As deputy campaign manager for Bernie Sanders’s 2020 presidential run, Ari Rabin-Havt got an intimate look at the daily life of the independent senator from Vermont. Now he’s chronicled those experiences in a new book, “The Fighting Soul: On the Road With Bernie Sanders.”
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All right, on this week’s podcast, we’re welcoming back to the show Ari Rabin-Havt.
Ari, thanks for joining us again.
Ari Rabin-Havt: Third time! Hopefully a charm.
RG: Third time. Both of your previous appearances have been listener hits. It’s hard for me to think of people as other than readers — but listeners.
If people want to hear more about Ari’s professional background, check out the episode on the parliamentarian. We go through some of your early years.
ARH: Some deep Senate cuts there.
RG: Some deep Senate cuts there. Ari was also one of the guests talking about the legacy of Harry Reid, having worked for him off and on for many, many years.
ARH: You kind of never stop working for Harry Reid.
RG: You never stop working. Once you’re a made man.
ARH: You know, you can’t get out. They just pull you back in.
RG: So today he’s joining us to talk about his new book out called “The Fighting Soul: On the Road With Bernie Sanders.”
ARH: Out April 26.
RG: Out April 26. Not out yet. But you already had — so it was in The New York Times. Maureen Dowd, congratulations. And authors love to get write ups in The New York Times, and they’ll take it if it’s Maureen Dowd.
ARH: You take it.
RG: You take it. You take what you can get. So it’ll be out soon.
ARH: But you can preorder it everywhere.
RG: “The Fighting Soul: On the Road With Bernie Sanders.”
And so how did you first meet Bernie Sanders?
ARH: So in 2016, I had kind of left direct electoral politics for a while. I was hosting a show on SiriusXM, on their progressive channel. And I was assigned by Sirius to cover the Javits Center the night of what was supposed to be Hillary’s election.
And I had this plan after the election that what I wanted to do was continue to do my show, but start a think tank that would be a counter to Third Way to push Hillary’s administration to the left, and force those issues and be a resource for progressives on Capitol Hill. And there was some funding in place and there were some kind of initial thoughts and the plan was pretty far. Because I don’t think anybody really expected — not anybody, there were definitely people who expected — but it didn’t look likely that Donald Trump was going to win.
And the question was: Now we have an administration that is not progressive in the sense that I am, and how do we push them to be more progressive? How do we strengthen progressives’ hands on the Hill? And looked at Third Way as a model of what they do to moderates and said: This would be a good thing.
ARH: Obviously, that night —
ARH: — the election does not go that way.
And it was like 9:30 in the evening, and I ran into an old friend who I asked: “What’s going on in Florida?” And they said: “Oh, there’s still votes out. There’s still votes out!”And this was after I was up in the hall. And I watched the Clinton surrogate team, it’s like a hall of radio hosts, kind of next to where the rally area was, I watched them pull their surrogates very quickly out of the hall. So I knew something was going on, because they literally came in and swept up all the surrogates.
And he said that to me, and I turned, I was like: You guys lost this! Like, holy shit. Donald Trump’s gonna be president. And I went back on air. And it was like, 9:30-10 o’clock at night. And I was like: Donald Trump is gonna win. I really do think Hillary has lost this. I think the campaign’s people think that.
And I got like a text from one of the SiriusXM executives being like, that’s a bold call to make at this hour. And I’m like: I’m sticking to it. Something might turn, but right now, this is not looking good.
And it’s a strange moment because I don’t think anybody conceived of what a Donald Trump presidency would be like.
RG: Including Donald Trump.
ARH: Including Donald Trump.
And I walked back to Times Square, because I couldn’t get a cab or Uber, it was all jammed up. And I got to my hotel because Sirius studios are right next to Times Square. So I was staying in Times Square and I walked over at 5:30 in the morning. And Joe Sudbay and Linda Sarsour were hosting the 3-6 a.m. that night. And they just looked wrecked. Right? And we all hugged.
And I don’t even remember doing that show. It’s just like I went on autopilot. Because I remember walking over to the studio being like: What the eff am I gonna say? And I remember being like: I don’t know what to say to people at this point. My whole plan was like, the start of a progressive push against Hillary, not a Donald Trump is going to be president, what do we do?
And the only thing I’m thinking in my mind is hosting a radio show is the easiest job in the world — it’s actually not, it’s actually a huge grind, but you’re not a part of it, you’re kind of outside the system. And I was just like: I have to get back in politics in some way. I started making calls. And, you know, there were points during 2015-2016 where I had random discussions with people about joining the Bernie campaign. And they kind of were pushed aside for a few reasons.
But I started getting serious. And Faiz and I were talking, and Faiz knew Bernie from his time with Reid and then had helped Bernie’s campaign for a bit. So Faiz introduced me to Bernie. I went over like a few weeks later, I got called in for an interview with him. We spoke for a few hours. And I remember thinking: I’m going to do this interview, and just give him ideas, and whatever happens, happens.
And the next day I was in my office, and I was wearing jeans and a t-shirt, like completely slovenly. And I got a call from Warren Gunnels, who’s Bernie’s longest, like continuously serving staffer at this point. And Warren’s like: Can you come in at 1 o’clock? And it was like noon. And I was like: Sure. And I ran across the street to a JoS. A. Bank because I couldn’t get home to get clothing on. And I literally bought a suit at JoS. A. Bank to go into the meeting. But it’s JoS. A. Bank, so I got three suits.
JoS. A. Bank Ad: Buy one suit, get two free at JoS. A. Bank.
ARH: They’re always like, “Three suits for the price of one!”
JoS. A. Bank Ad: Buy two suits, and get two free!
JoS. A. Bank Ad: Friday through Sunday at JoS. A. Bank.
RG: You can’t just get a suit.
ARH: You can’t just get it. It’s like you’re just wasting two suits at that point. And they’re like cheap suits.
And so I show up in Bernie’s office with like two shopping bags. The person at the front desk looked at me like I was absolutely out of my mind. And I was like: “I’m here to see Bernie!” “Uh, just sit over there.”
And like five minutes later, Bernie pokes his head out of his conference rooms. And he’s like, [does a Bernie impression] “Alright, you get in here.” So like, the front desk goes: Oh, you’re not crazy.
And so I walk into the room, and it’s his senior staff. And he’s having a senior staff meeting. And he just has a senior staff meeting with me sitting there. And after the meeting, he pulled me in and we had another conversation. And he was basically like: Yeah, I think this is going to work. I’ll give you a call.
Like a few weeks later, I got a call from his then-Chief-of-Staff Michaeleen [Crowell]. We talked about it, I decided I wanted to get back in and I thought Bernie Sanders was the opportunity to work for somebody whose policies I always agreed with, who I really believed was the answer to Donald Trump’s authoritarianism, who I really believed would have won in 2016. And the opportunity presents itself. And I took it.
And over the course of that first year, Bernie and I grew closer and closer together. And that’s how I ended up.
RG: And the Faiz you’re talking about is Faiz Shakir, who then ended up becoming his 2020 campaign manager.
RG: You ended up becoming one of the deputy campaign managers. And the book is not a typical kind of analysis of Bernie. It’s not an analysis of politics. It’s kind of your story.
ARH: Yeah, and —
RG: Of following Bernie and being one of the closest physically, like proximate to him, over a period of like four or five years.
ARH: What I thought about this book is Bernie is one of the most famous people on earth. He’d hate that that’s the term I refer to him as.
RG: But he is like Mick Jagger, as he says, in the book.
ARH: There’s a line in the book, where we’re driving outside the Capitol, like cutting across the front of the Capitol. And there was a group of school kids who were on some tour, and they saw Bernie was in this car in the front seat, and they surrounded the car and were screaming: “Bernie! Bernie!” And he rolled down the window, and they’re taking selfies with him, and the light changes to like green, and we go, and you hear, “Ahhhhhhhhh!” Like, the kids are so excited.
