The astounding political success of Bernie Sanders, a self-declared democratic socialist from a working class family in Brooklyn, was as unexpected as it is groundbreaking. Part of the left-wing leader’s appeal has undeniably been his profound understanding of the need to advance and protect the rights of working class Americans from the excesses of capitalism. On this week’s installment of “Scheer Intelligence,” Dr. Theodore Hamm, the author of “Bernie’s Brooklyn: How Growing Up in the New Deal City Shaped Bernie Sanders’ Politics,” examines how the Vermont senator’s New York roots can be traced throughout the policies he’s championed in his decades-long political career as well as his presidential campaign promises. Sanders’ experiences with New Deal programs such as rent control and tuition-free college, for example, are clearly reflected in the politician’s career-long struggles to secure housing rights and affordable education according to Hamm. The “Bernie’s Brooklyn” author, who teaches at St. Joseph’s college in Sanders’ hometown, adds that it wasn’t just the programs, but New York’s political giants who left their mark on the two-time presidential candidate.
“It was the world of FDR, it was the world of Eleanor Roosevelt, it was the world of Fiorello La Guardia,” Hamm tells Scheer, “all of whom were committed to programs that were enhancing equality and opportunity in meaningful ways, allowing working-class people to find stability in the city and beyond.”
Listen to the full conversation between Hamm and Scheer, who having grown up in the Bronx not far from Sanders during the same period, confirms and expands upon the picture Hamm draws of a diverse New York where political debate and activism thrived.
Natasha Hakimi Zapata
RS: Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of Scheer Intelligence, where the intelligence comes from my guests. In this case, Dr. Theodore Hamm, who teaches at St. Joseph’s College in Brooklyn, and is the director of Journalism and New Media Studies, and brings a great deal of expertise to a subject that I think is going to be a very important part of the telling of American history: the Bernie Sanders phenomenon. Somebody that I thought would never have a chance of resonating in America, and in fact [unclear] the first time he ran, in 2016 and this last time.
And he is now a seminal figure in American history, for raising a whole range of issues that were largely being ignored. And a lot of that, according to Theodore Hamm, and it reads true to me reading the book, is in his book, Bernie’s Brooklyn: How Growing Up in the New Deal City Shaped Bernie Sanders’ Politics. And what I found fascinating about it is you took Brooklyn, a borough of New York of millions of people, as an example of another view of the heartland of America. Where ordinary working people, different ethnic backgrounds, different levels of struggle, went through very hard times, very hard experiences, went through the Great Depression. Bernie’s older brother was born then; 1935, I believe; and then the war. And Bernie’s family struggled. And you talk about that as a cauldron for progressive ideas that were national, in terms of the New Deal, Franklin Roosevelt.
And that’s the making of Bernie Sanders. And the critical thing, really, is his connection to a time when America once again–is now doing it, but then we had at least the political vehicle of the New Deal that raised the question of fairness, equity, access, and the responsibility of the state to ordinary working people. And yes, now, with our current economic crisis and pandemic, we’re very much aware of that. But it’s a message that has not resonated recently in American politics until Bernie brought it to the national stage.
TH: Yes, he did, in his two campaigns, as you mentioned. His first campaign certainly paid homage to FDR, and then his second campaign he launched from Brooklyn College in March of 2019. And at that event, he kept–he made several references to issues like rent control, which he was proposing on a national level, saying that he grew up a mile or so from the college, and that you know, that it was rent control that allowed his lower-middle-class family to stay in their apartment and have some stability. His father was a paint salesman with a paint company in Red Hook, Brooklyn. So he never made a lot of money; he worked every day, as Bernie described it, traveling out to Long Island to sell paint. And Bernie and his brother were able to grow up in a city that was providing for working-class families and allowing them access to move up the economic ladder. And Brooklyn College and the City University of New York system were one clear example of that. There was no tuition at the City University of New York system, CUNY, until the fiscal crisis of the mid-1970s. So this was the world they knew; it was the world of FDR, it was the world of Eleanor Roosevelt, it was the world of Fiorello La Guardia, all of whom were committed to programs that were enhancing equality and opportunity in meaningful ways, allowing working-class people to find stability in the city and beyond.
