Guest Commentary

Ghosted by Bernie: Sanders’ fireworks fizzle on an Iowa Fourth

Volunteers put the finishing touches on their new campaign office as they await the arrival of Sen. Bernie Sanders in Iowa City, Iowa, on July 3.
Volunteers put the finishing touches on their new campaign office as they await the arrival of Sen. Bernie Sanders in Iowa City, Iowa, on July 3. The New York Times

Entries in the Pella, Iowa, Independence Day parade were lining up, and I was looking for a place in the shade when I felt a hand on my arm. I turned and saw it was a friend who had worked for a past Democratic governor’s administration in Iowa.

“That’s the guy over there you need to talk to if you want an interview with Bernie, Bob. He’s a friend of mine, and he’ll help you out.” I noticed she had a new tattoo, and I wondered if she had ridden her Harley to town, or if the over-90-degree heat would make it too much of a blast furnace. But before I could ask, she smiled, and was gone.

I turned and walked across the asphalt the direction she had pointed, through maybe 40 youthful supporters who had gathered awaiting their favorite candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders, to arrive so they could march in the parade with him. They were smiling and laughing, sporting their Bernie T-shirts and already waving their signs, clearly energized to march in the hot sun. I’m a small town Iowa radio guy, and I was there to cover Sanders. I cover Pella, the rest of Marion County and parts of adjacent counties in rural south-central Iowa.

My friend had pointed to three people behind the Sanders supporters standing in the middle of the street. Two of the three weren’t wearing Bernie shirts, so I took them to be paid staff or consultants. I spotted a few members of the national media nearby, and figured out that was the place to be.

“Bob, local radio,” I said, getting the attention of Sanders’ staff. “Any chance I can ask the senator a question or two when he gets here?”

Silence. Then, “Uhm … we’ll see what his mood is,” said one.

I took that for a no. I wasn’t surprised. Three calls to his campaign about a potential interview during the visit had gone unreturned.

“Don’t worry,” a reporter for a big-three network told me reassuringly, “we hardly ever get to ask a question either.”

Pella is a conservative town of just over 10,000 people, and I was curious what the crowd’s reaction to Sanders would be. Pella has a reputation for hard work, fiscal conservatism and deep faith. Christian, that is. When people meet for the first time, often the first thing they tell each other is which church they belong to.

Pella is also deeply patriotic, and they take their Independence Day parade seriously. The parade goes for only six blocks, but the number of entries are such that it takes over an hour from start to finish. People line the streets four to five deep. It could be a tough crowd for Sanders, I thought. Or any Democrat.

Critics were warming up for Sanders’ visit before he even arrived. Earlier, I had seen a man I knew walking with his family shout into the air jokingly, “Make socialism great again!” A law enforcement officer friend who was directing traffic had stopped me, and said, “Ask Bernie if he’s going to pay for my college debt that’s 20 years old … and ask the Bernie bros how much he is paying them to be here. … Seriously, Bob — does he really think all of these people from out of town are going to convince the people of Pella to vote for him?”

The Pella parade was to be Sanders’ fourth and final one for the day. If he made it in time. It was to begin at six, and at a few minutes till, he wasn’t there yet. I was dreaming of a tall cold beer that I could be drinking in an air conditioned bar only two short blocks away, when Sanders and a small entourage emerged through an alley. He was greeted by applause and cheers by the group that were there to march with him.

Staff wrangled us all into place, supporters to the back, media in front with staff prohibiting access to Sanders, putting him in a hot, sweaty, human bubble. And then we stood there, in line with other parade entries, waiting for it to start. And stood. And waited. Several minutes passed. I was surprised the national media wasn’t engaging Sanders and asking questions. Normally they crowd the candidates peppering them with questions, most of the time elbowing us small town guys and gals out of the way. Their experience must have taught them engaging him was futile.

Enough of this, I thought, and stepped between two staffers who were distracted.

“Senator, a poll this week by an agricultural association shows that 79% of farmers still support President Trump; what’s your reaction?”

Sanders responded, saying he really doesn’t trust polls, but that eventually farmers would figure out Trump is hurting the economy, is a bigot, conman and so on, sharing his normal talking points, and not really answering my question. I started asking a follow up, and Sanders pursed his lips like he had just bit into something sour, shook his head, and started crisscrossing his arms exuberantly at the waist like an NFL referee signaling an incomplete pass. It was over.

I backed away and to the side, not wanting to draw another penalty. We waited some more.

A young man walked down the parade line and stood in front of the phalanx of Sanders supporters and the press.

“Senator,” he said in a warm and welcoming tone. “We would like to welcome you to march with us, the Marion County Democrats. We’re only a couple of entries in front of you. Please join us.”

Bernie had turned to look at the man at the sound of his voice, but as he heard the invitation, he quickly looked away, as if by simply looking away, the man and the invitation didn’t exist. Some of Sanders’ staff ignored the man, and others looked at their feet.

The man shrugged, and returned to tell the rest of the local Democrats that Sanders wouldn’t be joining them. Ghosted.

“He didn’t walk with the Story County Dems in Ames, either,” a national reporter told me.

And then the parade started. At the beginning it was oddly silent. The people lining the streets said little or nothing as Sanders passed. Maybe a clap or two. Tension built for a block or so, when finally a young woman expressed her support for Sanders, and he darted toward her to shake her hand like he was a member of the USA’s soccer team playing in the World Cup.

Once the ice was broken, more people realized that even in conservative Pella, it was OK to show your support for Sanders. But to be clear, there were only small pockets of support. There was also dissent — some cried “Trump 2020,” others pointed to their Trump shirts and caps, double thumbs down were occasionally seen. One man unfurled a Trump banner and shouted his support for the president and disdain for Sanders. One woman in her 60s in a summery gingham dress and hair in a bun that looked like she was auditioning for a TV remake of Little House on the Prairie ran beside us, occasionally hopping, shouting, “no socialism!” and “Trump 2020!”

At every word or shout of dissent, the Sanders supporters raised their voices in eerie, undulating “woos,” and “woo-hoos,” a practice so odd and captivating that it deserves an episode on the National Geographic channel.

And then it was over. The Sanders team posed for a photo; he gave them a few words of thanks; they cheered and then he was gone. Poof.

And there on the sidewalk, waiting, and hoping to talk with the senator, were the Marion County Democrats. But Sanders was gone.

Ghosted again.

They shared their disappointment, wondering why he wouldn’t want to talk with them — the locals who would actually be deciding whom they wanted to caucus for. One 15-year-old girl teased, “Well, I had a nice conversation with Beto when he was here, and Bernie won’t talk with me, so I guess I know who I’d support if I were old enough.”

The adults just shook their heads and walked toward their cars, disappointed. I wandered off in pursuit of my beer and air conditioning.

I asked a friend who wasn’t at the event, “But why wouldn’t he walk with the local Dems?”

“That’s easy, Bob,” he replied. “He’s not a Democrat.”