And Bernie just turns to me, he’s like, “I’m like Mick Jagger.” And he can laugh about it. Like he was really making a joke about himself. And that’s the side of Bernie that, first off, a lot of people don’t know that. That he’s a really funny guy. But second, I do actually also believe he is probably the most important person not to win the presidency since William Jennings Bryan, or since TR in 1912.
RG: Most important elected —
ARH: — official not to win the presidency in terms of influence over politics.
I do think Bernie fundamentally changed the Democratic Party in this country. And I see all these campaign books, these kinds of reporter tell-alls, and then somebody writes like a palace intrigue book, yada, yada, yada. And I was like: There’s no book from an outside perspective — well, an inside perspective, but with going back to my writing before politics.
RG: Right, because it’s not your first book.
ARH: It’s not my first book. Who is Bernie? And I felt I had a real story to tell about, frankly, our journeys for three years around the country. And the most important part is who this guy is — who is a pretty remarkable human being that I think, even if you don’t like Bernie, this is a story that I think you should read.
RG: And one reason so few people know Bernie is his hostility to what he sees as frivolous.
RG: And he sees as frivolous anything that he doesn’t want to be talking about at that moment. Like any issue that he’s not — if it’s something outside of the issue that he’s driving at that precise moment, it’s frivolous.
ARH: I wouldn’t go that broad because I don’t think, if he wants to talk about the economy —
RG: OK, yeah. I don’t mean that. You’re right.
ARH: — a foreign policy issue as frivolous. I do think he views a lot of what the political media covers in D.C., a lot of the personality stuff, a lot of the — oh, we need color stuff, frivolity — but that’s also how people shape their views on candidates. But also that level of discipline is why Bernie is Bernie.
I think that’s the other piece of the book that I think is the most important message. There are all these people who after the campaign, their message is if only Bernie changed x about himself, he could have won. But the point is, he can’t change them about himself.
RG: [Laughs.] Mhmm.
ARH: The Bernie that presents is 100 percent authentic to Bernie — except cursing in private. And you don’t get Bernie, but it also means he’s not a standard politician and won’t play by the rules of standard politicians. And we kind of can get into examples of that as we talk about the book.
RG: And there’s not too much frivolity in the book, but one of the moments where I might have had tears running down my cheeks reading it, laughing, is your description of a dinner in Vermont, with you, and Warren Gunnels, and Bernie, where you decide to go to the supermarket. Bernie wants to cook.
ARH: So we were in Vermont, and Warren and I went up to help him with a book project. We had taken time off, and we went up to Vermont. And Bernie said: “Let’s get steak for dinner.”
I say this in the book, but steak for dinner with Bernie can mean like a few different interpretations. It could mean in D.C., Pizzeria Uno could be referred to as the steak place.
ARH: Which is not a good steak place. It’s not even a good pizza place. I say this is somebody who was a waiter at Pizzeria Uno. But also in Burlington, it could mean there’s a hibachi place that isn’t bad that he has referred to as the steak place. But in this case, we drove to the supermarket in his Chevy Aveo, which there was like all these right-wing, weird rumors at one point that Bernie had like an Audi, like a $100,000 Audi, when he’s driving a Chevy Aveo. Which is, I don’t know if people know, go look up the Chevy Aveo and see what this car is. Trust me. It’s literally the exact opposite.
RG: How does he survive winters in Vermont?
ARH: Oh my God. Once I was at a staff member’s house for a social gathering. And Bernie came and it was the middle of winter and the house is like on a hill in Burlington, and I’m watching Bernie parallel park the Chevy Aveo on ice and I was like: Oh my God, this is not a good situation.
RG: So you take the Aveo to the supermarket.
ARH: So we took the Avea to the supermarket, and he literally buys ice cream, frozen peas, and a London Broil.
RG: Was it Ben and Jerry’s?
ARH: No, it was not Ben and Jerry’s.
RG: Wow. Burn. [Laughs.]
ARH: Oh, oh, oh, no. Oh, no, no, it was not.
ARH: Yeah, scoop! Two scoops.
And we go back to his house, and he has a normal grill outside. And he kind of throws the steak on the grill and then turns on the propane. So the grill isn’t even heated up — which, basic steak cooking 101, you heat up the grill before so you get a sear on it; throws the peas into like a pot of water or whatever. And serves this steak that honestly —
RG: He just pulled it right out of the bag, right?
ARH: Like, pulled it right out, put it on the grill. And Warren’s sitting there and he’s like, Oh my god, this is a great steak. And by the way, Warren totally legit, like 100 percent, Warren thought it was a great steak. And I’m just like, this is —
RG: How much did you get through?
ARH: I mean, half maybe? I don’t remember. I remember struggling through this one. And Bernie would make fun of me. He was like, “Yeah, you and Jeff eat at the Rahm Emanuel place.”
RG: What’s the Rahm Emanuel place? Is that BLT?
RG: Super-expensive. Yeah.
ARH: He once was at a meeting at the AFL-CIO, which is on 16th Street. Around the corner there’s a steak place in D.C., BLT, which is in other cities, too. It’s like a high-end steak chain, I guess. And I think he walked in and saw the prices —
RG: Did he see Rahm?
ARH: And he saw Rahm Emanuel and saw the prices on the menu —
RG: — and walked out.
ARH: — and walked out.
ARH: There was once like, some like scene in DC and it was like Jeff, me, and a few other people were having dinner at BLT. And for some reason, one of the newsletters put it in that we were seen eating dinner at a steak place, which —
RG: And he read the newsletter and so made fun of you for —
ARH: He had seen the thing in his clips, I think. And, you know, he loves Outback Steakhouse. He loves those fast-casual restaurants when you’re on the road. He thinks their service is good. He’s like: They don’t bug you a lot. And they’re really nice. And the people in there are really down-to-earth, which is actually true. Like when we would go to those restaurants, no matter where we were, a hugely positive reception, everybody kind of walking up, being super nice. The waitstaff is always very excited. I think it was always a good feeling in those places.
But he was like: “Ari, uh, have you been to the Outback?” This is like one time we were like in rural Ohio. I was like, “No, I’ve never been.” He was like, “Oh, the ribeye is delicious.” And so we ended up going into rural Ohio one when we go out. He’s like, “So that wasn’t any worse than the steak you have at that Rahm Emanuel place, was it?”
[Whispers.] It was!
RG: [Laughs.] Just a little bit worse.
ARH: A little bit worse. Let me tell you, I don’t mind the Outback, but I prefer others.
RG: And so his hostility to frivolity kind of bleeds into the politics in some interesting ways. You write about something that was covered at the time because it was literally visible to the audience. This is the moment where you had to try to talk Bernie Sanders into putting on a t-shirt, like a purple Jim Clyburn —
ARH: So, yeah.
RG: Which he put on for a moment and then took off?
ARH: Yeah, so the Clyburn fish fry —
Newscaster: Jim Clyburn’s world-famous fish fry.
ARH: — is this big political event in South Carolina.
Newcaster: This year, Congressman Clyburn has 4,500 pounds of fish in the fridge and candidates are coming to Columbia by the dozen.
ARH: And it was the first moment of the campaign, actually, that all the candidates were in a singular location together.
And first off, not to sidetrack the story, but I actually think it was an interesting moment to watch all the candidates interacting, where Bernie kind of stayed on the outside. There was like a glass greenroom and Bernie kind of stayed in the hallway. And Bernie and Biden were chatting, and Amy Klobuchar and a bunch of them were chatting. But like other candidates — Cory Booker’s working in the room, Tom Steyer was kind of working in the room. It was interesting to see the mix of personalities of the candidates all together with very little staff, because every candidate only had one staff member in that area.
So the Clyburn staff comes around, and they want everybody to wear these Jim Clyburn fish fry t-shirts. So they’re like a bluish color, as I remember it.
ARH: And they line up all the candidates and give Bernie his t-shirt. And he’s like: “What’s this?” Like, he’s in a line with all the candidates, and they’re all wearing the t-shirt. I’m like: “They want you to put on the t-shirt.” And, like he debated, he put it on for like a second, and they took it off.
RG: Kind of looks at himself.
ARH: Looks at himself.
RG: Kind of: What am I doing?
ARH: And, in fairness, they all looked ridiculous. Right?