RS: And, you know, I think, you know, just put emphasis on this–by the way, I grew up in the Bronx at pretty much the same time, and I went to the real City College, City College of New York. But picking up on your idea here of free tuition, and so forth, we were raised as working-class kids in what now would be considered a privileged atmosphere. Colin Powell, who’s written a book about growing up in the Bronx around the same time–and he was in my class at City College–describes what was done for us in his autobiography, that is not done for poor kids now, working-class kids. You know, we had even free textbooks. The class before mine was the last time. And you’d get on that subway and get to school and get a world-class education. And we were not considered throwaway people; we were not disrespected, no matter what background we came from, in New York City of that time. And Colin Powell has attested to this; others have attested. And you know, in that sense, they were the good old days. A lot of it had to do with the New Deal, the failure of capitalism during the Great Depression, the promise of ending the war and a new era, the GIs coming home demanding rights, demanding access to education, the GI Bill and so forth.
And in your book, we’re introduced to a New York that I remember very well–vibrant, exciting, politically charged. And ordinary people–people with, not even some of them had gone through high school–debating, arguing, checking out different political alternatives. You had all kinds of parties, from the conservative Republican; you had, you know, three Communist at one point, and the American Labor Party, and different kinds of liberal parties, just on the New York City Council. And reading your book, there’s an exciting introduction to how democracy can really come alive. I mean, that really is the world that Bernie grew up in. Now you watch this guy and you wonder, where does he get his energy? Where does he get it? Well, that was in the air. It was right there with the stickball games. You know, people arguing about politics and organizing for their rights, whether it was rent control or the right to better working conditions. And your book is really–and including, by the way, a very exciting section in the book, the whole question of integrating baseball, and Jackie Robinson coming to play in ’47 for the Dodgers, and you know, what that meant. And our community alive in a way that sometimes our communities now don’t seem alive.
TH: Sure, well, and then there’s elements of the different political parties and influence in the Jackie Robinson story as well, as you know, with Lester Rodney, the Communist Party journalist who was one of the leading advocates for integrating baseball through the early 1940s into 1947, when Robinson integrated, broke the color line. And Rodney was on good terms with Jackie Robinson, and Jackie Robinson, of course, he has his own political trajectory that’s somewhat unique; became a Republican, and then later in his life, sort of moving to the left, but that’s another story. But yes, what you’re describing is one of the main reasons I wrote the book, one of the many things I was excited about, was all these different political parties that were in existence during this period led to all kinds of different alliances, unusual alliances. The issue I mentioned before, rent control, was actually pushed by the American Labor Party, the party that you mentioned, that was [allied] with the Communist Party. And then it was Governor Tom Dewey, a big business Republican, who actually pushed through statewide rent control in 1950, in conjunction with the American Labor Party, against the wishes of the Democratic Party. So you had the Democratic Party at the time, was the party of the machines. The Irish-led machines in the Bronx, Brooklyn, and of course, Manhattan, where the party machine known as Tammany Hall was still flourishing. And so La Guardia was an anti-machine Republican, who was close to the left-wing American Labor Party, and the unions that supported, the garment unions that supported that party. And so on–so you had all kinds of different alliances taking shape. Now, La Guardia was close to Roosevelt; FDR was not a creature of the Democratic Party machine. He had, of those three that I mentioned, he was closest to the Democratic Party machine in the Bronx, but certainly not, he was not a Tammany ally.
RS: Yeah, and you know, by the way, just full confession. When I was going to City College, I was only able to go because I got a job in the post office. And I had to go up to–and my neighbor in the Bronx had to go over to the Tammany Hall-run Democratic Party headquarters and show them my father voted democratic so I could get a letter to take down to the post office. So they had a lot of hold. But you introduce us in your book to a fascinating bunch of characters, and I don’t mean “characters” in the sense of being superficial. Fiorello La Guardia is a great figure, the mayor of New York–“the little flowers” is his Italian name translated, but I think he was half Jewish and half Italian. I remember I used to listen to him on the radio reading the comics. You know, and I mean, this guy was a seminal figure. But he’s also, if you go to New York you see all the freeways and all the buildings and everything–he and Robert Moses and all these people conjured up the modern city of New York.
