarchy that any politician who doesn't have the blessing of the bosses is marginalized before he or she steps into the ring.
I remember the first time I was sold on Bernie Sanders as a politician. He was in his congressional office and he was ranting about the fact that many of the manufacturing and financial companies who asked him and other members of congress for tax breaks and aid were also in the business of moving American jobs overseas to places like China.
Sanders spent years trying to drum up support for a simple measure that would force any company that came to Washington asking for handouts to promise they wouldn't turn around and ship jobs to China or India.
That didn't seem like a lot to ask, but his fellow members treated him like he was asking for a repeal of the free enterprise system. This issue drove Sanders crazy. Again showing his Brooklyn roots, Bernie gets genuinely mad about these things. While some pols are kept up at night worrying about the future profitability of gazillionaire banks, Sanders seethes over the many obvious wrongs that get smoothed over and covered up at his place of work.
That saltiness, I'm almost sure of it, is what drove him into this race. He just can't sit by and watch the things that go on, go on. That's not who he is.
When I first met Bernie Sanders, I'd just spent over a decade living in formerly communist Russia. The word "socialist" therefore had highly negative connotations for me, to the point where I didn't even like to say it out loud.
But Bernie Sanders is not Bukharin or Trotsky. His concept of "Democratic Socialism" as I've come to understand it over the years is that an elected government should occasionally step in and offer an objection or two toward our progress to undisguised oligarchy. Or, as in the case of not giving tax breaks to companies who move factories overseas, our government should at least not finance the disappearance of the middle class.
Maybe that does qualify as radical and unserious politics in our day and age. If that's the case, we should at least admit how much trouble we're in.
Congratulations, Bernie. Good luck and give 'em hell.