RG: [Laughs.] Yes.
ARH: And his point to me later was like, you have people running for the most powerful office in the country, who are gonna go on stage and say some serious things about policy and the Democratic Party. Why would you make them wear a costume? Basically.
And the Clyburn staff is giving me evil eyes. Because now we’re all herded into the side-stage area. And the candidates are kind of in groups being kind of shuffled to the front. And it’s very obvious Bernie is the only person — and they’re like, “Where’s his t-shirt?” And I was like: “I’m holding his t-shirt.” And I’ve had a debate with him already. I have lost the debate, putting on the t-shirt. And, when you’ve lost the debate, you’ve lost the debate.
And he goes up and gives it without a t-shirt. Twitter lit up that night. It was like the Twitter thing of the moment. He did put on the t-shirt for the group photo, because he thought that made sense.
RG: Right, because you’d look a little weird with the group without your t-shirt.
ARH: Right. So he put on the t-shirt for the group photo of all the candidates.
But look, here’s the thing, as a staffer, those moments are obscenely annoying. But also, Bernie’s right.
ARH: And he was right in the moment. But that’s also an example. There’s a wish that you have a candidate who will just kind of do the script, do the thing that a normal politician would do, do those things. But the point is: Bernie is Bernie because he doesn’t. Because he sees politics as something more important than putting on a silly t-shirt.
RG: And what some people listening will say well, they: Well, this is actually a metaphor for something that Bernie should have done. It’s cost free, put the t-shirt on, make the birthday phone call — you know, that famous interaction with The New York Times where he says: I just don’t call people on their birthday.
ARH: Or say you’re a Democrat.
RG: Say you’re a Democrat. Do the niceties — eh, that’s a little bit more substantial.
ARH: That’s more substantial, but it’s in the same vein.
RG: It’s in the same vein, if you’re playing the game.
ARH: Yeah. He doesn’t believe it’s a game, and I think if he did believe it’s a game, he would be a generic Democrat from the northeast. But he doesn’t. And the reason Bernie is Bernie is because he’s not a generic politician. Because he will do the thing he thinks is right. And he takes this stuff very, very seriously.
And, by the way, of every politician I’ve worked for, he is the most disciplined about the words that come out of his mouth. And it’s the same thing. That’s important.
ARH: The message is important. We’re not going to pass up an opportunity to talk about important issues, even in places where you wouldn’t normally do it. I’m going to do it.
RG: Speaking of important issues, so in 2018, he’s pushing a Yemen War Powers Resolution. This is when — we covered this closely at The Intercept — you were working with him at the time.
ARH: And Matt Duss deserves a ton of credit for this.
RG: Matt Duss. And actually this is also an evolution in Bernie as a politician, the just the existence of Matt Duss on his staff, this is how I’ve always understood it. Bernie had been resistant to hiring a significant amount of staff for a long time. That he felt like there was something compromising in a way. That staff was going to be helpful, obviously; you need staff to support you, but that there are a lot of staff in D.C. who are just climbers, who are just out for themselves.
ARH: He wants to know — it’s not that he’s resistant. He wants to know the staff around him aren’t climbers, aren’t out there for themselves, are part of what he views as a war, and are people who are doing it for the right reasons. And, look, on the Hill that can be hard to find.
RG: Mhmm. So he found that with Matt Duss.
ARH: In the foreign policy area — ?
RG: Right, and he brings in Matt Duss to run his foreign policy side,
ARH: And I think what’s really important about Matt, and this is like, I think, one of the highest compliments, is Bernie is a guy who on foreign policy has been literally right forever. Like his first moments in Congress, he has to vote on the first Iraq war. Everyone should go watch that speech on C-SPAN. You can look it up. Everything he said in that speech turned out to be true.
Rep. Bernie Sanders: I fear that someday we will regret that decision. And that we are in fact laying the groundwork for more and more wars in that region in years to come.
ARH: By the way, a hugely risky proposition at the time.
RG: I think, in one of his first memoirs, he writes that he figured he had just ended his congressional career, which had just started.
ARH: He walked off the floor and said to Jane: “Well, I guess I’m not going to win reelection,” because as people probably don’t realize is Vermont, up until Bernie and Pat Leahy, was a very Republican state.
RG: Right. Bernie ran ’88 and lost to the Republicans. And then two years later, won.
ARH: Right, there’s a good piece of trivia you can stump anybody in politics with is: There is one Democrat in the Senate who is the only Democrat ever elected from his state? And the answer is Pat Leahy. Because Bernie: Independent. Jeffords was a Republican and Independent. Then you go back and everybody else is a Republican or pre-Republican kind of parties.
ARH: So Bernie did, like he’s pretty public about in that memoir, he thought he had lost, it was a risky vote, the pressure was all to vote for it. And he, at that point — go listen to his speech, the guy who was mayor of Burlington before that gives a pretty predictive speech about the future. He’s right about PNTR and the impacts of PNTR. He was right about every trade agreement in the 90s: NAFTA, GATT, all those trade agreements. He was right about the WTO. He was just consistently right on these issues. Right about the proper position for Democrats on the TPP, by the way; right about all these things. And on foreign policy? Right about the Iraq War, most importantly, right? Like, you just go down the list.
But the problem is, the weird thing is, I’ve just listed a bunch of things that he’s right about. But the blob in D.C. says: You’re wrong if you take those positions.
RG: Right. Even in hindsight, they kind of feel like you were wrong, even though your — you might have just gotten lucky.
ARH: You might have been right in the end —
RG: — but you got lucky. Yeah.
ARH: — but you didn’t understand. You got lucky.
RG: Or you were right for the wrong reasons.
ARH: When the same guys are at the final table for the World Series of Poker 10 years in a row, they’re not just lucky.
ARH: And Bernie was right on foreign policy. And then he’s running against Hillary Clinton, who is known for her foreign policy chops: Secretary of State, kind of global figure for decades, and I think the foreign policy world is a little bit — when he speaks about it, it’s outside of his comfort zone of the main issues he talks about. And I think what Matt did more than anything else when he came to the office was really bring a lot of this into Bernie’s comfort zone and show Bernie. It’s not that Matt’s an advisor and been like: Bernie, take this position.
No, it’s showing Bernie that the positions he has are the correct ones and he should be confident in executing them.
RG: Showing him how to show his work, sort of.
ARH: Showing him how to show his work and on things like Yemen, showing him that he can be a leader in this space.
RG: Right. So he ends up taking the lead in bipartisan fashion, pushing this —
ARH: — with Mike Lee, Rand Paul, and Chris Murphy
RG: — pushing this war powers resolution.
ARH: And they failed the first time it comes up, but then Khashoggi. So, by the way, right, again, was talking about Saudi Arabia and the problems of Saudi Arabia when everybody was like: Oh, MBS —
ARH: — he’s amazing. And Bernie’s like: This guy’s an authoritarian thug, guys.
And then Khashoggi gets killed. Everyone’s like: Oh, yeah, we hated MBS all along. And like, No, this city was awash in MBS money, and their influence, and Saudi, at the time, is raging a brutal proxy war basically against Iran in Yemen, and kids are dying. And Bernie sees we are part of that war. We are supplying — our airplanes are flying there, refueling, doing other things that are clearly war.
They came up with this idea for war powers resolution, Matt works for months with this bipartisan team. And the thing about war powers resolutions is they have privilege on the floor. So it’s one of the few things that a senator could bring to the floor —
RG: Right, any senator, right.
ARH: And it just isn’t done because it’s very particular but any senator can bring it up. So after the Khashoggi thing, there’s kind of momentum to do this. I don’t need to get — people can read some of the details here — but yeah, what you wanted to get to was what happened in the cloakroom the night before, right?
RG: Right. Yes. There was a pretty striking moment there that is both mundane, yet profound at the same time.
ARH: Yeah. And it’s one of those moments where I was just so proud. It was like the reason you work for Bernie.
So we were on the floor for like, two days. It was, nobody had ever brought a war powers resolution to the floor like this. So there were real tough procedural questions, including that War Powers Resolutions come with a vote-a-rama, so do things have to be germane?
