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Think You Know Bernie Sanders? Here Are Five Facts That May Surprise You

by Rafi Schwartz

October 14, 2015
image via (cc) flickr user tabor-roeder

By now, Bernie Sanders has gone from relatively niche political personality known primarily in far-left circles, to a national force within the democratic party. His progressive politics, coupled with a no-nonsense rhetorical style have vaulted the avuncular senator from Vermont into the solid number two spot in his party’s presidential primary race. But, as is so often the case with lifelong politicians who suddenly find themselves thrust before a national audience, there’s a lot about Bernie Sanders that people might not know. 

Here then are five fun Bernie facts, perfect for your next cocktail party, or progressive political rally:​

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1) Bernie Sanders is an Accomplished Folk Musician

In 1987, while mayor of Burlington, VT, Bernie Sanders teamed with local artist and musician Todd Lockwood for what would become We Shall Overcome, an album of folk standards dedicated to the “men and women around the world involved in the struggle for peace and justice.” To record the album, Sanders was joined by 30 Vermont-based musicians who provided the musical backing to Sander’s, uh, “unique” vocal styling for well known songs, such as Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” and Pete Seeger’s “Where Have All the Flowers Gone.”

Wrote Lockwood in 2014:

When I approached Bernie with the idea, he saw it as an opportunity to tell a larger story, a story about the inequities of life in America. Suddenly, the project was more than a novelty. It had purpose. Bernie chose the music: five protest songs from the fifties and early sixties. I hired arranger Don Sidney to update the songs with contemporary rhythms. 

[...]

Bernie is not a particularly musical person, but he more than made up for it with his delivery and sense of purpose. His presence in the studio electrified everyone, making this into a landmark Vermont recording.

2) Bernie Sanders Has His Own Video Game

Sanders hardly seems like the sort of person who’d come home after a long day of politicking, plop down on the sofa, and kill a few hours playing XBOX with pals. That said, in 2006 Sander’s senatorial re-election campaign created an animated mini-game—the “Bernie-Arcade”—featuring the Senator piloting a vintage airplane, which users could control in an attempt to avoid floating sacks of cash (“big money special interest”), felines in top hats (“fat cats”) and other obstacles. Sanders himself lent his voice to the game, exclaiming “disasterous,” “ugly,” and “absolutely abysmal” each time a player is hit. The objective was simply to stay in the air as long as possible, while collecting fuel (hydrogen, of course) for Bernie’s plane in order to rack up a high score.

image via sanders for senate archive / screen capture

While the “Sanders for Senate” page is no more, Kill Screen Daily points out that anyone interested in trying their hand at the Bernie-Arcade can do so, thanks to an archived version of the game

3) Bernie Sanders is a Jock

He might not look it now, but Bernie Sanders used to be an accomplished athlete. While a student at Brooklyn’s James Madison High School, Sanders was part of his school’s track team, earning his first mention in The New York Times after placing fifteenth in an event for New York’s Public Schools Athletic League in 1956. A year later, Sanders would show marked improvement, coming in third for a mile run at an event the following spring. 

4) Bernie Sanders Inspired a Poem, Written by Allen Ginsberg

While mayor of Burlington, VT in the mid-’80s, Bernie Sanders began cementing his reputation as a liberal firebrand by, among other things, visiting the nation of Nicaragua, following years of clandestine warfare by the Reagan administration against that country’s Sandinista government. As a result, Burlington became something of a destination among other left wing notables, eager to mingle with Sanders and the community he lead. Among then, explains The Guardian, was iconic beat poet Allen Ginsberg, who visited Burlington in the winter of 1986. While there, in the Maverick Bookstore, Ginsberg penned “Burlington Snow,” a slightly satirical ode to Sanders and his city. It reads:  

Socialist snow on the streets
Socialist talk in the Maverick bookstore
Socialist kids sucking socialist lollipops
Socialist poetry in socialist mouths
—aren’t the birds frozen socialists?
Aren’t the snowclouds blocking the airfield
Social Democratic Appearances?
Isn’t the socialist sky owned by
the socialist sun?
Earth itself socialist, forests, rivers, lakes
furry mountains, socialist salt
in oceans?
Isn’t this poem socialist? It doesn’t
belong to me anymore.

The original, handwritten draft of “Burlington Snow” resides in Sanders’ mayoral archives, at the University of Vermont.

5) Before He was a Politician, Bernie Sanders Worked as a Writer, Carpenter, and Filmmaker

Bernie Sanders has served the public as an elected official since 1981, when he became mayor of Burlington, VT with an victory margin of just 10 votes. While having spent over 30 years as a career politician, Sanders’ life before politics featured surprising forays into both freelance writing and carpentry, according to a 2007 New York Times profile on the Senator. He even spent time on an Israeli kibbutz, or communal living collective, in 1964, although tracking down which one has proven to be more difficult than expected. After returning to the United States and making his home in Vermont, Sanders began exploring an interest in politics, launching several failed bids in both Vermont’s gubernatorial and senatorial elections. 

In the late 1970s, Sanders launched the American People’s Historical Society, which Politico reports he described as “a newly formed nonprofit organization producing audio-visual from an alternative point of view.” While there, Sanders tried his hand at filmmaking, producing a 30-minute documentary on the famous labor leader Eugene V. Debs: 

Shortly thereafter Sanders was convinced by friend Richard Sugarman to run in Burlington’s mayoral election as an independent. His surprise victory then helped set the tone for a political career that’s been defying expectations ever since. 

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Think You Know Bernie Sanders? Here Are Five Facts That May Surprise You