Bill Newman: Into the Bernie maelstrom

Last modified: Monday, November 09, 2015

NORTHAMPTON — At the recent Bernie Sanders rally in Springfield, a woman I met confided she hadn’t been as excited about a presidential candidate since Bobby Kennedy.

Her enthusiasm was shared. Six thousand people jammed into the Mass Mutual Center on that Saturday afternoon to listen to Bernie.

When introducing Sen. Sanders, Bill McKibben, the internationally renowned environmentalist, recounted that Bernie had announced his opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline in September. McKibben paused, the venue fell quiet and the crowd tensed. This event was taking place Oct. 3. September sounded really late and opportunistic.

Then McKibben repeated “September.” He paused one more time before adding, “2008.” The place went wild — cheering, stomping, a standing ovation. Bernie’s consistent and unassailable record of opposition to corporate greed, environmental degradation and insidious energy policies deserves such applause. Throughout his career, as senator, a member of the House of Representatives and mayor of Burlington, Bernie’s priorities and passion have not wavered.

A few political events I’ve attended have pulsed with similar energy. One occurred at the University of Massachusetts Amherst when Geraldine Ferraro, the Democratic vice presidential candidate, gave a fiery speech on behalf of Walter Mondale and herself. At that time attending a rally for the first female vice presidential candidate of one of the two major political parties felt like the possibility of history in the making. It was 1984.

Another time was in my living room. We were hosting an event for Evelyn Murphy, who was running for the Democratic nomination for governor of Massachusetts. Our then 7-year-old daughter Jo, who was standing on a chair so she could see, wanted to know what the hoopla was all about, why our house was filled with people wanting to hear this woman speak. We told Jo that Murphy might be elected the first woman governor of Massachusetts.

“The first,” Jo said in amazement. “The first? That’s stupid.”

My wife Dale and I really couldn’t improve on that summary. It was 1990.

Back to the Bernie event. RoseAnn DeMoro, the executive director of National Nurses United, the largest nurses union, spoke first. She explained that “shattering the glass ceiling” mattered a lot to her. I think we all agreed. Then DeMoro argued that supporters of Bernie Sanders have the opportunity to shatter a ceiling as big and as important, “the class ceiling.”

For an hour, with few notes, Bernie spoke. He excoriated the corporate and political elites that control America and elections. He condemned income inequality. He argued for his proposals on health care — for all; economic opportunity — for all; and justice — for all. He embraced the phrase “a political revolution” to rebuild the middle class.

Notwithstanding that Sanders has been drawing huge crowds across the country, the political punditry already has awarded the Democratic nomination to Hillary Clinton. And they may well have it right. After all, Secretary Clinton appeared presidential and unflappable when she testified for 11 hours before the Benghazi committee. She demonstrated similar confidence and qualities during the first Democratic presidential candidates debate. And the national polls overwhelmingly favor her.

In 2016 when I vote for president, I’ll be 66 years old. The math doesn’t lie. As Sen. John Kerry reflected in February 2011, when he spoke in Northampton at a Town Hall meeting at the Center for the Arts, “There’s a lot more runway behind me than in front.” How many more elections remain for me to trudge with political allies down crumbling country roads in New Hampshire, to knock on doors and distribute literature? How many more opportunities to work on voter protection in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Florida? How many more times to dream of things, as Bobby Kennedy put it, not as they are and ask why but as they might be and ask why not? Probably not that many.

The possibility of Bernie Sanders winning the nomination for some raises the specter of repeating George McGovern’s crushing loss to Richard Nixon, or at least increases the possibility of a President Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz (both terrifying) or Ben Carson or Donald Trump (hard to take seriously, except that this week’s polls show both of them beating both Clinton and Sanders). That argument made me pause.

For the answer on how to live my political life today and whether to support Sanders, I turn to Gimli, the ferocious and funny dwarf in “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy. In “Return of the King,” when confronted with the dire dilemma of whether he and his cohorts should lead a charge against the troops of Sauron, he responds, “Certainty of death. Small chance of success. What are we waiting for?”

And then they fought. And then they won.

Bill Newman is a Northampton lawyer, host of a WHMP weekday program and author of “When the War Came Home.” His column appears the first Saturday of the month. He can be reached at


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