RG: What’s a vote-a-rama? Since people — pretend people haven’t listened to the parliamentarian episode, which they should.
ARH: Which they should.
There are certain votes in the Senate that trigger kind of unlimited amendment processes, where anybody can bring up any amendments —
RG: — only exhaustion limits —
ARH: — or in the case of, there was a whole procedural thing where the Senate literally did the right thing. And I think 98-2 voted that the amendments to War Powers Resolutions had to be germane, which is the first step — didn’t ever come up. And so we have to set that precedent. And I don’t need to get into that here.
So now we were in the cloak room and a bunch of staff, from me and Matt, some committee staff from the relevant committees, some leadership staff, some floor staff are kind of huddled. We’re in debate on the bill, but the votes the next day, and Republicans are like: These are the amendments we want. And there was an amendment on Israel that was generic: Let’s try to make Democrats uncomfortable with this Israel amendment. And we’re discussing how to handle these votes.
And I made a suggestion about how to handle the vote. And the staffer said: Well, have you checked with AIPAC on that suggestion. And Bernie was not a part of this conversation. He was at the other end of the cloakroom, kind of doing his own thing, because it was a staff level thing. And he was in the conversation so fast, I swear, it was like he apparated in like Dumbledore like [makes flying noises] flew into the conversation.
RG: At the word AIPAC.
ARH: At the word AIPAC. Clearly has been listening, flies into the conversation, and is like: “No staffer of mine will ever ask AIPAC for permission for anything.”
But it was like a very profound moment where — and, look, I want to defend that anonymous staffer for a second, because I actually think this is important to say, their job is to ask questions like that.
RG: Right. They’re just not pulling that out of nowhere.
ARH: They’re not. And by the way, that staffer, on a personal level, I know is exceedingly sympathetic to the other side of the equation —
RG: — which even more profoundly tells you how much power, not just AIPAC [has], but all of these outside organizations have.
ARH: Yeah. And it’s not just AIPCA, by the way. If it were — pick another issue — it would have been: Have you checked with this organization on this?
RG: Right. This is not unique to AIPAC at all. Right. It’s just what you do. Yeah!
ARH: But the idea with Bernie that an outside organization would be checked with on a strategy like this? Absolutely not.
RG: So this was an eventful night after this vote.
ARH: No, it wasn’t after the vote. So this is before the vote. So the vote was the next day. I know what you’re getting to.
RG: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
ARH: Let me — that was the night that Bernie and Elizabeth Warren had their lasagna dinner, and it kept getting pushed back because Bernie was managing, was responsible for the floor, it was his bill, and it needs a Democrat at all times, and it is his bill, he’s got to be on the floor. And basically because of the vote-a-rama situation, you couldn’t abandon the floor at all.
RG: Right. And it’s late 2018.
ARH: It’s late 2018.
RG: And Elizabeth Warren has invited him over to her apartment.
ARH: So he’s kind of like pushing it back in the cloakroom.
RG: And he kind of knows what dinner is gonna be about?
ARH: Yeah — yeah. And he leaves super late to go over there. And it was him and a staffer named Terrel, who dropped him off at the apartment.
RG: Right. And so it’s Elizabeth Warren, her husband Bruce, and Bernie.
ARH: And by the way, the Bruce detail I only knew a year later when other stories broke from it.
RG: Right. So they have their dinner, she tells him that she’s planning on running for president. So everybody agrees that that happened.
ARH: Yes. And then, by the way, at the time, he legitimately was unsure about running for president.
RG: Right. And how do you think he felt about her running?
ARH: The — and I say this in the book — I think he always felt she was a formidable opponent and a formidable candidate. Because he had said it. And others on our team were much more skeptical of her for a number of reasons. And Bernie would always kind of push that down and be like: No, no, no, no, no. She’s smart, she works hard, she’s good with people. She’s very good on the stump. I’ve seen her.
He would push back on the idea that she wouldn’t be a good candidate.
RG: And so then the next day, after this meeting.
ARH: Then we have the vote on Yemen.
RG: Mhmm. Vote’s successful.
ARH: First war powers resolution to pass this way in history.
RG: Which does what?
ARH: Which, look, it can be vetoed, but it basically says — War Powers Act says the president is the Commander-in-Chief, they can send troops into combat anytime they want. But Congress has the right within a 90 day window to push them back — there’s 60 plus 30, dah, dah, dah — can say basically, your authorization to continue that military operation is done. Unless we pass an affirmative passage. The problem is the post-9/11 War Powers Resolution is so generic, you can fit literally any military operation in the world under it. So you need to kind of push things back. Or we need to take the step, which I think a lot of Democrats and even some Republicans are on board with, which is reversing the post-9/11 War Powers Resolution at this point.
RG: And the pressure resulted in: They stopped refueling some fighters, they stopped with targeting assistance.
ARH: Well, ultimately it passed the House, it passed the Senate, and Trump vetoes but it starts to put pressure on it. And then Biden made announcements about U.S. scaling down participation, though there’s been reports that we actually haven’t.
But, the point is, it’s what Congress can do in this situation.
RG: Right. So then you’re at a press conference talking about the War Powers Resolution. New York Times reporter Jonathan Martin —
ARH: Well, this is before the press conference. So they leave the Senate chamber, and they leave out the front exit of the Senate chamber, and there’s a set of stairs. They walk up to the third floor where the Senate press gallery is, like the press conference room. And as they’re walking up the stairs, I see J-Mart — who, look, J-Mart is probably one of the most dogged reporters in D.C.
RG: Mhmm. Always has been.
ARH: The reason he has been successful is because he will chase a story. And literally I see him chasing a story. And J-Mart, early that morning our phone started ringing with Jonathan Martin calling, being like: I hear Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders met last night. What did they say to each other?
And at first, obviously, Bernie folks, we thought Elizabeth Warren folks had said something about the meeting. Elizabeth Warren, folks, I think, thought Bernie folks had. Turned out that he had no details other than that a meeting took place.
RG: Probably came out of the cloakroom.
ARH: I think it either came out of somebody over because Bernie was delaying the meeting in the cloakroom, and then somebody else told me that somebody had seen him go into Elizabeth Warren’s apartment and tipped off J-Mart. I have no idea. Look, he’s one of the most well-sourced reporters in D.C.
RG: Right. Yeah.
ARH: Like, bar none, there are a few reporters as well sourced as J-Mart.
He comes charging up the stairs. And like I see him and I know because we’ve been getting calls, like hounding calls from him being like: “Come on, Ari! Come on!”
And I’m focused on Yemen; I’m in the cloakroom.
He’s been chasing us all day, though. He comes charging up the stairs like full steam, and kind of catches up with Bernie as you kind of make a left into a hallway that leads to the press gallery. The press gallery staff sits behind these two glass —
RG: The radio/TV gallery there.
ARH: Yeah. And they sit behind these two glass walls and then to the left is the press conference room that you sometimes see. So they’re in the hallway, and it’s like Murphy, Bernie —
RG: Chris Murphy, senator from Connecticut.
ARH: Chris Murphy, yeah. Mike Lee, Rand Paul, a few staff reporters are in the room. J-Mart kind of gets to Bernie in a corner there. And is like: What did you say to Elizabeth Warren last night at dinner?
And Bernie being Bernie goes: “We talked about how 80,000 children have died in Yemen.” Which, by the way, I guarantee you they did! I guarantee you they did!
RG: Right, because he had just been overseeing it —
ARH: — on the floor, I’m pretty sure, those two? Yeah, that’s something that I guarantee they talked about that. J-Mart’s like: No, what did you talk about? He’s pushing. And Bernie said something about The New York Times, the media not covering Yemen, and J-Mart got really upset and was like: “The New York Times has done more to cover Yemen than any other paper” — which, by the way, probably true.
RG: Might be.
ARH: Like, Nick Kristof did a lot of writing on it.
RG: It’s all relative.
ARH: It’s all relative, but The New York Times did do a lot of reporting on it. And they’re screaming at each other.