TH: With New Deal money, yeah.
RS: Yeah. But that I want to get at, because that’s really the heart of your book. All of this was done with an idea: you better take care of the ordinary people. You better give them libraries, you better give them a subway system that works, you better give them job security, you better give them rent control. And you go through the whole thing. So whether you were Irish in Tammany Hall, or whether you were Jewish and with the AOP or something, the fact of the matter is, you better deliver. And Roosevelt, who had been after all the governor of the state–he understood that. And the New Deal–well, that was what the New Deal was all about: how do you save capitalism from itself? The country was falling apart with the Great Depression, and Roosevelt, a patrician figure, goes to Washington, and thank God for his wife Eleanor.
And they just have a sense, this thing is not–and the current moment, this book is very relevant to the current moment. Because will this society survive? We just discovered that the last quarter, we had a 33% drop off of GDP, you know. You know, we’re in hard times here. And the question is, with these bailouts and everything, are we going to take care of ordinary people? We’re now dicking around about whether to extend this supplementary unemployment insurance; the Republicans wanted to cut that, eliminate it altogether, you know, and the Democrats at least are holding on. But what the New Deal represented is how do you save capitalism from itself. And what your book really is about is in the most important city, certainly in the United States and maybe in the world, it was because you had strong unions. You had all these ethnic groups, no matter their differences; they had a sense of solidarity, of demanding their rights, and they got politicians to do their bidding.
TH: Yeah, I mean, what I’m trying to capture in the book is also the lived experience of how that played out for Bernie and his generation.
RS: It’s why we got Bernie.
TH: Yeah. Well–
RS: It’s the making of Bernie Sanders.
TH: Yep. And his brother, I quote him in the introduction–his brother was, by the way, was a great source of insights as I was writing the book, Larry. I quote him saying that we grew up–something to the effect of we grew up thinking, knowing that government could do good things, or that that’s what government should do, provide for people. And I don’t think this generation or, you know, my generation or any succeeding generations really had that same experience. Because you know, neither party delivers, really, for working people at this point. There hasn’t really been any great initiatives since the Great Society, you know, which was an extension of the New Deal.
So, but in the era that Bernie was growing up, the thirties and forties–or I’m sorry, he was growing up in the forties and fifties, Larry was born in the thirties–that, you know, that this was what they came to expect. That you had to deliver the goods, otherwise you’d get voted out. And as I was saying before, it didn’t matter which party you belonged to. So you had a stronghold of Democratic Party votes in the neighborhood that Larry and Bernie grew up, which then was called Flatbush; now it’s known as Midwood. But they voted frequently for La Guardia. And then they also voted frequently in that neighborhood; La Guardia was a Republican, and then other candidates that La Guardia supported who were Republican. So it was not a given that just because Democrats were registered as such, that they would necessarily vote for whichever candidate the party put up. They were discriminating voters who went for the candidate who was most willing to deliver the goods, and they held them accountable that way. By the end of the war, Brooklyn had the largest repository, largest bloc of votes in the nation. So this was, you know, Brooklyn Democrats wielded national influence, and this was the heart of the Roosevelt coalition, the liberal Jewish and black coalition that grew up in the forties, into the fifties, carried on after Roosevelt’s death.
RS: Hey, don’t leave out the Italians, you know, ah–
TH: Well, they were there, yeah. They–
RS: Vito Marcantonio is in your book–
TH: Yeah, he was a populist figure, yes.
RS: And La Guardia was half Italian, right?
TH: Yeah, he was a one-man melting pot, La Guardia–he was actually Episcopalian.
RS: And let me say a word in defense of the Irish. I never thought I would be doing this now. But the fact of the matter is they knew their rights. I mean, New York was a collection of people–you know, it’s funny, because Donald Trump should know this as well as anyone, even though he grew up in a real privileged background, but he knows New York. And the fact of the matter is, that’s a city made up of people who came there because they wanted a better life. They weren’t going to settle for something that wasn’t getting better. If you want to talk about how you make America great again, you got a model in New York City. You had people coming from all over the world, and including from the southern part of the United States, you know, in response to segregation and after the war. And you had people coming from South America and so forth.
