The public battles that await the ever-private Bernie Sanders: ANALYSIS

Sanders never seemed interested in rest or, at times, even basic comforts.

October 5, 2019, 10:30 AM

I covered Senator Bernie Sanders for more than a year during the 2016 presidential primary. At 30 years old, it was an absolute struggle to keep up with him.

Sanders never seemed interested in rest, pause, or at times even basic comforts, if he could get away without them. He would eat his meals on the go, in planes and in moving vehicles. Early in the race, before members of the press traveled with campaign, I would load up on sandwiches in my car for the entire day, knowing his 12 or 14-hour itinerary definitely would not have meal breaks built in.

He liked simple food and cherry juice. He was fueled by something deeper: a relentless passion and determination on the issues. It burned in him and kept him standing. He didn’t just make four or five campaign stops in a day, he roared on his feet for nearly an hour, in front of hundreds or thousands four or five times a day.

He has been known for humble mentions of his athletic past. He told Dr. Oz, "I have been very healthy in my life, and you know, I've had some issues, but basically, I've been healthy."

"When I was a kid growing up in New York City in Brooklyn, I was a cross-country runner and a pretty good miler and I have good endurance," he added— a near hilarious understatement. He ran a ‪4:37 mile and was a ‬was a city-wide champion.

He celebrated winning the New Hampshire primary in 2016 by shooting hoops, and his backyard in Burlington is set up for baseball with the grandkids. Every time I visited his home, he was playing catch while talking to reporters.

But Sanders has never been one to campaign on his own life story.

References to his personal life have always been rare in his campaign. Instead, for years he went out of his way to duck what amount to political lay-ups: those personal photos and headlines that other campaigns lavished. Halloween 2015, he wanted to carve out time to go trick-or-treating hand-in-hand with his grandkids. His staff begged him to let one camera follow along. Only in the last few months was his team comfortable with and pushing more headlines about his family: their immigrant roots and intimate battles with the health care system in America decades ago.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders shakes hands with audience members after speaking at a campaign rally at Great Bay Community College on Feb. 7, 2016, in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.
Andrew Burton/Getty Images

My theory has long been that he is fundamentally private, but more that he is a crusader, who does not see the utility in any distractions from the issues. Be it former Secretary of State and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s emails or his personal story, Sanders wants to talk policy until his voice runs out.

"This race is not about Bernie Sanders or the presidential primary. This election is about the future of the Democratic Party and this country," he would often say wrapping his old speeches and he seemed to mean it.

His aversion to distractions might be exactly what drives him to step aside after this.

Regardless of how quickly he recovers physically, this hospitalization for a clogged heart artery could bog him down politically for a while. And more unconformable than artery stents for Sanders will be getting question after question about his well-being.

Sanders' health incident was diagnosed as a heart attack Friday, three days after being admitted to the hospital. He walked out of the medical facility Friday night, saying, "I feel great, and after taking a short time off, I look forward to getting back to work."

Sanders previously said during his hospital stay that he will definitely attend the next Democratic debate on Oct. 15.

His campaign surrogates and closest fans know him as a fighter and he won’t want to let them down.

The largest nurses’ union in the country endorsed Sanders in 2016 after all and several of those medical professionals took to Twitter to talk about how patients often bounce back from procedures like the one the senator underwent in Nevada Tuesday night.

More, earlier this week his team score a major win, which might have helped turn the national narrative about his campaign’s momentum. His raised a record $25 million in the third quarter largely because so many people give recurring donations to his campaign each month, a sign of deep, dedicated support from a segment of voters. Those super-fans could take this moment to circle the wagons and point to other candidates’ vulnerabilities instead.

This moment with Sanders’ health could easily ricochet and hit both former Vice President Joe Biden, 76, and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, 70. First, there could be new scrutiny about their ages too and whether the moment calls for generational change as some other candidates in the race have suggested. Second, we have already seen Sanders try to pivot this episode into a talking-point on Medicare for All, and expect pressure on Warren from Bernie-world about her commitment to the issue.

But again, those storylines, even about some of his opponents, could be seen as a distraction from the issues Sanders cares about and exactly what he is not interested in.

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