What Bernie Sanders Is Really Like, From the Reporter Who Covered Him at the Start

More than 30 years after he trudged through the snow to report on the radical socialist's campaign for mayor, Alan Abbey believes the presidential hopeful is still a good Jewish guy.

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Bernie Sanders after winning the New Hampshire primary, Concord, New Hampshire, Feb. 9, 2016.
Bernie Sanders after winning the New Hampshire primary, Concord, New Hampshire, Feb. 9, 2016.Credit: AFP
Allison Kaplan Sommer
Allison Kaplan Sommer

As he was trudging through the snow in 1981, following radical socialist Jewish upstart Bernie Sanders door-to-door in Burlington, Vermont, in his campaign to convince residents was their best bet for mayor, Alan Abbey, then the City Hall reporter for the Burlington Free Press, never dreamed he was watching a man who would someday become a serious contender for president of the United States.

Abbey also would never have guessed that he’d be thousands of miles away, living in Jerusalem as an Israeli as he watched the Sanders phenomenon dominate the national stage. Immigrating to Israel was as far from his mind at the time as the White House was from Sanders’.

Today, with his unique perspective on “the Bern,” Abbey has an interesting hypothesis. He believes that the theoretical first Jewish president he got to know in Burlington would have good chemistry with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the two leaders could create the “personal connection that Netanyahu and [President Barack] Obama have never been able to build.”

“I think Sanders and Netanyahu would get along better, even if they disagreed and yelled at each other in a room, they would 'get' each other in a really deep way that is certainly not the case now,” he posits. It would happen, he says, “because Bernie is who he is and he has a Jewish neshama [soul]. I think he would understand Israel even though he didn’t agree with its government and Netanyahu’s policies.”

Could the ability of the two Jews to schmooze have a serious impact on tensions between a Democratic White House and an Israeli prime minister with a Republican soul when it comes to policy sticking points like West Bank settlements? “That’s impossible to know.”

Abbey knows a side of Bernie Sanders that few do, having spent so much time with him intensively at such a formative stage in his life and political career. Back then, he and Sanders were two of a kind – secular Brooklyn Jews from the same neighborhood transplanted in Vermont, who idealistically wanted to make a difference, Sanders through politics and Abbey through journalism. Sanders was viewed then, as now, as something of an outsider and an oddball – although he was well-known, having made multiple unsuccessful runs for governor and senator. His candidacy for mayor was seen as a long-shot, but the more Abbey watched him, the greater he believed his chances were.

“When I was on the streets with him, I would stand behind him and I would look over his shoulder at people and I really saw how he made a personal one-on-one connection with people, and in a small city, it was real retail politics. He went out there and he connected with people, and that was the surprise. Could say, in retrospect of course, college kids would vote for him and the eggheads at the university. But when Bernie was able to connect with French and Irish Catholic sanitation workers and GE employees and union members who were not the kind of people who you would think support him, that and sanitation workers, that’s when the coin dropped for me, something is going on here.”

It was a transformative time in Vermont, he recalls. “The state was on the cusp of change. Nowadays, Vermont it is almost a cliché – Birkenstocks and Volvos and compost and all that, but when I was there, it was primarily a blue collar rock-ribbed Republican state that hadn’t elected Democrats to state offices in decades.”

The locals weren’t attuned to it, he says, but Bernie was smart enough to perceive the change and used it to his political advantage. “He caught the wave and rode it the way I think he may be riding a similar wave across the United States today.”

To the question of “what is Bernie Sanders really like?” Abbey says we shouldn’t be misled by his “kindly grandfather” exterior. “He doesn't suffer fools gladly, and he has an edge to him He was not warm and cuddly back when I knew him, and from what I understand he's not today – though he’s a devoted grandfather with his family. In the presidential campaign, you see him doing selfies and putting his arm around people – he’s not an unfriendly person. But, when comes to dealing with the issues, and journalists interested in frivolous name calling or finger pointing or tit for tat, he had no patience for that then and has no patience for that now. He isn’t the type to cuddle up to journalists and win them over with tidbits and inside dope in the kind of game that most politicians play to seduce journalists. Bernie never did that with me – and by all accounts doesn't do that today.”

The anti-establishment and economic equality messages Sanders preached at the time were astonishingly similar to those of his presidential campaign, Abbey says, with the same emphasis on taking the city back from the control of the wealthy. The only difference in the language between the candidate for mayor and the candidate for president, he noted is that while back then he railed against “millionaires” today, his nemesis are “billionaires.”