So you had this incredible melting pot of people who hadn’t risked their lives on third-class freighters and everything to get there, because they wanted the status quo that was not that great–they wanted to improve it. They wanted to make it better. It was a city of strivers. You know, what, 8 million, 9 million, 10 million strivers in that area. And if Donald Trump were honest about it–you know, he knew he grew up in privilege just like Franklin Roosevelt did. But you also knew you can’t survive, whether it’s London or New York or it’s Beijing or anything, in a big city, if you got too many people that are unhappy. You got to make sure that the trains run on time. You know, you got to make sure that they got employment.
And that’s why in New York City, you had in your book, you describe it–the world that Bernie Sanders grew up in–government, they demanded that government provide excellent colleges, excellent transportation, excellent hospitals. And that’s the whole thing that Donald Trump seems to miss about the city that he grew up in, that you are describing. And that’s the essence of Bernie Sanders.
TH: Well, also public housing, too. And Bernie did not grow up in public housing, but when it was being built during the late 1930s, into the forties, and then took off after the war–that, you know, it was a utopian model, a modernist utopia of harmonious living, with courtyards and meeting rooms and, you know, places for children to play and so on, within the space that they were designed. So there was this vision of the future that, you know, the working people could find permanence in the city. And so it pervaded the culture of the era.
But when it really started–I mean, coming out of the Depression, after Roosevelt came into office and then a year later La Guardia was elected, they just started, they got right to work. I mean, La Guardia and Moses just decided they were going to rebuild the city and make it a place that would flourish for working people. Put them to work in building the city–they built hundreds of playgrounds, hospitals, health centers, all kinds of different–and schools, and on and on; the list is endless. And you know, whenever La Guardia would run for reelection, he would just tout all of the different accomplishments, a laundry list of all the things that he had built over the preceding term.
And so that that’s what propelled him to two times being reelected against the Democratic machine. The Democratic machine couldn’t lay a claim to those accomplishments; they were the machine candidates, they were just trying to get a piece of the action from the New Deal spending. They wanted to dole out the patronage and so on. But La Guardia was a steadfast foe, and a foe of corruption too, which is an interesting issue that played out during that period: that working-class people very much experienced corruption. Nowadays, we think of corruption as a politician on the take, right? But in that period, corruption was an everyday thing. It was the mob shaking down storeowners for protection money, or bakery owners, and you know, affecting the price of goods in circulation in the city. So working-class people and the left really had a strong critique of corruption during that period. That’s something to consider.
And these were the everyday realities, that the city had very forceful unions on the waterfront, literally on the waterfront in Red Hook. The unions were strong. Also, there was corruption there as well. So this was the world that Bernie experienced. Strikes were commonplace; the transit workers were always threatening to go out on strike. There was a massive milk strike that crippled milk delivery during the early 1950s. So all these things, even as a young–he was born in ’41, so he was only experiencing these things as an adolescent through the early fifties. But you know, that makes its impact, leaves its mark. His family was pro-Roosevelt for sure, and pro-La Guardia. And then his mother was a big fan of Eleanor, who really carried the torch for the New Deal after FDR’s death in 1945; she was very much a central figure in this life of the, political life of the city and the nation through the 1950s.
RS: You know, the value of your book–and I really would recommend it very strongly for people who are pessimistic about democracy. And I could tell you–and I wasn’t always happy, you know. By the way, you describe Bernie as being lower-middle-class; everybody called themselves middle-class. But, you know, his father was scratching a living, you know, and he lived in a rent-controlled apartment, something–everybody talks about, what is this socialism thing? Well, rent control would be an example of a Democratic Socialist achievement. That, you know, people have a right to lodging, and you can’t just keep jacking up the rents and gentrifying, kick them out of their neighborhood and community. You know, so he benefited from that, right? And when his father, when it wasn’t going well, he was able, as you point out, to go to a college–a great college, Brooklyn College, that didn’t–you know, when we went to City College in Brooklyn, we thought these places were just as good as Harvard or any other place. They were a bunch of phonies over there, even at Columbia, and you know, we were getting a first-class education, the public schools were first-class.
