The Shadow Over Portsmouth

Feature: One Writer Witnesses Bernie Sanders Endorse Hillary Clinton

Sanders, Clinton (AP)
July 12, 2016

Portsmouth, N.H.—I should probably begin by apologizing to the thousands of people I cut in front of today at Portsmouth High School. The door with the sign that said "Media Entrance" was locked and I spent 10 minutes with a photographer from another publication pounding on it as hard as we could to no avail. When it became clear to me that this was a non-starter, I casually walked to the general entrance and slipped in front of a pair of senior citizens wearing Hillary t-shirts whose names I’ll never know. Nice old people: I preempted you so that I could write this piece, and I’m very sorry.

I should also say that I was genuinely surprised by the size of the crowd that turned out to watch Bernie Sanders endorse Hillary Clinton at 11:30 a.m. on a Tuesday. When I walked around the building to get a sense of the turnout, I saw elderly people and teenagers, tables and carts selling official and unlicensed Clinton and Sanders merchandise, camo-wearing Trump supporters, mothers and fathers with newborn babies—who should not have been forced to wait in the 86-degree heat, you animals—and plenty of pro-Sanders folks who had obviously taken the day off work. Was it worth it?

No. Especially for those here in support of Hillary Clinton, who were treated to what was essentially her stump speech—unless, of course, they are inclined to schadenfreude. Mencken worried about the effect that television would have on political reporting; he thought that what was by the middle of the century already largely a matter of coaching and stagecraft would become little more than propaganda for parties and candidates. On the whole, he was right. No one watching today on television could have heard the genuinely agonized reactions of the earnest Sanders supporters who, somehow, did not really expect him to endorse Clinton after all. Many of them walked out well before the end of the proceedings.

"Don’t endorse her!"

"No, no, Bernie, don’t betray us!"

"It was fixed!"

"The fix was in, the votes haven’t even been counted yet!"

"I LOVED you!"

Some people’s hearts were broken. One woman in a baby carrier gave the thumbs down and trampled out indignantly a few minutes into Sanders’s speech. An older gentleman wearing a tie-dye shirt gave everyone the finger before heading for the door. I also heard shouts of "Jill Stein for president!" and "You traitor!" from the crowd and loud groans and "Oh bull!" when Sanders credited Clinton with understanding America’s heroin epidemic. When he said that Donald Trump planned to "abolish the Affordable Care Act," I heard people behind me shout, "Not a bad idea" and "What about single payer?" A good portion of the Sanders contingent left as soon as he finished speaking. Some stayed around long enough to yell "Wall Street Hillary!" or "That hag!" before stomping out.

Meanwhile, Bernie did the best he could to argue implicitly that he would not be making the perfect the enemy of the good, that whatever Clinton’s problems—and there are many that he had never even bothered to make an issue of during the campaign—she was better than Trump, especially in light of the platform concessions that had been wrung from her, not least a $15 minimum wage. But even people watching on television saw that Clinton stood on for most of his speech looking alternately bored and contemptuous and that, when it was Clinton’s turn, Sanders clapped feebly, like a middle-school-aged thespian who knows he ought to have gotten the lead role in the seventh grade play.

To find any of this amusing you’d have to have a heart of stone. It almost brings a tear to my eye to think now of the girl I saw last fall in Nevada wearing a Robin Hood costume to the Sanders watch party at the first Democratic debate or the college student in Iowa who told me he’d maxed out a credit card with donations to the Bernie campaign or the sturdy defiant UAW men in Michigan who remembered NAFTA and took the hint from their union, which had at that point declined to endorse, and voted their conscience, putting the junior senator from Vermont over the edge in the Great Lakes State. I wanted to get up and leave myself when Clinton, dripping with condescension, in her witch-like faux-giggle, said Sanders "has not always been the most popular person in Washington." I almost threw my phone when she added that—wink-wink, nudge-nudge—her Goldman Sachs-financed oligarchy of a campaign "also" accepts $27 donations.

Yet there were even a few moments when I could have sworn that the scorn and lassitude in Clinton’s face gave way to a kind of wistfulness. I like to imagine that as much as anyone else in the room she recognized what was going on and didn’t enjoy watching the ceremony of innocence being drowned any more than the rest of us. Maybe a part of her couldn’t help but cast her memory back to her days as a Gene McCarthy supporter; maybe something was wrong with her make-up. It is hard to say.

The most insightful conversation I had all day was with Katherine Prudhomme O’Brien, a New Hampshire state representative and rape victim. O’Brien was standing near the entrance to Portsmouth High School carrying a sign accusing the presumptive Democratic nominee of being an enabler of sexual assault. She could not believe that Clinton is the nominee of a major political party in 2016. Last summer she asked her about Juanita Broaddrick, the Arkansas nursing home administrator who accused Bill of raping her, after running into Hillary at a rally. "She said she didn’t know who that was and didn’t care to know," O’Brien told me. "If we really want to be bold and address this problem as a nation, we have to confront it in our personal lives."

She said that she’s heard similar things from Clinton supporters: "They tell me, ‘I don’t know who this Broaddrick is, but I know she’s lying.’ I hope if anything happens to those women or their daughters or their sisters, people would treat them differently, even if it involved someone who was the president of the United States. That’s what I want for my daughters."

O’Brien doesn’t support Clinton or Sanders, but she felt bad today for those who backed the Vermont senator. "Of course Sanders supporters are disappointed. They would have been Hillary Clinton supporters long ago if after all this time they trusted her."

I pointed out that Sanders himself didn’t make much of an issue of Clinton’s background.

"I think people need to get a little bit of backbone about this. I had two television reporters tell me they couldn’t put my sign on camera because they can’t put the word ‘rape’ on TV. What, should I go back to the 1880s and use the word ‘savaged’? Should I say ‘ravished’ instead? Is that what I need to do? I think that Sanders probably just didn’t have the guts." This was not a good day for anybody.