David Weigel, a national political correspondent for The Washington Post, covered Bernie Sanders in 10 states.
If the white working-class voter was this election’s A-lister, the journalist was its heel. Countless Youngstown and Wilkes-Barre dispatches did not shield reporters from the jeers and bird-flipping of Trump voters. The Clinton campaign, in a mopey Thursday memo, blamed its close defeat on the FBI’s e-mail obsession — that is, on how the press spent the election’s last weeks talking about the former secretary of state’s e-mail.
Bernie Sanders may have the biggest gripe of all, and “Our Revolution” is arriving to talk about it — in the most deadpan, wistful and wonkish way. The press labeled him “fringe.” In 2015, it covered the collapsing Jeb Bush (remember him?) more than the surging Sanders. Before listing the “giant corporations” that own the press, Sanders painstakingly describes a series of news conferences where he tried to get issues covered and reporters instead asked about trivia.
“As a general rule of thumb, the more important the issue is to large numbers of working people, the less interesting it is to corporate media,” Sanders writes. “The less significant it is to ordinary people, the more attention the media pays.”
There’s much more to “Our Revolution,” which reads like the author started hitting his keyboard and did not sleep until he finished. (Sanders crashed it in three months, between the Democratic primary contest and his October campaign swing for Hillary Clinton.) Reading it as a reporter who covered Sanders closely, I felt like a sitcom character who gets beaned on the head and hallucinates an angel — or a talking dog, or a 75-year-old senator from Vermont — spinning lessons about what really matters in life.
In any other year, Sanders’s story would have dominated American politics. At the start of the campaign, as he recalls with some wryness, neither the press nor many progressive activists took him seriously. (A 2014 poll by MoveOn found 32 percent of its members favoring Clinton and just 6 percent picking Sanders.) “Was there a better potential progressive candidate out there than me?” he writes. “Probably not.”
With detail reminiscent of a dissertation, he describes how local reporters covered his events — especially the ones that dealt with rural poverty, or Native Americans, or veterans. “We held sixty-eight meetings there and brought out 41,810,” he writes of New Hampshire. “On Election Day I received 151,584 votes. The likelihood is that over 25 percent of the vote we received came from people who had attended one or more of our meetings.”
Anyone picking up “Our Revolution” to learn what the Sanders campaign was like will get some impassive memories and not much else. The arrival of the Secret Service, which spent five months protecting the most successful democratic socialist candidate in American history, is mostly amusing. “I was traveling in an armored vehicle accompanied by a fleet of cars and a number of well-armed agents who made sure I was safe in the bread aisle,” Sanders writes.
Sanders’s own celebrity amuses him, too. But there’s no recollection of what a cult figure he became, his image merged with band logos and cartoon characters by people hawking Bernie T-shirts online or at his rallies. “People wanted cell phone photos,” Sanders recalls of his early momentum. “I was beginning to get used to the concept of the ‘selfie.’ ”
And there is almost nothing about the skullduggery of modern campaigning. There are few details about election nights or how emotions were running at any particular time, with exceptions such as Sanders’s admission that he grew “increasingly nervous” before the first Democratic debate. The criticism of his occasionally pro-gun record, he shrugs, was “an unfair attack but one that I did not handle well.” On the decision to run for president, the reader learns more about what Sanders ate with his wife, Jane — “especially good” blueberry pancakes at Denny’s — than what was said.
Most of the campaign story is told through local media coverage (and asides, like how running as an insurgent was about “campaigning in a town that no presidential candidate had ever visited”). A short digression into why only elderly voters considered him too old to be president ends with Sanders reminding readers that he had “one of the strongest records in Congress on senior issues.”
That’s the point. Sanders, who had been saying roughly the same thing about the threat posed by oligarchy for 30 years, suddenly found that 14 million voters agreed with him. They “were prepared to fight back, and the word ‘socialism’ didn’t frighten them,” he writes. Even as he gathered them, the media did not see him coming, then did not see Donald Trump coming and — one assumes — does not see whatever is coming next.
That leads into the most telling, and detailed, of Sanders’s campaign stories. When CNN kept pushing him at a debate to criticize Clinton for her use of a private e-mail server, Sanders said the media was worrying over the wrong issues. “The middle class of this country is collapsing,” he said. “Enough of the e-mails!”
In retrospect, Sanders writes, “the answer certainly struck a chord in the audience, which rose in a standing ovation and prolonged applause.” But its success was more of a distraction than a boon. Sanders had sandwiched his criticism of the e-mail obsession with a quick rundown of the economic issues he badly wanted to discuss. “The media combined the two remarks about the e-mails and chose to omit coverage about the issues,” he writes.
Those issues make up the rest of “Our Revolution,” in an extended information dump that supplements Sanders’s old stump speech with a tree-slaughtering army of charts. Any reader who was not already a fan of Scandinavian welfare systems will become one. Anyone not outraged by the state of things — it is hard to imagine who — will get disquieting statistics chased by lines honed at all of those meticulously organized rallies. “More than 23 percent of working mothers in America have to go back to work just two weeks after giving birth,” Sanders writes at one point. “Just two weeks to bond with and spend time with their newborn babies.”
When “Our Revolution” was written, Sanders probably expected to be throwing a manifesto at Clinton’s presidential transition team. Trump is hardly mentioned at all here. The danger of big money in politics has a solution: a new Supreme Court justice who will overturn Citizens United. The threat to Social Security has a solution, too: elect people who will expand it instead of cutting it.
None of that is possible now, but the journalists explaining why are chastened. For two years — arguably, for eight or 16 years — politicians like Sanders were characters in a larger story about how Clinton would take power. If it was remarkable that tens of thousands of people would cram arenas to hear about socialism, it was understandable, according to campaign reporting, because people wanted to push Clinton to the left.
Sanders did shift her, and the Democratic Party, leftward. She was then defeated by a Republican candidate who abandoned the mainstream right — including the Koch brothers, Sanders’s bete noire — on trade and Social Security. She has vanished. Sanders has not.
“I was gently faulted by some for having excessive ‘message discipline,’ for spending too much time discussing real issues,” Sanders writes, taking one last whack at his critics by mocking their assessment: “Boring. Not what a successful modern campaign was about.”
By Bernie Sanders
Thomas Dunne. 450 pp. $27