Bernie Sanders was several takes into a video delivering a message he desperately needed to convey last fall — that he was healthy enough to soldier on after his heart attack — when his team realized something was not clicking.
You have to tell people how you really feel, one aide chimed in, according to a person who worked on the shoot. The heart attack not only deepened your commitment to health reform, the aide said; it was personal.
Public introspection is not Mr. Sanders’s go-to move. But he gave it a shot. Near the end of the seven-minute video posted on his Instagram account in October, after swipes at “corporate media” and a pitch for “Medicare for All,” the candidate haltingly admitted that his hospitalization had indeed prompted him to take stock.
“Look, I go around once, I have one life to live,” an ever-so-slightly choked-up Mr. Sanders said into the camera, standing in a red-walled room at his house in Burlington, Vt. “What role do I want to play?”
Mr. Sanders had always known what role he wanted to play: himself.
“How’d he handle it?” a top political aide, Jeff Weaver, said when asked how his friend had dealt with the health crisis. “He’s Bernie.”
Presidential candidates have often tried to soften their image as they gain traction, in hopes that appearing likable, relatable, even ordinary, will broaden their appeal. Mr. Sanders, who during a campaign event in September ordered a crying baby to “keep that down,” not so much.
His critics — and a lot of the voters who flocked to former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. on Super Tuesday — may see his unreconstructed personality as an extension of his deeply uncompromising politics. But this seal of authenticity is the key to the Bernie brand, the idea that what the public sees — the crotchety impatience; the refusal to moderate or change; the dandruff-flecked-sport-coat-crooked-specs-flyaway-hair blur of the man — is the genuine, unmediated Bernie.
The mask is the man. The caricature is the candidate — to the point where Mr. Sanders has joked with Larry David that his impersonation is more realistic than the genuine article.
But is there a deeper layer, a “real” Bernie the public does not get to see?
People who have known Mr. Sanders for years say that, if anything, he is more intense and can be insensitive to people who encounter his moods — in other words, even more Bernie than Bernie. Being around Mr. Sanders, they say, is to watch him endlessly wind himself up and back down, long periods of tension punctuated by brief, welcome intervals of calm.
Within hours of having two cardiac stents installed after his heart attack, the senator was back on the phone with senior aides in Washington, grilling them on proposed staff hires, dictating media strategy and asking for details of an advertising buy, aides said.
That intensity can sometimes cross the line. He has a history of angry outbursts, especially when he believes people are not working hard enough or are exposing him to political risk.
In the run-up to the 2016 Iowa caucuses, Tad Devine, then a senior campaign adviser, pressured Mr. Sanders to commission a survey gauging his strengths and weaknesses. The candidate reluctantly agreed.
A few days later, Mr. Sanders exploded at Mr. Devine when a journalist obtained a leaked recording of the questions. “What did you do? You are trying to destroy my reputation and my image!” Mr. Sanders shouted at the adviser, bursting through the closed door of his office in Des Moines, according to a witness.
Even his amusements seem to be in character. He uses an iPad (not a phone) to devour social media and news, and loves to watch old boxing matches and movies like “The Wolf of Wall Street” and “Melancholia,” a 2011 dystopian drama that ends with the obliteration of the Earth. He sings along, tunelessly, with 1960s and 1970s folk rock on car radios, takes long walks with his wife and adores his grandchildren.
Mostly, he works.
“He is always working and looking to move the ball forward, even when he is having a casual conversation,” said Michaeleen Crowell, the former chief of staff in his Senate office. “It’s hard for him to take time off for himself. He’s happiest when he’s working.”
A ‘Lone Ranger’ Finds Allies
In January, Hillary Clinton, who believes Mr. Sanders’s refusal to quickly exit the 2016 primaries damaged her cause, made news with her comment that “nobody likes” Mr. Sanders in the Senate — ushering in a debate over whether he was simply too abrasive to get elected.
The claim was not entirely baseless. Mr. Sanders, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, was deeply unpopular for many of his 16 years in the House of Representatives, where he bucked his own leadership and pelted bills with amendments, many of the gadfly variety.
“He was like a lone ranger,” Representative Anna Eshoo, a California Democrat who is one of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s closest allies, said in an interview last summer. She called his record “thin.”
But the Senate has a higher threshold for grandstanding and eccentricity, so Mr. Sanders, who forged an alliance with the former majority leader Harry Reid, found a more forgiving crowd. He is less disliked than seen as a loner prone to delivering irritating sermons, fellow senators said.
“No, people don’t hate Bernie,” said a Democratic senator who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “I’d say the feeling is closer to resentment, because some of us have to take the tough votes on things so he can keep his brand pure.”
As a boss, Mr. Sanders is notoriously tough. Former aides have described him as demanding and particular, sometimes to a fault. In many ways, he is the quintessential Brooklyn diner patron: The service is never quite fast enough, and what they deliver is never quite what he ordered.
Mr. Sanders “never makes you feel like you’re good enough to be in the room with him,” one former aide said.
When an appearance at a rally in New Hampshire last fall was delayed, an impatient Mr. Sanders brushed past an organizer and barked: “I’m the candidate, not you. I’m going on,” according to a person backstage.
More serious outbursts are rare, and Mr. Sanders doesn’t tend to take pushback personally, several former aides said. Mr. Devine, who declined to comment, gave back as good as he got in the exchange, according to a person who was in the room.
Mr. Sanders denies that he has ever been an abusive boss, but allows that he can be difficult to work with, and has attributed his impatience to his own sense that he is falling short of his own high expectations.
