“Bernie, Ber-nie, Bernie …” In the stalls of the Palace Theatre in downtown Manchester, New Hampshire, amid the wedding-cake plaster and gilt fixings, the lunchtime crowd was raising a storm. Young and old, men and women, white and a whiter shade of pale, mainly, they filled the raked seats, squeezed into the aisles and hung from the balconies. Folks in cheap windbreakers, tending to chubbiness, grey goatees and ole Mama, faded long blonde hair, neater, defined kids in “Feel the Bern” white-on-blue shirts, a lot of people who knew each other, everyone, as they came in, high-fiving and “haaaaaaay, man”, like this was the last ever coming together of the Deadheads.
On stage, the music was blasting from black Marshall stacks on either side, with about 30 Bernie bros and Bernistas of all ages, rocking it out, chosen it seems contrary to the standard practice of filling the front row with hot blondes and chiselled Latino boy-gods. The music was, well, the music was … well, it was hard to tell if everyone else was hearing it or just me, or all of us were hearing it inside our heads: Rockin’ In The Free World, Revolution, Hurricane, Power To the People, Disco Inferno (“Bern, baby, Bern”), on and on it went, and it was a shitload better than the middle-of-the-road stuff Obama had to play to convince folks he wasn’t Stokely Carmichael in a suit. People kept chanting, they sang along, they cross-chanted to the singing along, the energy was phenomenal.
Outside, in the Manchester streets, the snow was starting to fall again. The queue was still coming through the metal detectors when, after the briefest of intros, the man himself came out on stage. “I thank you, I thank you” in those Larry David tones, and we settled back into our seats. In a neat blue suit, open-neck shirt, distinctly less rumpled than a few weeks ago, Bernie wasn’t one for revving up a crowd he already had — about 500 or so campaigners, volunteers and organisers. “Let me take a brief look at where we are now from nine months ago,” he said, “when, despite my tousled good looks, and GQ sense of fashion, we were having trouble getting much media.” The day before the primary, and Bernie Sanders is giving a speech like a treasurer’s report at a tennis club.
But it’s right, it’s good. This audience don’t need revving up, don’t need motivating. They’ve been working their arses off for months, and the Sanders campaign, flush with individual-donor cash, has spent big, getting up to $7 million in this state by now, its war chest nearly $60 million. The groundwork and the relentless ads — some short, sharp policy pieces, and a 30-second mood piece, high-res still photos of modern America, to Simon and Garfunkel’s America, instantly moving — have done their work. Bernie’s lead is consolidated, buffeted against the inevitable tightening as the hours count down. He’s still around 15 points clear of Hillary Clinton. Doesn’t make it certain, these New Hampshire bastards often swing at the last minute, the place has become a giant political tease, but Hillary spent Sunday in Flint, Michigan, so she thinks it is. (They were both right; Sanders had the state by 17 points at press time.)
So Bernie is in a mood to nail down the message, what it’s for, and focus the troops who’ll be heading on to South Carolina and points beyond. The speech starts with the fundraising and the fact that “we don’t have a Wall Street super PAC, we have three and a half million individual donors giving an average of 27 dollars each!” into the wider themes of the 1%, the 0.1%, and the Walton family — of Walmart fame — who control more money than the bottom 20% of the US population, and then the need for a genuine minimum wage, no-fee college tuition, and single-payer healthcare. The Larry David-esque figure, the caricature of the old kvetching Jew, falls away.
Sanders is one of the only candidates who looks taller and stronger in the flesh than on TV, the forceful Brooklyn civil rights lawyer, the Freak Power Vermont mayor, then congressman, then senator, shining through beneath the halo of white hair. “The Walton family are among the biggest welfare recipients in this country because they pay their workers so little they’re on food stamps. So on behalf of the Waltons, I thank you for your generosity.” These are about the only jokes in the spiel. It’s issue-focused, policy-focused, solutions-focused, about the only candidate’s stump speech, aside from John Kasich in the Republican camp, that is strong on arguable, and arguable-with, ideas. Bernie sounds secure and is — he’s most likely won New Hampshire, and even if he doesn’t win another primary, he’s moved the party to the left, kept things going leftward, rather than back to the very centre after Obama.
Bernie may be sitting pretty, pretty good, but the same can’t be said for Camp Clinton, which is coming apart under a double pressure: not only is their guaranteed lead coming apart, but it’s coming apart again, eight years after Obama came in and fucked everything up for them. And just as eight years ago — when Hillary actually won New Hampshire — it’s the Clintons’ crazed, entitled response that is making it all the worse for them. Hillary’s campaign that time was self-focused, the girl who …, etc, what she’s done, doing it for all the …, etc, which then became centred on a teary moment of exhaustion she had, in a Manchester cafe. That seemed to swing the primary.
They’ve tried the Hillary’s journey thing again this time, but on steroids. It’s a somersault, whereby a half-century of US history has as its purpose, the presidency of Hillary Clinton. Horribly misjudged, given the condition of the country, it has been made worse by the Clinton’s response, which plays like a series of scenes deleted from the final draft of Wicked. A week ago, it was that Bernie was playing mean, by raising Hillary’s Wall Street connections, a political point made into a personal attack; by Thursday, it was the media giving Bernie a free pass. And by Friday, it was the failure of young women to support Hillary. And wow, did they fuck up then.
