Back when I was a millennial, I adored Bernie Sanders. (I am still technically a millennial, but not in the sense most people mean it—“enthusiastic but naive early-20s person onto whom I can project all of my neuroses.”) But almost exactly nine years ago, in 2007, I was that person—an intern, standing enthralled in the back of a Chinese restaurant as Bernie Sanders ate green beans straight from the buffet and said f-words while Hillary Clinton delivered canned lines in a speech celebrating Senator Charles Schumer’s book about selling Democratic policies to Middle America. The night was a little preview of the themes of the 2016 Democratic primary—celebrity vs authenticity, insiders vs outsiders—inside a place called Hunan Dynasty on Capitol Hill. I’d sort of forgotten about it until a few days ago, even though it involved one of the most embarrassing moments of my life, when I chased Hillary Clinton down the stairs.
When I read elaborate hypotheses about why the kids love Bernie so much, I tend to conclude everyone is overthinking this. Public polls show young people are more liberal, and so naturally, they like the more liberal candidate. Simple. The attacks on Clinton’s lack of “authenticity” always seemed to be possibly sexist and definitely missing the point. But I have to admit it’s not actually that simple, after looking back at my somewhat embarrassing contemporaneous Gchats from 2007.
My parents can look through old photos and see their young faces, but I’ve had Gmail since college, which means I can look through old Gchats and see inside my young brain. It’s weird. “What’s Bernie Sanders like?” my college ex-boyfriend asked. I replied, “I LOVE HIM he’s sooo funny <3 he dropped like soooo many f bombs.” I emailed another friend from college: “i talked forever to bernie sanders, who is so freakin’ cool. … If I ever get called to answer one of those ‘Which candidate would you rather have a beer with?’ poll questions, I am definitely saying Bernie Sanders.” I emailed my mom: “He was really great, very ‘real’ ... actually seemed to care about what was happening, about doing good things with government power.” I emailed my aunt in Portland: “The best was Bernie Sanders though. I liked him instantly, even though he gently mocked me for asking about Hillary.”
I was at the time a New Republic intern, making $7 an hour, and an editor recommended me to another magazine to cover the party, thrown by Clinton to celebrate Schumer’s Positively American. I was to write 500 words about Schumer and Clinton, who had recently announced her presidential exploratory committee. This was it, I thought, my chance to convince some publication to hire me for a living wage. I put on a houndstooth pencil skirt my mom made me, took the Metro to Capitol Hill, walked into the restaurant, and then had no idea what to do. I got a drink and stood awkwardly in the back of the room. I was near a tall white-haired man and a shorter man, and I realized the first guy was Bernie Sanders. I looked at them, and they looked at me. And I stood still some more. Then, slowly, I inched closer and closer until I was in their conversation, without really coming up with a smooth “Please talk to me now” opening line. I have now honed this as a reporting technique: wallow in an awkward silence until somebody says something interesting to fill it.
I talked to them a long time before I realized the second guy was a congressman. (Gmail archives have helped me remember what happened.) Later googling revealed he was New York representative Jerry Nadler. Democrats had just won a majority in the House for the first time since 1994, and Nadler was on the judiciary committee; he was telling Sanders about all the cool investigating they were going to do into the Bush administration. I probably could have gotten some sick scoops if I hadn’t been an idiot who didn’t know anything about anything.
The magic trick Bernie performed seems to have been, based on my notes and Gchats, just talking to me like I was a real person. He made me feel like one of the cool kids making jokes at the back of the party, dishing all the good gossip, while the phonies flattered each other in the spotlight. From my notes: “Three guys stand back and marvel at the size of the crowd. ‘It’s Hillary.’ ‘Where is she?’ ‘Her people are here.’” An ex-journalist told me, “This is a celebrity-starved city, so they don’t know what to make of her.” Someone told Senator Amy Klobuchar, “I thought you did fabulous on Meet the Press.” That night I learned you’re supposed to have a pithy compliment on hand when you meet political people.
When Hillary finally arrived, the crowd rushed her. Her speech killed. “On the seventh day, the Lord rested, but Chuck did press conferences,” she said. She listed punny alternative titles for Schumer’s book. The jokes had probably been written for her, but her timing was pretty good.
I knew I needed to talk to Hillary, but I also knew she’d never give me a quote that was actual news. And I wasn’t sure what kind of question would elicit one of those “Maybe I’ll run, or maybe I won’t not run” quotes. Worse, I couldn’t make myself leave the Sanders zone. Even now, when I report on political events, I’m hit with a wave of existential dread, a feeling that there is no story, this is all a big dumb charade. Back then, I felt that everything was stupid and that I was screwing it up. Bernie spoke to my secret shame by subtly making fun of the party.
“Listen, this is a historic night,” Sanders said, a line that actually made it into the article. “I’ve been coming here for years and I’ve never seen it shut down, but they shut it down for Schumer. He has reached the top. He has shut down the Hunan Dynasty. This is a huge accomplishment.” Bernie ordered an egg drop soup and slurped it. Nadler told a long story about strong-arming votes in the New York state legislature, and Sanders joked, “Yeah, and there’s a lesson there: Don’t vote your conscience—do what’s right!” He did have a no-bullshit aura. A liberal freshman congressman had been thrilled, Nadler said, when informed they didn’t have to take up Republican bills about gay marriage. Sanders quipped, “That’s the great thing about being in the majority—not only do you get to put your stuff through, you also don’t have to deal with any of their shit.”
When Hillary started to leave, I panicked. I had not yet thought up the perfect question. I followed her anyway. She said nice things to a few more fans, and once they were all satisfied, she started to head down a couple flights of stairs toward the exit to the street. I hesitated, and then adrenaline kicked in, and I chased after her. Flop, flop, flop, my ballet flats pounded on the steps. (Yes, this is in my Gmail archive also.) “Senator Clinton! Senator Clinton!!!!” She turned around and looked at me. “Oh, hey, um … you were funny tonight. Do you think the voters are ready for a funny woman? For you to be funny?” She literally laughed in my face. “I’m myself—that’s all I can be, is be myself.”
I was still talking about this night six months later. A few lines from a June 2007 Gchat transcript distill the story of 2016—the divide between what the political press thinks is important and what normal people actually want. It’s just that, back then, the conflict was not playing out at huge rallies and polling places, but inside my brain.
me: I LOVE BERNIE SANDER
when i chased HRC down the stairs
he said fuck a whole bunch of times