It is the kind of story that makes some wonder whether Rep. Bernard Sanders of Vermont, the table-pounding lone socialist in the House of Representatives, can effectively represent his state:
The two U.S. senators from Vermont -- Democrat Patrick Leahy and Republican James Jeffords -- were scheduled to meet with Agriculture Secretary Edward Madigan recently in hopes of getting monetary support for rapidly falling dairy prices -- a major source of economic distress for the farmers back home.
When the legislators discovered that, because of a staff error, Sanders had been invited to the meeting, they were not pleased.
"He thought, 'Why even go now?' " relays an aide to one of the senators. "We knew Bernie would just start yelling and arguing."
"The senator was not happy," confirms an aide to the other. "Bernie had been publicly bad-mouthing the administration nonstop -- it would not have been a conducive environment for negotiation."
Soon after, Jeffords ran into Sanders at a political reception and bluntly informed the newly elected -- and sole -- congressman from Vermont that he was hereby uninvited to a meeting designed to benefit his state.
Bernie Sanders has just been reminded of this slight, a slight that would make any normal, egocentric politician see purple.
He just shrugs.
"If someone says, 'Look, Bernie, we are all getting together and we want to compromise and cut a deal, and I say, 'I don't want to compromise,' I can understand why they don't want me there."
After all, he would be the first to concede that he is not your normal politician.
Slouched on his office couch, in his sixth month in Congress, Sanders, 49, fits every description ever presented of him as the antithesis of the cookie-cutter congressman. He looks as if he just rolled out of bed. His white hair juts out wildly at various angles. He is wearing his trademark rumpled shirt, this one red-striped. His tie is off center. His socks are too short.
Not once during the hour-long interview does he flash the requisite pol's smile, thereby confirming the preconception that he is an angry man. "Why shouldn't I be angry?" he says, launching into his well-worn tirade on the homeless, the helpless and health care, which invariably ends with his expressed disgust about how Congress refuses to stand up to the rich and powerful. One missed meeting is obviously of no consequence to someone whose broader goal is to save the nation from the forces of oppression.
Indeed, Bernie Sanders has long believed his most effective role is not that of inside operator, but of anti-establishment warrior -- and his most effective platform, the soapbox.
"Nothing wrong with being branded an agitator," Sanders harrumphs, in his clipped Brooklynese. "I have been an agitator my whole life."
From his days as a liberal activist at the University of Chicago, through his numerous unsuccessful Vermont campaigns as a fringe candidate, to his famous years as Burlington's controversial and contentious leftie mayor, the tough-talking Brooklyn native has taken to the streets, railing against the injustices of the "ruling class." And apparently he expects no less from his loved ones: His second wife, Jane, whom he married a few years ago, was a vocal community organizer in Vermont. His 22-year-old son wants to be the first socialist in America to own a swimming pool.
But now, by his own doing, Sanders has finally become a part of the ruling class he so distrusts, in an institution where one's abilities to fit into the gentlemanly -- if not protracted -- process is a measure of success.
The pin-stripe suits are wondering: Can Bernie Sanders, known to be more pushy than politic, tone it down enough to help his state -- never mind all the poor, elderly and disenfranchised? He assures that he will work with the people he needs to work with. In particular, he knows he needs enormous support on the national health-care bill he introduced last month, of which he is particularly proud. "I have never felt I had all the answers," he says. "Obviously, in order to get votes, you have to work with other people.
"Let me be frank. Do I think there are people who will dislike me in the Congress because of my style and because of my views? I do. I did not come here to be one of the nicest guys or be elected the most pleasant member of Congress. The people of Vermont did not send me down here to get patted on the back. If there are some people who don't like me, there's nothing I can do about it. ... But I hope people don't confuse bluntness with rudeness. Too many times around here people say, 'My honorable good friend, colleague this and that. I say, 'Okay, come on, let's get to the issues.' "
But it's never that simple. For better or worse, success in Congress has a lot to do with congeniality and finesse. Not only does Sanders appear to lack both, he has also shown some fondness for publicly bashing those with whom he says he will work.
"Do I think left alone the Congress of the United States is capable of passing a single-payout, Canadian-style national health care plan which will guarantee health care to all people?" he asks. "I think not. I don't think there is the political will and courage in this body to stand up to the insurance companies, the drug companies, the AMA."
He once called the Democratic Party "ideologically bankrupt" and then went about trying to get into its caucus, the powerful instrument of legislative strategy in the House.
He also says: "In terms of Congress's abilities to deal with issues that affect the country, I would say the situation is probably worse than I thought it was. And I really didn't have a whole lot of confidence in Congress in the first place.
"I don't have high hopes that this institution as presently constituted is capable of addressing the real issues. I am in the awkward position of saying publicly that I think we need a lot of new blood in this place, that there are hundreds of members of this body who are not effectively representing working people, elderly people and poor people.
"Does that create an awkward situation? I suppose it does. But that's the role I intend to play."
This kind of criticism never sits well.
"It is never a good idea to criticize the institution in which one works," says Rep. Sam Gejdenson (D-Conn.), who was an instrumental advocate for Sanders with regard to committee assignments, and who says he likes the man.
"Members don't want people going around saying they're a bunch a losers," says a senior congressional aide. "How can he expect the same people to work with him -- it just doesn't make for productive relationships."