“Look, I don’t tolerate [expletive] terribly well,” he told the New York Times editorial board in December. “I’m not good at backslapping. I’m not good at pleasantries. If you have your birthday, I’m not going to call you up to congratulate you, so you’ll love me and you’ll write nice things about me.”
He has virtually no tolerance for small talk. Steve Slavin, a high school friend of his and later his college roommate, recalled the day in 2008 when Mr. Sanders invited him to speak at his enshrinement on James Madison High School’s Wall of Distinction. After a luncheon for the honorees, the two made their way to the auditorium, taking seats together in the front row.
As they waited, Mr. Sanders did not say a word to him and instead spent the time writing notes on a piece of paper, silently.
“He was scribbling away what he was going to say,” Mr. Slavin said in an interview. “We didn’t talk at all.”
Though he can be difficult, with a stubborn streak that can exasperate, close friends and allies have learned to adjust. Perhaps that is why his innermost circle is so small, made up of his wife, Jane O’Meara Sanders; Jeff Weaver, his 2016 campaign manager; Warren Gunnels, his Senate policy director; and a pair of Burlington buddies, Huck Gutman and Richard Sugarman.
Mr. Weaver said in early 2019 that he would not oversee Mr. Sanders’s 2020 run, after several staff members on the 2016 campaign came forward with claims that incidents of sexism and harassment were not appropriately addressed. But Mr. Sanders never had any intention of sidelining his close friend, and Mr. Weaver remains as influential as ever, according to campaign aides.
The candidate’s need to control his surroundings also extends to the physical environment. He hates the cramped hassle of flying commercial, aides say, even if going private doesn’t entirely comport with his brand.
For years, Mr. Sanders’s staff members have compiled hotel dos and don’ts for a man who rises early but sometimes finds it hard to fall asleep. The list, distributed to aides in his entourage and shared with hotel employees, stipulates that his room must be kept at an arctic 60 degrees. That he needs an oscillating fan. Other wish lists have requested that written materials be removed. That the room must be at least five doors away from the ice machine and from the elevator, though the walk to the elevator must not be too long.
That was just a starting point, according to aides who went along on Mr. Sanders’s weeklong tour with the Democratic National Committee chairman, Tom Perez, in 2017. The morning before he was to arrive a hotel in Las Vegas, his staff summoned the hotel engineer to jury-rig the air-conditioner to the required temperature.
There was one more problem: Someone had to stay in the room to keep a motion sensor from kicking the thermostat back to 72 degrees. A representative of the Sanders team looked hopefully at a Perez aide, who declined to volunteer. (A Sanders spokesman did not deny the episode, but was skeptical anyone would be asked to do such a thing.)
Friends emphasize that Mr. Sanders does not demand star treatment (he routinely rejects upgrades from singles to suites, aides said). It is just that he craves peace and solitude, often to collect his thoughts and catalog them on his ever-present yellow legal pad.
The heart attack limited another form of relaxation: eating. Mr. Sanders has been trying to shift to berries, grains and smoothies, but he leans toward heartier stuff — spare ribs, steaks, cheesecake, fried chicken, fried rice, bacon and eggs. He proposed to his wife outside a Burlington Friendly’s after polishing off a hot fudge sundae.
Unwinding is not easy for Mr. Sanders under any circumstances, but he seems most likely to let his guard down around children. As he awaited the results of the New Hampshire primary, he wandered the halls of an airport hotel in Manchester with his grandchildren, a person on his staff said, introducing them to campaign aides and giving them a guided tour of vending machines and conference rooms.
Randy Bryce, a Sanders campaign surrogate from Wisconsin, remembered going on a campaign swing with Mr. Sanders in New Hampshire last year. He had brought his 13-year-old son, and the three of them, along with Mr. Sanders’s campaign manager, Faiz Shakir, grabbed lunch at a coffee shop.
At one point, Mr. Bryce got up; when he returned to the table, he saw Mr. Sanders smuggling chips to his son. “Don’t tell your dad I’m giving you all my chips,” Mr. Sanders said loud enough for Mr. Bryce to hear.
Later, speaking at a union dinner, Mr. Sanders introduced Mr. Bryce’s son in front of everyone. “My son will never forget that,” Mr. Bryce said. “It was very touching.”
Ms. Crowell, Mr. Sanders’s former Senate aide, said his favorite event each year was a summer barbecue in his Burlington backyard that culminated in a whiffle ball game with the senator as pitcher. One memory, from a few years back: Her son, then a preteen, connected with a Sanders pitch and rocketed a line drive that barely missed the boss’s head. “I looked over, and Bernie has got this huge smile on his face,” she said.
Mr. Sanders’s own childhood in stoop-ball-era Brooklyn was, by his own accounts, a painful one, and he has been candid in his memoirs about the lingering impact of the turbulence. He grew up with his brother, Larry, in a household chronically short of money, riven by fighting between his father, Eli, a paint salesman, and his mother, Dorothy, who died when he was 18.
Those experiences are never far from his mind, friends say. During a trip to New York in 2013, before he was a national celebrity, Mr. Sanders headed to Midwood to check out his old apartment building on East 26th Street, according to an aide who accompanied him.
Like any self-respecting Brooklynite, he defeated the buzzer lock by politely holding the door open for someone who was exiting the building. But once he got upstairs, he could not persuade the tenant to let him in.
Mr. Sanders would not be stopped. With a dart, he stuck his head inside the doorway, peered around, absorbed it all, thanked the woman and headed back downstairs.