I’m not going to say that there were no problems, you know. But even when you think of the national problems–I mean, the biggest one, race, OK. Where did the real challenge come from? It came from New York City. You know, it wasn’t an accident that a Branch Rickey would bring in Jackie Robinson. They were picketing. My uncle, a welder, would take me to picket Ebbets Field, you know, when I was just a nine, 10-year-old kid. You know, that they should get rid of this color barrier. Why? Because they wanted to have the best team you could have, and they knew that the Negro league, you know, Satchel Paige and all these people, that they had great athletes. So why do you want to keep them out of the sporting thing? And that came from ordinary people, the ability to complain. It’s the sort of Roman Republic at its best time, before it becomes an empire. That you have people congested, thrown together, and you know, we’re not going to get along here if we don’t take care of each other.
That was the real message, and it’s in your book. You got this incredible–you got, you know, W.E.B. Du Bois, and you got Woody Guthrie, you got Paul Robeson. I mean you got, you know, from every race, every ethnic group–and they’re all in this, the melting pot in the best sense of it. They’re not becoming the same. They’re not becoming the same–they’re not becoming predictable and boring. They’re this incredible collection of separate, individualized people. It’s an example of individual freedom, but they’re making demands. Why aren’t the subways working better? You know, why aren’t the streets clean? Where are the jobs? And your book captures a really great moment for American democracy. You know, urban life was coming into its own. People were crowding the cities after the war. They had high expectations. And they were demanding that government work for them. And in New York City–your book captures it so beautifully–they didn’t care whether you were a Democrat or a Republican. You know, Lindsay was a Republican, right? They’d go through different mayors. They wanted you to deliver. They had rights. They had rights, and that’s when America was great.
TH: Well, that’s–I mean, the culture that you mentioned sustains that, right? The politics are synonymous with the culture, and vice versa. So then you have Woody Guthrie, you know, he’s there living in Coney Island not far from Midwood, or Flatbush, where Bernie lives. And he’s married to a Jewish woman, and learning–whose mother was a famous poet, Yiddish poet–and so Woody Guthrie is immersing himself in Jewish culture and writing Yiddish, writing Hanukkah songs and so on, in that moment. And you know, Woody Guthrie comes from Oklahoma, and his father was a member of the KKK, so he traveled a long way, but he’s there in Brooklyn. And [there’s] a segment of that chapter where he’s on the waterfront in Brooklyn, a campaign where his buddy from the army–sorry, from the merchant marine–is running for Congress. And that’s a really lively campaign where he’s–
RS: They’re calling him a Communist, yeah.
TH: –yeah, Jimmy Longhi, and he was–I think he was. [Laughter] But he’s running against the Democratic machine candidate, and he gets Woody to support him, playing on the back of a flatbed truck. And then Frank Sinatra–Jimmy Longhi’s cousin was Frank Sinatra, who was on the left during this period, and he records a statement in support of Jimmy Longhi. So you got these lively centers of working-class politics and culture playing out. And of course, Red Hook was the setting for On the Waterfront; Arthur Miller was living nearby in Brooklyn Heights. And I have that chapter about his work, and Death of a Salesman, and how that resonated with Bernie’s father, had an impact.
RS: Yes. Yeah, I thought that was a compelling part of your book, that Bernie’s father was the death of a salesman. And that is really about a disillusion with a certain notion of free-market capitalism. You know, here is his father doing all the right things, out there selling paint and so forth, and it ain’t working. It ain’t working. And if you don’t protect the rights of these people, if you don’t give them opportunity–and what they can do in that melting pot–that’s really what it is, what is it, it’s a stir-fry pot, you know, you got all these different flavors and tastes, and it ain’t going to hold together if you don’t get some symmetry going, if you don’t get some fairness.
