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Sen. Bernie Sanders, left, and President Joe Biden during 2020 presidential debate

Excerpted with permission from The Fighting Soul: On The Road With Bernie Sanders, available here.

I look at September 2019 as a month where I missed something. We began with a trip to New York to do Seth Meyers’s and Dr. Oz’s shows. Why would we go on The Dr. Oz Show? For the same reason we had gone on Joe Rogan’s podcast in August: We could reach a vast audience that wasn’t paying attention to the standard political media. On Dr. Oz, Bernie could talk about Medicare for All and his own physical fitness. While at the time we believed Bernie was uncommonly healthy for his age, he was still 78. Questions would be raised related to his age, and we needed to begin building up the case that he was completely healthy and fit. It turned out to be a spectacular interview, ending with the two of them playing basketball on a makeshift court in the studio. Bernie appeared to be on top of the world.

Yet in retrospect, I should have seen Bernie growing more fatigued. After New York, with the school year starting, we did a series of rallies at colleges and universities in Iowa; this was the kickoff of our campus organizing program in the state. We would then fly to Colorado for a large rally in Denver before heading to Boulder to prep for the third debate, to take place in Houston on September 12. In Iowa, Bernie’s voice was a little hoarse. After the rally in Denver, he had completely blown it out. He sounded terrible.

One of Bernie’s few previous health problems had been a cyst on his vocal cords years before his first run for president. Now he was again experiencing problems with his voice at the worst possible moment. Elizabeth Warren had moved into second place in the polls. She, Joe Biden, and Bernie would all be on the stage together for the first time at the debate in Houston. Not only was his voice a problem, but he seemed to be getting progressively more tired.

During debate prep, the staff had a mission. Because Warren and Biden were polling at one and two, respectively, they would be at the center of the stage. Bernie would be shuffled to the side, an unusual place for him. He needed to put himself at the center of the action. If you want a crowd, pick a fight. There was general agreement among the staff that he should begin the debate with an attack on Biden. He should go after him on an assortment of issues, from his previous advocacy for Social Security cuts, to his vote for the Iraq War, to trade treaties he had backed that had cost our country millions of jobs.

We pitched the strategy to Bernie throughout the day. It was reinforced by two additional staff members who showed up at debate prep to deliver a memo making this point. He seemed to agree with it. Campaign adviser Jeff Weaver wrote an opening statement that we all signed onto. Bernie made some alterations and practiced it several times. While he was behind it, he seemed a bit hesitant. Bernie was very particular about one thing: that the attack not be personal. It would be about policy. At the same time, he knew that he needed to do something to take command of the stage.

We arrived in Houston with Bernie still saying he was sticking to the plan, but something was off. With campaign manager Faiz Shakir, myself, and Jane Sanders in the greenroom, Bernie practiced his opening, jotting it down on his ever-present yellow legal pad. What we saw as Biden’s prior missteps would be framed not just as policy disputes, but as an argument about electability. Bernie would make the case that Biden’s repeated errors in judgment over a long career made him a weak candidate to take on Donald Trump in the general election.

In the greenroom, Bernie read the statement with a perfect delivery. Jane listened carefully, clearly sensed his discomfort, and said, “Talk about your issues, don’t attack Joe.” Jane’s words were all he needed. He would not take the road he never wanted to travel down in the first place. This was not a candidate’s spouse making a political judgment. It was Jane performing one of her most important duties on the campaign—making sure Bernie stayed true to himself.

After Jane left the greenroom to take her seat in the audience, Faiz and I, committed to the strategy we had agreed to in debate prep, encouraged Bernie to go onstage and deliver the statement as prepared. There was even more discomfort in his voice. We made one last attempt to pump him up. At the prior debate, he had left the greenroom dancing and ready for a brawl. He left the green room in Houston with a burden on his shoulders. When it came time for his opening statement, I turned to Faiz and said, “Is he going to do it?”

“I don’t know.”

Instead of the practiced opening, Bernie delivered his Bernifesto, the list of the policies he supports: Medicare for All, College for All, and a Green New Deal. Faiz and I looked at each other. We didn’t need to speak. We could tell what the other was thinking: fuck.

