Holly Otterbein is a reporter for Politico.
Dozens of children scurry on the screen across Ethan Allen Park in Burlington, Vermont, bobbing for apples and running three-legged races. It is a beaming July day, and they’re at a summer camp for kids who live in local housing projects. The video is washed in a yellow light, like a newspaper left too long in the sun. The year is 1987. Atop a wooden picnic table nearby sits a man, clasping a microphone with both hands as he hunches with his elbows on his knees like a camp counselor. He’s wearing gray slacks and a short-sleeved white button-down, and he looks like he’s been on this earth for far longer than a half-century, but he’s only 45.
This is Bernie Sanders, the city’s socialist mayor, and for whatever reason, he wants to talk about drugs.
“Do any of the older kids you know have some problems with drugs?” Sanders asks. “Who wants to talk to me about that? What about drugs? Is that a problem?”
“I like coke!” a little boy who looks 10 or 12 exclaims.
“Tell me about that,” Sanders says.
“I like Coca-Cola!” the boy clarifies.
“Oh, Coca-Cola. Alright, but who knows about cocaine?” Sanders asks. “Anyone ever seen cocaine?” Do any of the kids know people who use drugs like that? “You don’t have to tell me who,” he says, “but I bet you do.”
This scene is taking place at the height of “Just Say No,” the national ad campaign and moral panic fanned by then-first lady Nancy Reagan. After a few children tell him they’ve maybe gotten a look at cocaine, Sanders warns them, abruptly, “Hold it!” before adding in a warmer tone that it “screws up your mind.” They nod along. Sanders changes the subject to cigarettes. “Who here smokes?” he asks. “Come on, raise your hand.” A child, sitting in an adult’s lap, responds: “I don’t smoke because I’m a little kid. I’m only 5 years old.” At another point, a kid asks Sanders, “Did you know you look like somebody on Back to the Future?’”
This is one of the hundreds of such moments from “Bernie Speaks with the Community,” a bizarre, charming and, at times, startling cable-access TV show that Sanders created in the late 1980s when he was the mayor of Burlington. Until this week, most of the 51 episodes were available to the public only as videotapes in the offices of Chittenden County’s Channel 17, the government access channel for Burlington and the surrounding area. (POLITICO Magazine paid to have them digitized, and CCTV says it is now making them available on its website.)
Over the past few weeks, I watched them all. The production values are so low that they’re sometimes hard to hear and see, which makes them feel more valuable, like an archive of lost secrets. For dozens of hours, Sanders interviews townspeople, and lets them interview him. He gives speeches, but he also does all the day-to-day things a mayor does: He talks with his police chief. He visits the local schools. He chats up elderly constituents. He even plants trees. Well before The Truman Show, or reality TV, and even longer before we grew accustomed to learning on Twitter and Facebook what our friends and our celebrities ate for breakfast, Sanders basically made a lo-fi, analog attempt at livestreaming his day job.
“Bernie Speaks with the Community” was produced from late 1986 until mid-1988. It aired more or less weekly for about a year during Sanders’ third and fourth terms as mayor, on what was then Channel 15. The opening song of the show is, naturally, a folk anthem, typically “We Shall Overcome” or Woody Guthrie's “This Land Is Your Land,” as recorded by Pete Seeger in Burlington in 1986. Its opening image is usually a chalk-outline illustration of a TV set with Sanders’ head talking inside it. The credits often appear to be hand-lettered on white poster board. The episodes usually range in length from 30 minutes to roughly an hour. Topics include Plato, Ronald Reagan, Jesse Jackson’s 1988 presidential campaign, the “immorality” of the war in Nicaragua, the “stupid” property tax, the effects of the looming nuclear apocalypse on children, Burlington’s waterfront, Burlington’s trash dump, Burlington’s snowplow operation, the “incredible increase” in crime, the close-fisted state Legislature, the rich getting richer, the poor getting poorer and the reasons that punk rockers wear black.
The aesthetic of the entire series, all wood paneling and high-waisted jeans and perms, matches the era. Sanders’ suits, too, tend to fit the theme. The best one is either powder blue or white. It’s impossible to tell which color it is, exactly, due to that yellow light washing over every episode.
The series is not just a nostalgia trip to a time before Sanders was famous. It’s an early, somewhat personal picture of a candidate who these days is so relentlessly on-message that it’s hard to imagine he didn’t emerge fully formed as a political superstar. On the shows, it’s possible to detect a young—well, young compared to 2019—Sanders crafting his democratic socialist message, refining the populist parts, shaving off the more extreme elements and figuring out how to sell it to the masses. And you get some very unusual footage of what it looks like when an idealist tries to perform constituent services.
