By most accounts, Bernie Sanders is a man frozen in time. For more than forty years, the independent Senator from Vermont has been delivering the same speech about reforming a "rigged economy." He supported gay marriage before it was the cool thing to do, and was condemning the 1% back in 1976, when most Occupy protestors were not yet born. Even his wardrobe of ill-fitting suits appear to be from another era, evincing a style that's less retro-cool than eternal-frump.
But while the now-famous presidential candidate has been fighting for progressivism in the political arena since adolescence (in high school he ran for class president on the promise of granting scholarships to Korean refugees), it's safe to assume that the staunch activist took some well-earned breaks now and then.
Recently, we happened upon an actual copy of his résumé from the 1980s, and we were delighted to learn that Bernie (Bernard, as he was known then) spent five years as the Director of the American People's Historical Society, where he "wrote and produced educational filmstrips on historical issues" related to New England states.
Started by Sanders and his neighbor Nancy Barnett, the Society initially produced standard, if somewhat "alternative," offerings on New England history topics ranging from the Battle of Bennington to important women of the past. Their business model involved driving through the backroads of Vermont in Sanders beat-up car—which was "always breaking down," Barnett recalls—trying to coax school administrators into buying their homemade tapes.
"It is our belief that state and regional history has too long been neglected by the audio-visual industry, and we are happy to begin the process of rectifying that situation," explained Director Sanders in one brochure. "We believe that students have the right to learn about the state and region in which they are living."
In their fourth pamphlet, the American People's Historical Society's ventured into new terrain with a "30 minute color documentary" on the life and legacy of labor leader Eugene V. Debs. In a letter printed in the brochure, Sanders calls this the first installment in "The Other Side of American History," a series that will "deal with people and ideas that the major profit oriented manufacturers of audio-visual material will not cover because of economic and political reasons.”
The project, the biggest ever from the APHS, is a glowing remembrance of the leftist icon— a five-time presidential candidate for the Socialist Party of America who did two stints in prison for leading a railroad strike and urging resistance to the WWI draft. Bernie's reverence for his subject is unsurprising, and he pays tribute by adopting the midwesterner's speeches in his distinct Brooklyn accent. The effect of this is debatable, and one reviewer complained that he seemed, "determined to administer Debs to the viewer as if it were an unpleasant, but necessary, medicine."
You can draw your own conclusions from this soundbite (the tapes seem to have been lost to history).
The American People's Historical Society came to an end not long after, when Sanders reentered the realm of electoral politics with a bid for Burlington Mayor. But while that improbable victory would cap off his time as DIY filmmaker, the Senator has since made clear that his passion for history remains. Here's what he had to say in December in response to a question about the Debs tape:
"I would probably be doing videos like that today if I hadn't become mayor of Burlington by 10 votes. I would have done a series, not just on Debs but other radicals that no one in America has heard of – I doubt that 10 percent of the American people know who Debs was, OK? And it's important that people know what he stood for, and the struggles that were going on in the early part of the 20th century."