“Somebody sent me a clip from the very first story I wrote about him when he announced, there's a quote in there that made me laugh when I saw it. Literally if you change the “M” for a “B” it was something he could have said yesterday.”

Abbey, who was 26 at the time, went on to cover Sanders’ rocky first years in office. Sanders, he says, an “effective and a smart politician” – not merely a good campaigner. After Sanders, against all odds, won the mayor’s seat by just 10 votes, Abbey covered the way in which the city’s political establishment – from the city council members to the city manager – did their best to intimidate the feisty political upstart.. Abbey recalls that they did what they could to get rid of him – from ticketing his car when it was parked in the mayor’s parking spot, to firing his secretary, to no avail.

“They did everything to stymie him and stifle him. And Bernie fought back. He is a smart politician, he worked on two levels – he used the bully pulpit, he was tough and loud and verbose and pushy. At the same time, when he found people who really wanted to do something, he worked with them in a professional, quiet and smart way and got things done.”

Abbey’s stint in Burlington was part of a long career at various U.S. newspapers, followed by a six-month sabbatical to Israel in 1999, after which he realized he “couldn’t tear himself away.”

He has since left journalism for communications and works as director of internet and media at the Shalom Hartman Institute, but admits he is a “perpetually recovering journalist” and as such, is closely following the US race for president and is having fun in his unexpected role as the go-to guy on Sanders.

Abbey says he’s having fun with his “15 seconds of fame” sought out by media outlets from Politico to Tablet to a range of Hebrew-language Israeli media for “the Jewish angle” on Sanders.

“I’m enjoying the opportunity to speak about someone who is an interesting person who is poorly understood by most, particularly in the media – they haven't gotten him and they still don't get him. A handful are maybe starting to get there. He is so far out of their experience – he is not a beltway bandit and he is not a cynical guy. He doesn’t play the game.”

Reading the coverage in the Jewish media, Abbey thinks the Vermont senator shouldn’t be given such a hard time, as he did after his victory speech, when he referred to his “Polish” parents without mentioning that they were Jews. While Sanders doesn’t flaunt his identity, he doesn’t deserve to be accused of concealing or downplaying it, either, Abbey contends.

“Bernie doesn’t have to wear [being a Jew] on his sleeve because he carries it in his stomach. He is the archetypal assimilated culturally liberal New York Jew. He can’t hide his Jewishness with his accent and his looks and his mannerisms and his whole approach so he doesn’t have to show it off I think because it's so much a part of him, it’s obvious. When asked about it, he’s answered, he's talked about losing his family in the Holocaust. He hasn’t run away from the fact he spent time on a kibbutz in Israel. He has talked about his own personal spin on Judaism.”

“Everyone in New York knows exactly the kind of Jew that Bernie Sanders is, they are like him themselves or they know somebody like him. Bernie he grew up in a time in Brooklyn, in a public school system that was very Jewish, teachers who were very very Jewish, in a high school that was a breeding ground for many of the striving 20th century first- and second-generation of the Jewish American immigrants. In New York, in Brooklyn, there were Jews, Italian and Irish in the neighborhoods we grew up in and everybody knew who you were. So I don't think Bernie's run away from it, I just don’t think it’s a thing he feels he needs to trumpet.”

At the times Sanders has come up against anti-Semitism, he says, he has chosen to “ignore” it and not used it to paint himself and part of a victimized minority.

Sanders is, he thinks, the kind of Jew that most American Jews – if not American Jewish leaders – can relate to. “Except for very few people, Israel is not the number one issue for Jewish voters, liberal domestic issues are. Bernie fits the political profile of the typical mainstream American Jew much better than [Sen. Joseph] Lieberman, who was somewhat conservative, and wore his religion on his sleeve, and made friends in the evangelical community.”

Would he, as an Israeli, feel secure with a President Bernie Sanders in the White House, who has been slammed by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright for his “lack of knowledge” about foreign policy?

Abbey hesitates and confesses that it’s the toughest question to grapple. “I think that virtually every American president in recent memory who has come into office has had a very steep learning curve about foreign affairs and I suspect Bernie’s would be similar to that. His basic core position on Israel hasn’t changed – two-state solution with equal rights and a Palestinian state – which is what most hope would be the outcome of the situation. When it comes to Bernie standing up to the ayatollahs or North Korea – I have absolutely no idea.”

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