One of the distinguishing features of Bernie Sanders is his relentless single-mindedness. In speeches and interviews, he refuses to waver from discussing the issues he considers important, such as health care, living wages, income inequality, child care, and the like. Oddly enough, some of the best interviewers he has faced are those on comedy shows, like Seth Meyers, Jimmy Kimmel, Stephen Colbert, and Trevor Noah, because those shows actually deal with serious topics, using humor to make their points. While he may share a quick passing joke with his host, he quickly gets back to business and those hosts let him do so, only interjecting with humorous asides in order to emphasize a point.
By contrast, some of the allegedly ‘serious’ journalists are more focused on Washington drama and insider gossip and process rather than substance. And one of the most vapid of that class is long time New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd who seems to never tire of writing about political superficialities. So I was surprised to hear that Sanders had agreed to a lunch interview with her. But Nathan J. Robinson writes that Sanders provided a master class on how to deal with such a person.
He starts by describing Dowd’s signature style:
Dowd writes about politics, but displays zero interest in the human consequences of political decisions. It is rare for serious policy issues to be mentioned in a Dowd column; she is unabashedly interested in Washington D.C. as a soap opera. She writes in an irritating style heavy on “sarcasm, cutesy nicknames, and, most importantly, countless gag-worthy pop cultural references,” and was infamously more interested in cutefying Barack Obama (who she called “Obambi”) than analyzing the consequences of his presidency. Naturally, she was in her element during the Clinton impeachment scandal, and in 1999 won a Pulitzer Prize “for a portfolio of 10 columns, all of them about the scandal and its lively cast of characters.” (Her characterization of Monica Lewinsky is particularly infamous for its lively misogyny; Dowd used her influential New York Times platform to call Monica Lewinsky fat, silly, and crazy, and won the biggest award in journalism for it).
Dowd apparently had a sheet of questions she wanted to ask Sanders about during their lunch. As Robinson writes:
Dowd’s column begins like this:
I want to talk to Bernie about Balenciaga. And Britney. And Dua Lipa, Sha’Carri Richardson and Joe Manchin’s houseboat. And whether he prefers red or white horseradish on his gefilte fish. And the state of capitalism, and the absurd price of a Birkin bag.
Now, you may be thinking: she’s joking. This is tongue in cheek. She didn’t really want to talk to Bernie Sanders about Britney Spears and a houseboat. But if you think this, you are not familiar with the career and columns of Maureen Dowd. She often makes it sound like she is only ironically interested in these topics, and is mocking the sorts of people who would be interested in fashion and celebrities, but these are quite clearly her favorite topics. Fashion and celebrities are by no means necessarily shallow subjects—for example there are plenty of substantive matters to discuss when it comes to Britney Spears—but it’s unlikely Dowd is interested in a serious discussion of, say, legal autonomy and conservatorships; we can expect she wants to ask about Spears because “Bernie on Britney” would be extremely clickable.
But according to Dowd, Sanders was having none of it. He brought out his own list of issues he wanted to talk about and, as usual, doggedly stuck to them: physical infrastructure, broadband, climate, childcare, paid family & medical [leave], home healthcare, prescription drugs, expand Medicare, GME expansion, higher ed, housing, and progressive taxation.
He largely refused to get drawn into discussions about other matters she raised such as his relationship with Joe Biden, his dual status as an insider/outsider in Washington, the Squad, whether he thinks AOC can be president some day, and of course Marjorie Taylor Greene. Sanders responds, “That’s not what I want to get into. I want to get into what this legislation is about” and continues to talk about his agenda items. As he ends the lunch, he asks her to “Tell people what we are trying to accomplish.”
Of course, Dowd does no such thing. She does, as promised, tell us that Sanders was “featured in this month’s Vanity Fair cover story as a friend of pop star Dua Lipa, and that he was an inspiration for a Balenciaga show in Paris in 2017.” But because Bernie wouldn’t stray far from the list, and her column was based on lunch with him, Dowd had to mention at least some of the substantive and important things Bernie said.
Bernie is a broken record, and the record in question is usually some mix of the Greatest Hits on the list he brought to his meeting with Dowd. But you can see why this actually makes Sanders a very effective communicator. He is always on message, always trying to make sure the press has to talk about what he wants them to talk about. With Maureen Dowd, that’s difficult; she has built her brand on “frivolous” topics and light cruelty. But instead of declining to meet with her, he had lunch and simply wouldn’t stop talking about the issues he wanted to talk about. In doing so, he forced her to write a column about his refusal to stray from those issues.
I think leftists can learn a great deal from this. Bernie has his flaws and made serious mistakes in both of his presidential campaigns, but he is very good at politics despite his marginal position. If he goes on a talk show, he will be discussing wealth inequality or the future of democracy, even if he is talking to a manchild like Jimmy Fallon. Staying relentlessly on message—and thinking about what topics we want to spend our finite resources and time talking about—is critical to having an effective, persuasive left. It’s easy to lose focus and forget what actually matters…. Perhaps we should directly lift Bernie’s approach and just keep a damn list. It’s fine to let our minds wander, to indulge in frivolity and amusement. But we have to know what’s on the list and train ourselves to always come back to it. Otherwise we will lose. Professional hacks like Dowd do not care about the lives that are affected by the issues on Bernie’s list. They care about D.C. drama. But it’s possible, as Bernie showed, to force the conversation to be about what you want it to be about. This is what we must constantly be trying to do.
To my mind, Sanders’s doggedness is one of his best features. The fact that it can frustrate people like Dowd makes it even better.