And that’s what, I think your book is a great celebration of the American urban experience–but it could be the Paris, it could be London–that you can bring a lot of people together. And this is what much of the world is becoming, urban in this way. But it’s only going to work if there’s a basic measure of fairness, egalitarian opportunity, and taking care of the people who aren’t making it. And what gentrification of these cities, and gated communities and privilege, including in New York, is all about, is this excluding people who don’t fit in that way. New York, you couldn’t exclude anyone, you know? They were there, and you better take care of them, or they’re going to get you out, you know.
And that’s the thing that I think has been lost in this country, is accountability. The people don’t have that demand of accountability, certainly not in economic matters, racial matters and so forth. It’s sporadic; Occupy movement, or Black Lives Matter. But in the main, the political class doesn’t have to respond to really taking care of the people. And what you describe is a New York where everyone on every–and you had, what, 20 newspapers. You had a vibrant free press, you have a lot of references to great columnists, like Murray Kempton; even Eleanor Roosevelt was a columnist. And the people could be on the subway, and they could turn to the person next to them and say, hey, did you read this? Did you hear about Jimmy Breslin? Did you hear this one? You really have–this book is fabulous as an example of what a democratic, modern, urban society needs to be all about to survive.
TH: Thank you. Yeah, well, the New York Post–as you mentioned, Murray Kempton, but also Max Lerner. And then later in the 1950s, Eleanor Roosevelt was there too. So this was the heyday of the–
RS: You didn’t mention I.F. Stone and Jennings Perry, who were in the Compass and the PM, and then there was also–there were a lot of great papers. There was the Brooklyn Eagle. We’re doing it now. We’re doing right now what people did on a subway platform, right?
RS: They challenged each other, they argued with each other, they interrupted each other, you know. But they got to express their needs. And they got to express it in earshot of people who had real power. There was a constant churning of needs, aspirations, complaints. That’s the New Yorker–Cuomo brings it up every once in a while, Governor Cuomo, you know–the New York spirit. But now it’s gentrified, and it’s Wall Street-dominated, you know.
TH: Well, that’s true. That’s the dominant culture. But I think now we’re seeing a resurgence, and maybe it’s flourishing via social media more than in conventional media outlets. But we see the Democratic Socialists of America, they just had quite successful campaigns in the primaries here in New York, a handful of assembly seats, another state Senate seat, Jabari Brisport. And you know, they’re really challenging directly Cuomo’s loyalty to billionaires. And they’re bringing–Cuomo pushed through an austerity budget, and now the DSA candidates are really holding him to task for that. So the next few years are going to be interesting, but all of those candidates are coming out of Bernie’s orbit. I mean, so first we had AOC, and then we had a bunch in 2018, and now we’re getting more. So Bernie’s legacy is continuing to grow here in the place that, that shape that he began, you know.
RS: Oh, it made him. It made him. Forget Vermont, you know, that’s the sticks. [Laughter] Come on. You know, really. I mean, Bernie is a phenomenon. He deserves an enormous amount of credit. You know, that because he can get through to people in Vermont, OK–and I don’t want to stereotype them, I’m sure they’re wonderful. But you couldn’t think of two worlds that were so different, you know, than going up there to Burlington, or Brooklyn, and then–
TH: In the 1960s, yeah.
RS: Yeah. You know, but the fact is Bernie–you know, he was made in Brooklyn.
RS: You know, he’s a made man, a Brooklyn-made man, you know. And that’s what resonated with the American public. You know, he’s authentic. You know, he’s not on the take. He’s not out just for himself. He’s telling you what’s happening. And your book–I really would recommend this, let me give the title again. You know, Bernie’s Brooklyn. Well, it’s Brooklyn’s Bernie we’re talking about, it’s not Bernie’s Brooklyn. Bernie didn’t make Brooklyn, Brooklyn made Bernie, OK. [Laughter] But Bernie’s Brooklyn: How Growing Up in the New Deal City Shaped Bernie Sanders’ Politics. Well, that should be a model for America. You know, that actually democracy worked there. And by the way, not just recent history. You’re knowledgeable about that. During the American Revolution, it was the most fervent place, forget–and Boston, another urban center. But New York City was the center of a lot of dissent, debate, arguments and so forth, much more than the more genteel Philadelphia.
