Spousal Support

Jane Sanders Has the White House in Her Sights

A fireside chat with the could-be first lady.

JANE SANDERS

Jane Sanders, wife of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, stands for a photograph following a campaign event and interview in Fort Madison, Iowa, on Jan. 29, 2016.

Photographer: T.J. Kirkpatrick/Bloomberg

“Bernie doesn’t own a tuxedo,” the Vermont senator’s wife, Jane Sanders, says. We’re discussing the social demands—and the necessary wardrobe—of the couple’s possible White House future, and Jane reveals that, despite almost 30 years in Congress, Bernie has never actually worn a tux.

Galas of state have never been their thing.

“He went to one when Nelson Mandela was here,” Jane continues. “Everybody was there.” Hillary Clinton, the presiding first lady, in an elegant navy ensemble, extended her hand gingerly to the South African hero and his youngest daughter, Zindzi, as she stood beside her husband the president, in bow-tie and formal satin regalia.

“The only two people without a tuxedo,” Jane recalls, “were Bernie and Nelson Mandela.”

It is a bright morning in Iowa, a three-minute walk from the Mississippi River and only three days before the state’s important caucus. Jane is wearing a not-quite-paisley grey over-shirt, the same outfit she will wear on caucus night—and then again, three days later, at the Democratic debate in New Hampshire.

In affairs of policy as in affairs of closet, the Sanders family’s values are indivisible. 

 

Jane Sanders and Bernie Sanders embrace at a campaign event in Los Angeles on Aug. 10, 2015.
Jane Sanders and Bernie Sanders embrace at a campaign event in Los Angeles on Aug. 10, 2015.
Photographer: Patrick T. Fallon/Getty Images

“We came together through the work,” Jane says. Before they even knew one another, Jane served on a Burlington, Vermont, task force, on young people and families, that Bernie had convened. In 1981, he was elected mayor of the city, and the two finally met at his victory party. (“That was the beginning of forever,” Jane has said.) After Bernie was elected to Congress, in 1990, Jane became his chief of staff. Later she worked in his press shop, helping with both ads and legislation.

There is an unusual element of mind-meld present in this potential president and his first lady-in-waiting. It’s not exactly the husband and wife “two for the price of one” deal that Bill Clinton promised in 1992; theirs is more purely a partnership. Jane is happy to stand with Bernie on the political stage, but she does not want to be a candidate.

She is deeply versed in policy, and advises her husband on everything. “To keep it real,” she laughs, seated across from me beneath a painting of a pink heart, “to ensure that his principles and ideals aren’t ever compromised by the campaign.”

Sometimes, she says, this means talking about him with voters and, yes, journalists—“because nobody else knows him as well. Just to offer a personal glimpse and to have people realize the three-dimensional person he is.”

 

The way Jane tells it, there was no single moment that made her husband run—although she points strongly to the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in the Citizens United case—but more a “personal feeling.”

When it finally came down to it in the last days of deciding,” she explained, “I was saying, you know it’s going to be hard, we’ve gone through Senate races and congressional races, with negative ads and lies and innuendos and terrible things. It’s not nice to wake up with a knot in your stomach every day and not know what’s going to hit us today.”

The pronoun of choice—first person plural—is revealing.

“But Bernie was like, ‘Doesn’t somebody have to do it?’ And, you know, I agreed: Yes, we have to address this. And his answer was, ‘If not now when, and if not us, who?’”

 

Jane is a font of biographical information about her husband—the kind that Bernie makes a point of not supplying, but that’s highly useful for a politician to make known. She tells me, for instance, that Bernie does not watch TV. She says that their adult children, sensitive to how little time they get at home these days, fetch the dry-cleaning and stock up on milk and bread—and that, in her words, Bernie “taught all of our kids and our grandkids how to play chess, checkers, baseball, and tic-tac-toe.” (“How not to lose at tic-tac-toe,” she elaborates—“and he won’t share that with me, he’s only shared it with grandchildren!”)

