(Illustration by Dongyun Lee)

A political education

At the University in the 1960s, Bernie Sanders, AB’64, set out on a path that led to the Senate, and an unlikely place at the center.

“This event is off-the-record,” read the video screen in front of which Senator Bernie Sanders, AB’64, held forth at the Institute of Politics offices on Woodlawn Avenue one Saturday this past June. Institute director David Axelrod, AB’76, had invited the senator, who was in town to accept a Public Service Award from UChicago’s Alumni Association and Alumni Board of Governors, to be part of a discussion series where political and media figures—CNN president Jeff Zucker, Republican National Committee chairman Reince Preibus, Vice President Joe Biden—speak frankly to students outside of the media limelight.

So it is that I can only relate that Sanders may or may not, for the benefit of 30 or so UChicago students and about a third that number of graduates in town for Alumni Weekend, have said that America today faces more serious problems than at any time since the Great Depression, or perhaps ever; that the top 1 percent of Americans control 38 percent of the country’s wealth; and that there’s no reason Americans, if they only apply their political will to it and put aside the identity-politics distractions that keep voters in the 99 percent from recognizing their common economic interests, couldn’t provide weeks and months of paid vacation and family leave, distribute free day care to all children and health care to all citizens, and end poverty to boot, while maintaining a growing, dynamic economy.

I can report this because these are the kinds of things Sanders—Vermont’s junior senator, the only self-declared socialist in either house of Congress, the ranking member on the Senate Budget Committee, and a figure recently in the media limelight both for his chairmanship of the Senate’s Veterans Affairs Committee and his avowals that he is prepared to challenge Hillary Clinton for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination—has been saying, with gruff confidence, in just about every speech he’s made since he won his first term as mayor of Burlington, Vermont, in 1981. I also can report, because both Axelrod’s shop and the senator’s office have kindly given me leave to do so, that Bernie Sanders told his audience how his entire remarkable political adventure began at the University of Chicago in January 1962.

Sanders was born in Flatbush, Brooklyn, in 1941. His father had been the only member of his family to escape the Holocaust. In high school Sanders ran for student body president on a platform to provide scholarships to war orphans in Korea. Transferring to the University of Chicago from Brooklyn College after his mother died, he arrived at a campus busy waking up from the political somnolence of the 1950s. “Even in the ’50s, the U of C was known as a hotbed of radicalism,” remembers Sally Cook, AB’66 (Class of 1965), who entered the College in 1961. “Some of my friends’ parents were shocked that my parents would let me go.”

Sanders’s classmate Mike Parker, AB’64, arrived on campus as a freshman in 1958 with plans to become a physicist. He found himself drawn to the nuclear disarmament movement and helped found the campus chapter of the Student Peace Union, one of 40 or 50 around the country. “It’s important to remember that in that period we were just coming out of McCarthyism,” he says. In 1960 the national SPU held a Students Speak for Peace day. Parker joined a handful of students passing out leaflets at the gate of Northwestern. They were promptly arrested. “There was a huge change between ’60 and ’64. … And the U of C was one of the places where it changed earlier.”

Peruse back files of the Maroon from the summer preceding Sanders’s arrival in Hyde Park, and it’s all there. July 14, 1961: “Freedom Riders Charge Police Brutality.” August 11: The University of Chicago Fair Play for Cuba Committee held a panel discussion in Social Sciences 122. The Orientation Issue, September 29: “Conservatives Defeated at NSA Congress.”

The next week there were articles on whether the Selective Service might begin drafting students; on young people, including a kid from the University of Michigan named Tom Hayden, arrested for civil rights activity in McComb, Mississippi; on a House Committee on Un-American Activities investigation into whether the recent National Assembly for Democratic Rights in New York City was “Communist-oriented”; and on the Student Peace Union’s opposition of resumption of nuclear testing by the United States and the Soviet Union.