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As much as anything, “Bernie Speaks with the Community”—which on some episodes is shortened to “Bernie Speaks” and subtitled “The Mayor’s Show”—is part of Sanders’ four-decade end run around the media. Thirty years before President Donald Trump won the 2016 election by taking his message directly to voters, and by fighting the mainstream media instead of courting it, Sanders figured he should bypass reporters and simply star in his own show. Today, the media strategy he pioneered is in the playbook of every candidate who announces on YouTube or Facebook Live, and it’s central to Sanders’ ambition to take the White House.
It started with a realization: An outsider mayor who had won by only 10 votes, and whose socialist politics made him the butt of national jokes before he even took office, couldn’t rely on normal press coverage.
“The day after I was elected mayor,” Sanders says in Episode 50 of “Bernie Speaks with the Community,” “I said to some of my colleagues, ‘We can’t survive. We’re going to have to develop our own media.’”
The whole thing started on AM radio. Even before Sanders became mayor, Burlington had had a long-running show, “The Mayor Speaks,” on a local station. After Sanders’ first election in 1981, he announced that the WJOY program would be renamed “The Public Speaks.” That doesn’t seem to have happened, though, and four years later Sanders was off the air. The station’s owners, who had broadcast the show for almost two decades, pulled the plug on “The Mayor Speaks” after he won his third term—something that “disappointed” him greatly, he says on Episode 1 of “Bernie Speaks with the Community.” So he began to think about the possibilities of the small screen.
Throughout “Bernie Speaks,” Sanders talks about commercial media as a kind of enemy. Television in particular he describes as a kind of electronic cocaine: Attributing the remark to Steal This Book author Abbie Hoffman, Sanders says in one episode, “Television is the major drug problem in America today.” In others, he calls it “junk,” laments that “the average American spends 40 hours a week on television” and warns that “the constant bombardment of commercials” is affecting our attention spans. He can veer toward the conspiratorial: “Television is a better way to manipulate people’s minds than through books. And it’s good to have illiteracy, and that’s probably why we have it.”
Three decades before the United States elected a former TV star as its president, the 1980s were filled with anxiety over the role of the idiot box in American life. Neil Postman published Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. CNN established the 24-hour cable news channel. The popular NBC sitcom Family Ties featured a couple of hippie-turned-yuppie boomers, one of whom was the manager of a public television station, struggling to connect with their Reagan-era children. In Burlington, Lauren-Glenn Davitian and Nat Ayer had just created Chittenden Community Television on the city’s Green Mountain cable system. The idea was to take TV out of the hands of for-profit corporations and put it in the hands of the people. And Sanders had an idea for one of its first shows.
In what Davitian now describes as an extremely informal conversation—“it wasn’t his team, it was just him”—Sanders proposed that they make a TV show together, starring none other than Bernie Sanders. They would be co-producers, he said. Davitian and Ayer leapt at the chance. They were Sandersistas: Davitian, a New Yorker whose big, brown curls were barely contained in a pixie cut, had chosen to stay in Burlington after graduating from the University of Vermont because of Sanders. “A whole generation of people like me stayed here because of Bernie and because of what was happening politically,” says Davitian, who more than three decades later is still at CCTV, now as the executive director. Plus, she wanted CCTV to follow an elected official on the job, instead of merely interviewing people in their offices.
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As for Sanders, his purpose was clear: he wanted to control the message. When he’d won the 1981 Burlington mayoral race, ousting an incumbent Democrat as an independent candidate, he was treated as a curiosity. Reporters parachuted in to document how a self-described socialist had gotten the keys to City Hall. A Doonesbury cartoon lampooned his home as “the People's Republic of Burlington.” Says Davitian, “He was pretty suspicious of the media. He wanted to be able to tell his own story about the work that was being done in Burlington. He wanted to take the news and put it in his own hands.”
“Bernie Speaks with the Community” arrived during the golden age of daytime talk, of “Oprah” and “The Phil Donahue Show,” and Sanders’ interviews on the show were something of an homage to those hits. Right-wing radio was also on the rise, and liberals were adamant that they needed something to counter it. He pulled from his own experience, as well: Before he became mayor, he had made educational filmstrips for children. He also once produced a documentary about Eugene V. Debs, the socialist presidential candidate, which, he says on his TV show, he had to badger the local public station to air.