Mike Lee turns to me and is like: “Is that a conservative or liberal protester?” And I still, to this day, don’t know if he was joking at that point or joking at the end. And I go: “It’s a New York Times reporter.” And he goes, “Oh, liberal.”
ARH: Which — this couldn’t have been that long. I remember it was much longer than it was, but it couldn’t have been that long. Basically J-Mart was told to stop and leave so they can start the press conference. And as he’s coming out, he kind of muttered, ws like, “asshole.” And shouldn’t have called Bernie an asshole, but —
RG: J-Mart’s a dogged reporter.
ARH: — he was reporting —
RG: — on what I’m sure Bernie thought of as a completely frivolous story, relative to what he’s talking about.
ARH: Especially, yes. It’s that moment where he sees the media interested in this like dinner that he found irrelevant in the course of the world. So what? Two longtime Senate colleagues and longtime friends had dinner.
RG: Compared to famine, war.
ARH: Compared to trying to stop a war in Yemen.
RG: Right, right.
ARH: In fairness, The Times did put the Yemen thing on the front page the next day.
RG: So there you go. Maybe J-Mart called in a favor.
ARH: But, you know, it was a perfect example of Bernie’s distaste for the media in that situation. Because he saw the media chasing down — look, that dinner became a story more than like 13 months later. But at that point he’s like: Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have dinner was not a major news story in his mind.
RG: Right. So 13 months later, right before a debate in January, ahead of the Iowa caucuses, right?
RG: This story does break.
RG: And so you got a call, it was MJ Lee, I think, at CNN?
ARH: Yeah, Casca got a call.
RG: Yeah. Mike Casca, spokesperson, communications director.
ARH: Campaign comms director.
RG: Right. Gets a call saying that they’re going to report a story —
ARH: — that they have sourced by some amount of anonymous sources —
RG: — that at this meeting, Bernie Sanders said that she would not be able to win because she’s a woman.
ARH: Yeah. Something like that.
RG: What was your response? What was Bernie’s response?
ARH: I mean, my response was, what was so strange to me is I spent more time with Bernie over those three years than anybody else in the world — hundreds, if not thousands, of meals with him. I’ve heard his thoughts on everything. I’d never heard him say anything like that. The only things I’ve heard him say about Elizabeth Warren were the exact opposite. And there’s no reason at the time with me, or with Jeff, or with Faiz, or with any of us that knew his opinions on everything. Because we needed that to do our jobs. And he did recognize that. Nothing ever like that. So it was shocking to us.
RG: What could he have said that’s in the ballpark.
ARH: I mean, I don’t want to speculate on this. And, who knows? There were two people in the conversation, one other person in the vicinity of the conversation, and they’re the only three people who know, in the world, what actually was said.
And what I could see him saying, which is something he would say, is he believed that Donald Trump would use every weapon against whoever was running. So he firmly believed — and I talk about this another point in the book — that Donald Trump would use anti-semitism against him. He firmly believed he would use sexism, he would use racism, he would use every kind of ticket in the book. So I could see that —
RG: He’s going to use sexism against you.
ARH: He’s going to use — I could see that as something. Because he did, he would consistently talk about how Donald Trump was a dangerous candidate because he was willing to demagogue on all these things. And he definitely did believe that if he were the nominee, Trump would not shy away from using anti-semitism against him.
ARH: So I could see that. And who knows what the conversation was. And you’d like to have a good faith — I’d like to have, outside a campaign, with the heat turned down, I’d like to have a good faith belief that everybody was honest — but I mean, I just never had heard him say anything like that. And that was surprising to me.
RG: And —
ARH: I mean, surprising wasn’t even the word. It was unbelievable to me that he would make a comment like that in the context that CNN was reporting it.
RG: Right. And so you guys are pushing back on the reporter. You write in the book talking about a reporter talked about having sources that were as good as yours, because you’re saying: Look, we have on the record —
ARH: — we have on the record —
RG: — we have an on-the-record person who was in the meeting.
ARH: And I forget who said it, it was MJ or somebody else at CNN, who said our sources are as good as yours. And there are only a few sources.
RG: Right. That narrows it down to two. One or two.
ARH: Mhmm. And the weird thing is they kept saying they had like three and four sources, which just meant — there are only three people in the room. And we know one of them wasn’t their source. I mean —
ARH: So I mean, it was a weird situation where — but this was after.
So there’s some timelapse here. Like the story comes out, Faiz does an interview and says this is absolutely untrue — because we fully believe that this was absolutely untrue.
RG: And you were doing tracking polling at this time, and you write in the book, Ben Tulchin was doing polling.
ARH: Yes, we were doing tracking in Iowa and other places. And we could see a hardening of Bernie and Warren, like second choice hardening away from each other.
RG: Which is really important because, in Iowa, if somebody isn’t viable, you go to somebody else.
ARH: Right. That was important. But it’s also important in what it meant if Elizabeth Warren dropped out, or if Bernie dropped out. We probably wouldn’t have picked up many of her supporters, because our supporters hardened against each other.
RG: And you also saw a big drop in female support.
ARH: We saw a drop. Yeah. At that point.
RG: Right. And you also talk in the book that the press often compared Warren and Bernie voters in the progressive lane, like that you guys are competing for votes. But you guys never saw it that way.
ARH: No. And very early, we had polling — before the campaign as we were deciding whether to run — that kind of shaped our theory of the race in a lot of ways where Warren voters were different than Bernie voters.
And there’s this tendency in D.C., especially among journalists, to make an ideological continuum and like: OK, Bernie voters are here, Warren voters are here, and say: Oh, they’re close to each other on the continuum, therefore they’re the same.
Except the problem is we classified this as beer track, wine track. It was our shorthand. Bernie voters were far more likely to be less educated, far more likely to be poorer, far more likely to be minorities than Warren voters. And there was like a set of ideological leftists who voted for Bernie. But those people when Elizabeth Warren says like, I’m a capitalist to my bones, they’re not going over to her. And there were a bunch of people in 2016, who were Bernie supporters in 2016 because it was kind of —
ARH: And it was a binary race. So some of those Elizabeth Warren supporters voted for Bernie in 2016 because of the binary nature of the race, but moved into Elizabeth Warren’s camp and weren’t likely to go to Bernie’s camp. And in fact, what we saw was much more crossover. If you did a Venn diagram, Bernie-Biden voters were much more likely than Bernie-Warren voters in particular areas. And you saw that Warren could trade voters with Amy and Pete. And it was just different kinds of worlds.
And it was Bernie and Biden represented the beer track, and this other candidate represented the wine track. And Biden had some edge because of his previous positions in some other places, but it was really about class and not ideology.
RG: And you were also with him the night that he had his heart attack.
RG: Was it you and —
RG: Jesse. And if you guys hadn’t decided to take them into the urgent care —
ARH: First off, Jesse, I cannot imagine this. I’m gonna really mock myself here a little bit.
So Jesse had been in different roles in the advanced world of Bernie’s campaign from 2016. And we were changing out the body man role and the trip director role. And Jesse, we were doing some auditions, basically, for it — because the trip director and body man, you have to be able to sit in the car with the candidate, you have to be able to really anticipate what the candidate needs. You have to understand all the advanced things that are going on on the road, be able to like work on the fly, repair things, and be senior enough to be assertive and aggressive at the appropriate moments when things need to be fixed.
And Jesse’s trial started at five o’clock that night when we landed at McCarran Airport. And we landed at McCarran and Jesse was there to meet us. And so now we’re like three hours later following this fundraiser. And it’s just Jesse, Bernie, and I in the car and Jesse hadn’t spent much time around Bernie in that close proximity to this point. He spent a little bit of time in different situations, but like this is one of the first days he’d ever been like that.
And I start the book with, “Ari, can you get me a chair?” which is like the moment I knew something’s off here, because he never wants a chair. And we’re in the car and it’s just becoming very clear something’s wrong. And it wouldn’t have been clear without me having spent all that time with him. Because he was like: “I’m tired. I don’t want dinner.” There was never an acute moment during the heart attack where he like gripped his chest —
ARH: And we’re in the car. And there was a moment where he’s like, “I feel a tightness in my chest.” And I was like: OK, that’s really not good. And then I was like: “Anything else?” And he was like: “My arm hurts, but it has hurt for a while.”