In the October 13 issue there were no less than a dozen pieces on national and neighborhood politics. They included an opinion piece by a former Maroon editor named Neal Johnston, AB’60, advising his fellow students concerned about civil rights in the US South. “If we are to regain the confidence of the Southern movement, if we are to regain our lost ability to provide a sound intellectual basis for a movement whose strength and long range validity can no longer be denied,” he wrote, “we must do so by demonstrating an absolute and active commitment to the goals of that movement. Not by sending telegrams, and not by sending money, but by solving the problem as it touches us.”

Soon, students like Bernie Sanders of Brooklyn would have their chance to try.

Do you think Bernie has a Brooklyn accent?”

Yes, he does, I agree with my interlocutor, Robin Kaufman, AB’65, a Hyde Park neighborhood activist who has kept in touch with Sanders since they met at the College.

“This is like 2 percent of the accent he had then. It was so thick you could cut it. And it was really kind of weird in the context of Chicago. Even though the University of Chicago had a lot of New Yorkers. But Bernie’s Brooklyn accent was something else.”

In Sanders’s office in the Dirksen Senate Office Building one day this past summer, the Brooklyn accent is very much in evidence. Another Sanders trademark, not so much. Mark Leibovich wrote in the New York Times Magazine in 2007, after Sanders beat his Republican opponent for senator by 33 points, “Journalistic convention in Vermont mandates that every Sanders story remark on his unruly hair as early on as possible. It also stipulates that every piece of his clothing be described as ‘rumpled.’”

He’s not as rumpled now. He’s a potential presidential candidate who was at the white-hot center of one of the most intense political issues of the summer: the scandal of the Department of Veterans Affairs falsifying records involving long waiting periods for care. The week I visited, Sanders had just passed a bipartisan bill he wrote with Republican senator John McCain to fix the broken federal agency. It allows veterans to opt out of VA care and receive private care if they’ve had long delays or live more than 40 miles from a VA facility; makes it easier to remove incompetent VA officials; and authorizes the construction of 26 new VA facilities in 17 states and Puerto Rico. The bill proved a rare nostalgic glimpse of the Washington of yesteryear, when Democrats and Republicans actually worked together to solve real problems.

It also shows how Sanders has transformed himself. He’s introduced a Restore Our Privacy Act to curtail the surveillance provisions of the Patriot Act and a Comprehensive Dental Reform Act to address woeful access to dental care; helped write the first new surface transportation bill since 2005; and, as founder of the Senate’s Defending Social Security Caucus, introduced legislation to keep its trust fund solvent for another 75 years. Yes, he’s still Capitol Hill’s socialist gadfly. But he’s also become a player.

Befitting that role, his suit is veritably crisp. (Last time I visited him, in his House office in 1998, he was wearing a ratty blue sweater.) And at his talk at the Institute of Politics, he connected so skillfully with his audience—first asking every questioner’s name, then addressing them by those names with eye contact—that, waiting to see him in his office, I compliment his staff on the strides their boss has made in dialing down his famous irascibility. They beam with an almost filial pride.

Although, I discover once we begin the interview, he hasn’t changed in one respect: he’s still frustratingly irascible in the presence of journalistic profilers. He hates talking about himself. He thinks it’s a distraction from what journalism should be about: serious issues, not, as he puts it, gossip. Most of his sentences in response to my questions on his College career devolve into incomprehensible mumbles. He looks at his watch. He gazes imploringly at his press secretary. (“We’ve got a vote at what time, 5:30?”)

On the subject of his college career, one of his mumbles follows the words “kids of doctors and lawyers.” His father sold paint. He felt out of place. Politics helped. Remembers Parker, “The people who were politically active were sort of drawn together, because we were such a small number.” And by Sanders’s first winter quarter, political activity on campus intensified considerably. The student chapter of the NAACP had decided to disband and reform themselves as a student chapter of the more militant Congress of Racial Equality (CORE).