Jeff Weaver, a longtime adviser and friend to Sanders, says the experience of making “Bernie Speaks with the Community” taught Sanders how to use his homebrew media to win policy fights, too. Sanders used the show to make the case for an array of left-wing proposals, from a progressive income tax to a national health care system. He proposed a new kind of loan that would allow elderly people to put off paying property taxes until they sold their home, promoted his administration’s decision to put a local hospital on the property tax rolls and demanded that condominium developers build more affordable housing.
“When Bernie Sanders became mayor, he took on the entirety of the local establishment. The local mainstream media was dead set against him,” says Weaver, who was the campaign manager for Sanders’ 2016 run for the White House. “I think he understood, correctly, that if he was going to have a way to talk directly to people about what he was trying to accomplish in Burlington, he was going to do that himself.”
Whatever good it did for Bernie Sanders at the time, “Bernie Speaks with the Community” is now 1,667 minutes of material for opposition researchers, health care insurance companies and Trump’s reelection campaign to pick through. Here’s a short, and surely incomplete, list of the things Sanders said on his TV show that his opponents could cut into a 30-second ad: The Nicaraguan Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega “happens not to be a communist.” Nora Astorga, the Nicaraguan ambassador to the United Nations who had recently visited Sanders, might have gotten cancer because of the “tremendous grief and suffering that’s going on in her own country” caused by the war. The Soviet Union’s economy is being “devastated” by military spending. And perhaps, as he proposed to a classroom of small children, Burlington should develop an exchange program with communist and socialist countries around the world. “I would like to see families—your mothers and dads and yourselves maybe—go to the Soviet Union and learn about that country, and people from there come to here,” he says. “If you actually had kids here who were from Nicaragua or from the Soviet Union, and they could tell you what's going on in their own country, boy, you could learn a whole lot. And then if kids from Vermont or Burlington were in those countries, they could tell those people what was going on in their hometown.”
A striking part of “Bernie Speaks with the Community” is that Sanders is obsessed with international affairs to a degree that seems downright strange for the mayor of a 40,000-person city. He talks about how he worked with Channel 15 to air films from Cuba. He updates viewers on a city resolution on the war in Nicaragua. In at least one-fourth of the episodes, Sanders discusses foreign policy—a stark contrast to the 2016 election, when he was tagged as a lightweight on world politics.
There is even a lost episode, No. 52, that contains footage of Sanders after he returned from his honeymoon in the Soviet Union, as well as a news conference he gave about the trip. It is not listed on CCTV’s website, and it never aired, Davitian says. I discovered it only when Davitian shared the station’s old show notes with me. The description, clearly drummed out on a typewriter, is this: “Bernie & Jane’s wedding 5-28-88; Return from trip to Soviet Union 6-10-88; press conference about Soviet trip 6-13-88.” CCTV was the videographer for the Sanders’ wedding, Davitian says, and the unaired episode was a kind of memento for the couple. “We did it as a friendly thing,” she says.
When I ask members of Sanders’ inner circle if they’re worried that their boss decided to put so much of his political career on videotape, they admit that “Bernie Speaks with the Community” could be a gift to his 2020 rivals. “The president is probably watching it right now,” Weaver jokes.
But making the show was also crucial in helping to turn Sanders into the national figure he is today. Without “Bernie Speaks with the Community,” “The Mayor Speaks,” and other analog media he created, like “Eye on Vermont,” a TV show that he made in Washington, D.C., with Weaver when he was first elected to Congress and then mailed as videotapes for public-access stations in Vermont to air, Sanders would likely be far less poised on camera. The shows allowed him to hone skills he still uses.
One thing Sanders clearly enjoys doing, during the series run of “Bernie Speaks with the Community,” is interviewing people. In one segment, Sanders visits the Burlington mall. He begins by delivering a tedious monologue on local politics—“the people of Burlington voted overwhelmingly, overwhelmingly in support of Congress moving forward to establish a national health care system”— while sitting uncomfortably alongside a pile of plants and wearing a suit that’s too big for him. Then he starts roaming the mall, talking to passersby about whatever he pleases, and the show takes flight: “What are your views on some of the important issues facing the country, the presidential election and so forth?” “Do young people at the high school have much interest in government and politics?” “Say hello to your ma.”