And there’s a hesitancy to — Bernie’s like: “I don’t want to go to the hospital.” And we have a motorcade, Jesse breaks the motorcade, turns to the first urgent-care clinic, they turn us away.
RG: Why did they turn you away?
ARH: They said they were too busy, and were closing.
We turned to a second Urgent Care Clinic, Elite Medical, which is next to MGM, which is mainly where people go on the strip when they have a little bit too much fun.
ARH: And they take him in, and the doctor comes and they hand me like a pile of insurance papers. And the doctor comes out and is like: He has a blocked artery, we need to get him to hospital. Just to get this catheterized, we need to move him by ambulance.
Now, Charla Bailey, one of Bernie’s favorite advancers in the world, she starts advancing a hospital arrival. She’s like running ahead of the ambulance to the hospital to try to keep it, at that moment, quiet, because we didn’t know what was going on. And the main concern was actually like, I talked to Jane and we didn’t want his kids to hear about Bernie having a procedure from the media. We wanted them to hear from that.
And we were like: It’s already 2 a.m. on the East Coast. We’re already into the late night hours here. And we were like: We need to do a press release. We need to put out a statement literally first thing in the morning, but we have to figure out what’s going on. And we have to alert his children.
So we got him to the hospital. They do the procedure. He comes out. It’s totally —
RG: He never went under, right?
ARH: I don’t actually know. I know They wheeled him in, they went through, they took him into the room. It was about an hour. It wasn’t that long. So I don’t think it was — they insert a tube in, it’s like laparoscopic. They never cut them open. Is it called laparoscopic?
RG: I think so. Yeah.
ARH: It’s like a tiny incision. So I don’t even think they have to put you out.
RG: One of my favorite moments is when they’re asking him questions: “Are you allergic to eggs?” He’s like: “Ari, you answer these questions.”
ARH: Yeah, so this doctor, Marshawn, who is the doctor who is performing the surgery, they’re asking the intake questions like: “Are you allergic to eggs?” Before that, when they said take off your wedding ring, he gave me his wedding ring. And “take off your glasses,” he’s like, “No.”
RG: [Laughs.] Ari, you answer these questions.
ARH: I’m like: “I don’t know if you’re allergic to eggs.” How much pain are you in? “What kind of question is that?”
ARH: And then they were like: Who makes medical decisions if anything happens, and he was like: Ari. And I’m like: Oh, shit. Like, that’s like a weight on you.
And like, I’m like doing these rounds of calls to like Jane, Jeff, Faiz, calling those three to, because each has like a role, and Faiz is planning on getting on a plane, Jane is trying to alert the family, plus she’s got a commercial flight out at six in the morning we’re trying to move. And it’s this situation where as soon as Bernie’s out, like two to three hours later, he’s like up reviewing the statement that’s going out.
So he ends up surging back from this.
RG: Plows into Iowa. And then a new player on the scene comes in that I want to talk about briefly. And this is DMFI. We’ve done a ton of coverage of it: Democratic Majority for Israel.
RG: A super PAC run by Mark Mellman, a pollster, an operative —
RG: — that basically raises millions of dollars from outside from various wealthy people, oil heiresses —
ARH: A few wealthy people.
RG: — a handful of wealthy people. You can read some of our stories on who they are, and have been increasingly targeting Bernie-wing candidates, but they really started with Bernie.
ARH: Yeah, they spent, I think, $1-point-something in Iowa? $1.4?
RG: And then they continued spending and then eventually threw in the towel at some point in Nevada. But so you write in the book about a meeting with Mark.
ARH: Yeah. So earlier in the campaign, Mark called and asked for a meeting. And we had known Mark because he was Reid’s pollster.
RG: And you write that he was pushing Bernie to distance himself from Ilhan and Rashida, I think.
ARH: The meeting was entirely strange. The meeting was like, first he talked a little bit about Israel policy, but he and Matt Duss really weren’t getting anywhere on that.
RG: [Laughs.] Right. I’m sure — yeah.
ARH: At one point, and this was the strangest moment, he did one of those, “people think” kind of phrasings. But he basically said Bernie is a self-hating Jew and the reason is, is because he is asked where his father’s from, he says his father’s from Poland. That was like, it was an entirely weird statement.
RG: Can you connect those dots for me? I don’t quite even get the code there.
ARH: I think because there was a lot of anti-semitism, he should say he’s from The Pale or say he’s from Eastern Europe, or he’s acknowledging something anti-semitic, instead of saying — it didn’t connect with me, I just remember it because Mark was like, it communicates to others that he might be a self-hating Jew.
Mellman, asked for comment, responded by email:
My friend Ari’s memory is in some cases good and in others not.
DMFI staff did have what was supposed to have been an off-the-record meeting with top Sanders’ staff to discuss his views on Israel issues, which we did for nearly an hour.
After the meeting was over, and as we were literally walking out the door, I offered what I made clear was a personal piece of advice that was unrelated to DMFI issues.
I noted that when Senator Sanders refers to himself as the “son of Polish immigrants” it raises questions among some (particularly older) Jews who argue that “the Poles didn’t consider the Jews Polish, and the Jews in Poland at the time didn’t consider themselves Poles.”
I believed then, and I believe now, that my interpretation of the views of many in the community was accurate and raised questions for those people. I do not now, nor have I ever believed that such labels make Senator Sanders, or anyone else, a “self-hating Jew.”
In fact, as Ari told you, I made clear that calling himself a son of Polish immigrants didn’t bother me at all. It didn’t, it doesn’t, and Ari would have been wiser to assess my views based on what I said, rather than deciding what I meant was somehow the opposite of what I said.
For better or worse, I was not the first person to make this point. As Vox reported in 2016:
“There were moments during the campaign where it really did seem like Bernie was, as [Anderson] Cooper suggested, downplaying his Judaism. Most obviously, he identified his parents as ‘Polish immigrants’ rather than ‘Jewish immigrants’ — something most Jews would never do given how viciously Jews were abused by Poles and the Polish government over the years”
The NYTimes ran a similar article in 2016 headlined, “Bernie Sanders Is Jewish, but He Doesn’t Like to Talk About It” which led with this, “While the crowd cheered, Rabbi Michael Paley of New York was among many Jews watching the speech who were taken aback. He said he was surprised that the Vermont senator had not explicitly described his father as a ‘Polish Jewish immigrant,’ a significant distinction given Poland’s checkered history with its Jewish population. ‘Nobody in Poland would have considered Bernie a Pole,” Rabbi Paley said.”
ARH: And it’s just like, it was a weird thing. And the message that was received was OK, that’s what you think about Bernie. He’ll probably say: No, no, no, I don’t believe that. But like the clear message received. And after this meeting, he’d send like missives to —
RG: People are saying.
ARH: People are saying. After the campaign, he’d send missives to the campaign that were like: You did an event with this Muslim person, you should condemn their anti-seimitic — consistent missives, and it was just very, very clear that what Mark does that’s dangerous is there is real anti-semitism in the world. There’s real examples of it. And there’s real examples of violent anti-semitism, by the way. And one of the things that I’ve seen over the years and I think others have is, there’s a certain, let’s call it pro-right-wing Israeli establishment that is very happy to throw anti-semitism around at people as a political weapon.
And what’s even stranger about Democratic Majority is Mark would say that behind the scenes, but they only engage in public asymmetric warfare, right? The letters that Mark wrote to the campaign weren’t public, right? But they engage in like a weird, asymmetric thing where none of their ads focus on Israel.
As I made clear on CNN and in a press statement which can be found on our website we did write the Sanders campaign to say we were profoundly disturbed about the campaign giving official positions to two people with long records of anti-Israel and antisemitic statements—namely Linda Sarsour and Amer Zahr. And we wrote to Faiz saying we were deeply disturbed that Sarsour made yet another antisemitic comment shortly after being given this position and asked that Senator Sanders at least condemn the comment, which he did not do.