Not, she is at pains to say, that feminine softening is her mission. It isn’t because she’s female—because she’s the wife—that she speaks to me of refrigerator staples. It is simply, she says, a result of the dynamic created by their personalities. 

As stealthily as her husband has honed his political skills, Jane has been a considerable architect of her Bernie’s success and his anti-ego reputation. She rolls her eyes at opponent attacks as “Politics 101”—as if their campaign is outside politics, though both Bernie and Jane have worked in politics for decades. She emphasizes, time and again, her family’s surprise at the campaign’s velocity—“the depth of support and the quickness of it.” She paints a portrait of wonderment and delight.

As with their draping, untight fabrics, the vibe is all ease. “I’ve worked with Bernie before all of his other advisers have,” Jane tells me. “We’re best friends, and we’ve been colleagues, and now we’re husband and wife, and grandparents together, and parents.” She says the campaign has made them closer than they’ve ever been.

 

Hillary Clinton looks toward the audience as Bernie Sanders hugs his wife, Jane, at the conclusion of a Democratic presidential debate at the University of New Hampshire in Durham on Feb. 4, 2016.
Hillary Clinton looks toward the audience as Bernie Sanders hugs his wife, Jane, at the conclusion of a Democratic presidential debate at the University of New Hampshire in Durham on Feb. 4, 2016.
Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

That’s not exactly a common sentiment, to hear other political spouses talk about life on the trail. But, Jane seems to say, there’s not room for tension or pain in the work of inching us toward political revolution.

Online memes, which often speak to the prevailing moods of my fellow millennials, depict Bernie as some new kind of old folk hero. The “Bernie vs. Hillary” diptychs show Bernie as charming, savvy, and decidedly cool, with Clinton just the opposite. 

Other photos making the rounds have Bernie, almost Forrest Gump-like, present at various moments in civil rights history. One recent such image includes Jane. The circulating photo shows an earnest, bespectacled man with an arm around a young woman, her hair pulled daintily back. “Bernie Sanders and Jane O’Meara Sanders attending a transsexual and transgender march in 1975,” the caption reads.

In fact, the image is a still from The Rocky Horror Picture Show, with the alleged Jane actually Susan Sarandon en ingénue. Bernie and Jane hadn’t even met in 1975. But it is a telling illustration of Bernie’s authenticity fable—and how neatly Jane fits into it.

 

Jane’s worldview, like her husband’s, was formed in Flatbush, Brooklyn, 15 blocks from where her husband grew up. Speaking about her childhood (Jane was the only daughter and youngest child of Bernadette and Benedict O'Meara), she tells me that her father was a cab driver who became a teacher who hurt his leg—which put the family in difficult financial straits. Each sibling had looked for a way out. “My brother was an equestrian champion,” Jane says. “Brooklyn Benny, he was called.”

“Because we were not of money,” she goes on, “he did it his way, with none of the trappings.”

A style Jane sees as “very similar” to her husband’s, she says—not about the resources or the grandeur, “just doing it his way.” Brooklyn Benny, Jane tells me, is in the hall of fame.

 

As a young woman, Jane was involved in protests against the Vietnam War. But she felt burned out when President Richard Nixon was re-elected—by a landslide—in 1972. “I said, I’m out of the political world,” she told me.

And she was—“until I heard him. I learned the right way to be a public servant from Bernie.”

Jane does not have an official title on the trail, but it is her role in the campaign to convey how, exactly, her husband’s political revolution works. Jane tells voters and volunteers alike how low her own expectations once were, how impossibly large his gambits seemed—then how effective Bernie proved to be against bureaucratic intransigence and the party “machine.”

She speaks of civic engagement: “He will call on us,” she said at one stop. “He can’t do it alone. Full disclosure, you will be working really hard.”

Jane makes the case that he can accomplish all he says. Have you become such a cynic that you can’t believe it?