He spots a pair of seemingly college-age punks clad head to toe in black. Their names are Michelle and Mike. “Let me start off by saying it’s an interesting hairdo,” Sanders says to Michelle. “Lipstick is also very interesting. The color screen will focus in on it. It seems to be black, is that right?”
Sanders keeps at it: “So let me ask you the obvious question, alright? What does your dress mean? What does it say?”
“It’s just basically saying to heck with society,” Michelle says. “To heck with law and order.”
Sanders shoots back playfully, “You’re saying to the mayor ‘to heck with law and order?’”
The punks tell Sanders they “don't like the way society is run.” Everybody is “plastic.” People aren’t “open-minded enough.” The United States “isn't a true democracy, and everybody's always complaining about depression and such—well, that's going to happen in a democracy. It's natural. Because if you have a democracy, there’s going to be capitalists.” They’re anarchists, but communism “doesn’t bother” them. That is, as long as communism means “no freedom of enterprise,” and not “cutting down people’s freedom of speech.”
Sanders thanks them for their “forthright views.”
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Sanders’ best Q&As are less aimless. He uses them to make his political arguments for him. He interviews a labor leader who teams up with religious groups and a nun who helps the poor, a psychologist who studies the effects of the threat of the nuclear apocalypse on children, and a Native American opposing war. The aggregate effect is like watching an alternative version of the news, one that highlights a set of people and ideas you’d barely have known about from mainstream TV at the time.
“Bernie Speaks with the Community” also helped Sanders develop a rule that he still adheres to today about his in-house media: It can’t all be about him. To be sure, his social media accounts publicize his speeches and legislation, and broadcast his campaign rallies at length. But they also tell the stories of young activists fighting climate change, of patients struggling to pay for health care, and of Amazon workers living paycheck to paycheck. Sanders’ most popular video ever, which was published on Facebook in 2017, doesn’t have Bernie in it at all. It’s subtitled, “Here’s what happened when a Republican senator challenged a Canadian doctor on their single-payer health care system.” It has been viewed 33 million times. Another hit, watched 13 million times, is labeled, “We took some American doctors to Canada to see a universal health care system up close. Here's what they learned.”
Those two videos were presaged by two episodes of “Bernie Speaks with the Community,” which almost feel like a trial run for the idea. In one, Sanders interviews a Canadian professor about the country's health system; the professor’s reassuring presence makes the concept of socialized medicine seem less scary. In a later show, he tapes a local radio broadcaster talking to a Canadian doctor about the same thing, allowing an outside observer to do Sanders’ work for him, debunking myths about things like long wait times and substandard care.
Today, that strategy is very deliberate, says Joshua Miller-Lewis, the digital communications director for Sanders’ 2020 campaign. “The goal is to really feature the people who are driving the movement and allow our social media to echo the campaign motto, ‘Not Me. Us,’” he says. “This all comes from Bernie. This is a directive.”
It took years of rehearsals to develop that plan. In “Bernie Speaks with the Community,” Sanders appears in all but one episode.
“He’d spend his morning—all morning—writing in his yellow pad in his office. Writing, writing, writing, so when he went on TV, he’d have his two minutes down,” says Bruce Seifer, a top aide to Sanders when he was mayor of Burlington, of those early days. "He really worked on distilling his message.”
In Episode 50 of “Bernie Speaks with the Community,” it’s a Wednesday night in 1988, when CCTV and the Vanguard Press, a Vermont alt-weekly, are hosting what’s billed as “a discussion of the nation’s media.” It’s for the Vanguard’s 10th anniversary, and a who’s who of left-wingers and rabble-rousers is in attendance: Abbie Hoffman, his fellow Chicago Seven defendant David Dellinger and, of course, Bernie Sanders.
Sanders is the night’s third speaker, and from the moment Sanders steps to the podium, he begins skewering the press—not just the national newspapers and TV stations, but also the station that will televise some of his remarks later, and even the publication that’s celebrating itself by putting on the event. “I don’t usually have kind things to say about the Vanguard” is the first sentence he utters.
From there, he delivers a 20-minute lecture, which touches on everything from the death of local newspapers to the rise of the “simple and stupid” USA Today to the habit of the American press of parroting President Ronald Reagan’s comments like they’re employees of the Soviet Union’s state-owned media. At one point, he even turns, mockingly, to the local television staffer in the room and predicts how his talk will be depicted on the nightly news. “We have no doubt that our reporter here will be able to put it all together in 35 seconds, condensing what we are saying,” Sanders says.
