Bernie Sanders

That Time Bernie Sanders Interviewed Some Punk-Rock Kids in a Mall

Friday A/V Club: Back in the '80s, Bernie Sanders had a public-access TV show. The archives are now online.


Bernie Sanders had his own TV program from 1986 to 1988, back when the socialist senator was mayor of Burlington, Vermont. The show was called Bernie Speaks, it aired on public access TV, and Politico just had the full run digitized. As Sanders makes his second bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, those digitized episodes have now been posted on the cable access channel's website, where anyone with an internet connection can explore them.

"Over the past few weeks, I watched them all," Holly Otterbein writes in Politico. "The production values are so low that they're sometimes hard to hear and see, which makes them feel more valuable, like an archive of lost secrets." The show's topics, she reports, "include Plato, Ronald Reagan, Jesse Jackson's 1988 presidential campaign, the 'immorality' of the war in Nicaragua, the 'stupid' property tax, the effects of the looming nuclear apocalypse on children, Burlington's waterfront, Burlington's trash dump, Burlington's snowplow operation, the 'incredible increase' in crime, the close-fisted state Legislature, the rich getting richer, the poor getting poorer and the reasons that punk rockers wear black."

Unlike Otterbein, I haven't watched them all. But I did check out that last one. The episode originally aired in March 1988, and it mostly consists of Sanders playing roving reporter at the Burlington Square Mall. About halfway through the program, he starts talking with a couple of friendly punk-rock kids. He asks them what they don't like about society. They reply with a collection of complaints, some vague and some highly specific, that—speaking as someone who in March of 1988 was 17 and listening to punk rock and sometimes hanging out in malls—is as good a condensation as you're ever likely to find of a particular teenage worldview in that particular historical moment. "People are not open-minded enough," one says. "They think that in order to be stable in society you have to have money, you have to live in a suburb, you have to do the 'set' things, such as have so many people over for dinner…a week, or you're not socially acceptable. You've got to dress a certain way to be socially acceptable. And I don't believe in having to belong to anything to be a person. I can do basically what I want with my appearance, with my attitude, and it doesn't matter."

They both identify themselves as anarchists, as 1980s mall-punks were prone to do. But most people's politics are a mish-mosh, and that's true here too. One of them says he'd be happy in a communist society with "no freedom of enterprise" as long as there's still freedom of speech. The other says she's "kind of an anarchist too, but I don't believe in total anarchy, because then we're just gonna kill ourselves." Sanders plays his Phil Donahue role with aplomb, holding the mic and nodding his head encouragingly.

No doubt there's more newsworthy stuff in this archive. Mayor Sanders had things to say about everything from the Sandinistas to socialized medicine, from local taxes to housing policy. Historians, journalists, Bernie fans, oppo researchers—there's something in here for all of them. But in these Friday A/V Club posts we like to zero in on weirdly illuminating little cultural artifacts, and what could be more weirdly illuminating than a future presidential candidate wandering around a shopping center with a microphone? Besides, the mall punks are making me nostalgic. To see them for yourselves, start at the 14:21 mark:

(For past editions of the Friday A/V Club, go here.)