As you are aware, neither Sarsour nor Zahr is, or was, an elected official. Their religion was completely irrelevant to us (as was Senator Sanders’). Our concerns centered around their long and widely recognized history of anti-Israel and antisemitic statements, and also the fact that they espoused polices vis-a-vis Israel at substantial variance with those professed by Senator Sanders.
ARH: Like their ads focused on Bernie having a heart attack, one of the ads.
DMFI Ad: I doubt if Bernie Sanders can beat Trump.
DMFI Ad: I like Bernie, I think he has great ideas, but Michigan, Pennsylvania, Iowa? They’re just not going to vote for a socialist.
DMFI Ad: I do have some concerns about Bernie Sanders’ health, considering the fact that he did have a heart attack.
ARH: You know, I see what they did to Nina Turner, and are trying to do to Nina Turner. And by the way, let me say this: It makes me so unbelievably angry. The concept that anybody would accuse Nina Turner of being an anti-Semite is so utterly disgusting and repulsive. Knowing Nina, having traveled the country with her, having seen her true like feelings and thoughts — this is somebody who doesn’t hate a single soul, who is not bigoted at all.
And let me say this: I’ve had deep biblical conversations with Nina. Like, I know her. There’s no shred of evidence that she’s ever done anything anti-semitic. But during her last race, they were tossing it around, and it made me so unbelievably furious.
RG: She talked about that, just sitting right where you are, actually. People can go back and check out that episode. And she seemed really pained.
ARH: And it would pain her because that’s not her. Is Nina Turner a rough and tumble political player? Hell, yeah. Nina Turner is a fighter. By the way, that’s why I want her in Congress because she’s a fighter who doesn’t back down to anybody. But anti-bigotry, anti-hate, that’s so the core of who Nina is as a person. It’s so — she has this beautiful, loving soul, who fights like hell for people because of that loving soul. And the idea that somebody would falsely tarnish her with the idea of anti-semitism, with the idea that she’s anti-semitic, is so repulsive to me, that I can’t stomach it
And the fact that the Democratic Majority for Israel does things like that, and their allies do things like that, and the fact that they they are part of a political strategy to do things like that, I actually think they cheapen and harm people trying to really correct anti-semitism. I also, by the way, think their political strategy fundamentally puts the State of Israel at risk, by the way.
RG: In what way? Because you’re seeing number of progressive candidates now being more cautious about — I don’t know if cautious is the right word — but Gregorio Casar, for instance, in Austin got into this tussle with DSA — he’s a DSA member — because he sent a letter, I don’t know if it was to DMFI or to somebody else, laying out some things that he would support such as he would vote to support military aid to Israel.
ARH: Right, so what I mean by that is actually —
RG: Like trying to make sure that they don’t come in and drop two million dollars on him.
ARH: I think why they put Israel at risk is because they fundamentally give permission, they try to politically grant permission, the United States, for Israel to continue down a path that is destructive for Israel.
RG: OK. That makes sense. Yeah.
ARH: And that’s ultimately their goal. Now, they would interpret it as not that. But I think what you’ve seen is throughout the Netanyahu government, and then other governments, Israel on a path of increased international isolation, increased politicization around what defines pro-Israel and not, increased division, that I think if you are Mark Mellman and your goal in life is the protection of Israel, then I think long-term you’re probably damaging your own cause, but they’ve picked the strategy.
And, by the way, and I’ll say this: Only one candidate faced anti-semitism during the 2020 election. And that was Bernie. And our campaign did face anti-semitism.
Mellman responded by saying
unlike Ari, I have substantial direct experience in Israeli politics having helped bring down Netanyahu (ok, we’ll see for how long), but all my work there has been opposed to the “hardliners.”
And the simple fact of Israeli politics is that the right uses attacks from the US and Europe to its great and consistent benefit. That’s correct, anti-Israel forces in the US do vastly more to help the right than to hurt it. They enable Bibi to run as the guy who will stand up to the US and the world to protect his country. That has been a key element of most of his campaigns.
So, Ari (and I dare say you) have it wrong. The anti-Israel far left has propped up the Israeli right and done tremendous damage to the prospects for peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
ARH: And I can go down lists of things — and I’m not saying these are the worst cases of anti-semitism in the world. But we have a swastika flown at a rally in Arizona. Politico ran a story about Bernie having houses and making money on his book, right?
RG: It was like the money tree?
ARH: I actually don’t blame the reporter for what happened. The story was a blah, stupid story. But the editors ordered up a graphic of Bernie Sanders in front of a money tree with the headline: “Bernie’s secret millions” when Bernie’s millions are not a secret. Fairly public. In fact, as probably transparently public as you could be.
RG: From his book, basically.
ARH: Yeah, that’s it. It’s a book. And look, the fact is, he’s had a pension from being in Congress for 30 years and from being mayor, and you’re a retiree who has been at the upper end of the upper-middle class to lower wealthy because you’re a member of Congress income spectrum for 30 years. You’re going to have a retirement account.
RG: He doesn’t have a lot of expenses, either, as you’ve observed back in Burlington.
ARH: Yeah, I mean, has kids, has other things. But he made money on a book, right? Had substantial retirement savings, had a home in D.C. and a home in Burlington, both homes — and also, Politico made them like really super fancy homes. But the money tree was, specifically, putting the most prominent Jewish candidate in front of a money tree. Perhaps you should think about it.
There was a CNN chyron that I mentioned, lower third that I mentioned in the book: “Can coronavirus or Bernie be stopped?” Now do I think CNN knew what they were doing? No. But it is an old anti-semitic trope that Jews cause disease. And the fact that Democratic Majority for Israel would attack Bernie — and I should say this about Bernie. What’s interesting is Bernie was always kind of surprised at how what he felt was like a basic statement of fact lifted him among certain communities as somebody saying something that no other politician would say, when he basically said Palestinians are people and deserving of human rights. He was like: That’s a basic fact. People are people and deserve human rights. I don’t understand. Like, he just believed that was a statement of fact. He didn’t believe it was a controversial statement.
Because look, Bernie was a guy who lived in Israel, spent time on a kibbutz. When he was mayor of Burlington, I talked about this in the book, he ended up siding with Chabad against the ACLU about putting a giant menorah on City Hall property. He had a letter written to him by Rabbi Schneerson thanking him for his work with the Chabad community. The idea that Bernie is a self-hating Jew? No, absolutely not.
And I’ve seen it over and over. Is he a religious man who goes — ? No. And he would never claim to be. But is he someone who is Jewish? If there are formative experiences for Bernie, and he’s talked about this, growing up and seeing Holocaust survivors in his neighborhood, is a hugely formative experience for him and his identity.
RG: And so, do you think there was anything that could have prevented the consolidation, that last weekend, around South Carolina and Super Tuesday?
ARH: Yeah, I mean, look, this is the hard part and I’ve done interviews on this in the past, and people get fairly upset about this.
I think from the beginning, we knew that one-on-one on Super Tuesday with Joe Biden was a very difficult path to victory, if not impossible. I think at the beginning of the campaign, we had hoped that Cory Booker and Kamala would have been stronger candidates. We got Mayor Pete, instead. I think you have a situation — which now, through reporting of others, have confirmed the kind of Obama role in that consolidation — I think you had a world where, let’s go without the mayor Pete and Amy dropping out consolidation, where Bernie probably is likely, I would say more likely than not, to be the only candidate above threshold in California, because of the splits. At which point, that mountain of delegates just overwhelms the process if that happens, but even if he’s not, he wins two-thirds of those delegates in that case, or actually three-quarters, because it’d be like 45-15, it would be something like that.
He likely wins Massachusetts. He likely wins Texas. But it’s much closer races in Virginia and North Carolina, with a much broader split of delegates. You end up leaving Super Tuesday with a delegate lead that is insurmountable. And then Democrats have to make another decision, which is do they blow up the party to stop Bernie. Which, what would happen if you had Bernie Sanders winning the most delegates going to the convention, and the Democratic Party not nominating him, it’s the end of the party. Like that convention becomes the end of the party.