“If you think that the function of Channel 3 or the Burlington Free Press is to educate you about the world in which you’re living, it’s not,” he says at another point. The true goal of the media “is to make money.” It’s no different than a fast-food business, really: “When you go to McDonald's, you don't go there and say, ‘Jesus, I didn't get the whole story about what's going on in Nicaragua!’ You got a hamburger.”
Though Sanders doesn’t mention it, the affair is being recorded by “Bernie Speaks with the Community.” It later airs his speech in its entirety, with a twist: It adds a drive-by attack on local TV station Channel 3. Right after Sanders calls out the journalist who is filming him, the camera cuts away and a Channel 3 newscaster appears. She introduces that night’s segment about the Vanguard symposium, in which the reporter describes the night’s speakers as following “in the footsteps of George Bush” by critiquing the media. The Channel 3 segment then cuts to Sanders talking for 15 seconds.
The point, delivered with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer, is clear: Channel 3 reported on his speech just as superficially as Sanders said it would.
(Asked whether Sanders was right to be paranoid of Burlington reporters, Davitian had a more nuanced answer: “The press was very sympathetic to Bernie. This was exciting. These were young people in their 20s and 30s,” she says. “But I think that the people that owned the television stations and owned the newspapers might not have been as excited about him.”)
In 2019, the critique about corporate control is a well-known leftist trope that any college student who has read Noam Chomsky could recite. But back then, it was relatively novel. “It was just coming into consciousness that there was a connection between the information people received and who owned the means of production,” Davitian says.
Yet it can be hard to disentangle Sanders's ideology about the media—corporate ownership warps the news—from what seems to be a personal hostility he feels toward how reporters treat him, one common to many politicians who aren’t socialists. Paul Heintz, a political editor for Seven Days, says Sanders has refused to do an interview with his newspaper since 2015. That same year, Heintz reported on Sanders’ allegedly rude and hostile treatment of his campaign and congressional employees. “He feels very strongly that he is right about the issues, and he doesn’t like it when other viewpoints are presented or his viewpoints are called into question,” Heintz says.
Even Davitian says she’s frustrated with Sanders over his treatment of local reporters. “He basically, for the last several years, has refused to talk to anyone in Vermont media. He sort of blackballed them,” she says. “He has been really kind of almost a little like Donald Trump in his disdain for the Vermont media.” (His campaign strongly denies that he’s brushed off his hometown press—or is anything like Trump.)
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Sanders hasn’t completely avoided the Beltway press, but he isn't exactly warm and fuzzy when it comes to national reporters. He didn’t hold a news conference for almost the first two months of his 2020 campaign, and when he finally did start granting more interviews in April, they could be prickly. Reminded of the fact that he was a millionaire by the New York Times in an interview about his tax returns, he shot back, “If you write a best-selling book, you can be a millionaire, too.”
As Sanders’ 2020 campaign grows, it’s starting to look more and more like a new-media production studio. He hired Faiz Shakir, a founding member of the liberal site ThinkProgress, to be his campaign manager. His team also includes an ex-radio show host, a former Intercept columnist, book authors, video producers and alumni of NowThis News, a millennial-focused, viral hit-making machine. His aides just launched a new podcast, and they’re in talks about more ambitious projects.
Sanders started this work from his Senate office, where, over the past two years, he quietly built a powerful digital media network that helps him circumvent more traditional channels: His staffers have posted more than 1,000 videos on his Facebook and Twitter pages, on everything from Trump to income inequality to the government shutdown. These clips had nearly 1.5 billion views in 2017 and 2018 on Facebook—almost three times more than all the other 2020 Democratic candidates’ videos combined.
Sanders is known by the reporters who cover him for detesting the name-your-favorite-book, reveal-the-posters-that-hung-in-your-dorm-room, tell-us-what-“Game-of-Thrones”-character-you-are part of campaigning. He is tight-lipped about his personal life. For decades, some people around him didn't know who the biological mother of his son was. Even when it benefits him, he doesn’t open up: After years of being prodded by his aides to talk about the fact that he is the son of an immigrant and participated in civil rights activism as far back as the 1960s—something that could help him connect with key Democratic constituencies—he finally relented this year. But then he largely dropped the themes from his speeches after his first two 2020 rallies.
This has left a chasm in the understanding of what Sanders is like as a person—and given him a reputation for being a one-note, abrasive sermonizer. He rarely smiles. If he were a woman, he would likely be called cold.