Urban renewal across the country was gaining attention: the September 1961 issue of Harper’s ran a excerpt from urban activist Jane Jacobs’s forthcoming book, soon to become a classic, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (Random House, 1961). The last page took direct aim at the University-driven “Hyde Park A” neighborhood rehabilitation plan as typical of “orthodox city planning” designed to limit street activity; the University had bulldozed 55th Street’s deteriorating commercial corridor, with no fewer than 23 taverns and liquor outlets, into the strip of brown brick fortresses that we know now. Jacobs acknowledged the crime and decay that troubled 55th Street but took issue with the solution, arguing that lively businesses with sidewalk access do not constitute “blight,” as urban-planning fashion then believed, but provided just the sort of “eyes on the street” that prevent crime. (Planners, including those in Hyde Park, have come around to her view, as the University’s recent 53rd Street renewal project, with abundant sidewalk storefronts, attests.)

The September 29, 1961, Orientation Issue of the Maroon gave the director of the University-affiliated South East Chicago Commission, Julian Levi, PhB’29, JD’31, half a page to respond. He did so with evident defensiveness, arguing that under conditions of deterioration, crime was best prevented not by eyes on the street but “the restraints and disciplines of a social community at work.”

Part of the University’s ongoing urban renewal efforts involved identifying buildings believed to be in danger of, in the argot of the day, “tipping”: whites leaving a neighborhood when too many blacks moved in. In some cases, unscrupulous real estate interests would move in blacks deliberately, provoking the exodus of whites nervous about losing their property values. Then the owners would subdivide the units and make a windfall profit. So the University bought them first. “By the early 1960s, the university had purchased buildings with hundreds of units throughout Hyde Park, amounting to 10 percent of the private rental market,” according to historian LeDale Winling. The students called that “Negro removal.” The administration professed a version of desegregation as an official value—“stable integration,” aimed at simultaneously preserving the quality and safety of the neighborhood. Student activists were dubious. The administration said stable integration; they saw segregation.

Then, in the spring of 1961, David Wolf, AB’65, JD’68, tried to rent an apartment with three buddies, one of them black. “We were turned down everywhere,” he remembered. Wolf’s father was an accomplished labor organizer and publicist with some contacts in the civil rights community. He advised a tried-and-true technique: send black and white applicants to University-owned buildings separately to try to rent apartments, and see what happens next. What happened was a blunt Maroon headline on January 17: “UC admits housing segregation.”

The administration protested that it was only temporary—that, the Maroon wrote, “in cases in which buildings which are bought and kept only for the purpose of arresting deterioration that the racial policy of the owner immediately before UC is not reversed.” Beadle insisted, “In this practical and far from ideal world you have to move slowly enough so that you don’t lose. If the University had immediately integrated all the houses in Hyde Park that it bought ten years ago … the University wouldn’t be here today.” Faculty members, many of them prominent on the left, supported Beadle. The anthropologist Sol Tax, PhD’35, said the University “may well be choosing the lesser of immediate evils.” Political philosopher Donald Meiklejohn said, “There may well have been individual cases where I would criticize particular steps which have been taken, but Mr. Beadle’s claim of progress in the past twenty years seems to me completely persuasive.”

Student CORE, unsatisfied, girded for confrontation—even as their beloved faculty adviser, Gerhard Meyer, a refugee from Nazi Germany, urged caution: “He told them they must not lose sight of the complexity of the issue,” the Maroon reported. “He advised CORE’s members to ‘do what you have to, but do it in a spirit which does not deny … the good will of people.’”

Compromise was not yet to be. Backed by student government, CORE voted in a spirited mass meeting in the lounge of the New Dorm (later Woodward Court) to try a different tactic. The next day, at a noon rally at the rear steps of the Administration Building, Bernard Sanders, chairman of the social action committee of CORE, said, “We feel it is an intolerable situation, when Negro and white students of the University cannot live together in university owned apartments.” Then some 33 people, most of them white students, strode into the building, took the elevator to the fifth floor, and reclined on the floor along the walls of the reception room adjoining Beadle’s office: a sit-in.