The young support Bernie in huge numbers, something the meeja ponder endlessly. Why are these young people with their Myspace and their flip phones supporting an old guy? Is it a fad, political rickrolling? The fuss was especially on about young (18-34) Democratic-leaning women, who support Bernie by a massive 85%-90%. What was wrong with these women? Were they entitled? Ignorant of the struggles they would face? Unappreciative of how much having a woman president would help them? On Bill Maher’s show Real Life, veteran feminist Gloria Steinem had an answer. It wasn’t a good one. “These women are — well, you’re not very political when you’re young, and the boys like Bernie, and the girls go where the boys are.” Yeah, you read that right. Want to read it again? I’ll wait. Yes, it was that bad. Steinem apologised, said she’d misspoke, but she hadn’t really. It was one of those moments, a la Greer, in intergenerational feminism, when the now-ageing, second-wave pioneers try and fail to suppress the urge to scream “hussies!”. It was very, very funny.
It was also incredibly unhelpful. As was former secretary of state Madeleine Albright’s comment on stage that “there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help women”; as was Hillary’s fake head-thrown-back laugh at that moment; as was her comment that ”Henry Kissinger said I had done more with the State Department than any previous secretary”, which is really going to impress anyone choosing between Sanders and Hillary (“Hitler told me I put on a good spread”), and there was more of that.
Nowhere was there any acknowledgement that young women were supporting Bernie because they are also young working people, young healthcare users, young, well, human beings — and that Hillary has said very little about a living wage, the crushing cost of college education, the increased need for it in the job market, and so on. The whole campaign keeps talking about opportunity, the world opening up, etc, etc. They’re simply projecting the boomer experience onto the present. There’s no comprehension in the Clinton camp that people need college for a shit office job that gets them out of Starbucks, not so they can do the hippie trail before they slide into a career as a crusading lawyer.
As the campaign to get them back has failed, so has the Clintons’ last connection with rationality — and a return to accusing the Bernie camp with some marginal “bro” trolling of Hillary and some young female supporters. It’s not only that no one would believe that of a man like Sanders, it’s that even trying to associate him with it doesn’t work, rebounds. What, this wizened old guy in a frayed blazer is telling someone to text dick pics to Chelsea? The Clintons are doing the full Clinton, which reminds people what the Clintons were always like and brings memories of the ’90s, and how it played out for Monica Lewinsky. Special place in hell all round, especially for the Clinton campaign.
Back at the Radisson, after feeling the Bern, and the talk was all of Trump’s appearance at the Verizon arena, just across the corner. The Donald had played to an audience that was about half journalists — roundly booed by the rest of the crowd at times — and in which Trump, while hanging it on Ted Cruz, had taken up one suggestion from the crowd that Cruz was “a pussy”. The footage, if you can see it, is worth a look, because it’s Trump channelling the spirit of Max Miller, the old British music hall star: “Oooh, what did you say? I can’t let you in here if you say that word again. What was that word again? Ooh, you’re terrible people, terrible.” It’s the funniest minute or so you’ve ever seen in a rally. To hear the pundits, this was the final deal breaker. The man wants to torture prisoners, has no shred of an economic policy and no coherent foreign policy, yet he said “pussy”. US political culture functions like one of those old diagrams of Freud’s model of the mind: the ego defends an imaginary idea of self by leaving its weakest parts for the punishing superego to attack. Not “pussy”! How can we trust a man like that to know how to torture, and how badly?
Now they’re all preparing for the Rubio “victory party”, which is being held in the Radisson Ballroom in reach of all media — like Rubio was going to have a victory. In the ballroom of the Radisson, like the boy Senator was having his quinceanera. It’s gonna be big, trays of cannoli being delivered, eyed hungrily by sad press and crews, who have exhausted the free food tables in the foyer. Metal canister upon canister being clanked in, helium for balloons presumably, or maybe they’re going to just gas everyone inside if Marco doesn’t make 10% — “We die together!” (Bad luck, Rubio — he came in an extremely underwhelming fifth place, with less than 10% of the vote to Trump’s resounding 34% at time of press.)
Bernie’s celebration is up in Concord, too far to go to make a flight tomorrow, and man, that will be a celebration. Jesus, all those good-looking kids. The “where the boys are” thesis is totally wrong. It’s the girls who turn up for the politics, idealistic, ready to change the world, and the boys who spend all their time trying to work out what combo of heroics, sensitivity and humour will get them laid, anywhere from the Vegan Save Wombat Creek group to the Baader-Meinhof faction.
Still, everyone will get laid tonight with victory sex. Better even than angry sex. Or as Donald Trump calls it, sex. No wonder Steinem’s shitty. Give it five years, I’ll be the same. And I look older than Bernie — who, that day, in the Palace theatre, finished speaking with no rhetoric, just an urge to get the vote out, and as the crowd rose out of their seats — “Bernie, Bernie, Bernie” — I felt a sensation not had for years, my legs of their own accord lifting my body, applauding, among them all standing, applauding, as the music roared into life again.