Sanders, Party of One There is also a question of how a political party of one congressman can build a consensus on issues that matter to him and his state. No decision has been made on whether Sanders will be allowed to move up in seniority in his committees -- Banking, Finance and Urban Affairs, and Government Operations -- which, in Congress, is still synonymous with power. His positions do put him closer to Democrats on the political spectrum, but the Democratic Caucus let him know he was not welcome among them unless he switched parties. Southern Democrats would sooner restart the Civil War.
True, he could become a senior member of his own party. But wait ... he already is. He still wouldn't have anyone to boss around. (There have been only two other self-described socialists elected to the House, and the last was 40 years ago. Though he claims to be a socialist in his political thinking, Sanders calls himself an "independent" for purposes of party identification within the House.)
Democratic members interviewed for this article, some of whom requested anonymity, characterize Sanders as intelligent, and so far, nothing more than an overzealous liberal. But they also say he hasn't had time to make his mark.
"He doesn't ask questions as much as he extemporizes about his philosophy," says Mary Rose Oakar (D-Ohio), who chairs a Banking subcommittee on which Sanders sits. "I do think his outspokenness is refreshing. But he is a party by himself -- and that is a problem."
Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), who also sits on the Banking Committee with Sanders, suggests that Sanders may not have that much impact within. "But maybe that's not his goal," says Frank. "There are some people who seek to have a major effect inside, and others who opt to use the place as a platform."
"He is enormously well informed," says Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy II (D-Mass.), who worked with Sanders in opposing funding the savings and loan bailout by adding to the deficit, rather than increasing taxes. "I have yet to see a new member involved in so many central issues in so short a period of time -- whether it's health or S&L problems -- he gets out front. His positions are certainly left of the mainstream of America. But his intellect is second to none."
All in all, the jury is still out on Sanders. Democrats are hoping he'll be a sure liberal vote: He's pro-abortion rights, anti-military spending, pro-taxing the rich and anti-war. But the party of the majority was a bit unsettled when he voted against the so-called Brady bill, which would impose a seven-day waiting period on the purchase of handguns. It wasn't so much his position that upset Democrats but that he -- a self-proclaimed man of principle -- appeared to oppose the bill for strictly political reasons: The National Rifle Association played no small role in bringing him to office by campaigning vigorously against Sanders's opponent, Republican Peter Smith, who had switched his position on gun control.
"He can give you all the lofty reasons he wants for opposing Brady -- but it was strictly a survival vote," maintains a source close to Vermont politics. "He wants to get reelected next year. Period."
Sanders dismisses the notion that he "caved to the NRA." He offers a multitude of vague reasons for opposing the bill, not surprisingly ending with lofty principle. "I have a problem with a Congress and media that spend an enormous amount of time talking about the Brady bill, which even the strongest proponents know will not have a major impact on crime. I view it as hypocritical."
The Days in Burlington Underdog politics started for Sanders at James Madison High School in Brooklyn, where young Bernie ran for his first office, student body president. He may have come in third in a field of three, but all was not lost. He ran on a platform advocating a drive to raise enough money so that his school could "adopt" a Korean orphan -- which it did.
Following a year at Brooklyn College, Sanders transferred to Chicago, where he studied psychology and led sit-ins in the early '60s against segregated campus housing.
He moved to Vermont in 1968, an urban hippie in search of country living. During the past two decades, he's worked as a psychiatric aide and a carpenter and has had his own nonprofit video company. One of his major projects: a video history of the life of Eugene Debs, the founder of the Social Democratic Party of America and presidential candidate.
All the while, Sanders made himself available as an alternative statewide candidate, often ranting about global issues of little concern to the folks at home. In 1972, he ran for both the U.S. Senate (in a special election) and later for governor, as the Liberty Union candidate. Two years later, he again ran for the Senate, and in 1976 for governor, garnering a surprising 6 percent -- or 11,000 votes.
Detractors in the state came to see Sanders as a Johnny-one-note. "He's the Ronald Reagan of the left -- someone who governs entirely on style, with little substance," says Emerson Lynn, editor of the St. Albans (Vt.) Messenger. "He's always been a one-theme candidate that convinces the working class that all of society's ills can be solved by taxing the rich."
But somewhere along the way Sanders must have realized that broad, knee-jerk denunciations weren't advancing his agenda. It was only when he began shouting about specific local concerns that he was able to turn himself into a virtual cult hero in Burlington. "There was a period when Burlington landlords figured out that they could extract higher rents from four college students than from a family of four -- and tenants were being displaced," explains Garrison Nelson, an associate professor of political science at the University of Vermont. "Bernie took up the cause of the renters, and he became their candidate. ... Had Bernie Sanders not become mayor, the city would have become hopelessly yuppified, with poor people being priced out of Burlington."
Finally, nearly a decade after he began campaigning, Sanders in 1981 beat the five-term mayor of Burlington by 10 votes.
Nelson says the fact that Sanders had developed a modicum of national celebrity became no small part of his Burlington mystique. "It became fun to live in the People's Republic of Vermont," he says. "Morale was high. And he smartly made accommodations to power sources like the policemen's union by getting them raises. He's an extraordinarily gifted street-level politician."
Which is something Peter Smith learned a bit too late. Sanders buried the one-term Republican congressman by 16 percentage points in last November's election.
Now that he has gotten his platform and his $125,100-a-year salary, the successful politician may be starting to appreciate the practicalities of trying to turn ideals into reality. And so his goals are modest.
"I want to force this Congress to deal with issues that it otherwise would not want to deal with," he says. "If I can force the debate forward, the debate the American people want to hear, the debate Congress often ignores, then I would have done some important work here."