An elevator door opened around three o’clock; President Beadle egressed and, the Maroon reported, “greeted the students with a friendly ‘Hi’ as he entered his office.” The hours advanced. Students talked quietly among themselves, others played bridge, still others read from required class readings: On Liberty, by John Stuart Mill; a book called Equality; a collection of Frederick Law Olmsted’s abolitionist reportage, The Slave States, before the Civil War—CORE was not just reading the Core but deploying what they learned there. “The University should practice what it teaches,” one told Kaufman, the Maroon’s reporter.

Kaufman had endured the frustration of not being able to stay overnight on the sit-in’s first evening: the parietal rules of the day dictated that as a first-year female student, she had to have a phone number to “sign out to” in order to get permission to stay out past 11 p.m., and the only phone available to the students had been disconnected when the building closed at 5 p.m. Which became relevant upon Kaufman’s return the next morning when “I got a note from campus security saying there was an emergency and I should please call home. My brother had been having surgery, and I thought something had happened to him when I got this emergency phone call. As it turned out, this sit-in of 33 students had made national news. ... Somebody in Boston had seen this and called my mom.”

Different times—very different from, say, seven years later, when a cadre of armed black militants exited the administration building at Cornell, or when the main demand at the 1969 University of Chicago sit-in was equal student participation in the hiring and retention of all faculty. Note the 1962 sit-in picture in which students listen politely as the chairman of the social action committee lectures them animatedly, book in hand. A few of the men wear suits and ties. Though it should be noted that the speaker, Bernie Sanders, is wearing a ratty sweater.

Senator Sanders doesn’t even mumble when I remind him of the compromise that ended the sit-in: the formation of a committee of faculty, students, and representatives of civic and community groups to discuss and investigate the matter. He just issues a weary sigh. It says: one more of those milquetoast compromises that befall the Sisyphus who makes it his or her lot to fight to change the system.

He’s still at it, though, more than 50 years later. Parker, an activist fighting to close down a polluting Chevron refinery in Richmond, California, finds it downright heroic. “Knowing someone like him was part of the inspiration for what we’re doing here: yes, it’s possible. Somebody is doing it. You don’t have to succumb to the two-party system. By building an independent movement, you can be fairly true to your values, and you can have an impact.”

But the first rock Sanders had to roll up the hill was graduating. “I was not exactly a stellar student,” the senator admits in his office. He started out majoring in English. “But it turns out I wasn’t all that great [mumble].” He switched to political science, pursuing his education in solitude in the basement of Harper Library—“a very good, a very fine library. I remember being down in the stacks. I don’t know what they call them now. Buried down there.” (Reading what? “Marx, a lot of Freud, [mumble].” Most politicians would mumble the part about Marx.)

People remember his style at political meetings: Kaufman calls his speaking “dynamic.” Parker says it was “very smart and very policy oriented. … He would say, What can government do to solve this problem? Or, What policy could be the kind of thing we should be asking for.”

But: “I don’t remember a whole lot about him personally. We weren’t in the same social circles.”

Sanders doesn’t seem to have been in anyone’s social circle; some activists hardly remember him at all. One remembered the sit-in occurring around the time of the Folk Festival. Did you, I ask Senator Sanders, ever attend the Folk Festival? He answers, “I don’t believe I did,” seeming to say, “Why would you ask such a silly thing?”

At that, this reporter had to know: how much of a hermit could he have been, really? So, in the Dirksen Senate Office Building, I steeled my courage:

“Any dating?”

The septuagenarian junior senator from Vermont, notorious for bellowing at reporters who dare introduce unseriousness into these sacred confines, almost giggles.

“I think it’s fair to say there was.”

I mention the old saw that the University of Chicago is where fun goes to die.