And so New York has always been that place, you know, of struggle, of controversy, of critical thinking, of accountability. And your book–I really would encourage people to read it, because first of all, it’s very well written. It’s a fun book, you meet this great cast–it’s like Damon Runyon or something. You meet this great cast of characters, you know, all over the place, and they come alive, and then what they’re fighting about is not frivolous. It’s real. It’s how do people survive in a society that is overcrowded, the world’s overcrowded–how do we take care of each other and yet preserve our freedom? How do we get accountability? And this book, Bernie’s Brooklyn, is a really great exercise in that, whether we’re talking about the integration of baseball, we’re talking about a guaranteed annual income–any of these issues, they were all at stake in this cauldron that you’re describing.
TH: Yeah. I mean, well, I appreciate your feedback on it. I’m glad that it resonates with you, since–given your–
RS: Well, I’m here to tell you it’s authentic. I grew up in it. [Laughter] It’s why I’m doing what I’m doing now at my advanced age. You know, this didn’t come from Berkeley; you know, I would have fallen asleep in Berkeley. You know, I had to go to City College first before–graduate school almost suffocated me, you know. I mean, really, I’m not trying to develop some fantasy here. I came alive reading your book because of the memories. You know, when Bernie was in college, my first wife Serena Turan was the editor of the Brooklyn College Kingsman, and she was great. She would take no guff from anybody, whether it was the school president or the mayor of the city. And the same thing was true at City College or Queens College, and the whole city had that feeling, edge, to it. And that’s what Bernie brought to America. That’s what Brooklyn brought to America.
TH: I think that, as well as the New Deal tradition of a fight that government should be promoting equality for working people. And then also the Eleanor Roosevelt–the FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt tradition of the UN, you know, spirit of international cooperation. I mean, that’s a whole ‘nother story, but it is–the premise is the equality of nations. And so that’s, you know, these are real–this was the ethos that he brought, he’s carried with him ever since he left in 1959.
RS: Yeah. Well, let me just conclude on that, though, this ethos. Because I think it’s really important and should be bottled. And that’s what made the Bernie phenomenon so amazing. I learned about it from my students sitting in Los Angeles at, you know, University of Southern California. I thought he was going nowhere. And then I saw all these laptops in front of me have Bernie stickers on them. Because he was authentic. And so it’s really not a question of the accent, or what particular city you’re in, or even being urban. It’s the question: Do ordinary people matter? And can they make policy, and can they control things, and can they have wisdom? And the right-wing view is, yeah, but you’ve got to exclude all these people, and you’ve got to be racist and anti-immigrant. That’s right-wing populism. Progressive populism–and you mention people who are advancing it; New York is really a hotbed of it now, right?
RS: The very people you’re mentioning–and I must say the Bronx scores high too in this, right? And what is at the heart of it is that the best and the brightest, meaning the ones who go to the Ivy League schools and come from the richest families and have the best manners–they may deceive the rest of us. That was the whole point of Halberstam’s book about Vietnam, The Best and the Brightest. And that ordinary folk, who are working for a living and see reality–that’s where wisdom comes from. And it’s not just a pie-in-the-sky fantasy, but in the heyday of America’s most important city–and this was true in Chicago as well, and certainly, you know, right across the country. You know, and you saw it at different times in Atlanta, with celebrating John Lewis now; that’s what he represented. That in these places where you bring people together, the melting pot, you don’t make them boring and the same. No–you have a competition of ethnic history, of styles, of races, but in a progressive way, and you hold the political system accountable to deliver to all of you. That’s the key.
And you capture that. I mean, just let’s end with what that city council look like. You know, you had a mixture racially, politically. The New York City Council–no party could control it. You know, you had lace-curtain Irish and shanty Irish. [Laughter] You had Puerto Rican people. You had so many different–you know, it’s funny–I want to say something about that word, “socialism,” that, you know, they try to wrap around Bernie. Everyone in New York was some kind of socialist. Whether they called–even the Republicans, right?
