Wednesday, February 07, 2007

The Socialist Senator

highwayscribery has been sitting on this “New York Times” piece by Mark Leibovich entitled, “The Socialist Senator,” for almost three weeks now. That may be a bit long, but Vermont’s Bernie Sanders (S), the socialist senator at the center of the article was just elected and won’t be going anywhere for six years.

For those who don’t know, back in the 1980s, when the rest of the world was in a serious move away from socialism, the quirky voters of the Green Mountain State elected Sanders, a mayor of Burlington, to be its sole congressional representative. Last November, Sanders rode the progressive wave into office, a socialist senator.

Enough history.

Liebovich’s piece is part-and-parcel of a venerable American journalistic institution: the tongue-in-cheek, mildly insulting, progressive profile with all familiar particulars: dreamy (read: stupid) idealism, silly validation of the Scandinavian model, keen to point out inconsistencies between the utopian dream and pothole politics, discussion by political rivals about how abrasive that socialist (who’s not really a socialist) really is.

Despite following Sanders around for a few days, Liebovich’s profile provides us with very little insight into what being a socialist senator is like and a lot about the socialist senator there is not to like.

But it’s still an article about a socialist senator and we’re going to further amplify its life-span today at highwayscribery.

The piece starts off kindly enough, noting how Sanders is not necessarily “connecting” in the way focus-group-tested candidates strive to, it’s just that, “the process seems needlessly passive and unproductive, and he prefers a more dynamic level of engagement.”

Before a group of affluent high school students Sanders urges them, “to argue with your teachers, argue with your parents.”

Now that the scribe is a parent, he must be less of a socialist.

When students bemoaned a loss of financial aid for college, Sanders asked them, “Who in here wants us to raise taxes on your parents to pay for this?” When no hands are raised Sanders shrugs, “O.K. So much for financial aid.”

And that’s good stuff. Senator as democracy preacher.

We learn that Sanders is originally from Brooklyn and then has the expression, “yooooge,” attached to whatever he says for the duration. And that’s a good character touch.

Then we learn Sanders’ face is like a “mood ring. His complexion goes orangey-pink when he’s impatient (often when someone else is speaking), purpley pink when he’s making a point or a softer shade of pink when at rest, ‘rest’ being a relative term.”

Now we’re getting personal, but that must be Liebovitch’s style. the highway scribe doesn’t see why Sanders’ mood ring face is important and senses the article’s first nasty turn.

Then we get a poor summation of Sanders’ socialist pedigree, given that it’s largely from the perspective of those around him whom, we are informed, consider him a “freak.”

And it may not be that it’s his socialism, rather his “jackhammer style.”

Which begs the question: If you were a senator and people thought you were a freak, wouldn’t a jackhammer style be in order?

Anyway, Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-V), and some Vermont poli-sci professor all weigh-in lukewarmly on Sanders’ virtues, which have nothing to do with the fact he is socialist, and more to do with the fact Vermonters are as batty as he.

“People have gotten to know him as Bernie, not as a socialist,” Leahy explains.

But he’s still a socialist right?

Then the obligatory Scandinavian exchange in which Sanders points to some charmingly peaceful, equitable, prosperous, vacation-laden, health-cared-up-the-wazoo countries in northern Europe and gets shot down by the simple observation that Americans don’t like taxes.

Well they don’t like saving, and they don’t like paying as they go, and they don’t like talking their problems out with other countries and, quite frankly, it’s not going so good for Americans lately.

Sanders has muddy shoes, wears rumpled suits, lacks humor, is stuck on boring topics like affordable dental care (it’s “yooge”), and goes in for wacky left-wing gimmicks like forming sister city relations with the Sandinista government in Nicaragua.

He is, in the end, “much more convincing at proffering outrage than solutions,” and in closing, “a strange bird out of Vermont.”

Now, Mark Leibovich is a writer at the “New York Times,” and much more accomplished than the highway scribe. And someone at The Gray Lady had to edit and sign off on his piece, maybe even two or three eminent cocktail party-type people.

And so maybe Bernie Sanders, truly is an orangey-pink-faced, Viking-loving, Sandinista sorority sister, stuck on small bore issues and hackneyed campaign platforms like, “reversing the rapid decline if the middle class.”

Perhaps he is all the small and dismal things that, when added up, make for the rather unappealing person profiled in the “Socialist Senator.”

But he’s still a socialist senator, which is neat and rare to write around here. The reality of Bernie Sanders in the U.S. Senate expands the horizon of our political order, gives greater texture to our national debate, and speaks wonders about the resiliency and openness of the American democratic system.

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