And, by the way, we saw coming out of Nevada, the likely outcome would have been a consolidation behind Bernie. People would have just gone there, because Democrats would have wanted it over.
RG: Right. Right.
ARH: Democratic voters. If they do drop out under pressure. The question is could he have prevented that consolidation?
RG: Was there anything he could have said to them, offered them?
ARH: No, I don’t believe so. I think especially because of who it was. It was Mayor Pete, who, I think, what could have been offered to him?
RG: Nobody is more persuasive to a Mayor Pete than Obama.
ARH: Yeah. What is the counter on that?
And look, if you’re Mayor Pete, what’s remarkable to me is you’re Mayor Pete, and you’ve had the best run you ever could possibly dream of. You basically tied with Bernie in Iowa, and one like a smidgen, less than one more SDE in Iowa. You come in second in New Hampshire. Everybody got blown out in Nevada. And then everybody got blown out in South Carolina. And you don’t go to Super Tuesday?
You’re Amy Klobuchar, you probably win Minnesota, if it goes to Super Tuesday.
ARH: Which is a big deal for her. And you put yourself in a really good position to be a VP candidate, winning Minnesota, carrying it. You drop out, right? Like, I don’t know what convinces them — maybe I’m just not creative enough. I don’t know what the answer is. And people are like: Well, if only Bernie had embraced the establishment at this point! There were a lot of Post reportings like, if Bernie had embraced the establishment after Nevada instead of attacking them, they would have —
Does anybody really believe that? That if Bernie had turned around after — first off, he wouldn’t be Bernie! Like, you’re not gonna get Bernie to change his script. That’s not who he is.
And do you really think what they care about is Bernie saying nice things to them? Or what the establishment cares about is the policy agenda that would be implemented under Bernie.
RG: So Bernie finally decides to drop out in April. And there’s one little nugget in the book that has immense historical significance that I think very few people know about.
He finally makes the decision to drop out a couple days before.
ARH: Yes. It was like a day or two before.
RG: A day or two before the Wisconsin primary.
RG: Got hammered in Michigan and some other places.
ARH: But then there were a few weeks of no primaries.
RG: Right. And so heading into Wisconsin, there’s also a crucial judicial election.
ARH: And they’re depending on, frankly, our voters turning out for that election, Bernie voters turning out is critical.
RG: Is Ben Wikler the state chair at this point?
ARH: Ben Wikler is the state chair at this point.
RG: Did he talk to you guys about staying in.
ARH: I don’t remember him talking to us. Maybe he talked to somebody. I don’t remember.
RG: Either way, you could have dropped out before Wisconsin.
ARH: But there were two things. There was one: The idea, turnout, we need to win this judicial seat. And two, we’ve come to the day before, a lot of people have already cast votes for different reasons, why kill it off?
RG: Well, the reason why would be —
RG: Corona, but then, that cuts against winning the judicial selection —
ARH: — which turned out to be incredibly critical.
RG: It gave Democrats a one-seat majority on the Supreme Court, which then, by one vote, rejected Trump’s effort to overturn Wisconsin. If a Republican had been elected to that seat instead —
ARH: Which could have happened if it had not been —
RG: Absolutely. It absolutely would have. Very close race. It probably would have happened.
ARH: I mean, if our voters don’t turn out, it definitely happens.
ARH: And our voters weren’t turning out to vote —
RG: They weren’t turning out for the Supreme Court.
ARH: Nobody was turning out for the Wisconsin judicial. And it’s not just our voters. Let’s just say this: It was a competitive primary. It was a “competitive primary.” It wasn’t. People would say it wasn’t competitive at that point. But you still have two candidates running.
RG: Right. So then the Biden people don’t show up either if Bernie’s not running.
ARH: And they’re voting for like, that’s the thing, like you’re increasing Democratic votes with no Republican primary.
RG: And so, by a 4-3 margin, if the Wisconsin Supreme Court sides with Trump, then Democrats lose the argument that they’ve been rejected in every single court challenge, because there’s only one vote that they won that Wisconsin case by.
ARH: And once you start that domino rolling down. And by the way, I have to say this, I talked about this in the book, too. On January 6, on that evening, Bernie and I were alone in the Capitol walking through just the glass, and the impact on him was profound at that moment.
Like, he saw — he was like: We came close here.
ARH: Because I ended up on the House side of the Capitol, actually, in Pramila Jayapal’s office, ultimately. I was like, in the tunnel.
RG: You broke into a hearing room.
ARH: I broke into the hearing room and barricaded myself in the room and like my phone was dying and had no contact. And then like, actually, I don’t think I wrote this in the book, I like texted Ro Khanna. I was like: Can I come to your office? But his office was in Cannon. And I was like: I don’t know if I can make it there. I just got chased down by the police there. And finally realized Pramila Jayapal’s office is kind of around the corner from where I am, and got in touch with them and her chief of staff and her husband were in the office.
RG: She was out catching Covid —
ARH: — at the thing. I ran there and spent hours in that office.
The staff that was with Bernie were in the Senate-side office. When they evacuated the Senate side, they took off, rightfully. And the one staffer was with Bernie at the Capitol, when they shuffled the members off, they left the staff and he ended up escaping the building in a pretty harrowing circumstance.
So I had to come back across the building at like 9. And Bernie and I were kind of alone and hadn’t eaten. And we went down to the cafeteria down there, which is self service. So there was candy there. [Laughs.] We bought the candy and potato chips.
And then like, at one point, he was flying up to Vermont, and he had to go speak to somebody in the Capitol before the vote and we walked over to the Capitol and we’re walking through the hallways on the first floor and the glass on those windows — when you take a left and go in the glass all smashed in. And like everything is just — you can see the white residue from all the chemical sprays. The impact of that was pretty profound on, I think, both of us.
RG: Well, we talked about some heavy stuff in here, but the book is also a romp in a lot of ways.
ARH: Thank you.
RG: It’s highly worth the read. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry. I know it’s a cliché, but it’s true.
ARH: Yeah, it’s been the weirdest thing, people being like: “Wow, your book was funny.”
RG: Yeah, it truly is.
ARH: And the truth is, Bernie is a funny guy.
RG: Bernie is a funny guy. Sometimes on purpose, sometimes not.
ARH: But he is a really funny guy, he has a really cutting sense of humor. I think my favorite line is the Miley Cyrus line.
ARH: So we’re in the car, we’re driving, and I get a phone call from somebody in LA — it, I think, turned out to be complete horseshit — but who knows, that Miley Cyrus wants to endorse Bernie — which never happened, by the way. But you’d get these phone calls from somebody in LA who knew somebody or something, and would be like “Dah, dah, dah, dah.” Right?
And I was sitting with Bernie. I was like: “Miley Cyrus wants to endorse you.” And without skipping a beat, he’s like, “So will Hannah Montana campaign in Montana with us?”
ARH: And first off, the fact that he knew Miley Cyrus was Hannah Montana. And because like, this is a guy who — Harry Reid knew all the gossip, right? Harry Reid was fluent in talking Britney Spears gossip. Bernie Sanders? No.
I was like, “Senator, can I ask, how do you know who Miley Cyrus is?” And he’s like, “Oh, I had to go shopping for gifts for my grandkids a few years ago and everything was Hannah Montana.”
But, look, even if you don’t like Bernie, I think this book will give you an idea of who he is and why you should at least respect him. And if you do like Bernie and want to know — don’t expect palace intrigue by the way, I think you can say that. Don’t expect slams on staff or people. Like, I just didn’t write the book to do that. Nor did I want to write a book that did that. Palace intrigue is incredibly boring when you don’t own the palace.
RG: Yeah. [Laughs.] Yeah.
ARH: But I wanted to write something that was entertaining, that you could turn a page, and was an actual narrative.
RG: Well, you accomplished it. Congratulations. And thanks for joining me here on Deconstructed.
ARH: So “The Fighting Soul” out everywhere.
RG: April 26. You can preorder it now. The book is called “The Fighting Soul: On the Road with Bernie Sanders” by Ari Rabin-Havt.
ARH: Thank you, Ryan.
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