While Bernie performed well enough for the rest of the debate, much of the staff saw it as a wasted opportunity. What made us nervous was that Bernie had seemed to relish counterpunching against John Delaney and other moderate Democrats during the July debate, but he now seemed very hesitant to attack Joe Biden.


Excerpted from The Fighting Soul: On the Road with Bernie Sanders by Ari Rabin-Havt. Copyright © 2022 by Ari Rabin-Havt. Used with permission of the publisher, Liveright Publishing Corporation, a division of W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

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Texas Librarian Fired Over Abbot's Book Ban

On March 9, the Kingsland Branch Library in Llano County, Texas, lost a librarian. Suzette Baker told KXAN that she was fired for not complying with top-down directives to remove books from the library’s shelves. The termination letter sited Baker “for creating a disturbance, insubordination, violation of policies and failure to follow instructions.”

“The books in my library in Kingsland were not taken off the shelves, we did not move them, I told my boss that was censorship,” Baker told KXAN. One of the books that was deemed “inappropriate” and/or “pornographic” was a biography depicting the life of a woman “growing up as a transgendered teenager and obviously this group thought that was too much for their children to read.” Of course, as Baker and others have pointed out, no one is making your kids read anything. More importantly, public libraries are all about the freedom of information.

This is not the first time the Llano County library is in the news. Back in December, the library was closed for three days after a handful of harmful challenges to the library’s catalogue made by concerned racists, homophobes, and transphobes led a conservative judge to order a review of the materials in question. The Texas Library Association’s Wendy Woodland explained the historic push for censorship to the Texas Tribune back in December. “A library may get one or two [book challenges] in two years, or some librarians have never had challenges,” Woodland said. “So this is very rare and very unusual and different from the way challenges have been brought forth in the past.”Leila Green Little is incensed by the Kingsland Library’s firing of Becker, telling the local news that something has been rotten in Llano for some time now.

A patron of the library upset about the firing named Leila Green Little told KXAN changes at the county library have happened without transparency, pointing to library advisory board meetings being closed to the public. The library system's online reading service was also recently changed without notice, she said.
"I have now counted 12 books that I know have been removed from Llano County Library, and I can't get clarification from the library system on why," Little told KXAN. "There are very clear rules that should be followed with regards to censorship to books in the public library, those rules were not followed."

Suzette Baker, however, has become one of the first people to have her right to work taken away because of true governmental censorship. Not unlike our public schools, public libraries are some of the most important institutions for nurturing a healthy, democratic society. I can and will argue that the public library system is the single most important institution in our democracy in that anyone, of any background, of any economic situation, can access any and all information—both analog and digital—for free at their public library. It is no coincidence that the more conservative and fascistic elements our country have tried to crush public libraries for many years.

Texas’ censorship drive was accelerated by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s November push to have tons of books banned—especially ones that speak at all about race or have any LGBTQ content. The movement is supported by right-wing and conservative Christian think tanks trying to sanitize our country into something of an ethno-white theocracy; real dark-days kind of thinking. The general lists of books these groups are trying to ban from schools and now libraries are preoccupied with LGBTQ sexuality and the false-flag fear that children are turned gay by literature. Because these groups’ version of Christianity is also a white supremacist one, the banned titles tightly orbit the anti-racism “CRT” (critical race theory) books that conservatives are also trying to get banned.

All of these things come on the heels of challenges not seen since World War II-era Nazi Germany to books and the educational content available to American children. A Tennessee school board’s January banning of the Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel Maus, by Art Spiegelman, from its eighth-grade Holocaust curriculum was symbolic of this march toward fascism.

Suzette Baker explained to KXAN the foundational tenets of the freedom of information and the freedom of ideas. “It may not be my book, it may not be your book, but it could be someone else’s book and we have no right to take that book away from them,” she said. Conservative “free speech warriors” and “cancel culture” aficionados like Joe Rogan, Glenn Greenwald, and others have been too busy feeling like Hunter Biden’s laptop is proof that Fox News isn’t bad or something to worry about actual attacks on the freedom of ideas and speech, and how those affect the most important resource we have: our youth.

Reprinted with permission from Daily Kos