 

Bernie and Jane Sanders sing “This Land is Your Land” during a campaign rally at the University of Iowa Field House in Iowa City on Jan. 30, 2016.
Bernie and Jane Sanders sing “This Land is Your Land” during a campaign rally at the University of Iowa Field House in Iowa City on Jan. 30, 2016.
Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

As Bernie campaigns in the early primary states, Jane often approaches the podium with him to greet the crowd, offers a one-armed hug and kiss, then takes a seat in the front row: clapping, laughing, cheering on. At a packed rally in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Bernie tore off his jacket (talk of political revolution can get pretty hot), and tossed it to the crowd standing on risers behind him. A young woman in a three-quarter-length sleeve “Bernie” baseball-tee and a cocked white beret shrieked as if he were Paul McCartney circa 1964. A minute later, Jane quietly grabbed the coat away. He does not have so many.

At a town-hall event in an opera house in Derry, CNN host Anderson Cooper asked Bernie how he thought Jane would describe him in a single word.

“Tell ’em, Jane,” Bernie said, momentarily sheriff-like.

“Integrity,” Jane said back.

The camera panned to her throughout the event, as she protested, with a laugh, when Bernie called his album of folk tunes “the worst album ever recorded.” She brushed a tear from her face when he said his proudest-ever moment was “being married for 27 years.”

 

Jane is a bellwether to voters, particularly progressives who feel skeptical about Bernie’s chances. “I respect Bill and Hillary Clinton,” she told me; recently she called Hillary a “great first lady.” But now that Hillary is the candidate, the dynamic has shifted.

I asked Jane if she would ever debate Bill—the other potential Democratic first spouse—a scenario her husband once imagined. “That was a joke,” she chuckled. Then she says, confident and prim, “I’ll do whatever is necessary.”

Does she feel a kind of a responsibility to address the public, to broadcast a certain image? Jane said that she does not. “I think we need to put ourselves out there,” she said, “so that people see the person you chose to marry—and what that person might bring.”

After an event or debate, Jane frequently goes up to embrace Bernie under neon spotlights. Hillary, by contrast, often stands and waves alone.

 

When Bernie was elected to the House of Representatives, Jane did not immediately join him in Washington. “Everybody just assumed that I would go also,” she told the Burlington Free Press years ago. But she preferred to wait several months. “I stepped into a completely different world in Washington,” she said, “where people wear Chanel suits. I fit in better with the congressmen than their spouses.”

I asked if Jane would be moving to Washington this time, were Bernie elected president. “Of course,” she laughed.

She praised the work that Michelle Obama has done as first lady—implying that she, at first, considered nutrition an odd or narrow pivot, but has since realized that Obama has “changed the system, in the public schools and all, against much backlash.”

She spoke positively of Jill Biden, too, the so-called “second lady.”

“They don’t get the credit they deserve because they don’t seek the limelight, either one of them,” Jane added. “I have tremendous respect for both of them.”

On her relationship with the Obamas, Jane said, “They come to the caucus, we go to the holiday dinner, the Senate spouses have lunch with Michelle and get a chance to talk.” She added, “I think we spend more time, or are closer, with Jill and Joe” Biden.

But she, like her husband, would not paint herself into a domestic corner. “We don’t socialize a lot. We talk issues. If we’re there, we talk issues, talk about military families, or education.”

Not a lot of socializing? I asked her about the expectations of first lady-ship, with its ceremony and pompous circumstance.

“I’m not worried,” Jane told me. “I think that we’ll be,” she paused. “He will be the president, but I will be able to do significant work for our country.”

Will she pick a certain focus herself?

“It will be backing up the work that he’s doing as opposed to picking a particular area,” she said.

I pointed out that this would be something new, in and of itself.

“Well, Eleanor Roosevelt was like that!” She stopped shy of making the full comparison. “I can compare him to FDR, but—” she trailed off. I offered that she could have a newspaper column, as Eleanor did.

Jane had already given it some thought.

“Or a blog!” she replied.

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