Before anything else I should make it clear that I haven’t had much experience with the kind of work that has won Ted Rall prizes. I used to own an anthology of Peanuts Christmas strips, and I can remember being 10 years old and trying to figure out why Doonesbury was in the “Funnies” section. Otherwise I have never had any interest in the medium, especially not in so-called “graphic novels,” a tedious genteelism that means “really long comic books.” If I wanted to strain my eyes reading thousands of words in all caps I would study Latin inscriptions.
Bernie is a strange book. Part-pop history, part-biography of the junior senator from Vermont, part campaign manifesto, it is 170 pages of drawings, word balloons, and captions, and another 10 or so pages of references, none of them books. The first part recounts the fortunes of the American left from McGovern’s defeat to 2008. Rall’s thesis in this section is that at every turn the post-’60s party was pulled to the right on the advice of unnamed consultants and newspaper columnists who lied to them about “electability.”
There is something to this, of course, but Rall doesn’t seem to realize how far away from the left the Democratic Party was in 1960, to say nothing of in 1948 or during the long years of Roosevelt’s presidency. Before 1972 the Democrats had long been, at the national level, a moderate centrist party, and until the end of the ’60s they were a reactionary classical liberal one in most of the South. It is fine for Rall to hold all of this against the party and wish it had been something other than what it mostly was—but watching him be surprised by it made me feel embarrassed on his behalf.
A good illustration of this bizarre perspective is Rall’s demonology of the old Senate liberal establishment, in which Sam Nunn is condemned for having been “anti-gay” and Scoop Jackson as “pro-defense.” Are these two things parallel? Would a more reliable, and, if we take Rall’s implicit argument seriously, electable, liberal senator have been—what? Anti-defense? Does he really think Mondale and Dukkakis lost because they pandered too much to the conservative establishment? If it’s fair to call police-officers who broke up Occupy meetings in New York City and Oakland “OBAMA’S STORMTROOPERS,” is it also reasonable to suggest that “IN THE HEYDAY OF THE DEMOCRATIC PARTY IN THE 1960s OR 1970s, A DEMOCRATIC PRESIDENT MIGHT HAVE TRIED TO BRING OWS INTO HIS PARTY’S BIG TENT”? Someone needs to brush up on his Robert Caro.
There are other problems. Rall leaves the presidency of George W. Bush—“THE MOST RADICALLY RIGHT-WING REPUBLICAN OF MODERN TIMES”—out of his history of the post-McGovern Democratic party, dismissing this period as one in which “THE LEFT IS GONE.” I found this baffling. Those of us who remember, with varying degrees of affection, Moveon.org, antiwar.com, “No Blood for Oil,” Netroots for Howard Dean on MyDD, Air America, Fahrenheit 9/11, “When the President Talks to God,” Rock Against Bush, Natalie Maines, Cindy Sheehan, Lincoln Chafee, Plamegate, the Killian documents, the Alito confirmation hearings, and Bernie Sanders’s first Senate victory will wonder whether Rall is simply being lazy here.
I was also very surprised by the ambivalent note on which Bernie ends. After a passive-aggressive aside about how Sanders has “neutralized Hillary’s biggest vulnerability, her illegal use of a private server for State Department business,” Rall suggests that if Sanders loses the nomination his man might end up serving in a Clinton cabinet. Is he calling him a sell-out?
I should say that the drawings in Bernie are mostly good, especially the ones in the biographical section in which we see our hero running track, listening to jazz records, and watching the ’92 election returns while wearing a wife beater. The only exception is Rall’s Obama, who looks uncannily like Dennis Rodman.
At a certain point yesterday I had to close this book and sigh. “I’ve been having an argument in my head about the history of the Democratic Party with a guy whose literary progenitors are the folks who drew Scrooge McDuck and Prince Valiant.” Somehow this reaction was fitting. In some quarters being pro-Sanders is synonymous with preferring Vermont Mountain Lakes Shade-Grown Double-Hopped Not Quite Pale Ale to Budweiser, and wearing winter hats when it isn’t cold outside. It means having the kind of dorkily intellectualized affection for hip-hop you find at Pitchfork, and believing that jalapeño poppers are credible adult fare so long as they are made with goat cheese and drizzled with raspberry sauce.
My eyes still hurt.