“His whole purpose in life is to carry this message,” Davitian says. “He’s so focused on his purpose and his mission that if anything gets in the way of it, he’s just going to go through it. He’s a single-minded person. I mean, he’s a lovely man, but when people work for him, he’s not easy to work for. There’s a shadow to that messianic purpose.”
But when you spend 27-plus hours on the air, a funny thing happens: Your personality leaks out whether you want it to or not. For a political reporter covering Sanders’ 2020 presidential campaign, “Bernie Speaks with the Community” turns out to be a bigger, more authentic glimpse of who Sanders really is than anything you could observe on the campaign trail.
For instance, Sanders is apparently ... funny? “Why are you such a problem?” Davitian asks Sanders on Episode 3 of “Bernie Speaks with the Community,” just blurting out the question that has been on the tip of so many people’s tongues for decades. “And why do you have such a problem with people criticizing you for that?”
Sanders, slouching in his chair with a book in his hand, laughs.
“I don’t have the problem,” he says. “Other people have the problem.”
Other times, Sanders can be downright goofy. In Episode 11, while interviewing residents on the city’s waterfront, he approached a woman and says: “I’m Dan Rather! This is ‘60 Minutes.’” And to someone else: “Do you want to be on ‘Not Candid Camera?’”
On Episode 28, Sanders wears the last thing you’d expect to see on his head: a floppy, wide-brimmed, Stevie Nicks-style cowboy hat. And he does one of the last things you’d expect him to do: ride a horse. “The main point that I want to make,” he says, “is that if I can survive on a horse, anybody can survive on a horse.”
The reason for the stunt is that Sanders is promoting free rides at the Intervale, an open space in the region. Ayer, his co-producer, asks whether Sanders has ever been on a horse before. “Yes!” Sanders responds, faking offense. “Does it look like I have not been?” Then he deadpans, “We always travel together. I would not go to the office in the morning without Bandit by my side. The story of a mayor and his horse. It’s a touching story.”
The show captures him playing hockey and shooting hoops. It reveals him telling oddball stories (like all the times he’s knocked on voters’ doors and “people have talked to me while they’re in the bathtub”) and family lore, like how he hid the TV in the closet when his son was young, but then “we lost the battle.” It depicts him talking regularly to children and old people. Throughout the series, Sanders seems more comfortable speaking to senior citizens than people in their teens and early 20s. At the same time, in his own, weird way, he seems good at playing teacher, at making children feel listened to. In Episode 34, he visits a classroom and a little boy asks him, “How can we stop the wars from happening?” Sanders replies, with pleased sincerity, “That’s the best question that anybody could ask.”
Presidential elections shine a blinding spotlight onto a politician’s career, one that is so bright that it ends up rendering whole other chapters invisible. Some narratives harden, while the nuances of other experiences and decisions are shaved off. A lifetime is collapsed into something not quite real.
A TV show isn’t real either. But a trailing camera with lightly edited local footage from 30 years ago is a lot real-er than the 2020 version of Bernie that he reveals on the campaign trail. “Bernie Speaks with the Community” took place in an era before public relations pros outnumbered journalists 6-to-1, and before television interviews became a reel of carefully crafted monotony. Sanders today is particularly controlling.
But on his own show, decades ago, he was often charmingly off-message. Before watching “Bernie Speaks,” I thought Sanders maybe was truly a one-note man. “Bernie Speaks with the Community” shows that he’s far from it, and has interests well beyond his three or four campaign talking points. Sanders declined to be interviewed for this story, so it’s hard to know why exactly, in the decades since he created the series, he decided that his personality quirks and complex housing proposals were better left on the cutting-room floor. Americans have no attention span, he might rightly think, and so he only has so much time to convince someone in Iowa that his idea is the right one before they flip the channel. So he repeats the same ideas over and over. It makes sense.
Or maybe he isn’t to blame for sanding off his more interesting edges. If I’d watched only commercial news clips about his administration from the 1980s, it’s unlikely I’d get a feel for either his dad jokes or his complicated policy ideas. Both then and now, there isn’t time for that in a rapid-fire news environment. Then and now, the millionaires and billionaires that Sanders rails against are the same people who own many TV stations and newspapers. There’s no incentive, in other words—even a disincentive—to humanize him.
At least, that’s what Sanders might say, anyway. But more than 32 years after “Bernie Speaks with the Community” debuted, he is now in total control of his message. If he wanted Americans to know about his oddball sense of humor, his family life and his foreign policy record in the 1980s, he’d tell them. Wouldn’t he?