This time he does giggle. “There was quite a bit, yes! Among others was my wife—my first wife.”

It wasn’t long before he was called to meet with a dean. “He thought I needed to focus more on my academics.” He took a year off, working around the city. His jobs included one with the United Automobile Union. He also worked on the 1963 reelection of Leon Despres, PhB’27, JD’29,who supported the students’ housing protest, to his seat on the City Council. Mayor Richard J. Daley had marked Despres for political execution for his independence and quixotic fight against the regular Democratic machine. “I was very impressed by Richard J. Daley’s Chicago machine,” Sanders says, singling out how Daley’s patronage machine maintained “a city worker for every 200 voters.” Call it a political education, Chicago-style.

Though the idealistic Sanders might never admit it, when he was elected mayor of Burlington in 1981 by 10 votes after a decade spent unsuccessfully running for various state offices in Vermont, something in the Daley lesson must have taken. There are certain things about how a machine like Daley’s amasses power that are useful to learn for any municipal politician. Namely, that you have to deliver the goods. “What’s inherently wrong with the word ‘politician,’” Daley once asked, “if the fellow has devoted his life to holding public office and trying to do something for his people?” It’s the dirty, gritty business of giving voters something for their votes—making the system work for people.

For Chicago in the 1950s and ’60s that meant, among more infamous accomplishments, building big: McCormick Place, the Dan Ryan Expressway, the University of Illinois at Chicago. For Burlington in the 1980s it was bike paths, preservation of the Lake Champlain waterfront (control of which Sanders won from railroad interests in an aggressive lawsuit), and an affordable housing trust fund. He did all this while keeping property taxes low—and was reelected three times. True, a certain nerdish flair never left him. In the National Journal last June, Simon van Zuylen-Wood wrote that before one press conference, an aide asked what to tell reporters inquiring what the subject was to be. “Sanders grew flustered and shouted, ‘The human condition!’” A University of Chicago kind of guy? A little bit.

The socialist proved a good politician. Elected to Congress in 1990, he cofounded the House Progressive Caucus. Though he was the House’s only member unaffiliated with the Democrats or Republicans, after the Democrats lost control of the body in the 1994 election he proved enormously useful as a leading spokesman against what they saw as the ravages of Newt Gingrich’s Republican revolutionaries. Then came that 2006 victory by 33 points that landed him in the office where I sit with him, pulling teeth—until, that is, I ask him about something he may or may not have mentioned in his talk at the Institute of Politics: that he valued attending college at a place that truly welcomed free spirits, and where the idea of finding a vocation far from well-trodden paths did not seemed far-fetched. And suddenly, he turns expansive.

“Absolutely. It was a very, very, very vibrant place. It was not just, ‘Earn a degree.’” He recollects the steady stream of figures that was always flowing through campus: Charles Percy, AB’41, the CEO and Republican wunderkind who later became a US senator; Malcolm X; Michael Harrington, AM’49, then the standard bearer for the brand of democratic socialism Sanders upholds now; Dick Gregory; Studs Terkel, PhB’32, JD’34. “It was a place where there was a great deal of discussion. It was a place with a great deal of politics.”

Seizing my opportunity, I run down a list of names from the Maroon morgue files that he might have known. I say: Gavin MacFadyen; his interest perks: “Was he an anarchist type?” David Komatsu. “David Komatsu! David. Yes! Ha. Ha! I haven’t heard that name …” Bob Brown. “Bob Brown! Yes, I know Bob Brown.”

Can you, I ask, tell me more about them? And then the veil suddenly descends. He responds, only, “These were guys who exposed me to ideas.” He directs another imploring glance at his press secretary, who politely ends the interview. The time for gossip has passed. There is a rock that needs rolling up a hill.

Rick Perlstein, AB’92, is the author, most recently, of The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan (Simon and Schuster, 2014).

Updated 02.16.2016