Reading the backstory on Bernie: “Outsider in the White House”

Can a seasoned Independent who calls himself a “democratic socialist” get elected to the White House in 2016? It sounds highly unlikely on the face of it. But Bernie Sanders’ political autobiography from 1997, “Outsider in the House” (he was still a U.S. representative then), has been republished with a new title inserting the word “White” before “House.” If readers and voters got to know him a little better from this candidate’s story told in his own words, it’s just conceivable that political tables could be overturned in a few months’ time.

Many – perhaps most – candidates running for office at this level come out with books promoting themselves and their vision for America. In the crush of his current presidential campaign Sanders probablyhad no time to work up a whole new narrative, especially when the ideas and principles he laid out almost 20 years ago are still very much the content of his program today. Whole passages from his book read as though they might have been penned yesterday, as Sanders thunders against the oligarchy, the media they control, the wars they instigate, and the lousy deal they have inflicted on the working people of our country.

Sanders has shown a remarkable ideological consistency over the years. There’s little evidence of shifting in the political winds, of backtracking or retreat from the main points he has tried to put before the American people for the last 40 years. His capacity to stay on point without being sidetracked by smartass “gotcha” questions from reporters has time and again gently humiliated those faithful servants of the ruling class posing as news providers, while unfailingly reminding his audience of what real and far more important questions need to be asked.

Throughout Bernie’s career he has been plagued by opponents and the media misunderstanding and misrepresenting his message. A powerful recent example of this was the Hillary Clinton campaign’s conscious misstatement of Bernie’s position on Medicare for All, phrased in such a way as to frighten seniors into believing that Bernie intends to end Medicare and raise taxes.

But Bernie has always taken the high road, responding to attack with the truth and the facts, and never stooping to throw mud back or dig into another politician’s past for dirt. By building a slow, steady reputation for fairness and honorable action over a decades-long career, he has won the erstwhile consistently Republican state of Vermont over to a progressive way of looking at the world. In his last election, in 2012, a year that turned the Senate over to the GOP, Sen. Sanders won the confidence of Vermonters in his re-election bid by an overwhelming 71 percent, taking every county in the state.

While the particulars of Sanders’ electoral races going back to the early 1970s are of undeniable historical interest, and certainly to any progressive contemplating a run for office, so much detail about campaigns lost and (mostly) won from decades ago might be a chore for most readers to plow through. In addition he has a filmic habit of jump-cutting back and forth in time that can be confusing. Since the original book seems to have been left intact, with just an appended preface by Sanders and an afterword by political columnist John Nichols, the data cited in its pages are, well, outdata-ed. “[T]here are 12 million American workers earning less than $5.15 an hour, or $10,712 a year,” he says (p. 120), as but one of many statements that might have been brought current in a helpful footnote.

On the other hand, it is truly illuminating into the foresight, intelligence and empathy of this man when one reads, two pages later, “When fast-food chains, grocery stores, and service industry employers pay $4.50 or $5.00 an hour, their employees often need additional support in order to eat, pay the rent, and take care of their kids. These are the workers who receive Medicaid, food stamps, subsidized housing, and other resources through government programs.” We know this is an almost universally accepted analysis today, even among Republicans who are supposedly always trying to rein in government spending. But to say that in 1997? Who was listening?

As the First Gulf War was ginning up under the first President Bush, Sanders had this to say on the floor of the House on January 18, 1991:

“Mr. Speaker, a few months ago the entire world rejoiced that the Cold War had finally ended, and that the hundreds of billions of dollars being spent on bombs and tanks and missiles could finally be used to improve human life, not to destroy human life.

“Mr. Speaker, a major war in the Persian Gulf, costing us thousands of lives and tens of billions of dollars, could well be a disaster for the people of our country – especially the working people, the poor people, the elderly, and the children. I predict that this Congress will soon be asked for more money for guided missiles, but there will be no money available to house the homeless. I predict that this Congress will soon be asked for more money for tanks, but there will be no money or effort available to develop a national health care system, guaranteeing health care for all of our people – as virtually all of the industrialized world has.”

These are the ringing words that in other places and times composers would be commissioned for massed choruses to sing in orchestrated cantatas in our symphony halls. But Sanders’ prescience that the long promised “peace dividend” at the end of the Cold War would soon be squandered in the cultivation of new enemies went ignored. His book is filled with such quotable passages displaying his sensible passion for justice and peace.

Today, with a national audience – despite his virtual eclipse in the corporate media – there is no disputing that Sanders has changed the conversation in America, and forced other candidates to declare themselves on issue after issue.

One of the themes that recurs as a leitmotif throughout Sanders’ life is the degree to which both major parties have colluded to deny an Independent a rightful shot at obtaining office. This complaint could be echoed in every state of the union. Although he is now running of necessity  in the Democratic Party primaries, his career demonstrates that with some pluck it is still possible to mount successful races outside the two-party system, as other recent victories around the country for the Working Families Party and independent candidates for city councils have shown. Under a President Sanders – and even if he is not elected, under his inspiration – I imagine a reinvigorated appreciation for one of his favorite slogans, to advance “the left wing of the possible.”

This is indeed an exciting moment to be a socialist in America.

“Bernie Sanders: Outsider in the White House”

First published as Outsider in the House, 1997.

Verso, 2015, 346 pp., $16.95.


Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon, People’s World Cultural Editor, wrote a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein and co-authored composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography. He has received numerous awards for his People's World writing from the International Labor Communications Association. He has translated all nine books of fiction by Manuel Tiago (pseudonym for Álvaro Cunhal) from Portuguese, available from International Publishers NY.