Bernie Sanders’s Brother: He Backs ‘Class Warfare,’ Bill Clinton Was Worse Than Bush
OXFORD, England — The problem with the Clintons, according to Bernie Sanders’s big brother, is that people don’t realize what an awful president Bill was. For the most part, Larry Sanders says, that’s because people are too busy debating “Is Bill really such a terrible rapist—or is he a nice rapist?”
These are shockingly blunt words from a soft-spoken man, who has been calmly explaining his little brother’s sudden political success from his sun-drenched kitchen table in Oxford.
Larry Sanders said he thinks Hillary Clinton’s brand of moderate politics is “feeble” but there is no sign of any real hostility towards her—that is reserved for her husband, although Sanders, who has dedicated his life to working with the disadvantaged and disabled, insists that it was the former president who started it.
“Bill Clinton has leapt in to try and make it personal with Bernard,” Sanders said to The Daily Beast over a cup of tea. “He was a dreadful president—in general—for poor people.”
Clinton was far more culpable for America’s woes than is generally accepted by people who blame George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, said Larry.
“The imprisonment stuff stems back to him, the breaking up of the welfare system stems back to him, which caused a lot of misery, the trade deals—the NAFTA, a lot of bad key policies didn’t come in under the Bushes,” he said.
“The media have a lot to answer for, I think, you don’t get that detailed discussion. You get: ‘Is Hillary a nice person? Is Bill really such a terrible rapist or is he a nice rapist?’ It’s at that level the discussion—so you can imagine that people could have a pleasant opinion but not based on the actual policies.”
Larry is at pains to point out that they have real respect for Hillary. (The Clinton campaign did not respond to a request for comment.)
“I certainly don’t dislike her—Bernard has been very clear to say he likes her and respects her but they have big differences on policy,” he said. “They’re not friends but they’re people who worked near each other for 20 years.”
Larry said there was no such personal relationship with Bill Clinton, whom Bernie has spoken to far fewer times during his decades in Washington.
For much of Bernie’s early years in Congress, the Clintons were in the White House. Larry feels it was the couple’s influence within the party that led civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis to disparage Bernie’s minor role in the movement—as a student he campaigned successfully to have the University of Chicago desegregate campus housing in 1962.
“It was something he said that he shouldn’t have said... I felt sad because this is a great man, I mean no disrespect to him, but he got caught up—you get caught up in elections, in a rivalry,” Larry said. “He’s committed, so he said something but I think he’s quite clear that he made a mistake.”
You’ve got to be careful picking on somebody’s little brother. Larry, 80, may be even more protective than most big brothers since their mother died tragically young, when she was in her forties, and their father passed just three years later. That’s probably why “I keep crying” in interviews about Bernie’s remarkable run for the presidency, he said.
They have lived 3,000 miles apart for most of the last 45 years but they have stayed remarkably close. Larry catches up with his brother, whom he always calls “Bernard,” on the phone every other Sunday. During their afternoon phone calls Bernie shares the downside of campaigning.
“He’ll say, ‘I’m tired. It’s sooooo haaaard.’ So I say, ‘But it’s going great?’ and he says, ‘Yes, it’s going great,’” said Larry. “I’m the outlet for that—I’m not sure he’s even saying that to his wife.”
No one is better placed to attest to Bernie’s burning anger and “quiet determination,” which stretches back to his successful distance running career as a teenager. Larry thinks that determination is about to get a lot louder.
“They must feel like they are up against a juggernaut at the moment—it is astonishing with their huge array of elected officials, party officials, and so on. And Bernie comes along and says they got it wrong. Not drastically, not as bad as the Republicans but they got it wrong. And people are saying: ‘Oh, yeah.’ And they must feel—how did that happen?” Larry said.
“If that money hadn’t been turning up from small donors the whole thing would have fizzled and that I’m not sure [Bernie] understood. He thought from the people he talked to it was possible but nobody predicted how successful he could be.”
One of the most remarkable features of Bernie’s victory in the New Hampshire Democratic primary and his narrow second place in Iowa was that he has never been a member of the Democratic Party.
“Yes, you could call that weird,” said Larry.
If Bernie is able to ride the recent surge in support all the way to the White House, Larry says he would go big—no matter what Congress, the usual conventions or even the majority of the Democratic Party might say.
“He’ll flex his muscles,” Larry said. “I mean this is not cowboy stuff, there are very intricate constitutional discussions, [but] he won’t hesitate, if he thinks he’s got the constitutional power to do something—he will do it.”
(The Sanders campaign did not respond to a request for comment.)
If that’s a warning to those who think President Obama has been guilty of constitutional overreach, he also has one for Democrats who would try to moderate a Sanders presidency.
“He might lose the first vote [on an issue], but a lot of guys will be looking over their shoulders,” Larry said, pointing to his brother’s plan to use his network of supporters to pressure Congress into falling into line through protests, marches, and the threat of primary challenges backed by massive small-donor fundraising drives.
It’s a powerful machine that Bernie could command for an independent bid should he lose the nomination to Hillary, but Larry said he’s ruled out such a run.
“He didn’t want to go through all that bother and elect some right-wing terror,” he said, and besides, “he thinks the Democratic Party should be like his policies.
“He’s not selling out—there is nothing that he’s conceded to the Democratic Party other than the label.”
