The sculpture of Winston Churchill in front of Westminster College’s Churchill Museum honors his famous 1946 “Iron Curtain” speech here on campus. Yet even if the great man came back from the dead for an encore, it’s hard to imagine he’d get any warmer a reception than Sen. Bernie Sanders did on Thursday.
Usually, the world does not clamor to hear a losing former presidential candidate deliver a chewy foreign policy address. And college students don’t habitually shout “S’up?” and “We love you!” at just any septuagenarian senator who agrees with them.
Both Hillary Clinton and, more curiously, Donald Trump sometimes behave as though it’s 2016 still. But what Sanders lit during that campaign hasn’t burned out yet, either, and I came here hoping that his young supporters could explain what other candidates would have to do to get them this excited — or even to inspire them to turn out to vote.
They did cheer almost everything Sanders had to say — on climate change, the Iran nuclear deal, and what a “disaster” both the war in Iraq and the war on terror have been. (“Had it not been for the Iraq war, ISIS would almost certainly not exist,” Sanders told them, and our response to a few thousand zealots “responds to terrorism by giving them what they want.”)
But the Vermont senator’s shaggy, stubborn appeal is not only or maybe even mainly about issues, several people said.
“He has something other politicians don’t have,’’ said University of Missouri student Ben Nelson, who described himself as “in the middle” ideologically. “I don’t agree with a lot of his issues, but I actually believe what he says, and I believe he’ll follow through.”
In speaking about him, students expressed more a sense of kinship than of reverence, and as he stood at the podium, they laughed like he was the king of comedy when he tugged on and fussed with the golden hood from his honorary doctorate.
In his address — the Green Foundation Lecture that Churchill, Harry Truman, Mikhail Gorbachev and Margaret Thatcher had given before him — Sanders acknowledged the disconnect that he fears has caused too many Americans of all ages to give up on representative democracy itself, “because the promises made to them simply have not been kept.”
And afterwards, some of the young people who were standing around outside the Champ Auditorium hoping to meet him said that they not only believe he does do what he promises, but that they feel they have something in common with Sanders that transcends age or any other outward difference.
“He’s just very activist-y, and that’s not a real word, but he’s a real speaker,’’ said Hazen Blair, who was wearing a hand-printed “Free Hugs” t-shirt. “He’s a shouty old man with a lot of good ideas.”
Blair didn’t get to vote for Sanders because he just turned 16 this week. But “it gives me a sense of purpose,’’ listening to him, he said.
“He realizes the position our generation is in,’’ said Danny Chicas, a junior business major from Dallas, “and talks about the human aspect” of every issue.
Best of all, “he doesn’t always say what people want to hear.”
Of course, that’s what Trump supporters say about him, too, and if the last couple of years have proven anything, it’s that the power of authenticity can no longer be underestimated.
Young crowds may be the toughest, because they’re so disinclined to compromise, or turn out for someone they don’t feel that great about.
They expect to feel as respected by those asking for their vote as anyone twice their age: “Bernie sees us as the future,” said Micahlynn Hollandsworth, a freshman at nearby William Woods University, and instead of just saying that, shows it in everything he focuses on.
And what makes him a tough act to follow is that this isn’t an act at all.