RS: I mean, you know, even the wealthy people knew that they had to give something back, you know. That was the lesson of the New Deal: you better give it back, or they’re going to be here with pitchforks and take it away.
TH: Well, you mentioned Lindsay, but then there was also Nelson Rockefeller. I mean, they weren’t giving up on the basic premise of the New Deal about using social spending and public works to propel the economy, and that didn’t change until the mid-seventies, after the fiscal crisis. So it was universally held across party lines, whichever party, people believed the New Deal approach was the best one, at least through the 1970s.
RS: Yeah. And your book describes really a dance between the little flower, Fiorello La Guardia, and Franklin Roosevelt. You couldn’t have two more different people. And a dance basically orchestrated by Eleanor Roosevelt, one of the great human beings that ever lived, you know. But think about it, the patrician Roosevelt from upstate, and then you got the half-Italian half-Jewish guy, five-foot-two in New York City. And he’s not going to take any guff from anybody. He’s going to deliver to the people. And your book is really about that dance between Roosevelt and La Guardia. So why don’t we end with that, because that was a dance of accountability.
TH: Yeah. Well, there’s the anecdotes about La Guardia flying down to Washington and telling Roosevelt sob stories about the hardships people faced, and then returning home with $50 million more in New Deal funding. [Laughs] So it worked out, you know; he brought the money, and then Robert Moses, sometimes for good and sometimes for bad, put that money to use.
RS: Yeah, because he told Roosevelt you got to be accountable. And by the way, Roosevelt appointed La Guardia to run a large part of the federal program.
TH: The civilian defense, yeah.
RS: La Guardia was critical. [overlapping voices] Yeah, so we’re going to end this, but let me just say I’m talking to Theodore Hamm, and the book is called Bernie’s Brooklyn: How Growing Up in the New Deal City Shaped Bernie Sanders’ Politics. And I’m offering this book, I’m going to push this book, because first of all I think it’s fun to read, it’s exciting. But people want to know: what can we do? They get down, they’re depressed now, we got a pandemic, we got an economic crisis. Well, that’s what they had in New York when Bernie Sanders was born, and his brother particularly; he was born in 1935, I was born a year later. You couldn’t be born at a worse time, you know. Everybody was out of work, there was nothing to eat, everything. So what did they do? They didn’t get mean, they didn’t blame the Puerto Ricans, they didn’t blame Black people, they didn’t blame each other. In the main, some kind of unity developed, you know? We got to take care of everybody.
It was a rare moment. It wasn’t only in New York, but in New York it was on vivid display. You know, we got everybody out of work, nobody’s doing well–all right, we’re going to double down and spend more money on these kids and on school and on rent control and on WPA and on jobs, and get people through this. And then they rallied, you know, in the threat of the fascism and the war, and then they come out of that with this great enthusiasm–well, we aren’t going back to the old days. We’re going to go back to where government is accountable to people, and going to take care of people. And that’s the promise that was Bernie Sanders’ mother’s milk.
RS: Is that not the case?
TH: Absolutely, yes. That the New Deal would continue, and government would continue to do good things for people, for working people, was the expectation.
RS: Yeah. And then thanks to the Republicans and Democrats, they destroyed the promise of the New Deal. And just I have to put in an editorial footnote, one of the great achievements of the New Deal was to have the Glass-Steagall and the control of Wall Street, and then thanks to President Clinton they destroyed that, with a lot of help from the Republican allies he had. But just put Wall Street in charge. And this is a book about when the people of New York were in charge, and Wall Street was held at bay, because they screwed up so badly in the Depression everybody was looking at them with suspicion.
And that really is what you need. You have to have the ordinary people hold the fat cats at bay. On that note, my own little editorial, I want to thank you, Theodore Hamm, for writing this book. I want to thank Christopher Ho at KCRW for getting it up on our home site. Joshua Scheer is the producer of Scheer Intelligence. Natasha Hakimi Zapata does the intros and is very instrumental. And I want to thank the JWK Foundation in the name of Jean Stein, a great writer, for supporting these programs and letting us get them on the air. See you next week with another edition of Scheer Intelligence.