Bernie wants to revolutionize politics, but he also specifically wants to revolutionize the Democratic Party. Larry tried entryism himself in the early 1960s when he was president of the Lower East Side Reform Democrats who tried to take over the local chapter of the Democratic Party.
The first time Larry was stunned by Bernie’s steel in the political arena was during his infamous showdown with the chairman of the Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan, in 2003. It was a viral video moment in the pre-YouTube era as Sanders tore strips off the economic giant during a House committee hearing.
Larry buried his face in his hands and shook his head, as he recalled the confrontation in the familiar Brooklyn accent he shares with his brother. “I thought ‘Christ!’ because I haven’t ever unloaded on someone like that and this is a very big guy and Bernard is a junior congressman—he’s not a big guy—and he told him what he thought.”
That flash of anger directed at one of the titans of the American economy was channeling his constituents’ frustration but it was evidence of the genuine rage that burns inside Bernie, according to his brother. As kids, the one thing their parents argued about was money.
“Children do respond to that—parents’ arguments are a big thing in a child’s life,” Larry said. “I think the underlying emotional feeling which tends to drive us comes more out of that than the intellect. What I suppose the intellect has added is that Bernard is convinced that a rich country does not need to put people in that position. It’s not necessary—I think he remains angry at the idea that people are put at that risk just so other people can have vast amounts of money that they don’t need. Why does somebody need a second billion?”
Amid Bernie’s real emotional investment and the exhaustion of the campaign trail it may be no surprise that he gets incredibly stressed before his events. “When I was there, he was giving virtually the same speech each time but he doesn’t know that,” laughed Larry. “Half an hour beforehand he’s saying ‘How do I write this? Shall I say that—oh, no!’”
Larry’s head is in his hands again—this time he has removed his glasses—and he is kneading his face in mock anguish, mimicking his little brother’s worries.
“Everybody around him is going ‘Oh, Christ!—we go through this again’ and somebody is saying ‘We have to get it to the printers in five minutes.’ So if there isn’t enough stress he creates it for himself.
“And then you see he bounds on to the stage—he says hello to 25,000 people and you think this guy hasn’t a care in the world. So there’s something powerful working in him but there’s also a side that’s finding it—it is difficult. It’s a very hard life.”
There is no doubt that Larry was a formative influence on Bernie, who is six years his junior. When Larry was at college studying Marx and Hegel, Bernie was still at high school. “Sometimes I would tell Bernard about something I’d heard about or read about so I think he did get—at a much younger age than most people—an idea of political thought. So I think I did help him get started,” he said. “He has given me credit—not all the credit.”
As a radical member of the Young Democrats in the 1950s, Larry was already attracting political attention within the student body. “I do recall a Republican club paper called me ‘an obese socialist,’” he said, laughing. “And I wasn’t even very fat then!”
Last week, Larry was appointed health spokesman for the left-wing Green Party in England. He had been an active member of the Labour Party in the 1980s, but he grew disillusioned once Tony Blair had taken the party into the center ground.
He is far more impressed with Jeremy Corbyn—the hard left campaigner who won a shock election to become the new leader of the Labour Party last year. Many have pointed out the similarities between the two men, even though British politics is centered considerably to the left of the American mainstream—and Corbyn is way out to the left of that.
Larry isn’t so sure that his brother is more moderate, however. “Bernard is a genuine socialist in his sense of class warfare—that he thinks there is not a national interest so much as there is an interest with sectors of the population,” he said. “In that sense, his passion and the sense of conflict between the major owners and the rest of the population is very socialist—as socialist as Corbyn.”
Some of the Corbynistas have been helping Larry and the London for Bernie organization to raise awareness about the global primary, which allows Americans abroad to send delegates—and even some super delegates—to the Democratic convention. Larry said Corbyn supporters within the Labour Party had helped to arrange for UNITE, Britain’s largest union, to allow Bernie’s supporters to hold events in their buildings for free. The union confirmed that the group used its rooms without charge.
The move might be a violation of U.S. campaign finance law depending on who was involved, according to the former general counsel for the Federal Election Commission.
“A foreign national cannot spend any money or give anything of value for a U.S. election,” Larry Noble, general counsel for the Campaign Legal Center, said. The question here is whether the Sanders campaign knew, approved, or directly benefited from the free space.
Bernie has always told his brother that the cause of socialism, or social democracy, is more important than his own career.
“What he said to me very clearly was: ‘I don’t mind running and making a fool of myself, I’ve been humiliated before—I’ll go back to doing the job I love, no big sweat, but if I do badly then everyone will say: ‘See, I told you, nobody is interested in that crap.’ And for a generation those ideas and the millions of people he thinks need those ideas will be wiped out,” Larry said.
“He would not have run if he thought he would damage the cause—‘I think I can make a respectable showing’—that was his decision. I’m not sure that he thought he could win.”
Bernie Sanders has already surpassed the “respectable showing” stage, he has the Clinton camp on the hop, and the latest polling suggests that he has closed a 40-point deficit to come within the margin of error in Nevada.
Larry says he always had faith in his brother but he uses word “astonishing” over and over again to describe the events of the last six months.
“The nomination is the hard part—if he wins the nomination it looks to me that he would win handily,” said Larry, with a smile. “I think he’s likely to win.”