For those of you who've not had the pleasure of attending Bernie Sanders' press conferences over the last 16 years, here's a chance to catch the Sanderista sermon all in one sitting. In a book that is three quarters a political speech and one quarter a superficial memoir, Vermont's best-known political folk hero hits the bookshelves this summer with a 10,000-copy first edition. Unfortunately, it's a book that only true believers will enjoy.
Granted, it's not easy to slam a book in which one is quoted by the author as "an astute and long-time observer of the Vermont political scene." Flattery should count for something. But then honesty gets in the way.
Outsider in the House is the Little Red Book of Chairman Bernie's political philosophy. Originally the entire book was a polemic, but the publisher wisely requested a more personal touch. Thus we get a herky-jerky tale that jumps back and forth from sermons to Bernie's version of Vermont political history — one that is sanitized to polish its author's image.
Assisting Sanders with the writing is Huck Gutman, chair of the English department at the University of Vermont. This Huckleberry ain't no Finn, though, and its impossible to detect Gutman's style or input in this very dry text. Gutman is a long-time political crony of Sanders who was appointed to the Airport Commission in the 1980s by then-mayor Sanders, He continues to serve in that capacity today.
The "personal memoir" sections of the book are lacking in both detail and color — human scent is completely absent. And Sanders gives little credit to those who supported him in the political trenches beyond mentioning their names. No descriptions; Sanders apparently wouldn't know an anecdote if it punched him in the face, He doesn't even have a kind, loving word for his wife Jane — his companion since 1981 mayoral victory and founder of the Mayor's Youth Office — other than to note she's talented at handling the media. His 1989 trip to Cuba with Jane, for example, gets all of three little sentences:
"Jane and I visited Cuba in 1989. I had hoped to meet with Castro, but that didn't work out. But I did meet with the mayor of Havana and other officials."
End of story. But why didn't it work out? And what did Sanders and the Cuban mayor talk about? Who were the other officials? And what did he and Jane do? The answers to those questions would no doubt be characterized by Sanders as "political gossip" — something he righteously disdains. So be it.
It's the same story when Sanders visited Nicaragua in 1985 for the seventh anniversary of the Sandinista Revolution as "the highest-ranking American official present." He meets with President Daniel Ortega, we're told, but, once again — no story. Not a peep about what was discussed. Not a hint of an impression of Ortega. Just the fact that they met.
There's absolutely nothing new to learn about Bernie Sanders in Outsider in the House. But it's what Sanders left out, more than what he put in, that interests this reviewer. For example, the Congressman writes of his college days at the University of Chicago. He'd have us believe he spent most of his time there "burrowed deep in the stacks" of the university library. Pretty exciting stuff. He graduated it 1964. Then there's a seven-year gap, after which he pops up in Vermont in 1971, in the midst of the anti-Vietnam War movement, and captures the Liberty Union Party nomination for the U.S. Senate.
But there's not a peep about Liberty Union founder Peter Diamondstone. Nor is there an answer to the No.1 question that all red-blooded American men who came of age in the 1960s had to answer: What to do about the draft? How did Bernie Sanders manage to avoid conscription? The answer is not to be found in this book.
Then there's the sanitized recollection of his 1981 political miracle — winning the race for mayor of Burlington. In Sanders' memory, he achieved victory almost singlehandedly. "Starting with the low-income and working-class wards, I knocked on as many doors as possible. As I walked through the neighborhoods, I told people that I would do my best to represent those in the city who had long been locked out of City Hall."
Sanders claims he even won support from upper-income citizens by attacking a plan to build luxury high-rise condominiums on the city's waterfront. What he neglects to mention is that he was not in a head-to-head race with Mayor Gordon Paquette in 1981. Apparently, he forgot that the real key to his historic victory was the candidacy of Independents Richard Bove, who received 1091 votes, and Joe McGrath, who garnered 139 votes. Sanders won that mayoral race by 10 votes with far less than a majority — 40.1 percent. Maybe this was omitted for space reasons.
And that also must be the explanation for omitting his ardent support for a $100 million waterfront-development plan four years later. The Alden Plan, as it was known, was to be the feather in Bernie Sanders' cap. The plan was boutiques, snazzy restaurants and 120 luxury condominiums on the "people's waterfront," and Bernie Sanders was its chief proponent. It would have been a done deal had the voters not balked. Too bad Outsider in the House doesn't include the inside track on that political escapade.
But what did anyone really expect — an honest tell-all or a self-serving reconstruction of history? The only mistake our hero owns up to in the entire book is not responding quickly enough to Republican challenger John Carroll's television ads in the 1994 congressional race. What a revelation!
Outsider in the House is not heading for the best-seller list any time soon. And with a $25 price tag, it's hardly "affordable" for the poor, working class and elderly people Sanders champions. But, not to worry, by the Christmas shopping season, Bernie's book will be marked down to $1.99 — a great stocking stuffer for Vermont political junkies.