In mid-February of 1983, a week before Chicago chose its Democratic nominee for mayor, People magazine published a bemused profile of a political curiosity named Bernard Epton. An insurance lawyer who had put in a dozen years as a state legislator, Epton was the Republican candidate for City Hall. In a city that overwhelmingly voted Democratic, the GOP ballot line assured not merely defeat but destruction.
Then, in the primary election, an African-American reformer, Harold Washington, upset two formidable white opponents: Jane Byrne, the incumbent mayor, and Richard Daley, the son and namesake of Chicago’s legendary political boss. In a city starkly and bitterly divided by race, Epton suddenly had a chance.
By all accounts, Epton was a decent man. He had fought against fascism in World War II, served in Jewish communal organizations, joined in civil rights marches and opposed the redlining of black neighborhoods by banks. Even so, when Republican consultants came up with the slogan “Before it’s too late,” Epton went along and lamely explained that it referred to Chicago’s financial condition.
Epton drew crowds of 10,000, chanting, “Bernie! Bernie! Bernie!” As the journalist Alex Kotlowitz recounted in a 2009 segment of “This American Life,” “Anonymous leaflets popped up in white neighborhoods all over the city. One of them read, ‘Your vote for Mr. Epton will stop contamination of the city hall by a Mr. Baboon.’ Around town, Epton supporters donned various buttons. One depicted a watermelon with a slash through it. Another button had nothing on it at all. It was just white.”
On Election Day in April, Epton came within 3.3 percentage points of defeating Washington. Even in defeat, he catalyzed the reflexive opposition to Washington by nearly every white City Council member, which brought municipal governance to a virtual halt for years and kept racial tensions citywide at a steady simmer.
I think of Epton now because of the presidential campaign. In a very obvious way, as a candidate who surfed a wave of race hate, he calls to mind Donald Trump. But in a subtler respect, this Bernie reminds me of another: Sanders. And the Epton saga reveals the risks of a candidate, even one with many admirable qualities, succumbing to the seductions of his personality cult.
In his unlikely ascent from a marginal member of Congress to a serious presidential contender, Sanders has offered an exhilarating example of grassroots mobilization. He has motivated public debate on income inequality and corporate power, pulling Hillary Clinton leftward.
Yet now, like Epton, Sanders stands to do lasting damage, both to the larger society and to his own historical reputation. The signs that Sanders gives, or does not give, to his fervent following could very well determine whether Clinton wins in November.
Earlier in the current campaign, I had few doubts that Sanders could see the bigger picture and would bring his troops with him. Lately, I have nothing but skepticism. By disparaging Clinton as unqualified, by making formal protests of her fundraising, by vowing through surrogates to take a quixotic fight for delegates to the convention floor, Sanders is signaling that his socialist perfect is the enemy of her neoliberal good.
Clinton is a very imperfect candidate, from her stump skills to her faulty judgment in having a private email server. I wince to anticipate the Republican attack ads coming about the Clinton Global Initiative’s fundraising practices. Precisely because there really is a “vast, right-wing conspiracy” aimed at smearing Clinton, you would think she and Bill might not help by hanging targets on their backs. If only Joe Biden had run…
What is at stake in November, though, could hardly be clearer. Under a President Trump or Cruz or Ryan, Obamacare will be repealed on day one of the new Congressional session, depriving millions of Americans of health insurance. Then the Iran deal will be abrogated, ensuring that Israel’s foe resumes its nuclear-arms program. Next the president will nominate a facsimile of Antonin Scalia to the Supreme Court. And with the likelihood that the ailing Ruth Bader Ginsburg will step down in the next four years, the high court could have a 6-3 hard-right majority, imperiling marriage equality, abortion rights and labor union protections.
Between now and November, especially at the Democratic convention this summer, Sanders will be sending explicit and implicit messages to his base about whether to support Clinton avidly or tepidly — or stay home altogether. How many of his followers agree with Susan Sarandon that a Republican victory might actually help the left by raising the misery index high enough to ignite a “revolution”? How many might vote for Trump purely on protectionist grounds?
Bernie Sanders, like Bernie Epton, has to think about ambition and ego, but also about legacy. Soon after Harold Washington was elected, one of his aides called Epton to invite him to a unity breakfast. The challenger declined, apparently because on the morning after, he already felt ashamed.
Samuel G. Freedman, a frequent contributor to the Forward, is the author of eight books, including “Jew vs. Jew.”