This post first appeared at Meteor Blades.
In his follow-up question to Bernie Sanders Tuesday night, after the candidate had explained what he views as “democratic socialism,” CNN’s Anderson Cooper returned to the matter of electability and noted, “You honeymooned in the Soviet Union.”
This despicable red-baiting was a means of suggesting that Sanders is a commie without actually saying the word. Here’s a guy, the implication runs, who’s a secret Bolshevik — so in love with America’s arch-enemy that he took his new bride to the USSR instead of Niagara Falls or the Bahamas for their honeymoon. It was a rancid attempt to gin up outrage and do Republicans’ dirty work for them. It’s also deceptive.
The honeymoon story began at Breitbart in late May, then moved on to other right-wing venues, finally getting play in George Will’s August 7 column in the Washington Post. Most of his column was devoted to praise for ex-communist Robert Conquest, who had written about the prisons and other atrocities of the Stalin era and had just died at age 98. Will concluded:
Conquest lived to see a current U.S. presidential candidate, a senator, who had chosen, surely as an ideological gesture, to spend his honeymoon in the Soviet Union in 1988. Gulags still functioned, probably including some of the “cold Auschwitzes” in Siberia, described in Conquest’s ‘Kolyma.’ The honeymooner did not mind that in 1988 political prisoners were — as may still be the case — being tortured in psychiatric “hospitals.” Thanks to the unblinking honesty of people like Conquest, the Soviet Union now is such a receding memory that Bernie Sanders’s moral obtuseness — the obverse of Conquest’s character — is considered an amusing eccentricity.
Will, of course, is a decidedly unamusing eccentricity. His “surely as an ideological gesture” implied — given the context of the rest of the column — that Sanders is a sneaky supporter of gulags and politically motivated famines and other Stalinist depredations. But in fact, Sanders’ trip to the Soviet Union was part of his official duties as mayor of Burlington, Vermont.
In 1956, President Eisenhower launched the program that a decade later would be called Sister Cities International, a program still in existence today. The idea was to promote peace and understanding through connections between cities in the United States and, at first, Western Europe. The program soon spread. In 1973, Seattle became a sister city of Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, then under Soviet rule. Other U.S.-Soviet sister cities soon followed despite the tensions of the Cold War.
In 1988, Burlington sistered with Yaroslavl, a city 160 miles north of Moscow. That was the same year Sanders married his second wife, Jane. In fact, the day after they married, they headed out to Yaroslavl. So, one could call it a honeymoon, and the pair have both done so, but jokingly or sarcastically. The reason for that is that they didn’t go alone. There were 10 other people from Burlington who went with them. It was a trip dotted with diplomacy, official meetings and numerous interviews. Not most people’s idea of a honeymoon getaway.
As the Tampa Bay Times Pundit Fact feature reported:
In a 2007 interview, Jane Sanders also recalled the peculiar timing: “The day after we got married, we marched in a Memorial Day parade, and then we took off in a plane to start the sister city project with Yaroslavl with 10 other people on my honeymoon.” …
Will made it sound as if Sanders was visiting to condone Soviet torture practices, but the Burlington trip was more of a dialogue-building exchange program. The Vermont weekly newspaper Seven Days reported in 2009 that the sister-city relationship “helped local residents who sought to ease tensions between the United States and Soviet Union by initiating citizen-to-citizen exchanges with a Russian city.” …
Participation in the Burlington-Yaroslavl program has waned over the years, though it was viewed as a “glamorous endeavor” by many in Burlington at the time, program leader Howard Seaver said in 2009.
George Will is a hopeless case of arrested political development, stuck unbudgingly in a past era. But why did Anderson Cooper slip this sneak attack with its bogus implications into the early minutes of the first Democratic debate? Sloppy research? A bogus attempt to prove journalistic toughmindedness? Or malice aforethought?