On Oct. 2, 2019, Bernie Sanders had a heart attack.
Eighteen days later, on a Saturday afternoon in New York City, approximately 25,872 of his supporters made the trip to Queensbridge Park, a sweep of green overlooking the East River, where, framed by the Manhattan skyline and the steel beams of the 59th Street Bridge, they formed the largest crowd in support of any Democratic campaign in the primary to date.
A parade of big-name supporters took the stage to suggest, at points with defiance, that the candidate was better positioned than ever to win the nomination. His wife, Jane Sanders, promised her husband was not just ready — he was “more than ready” to keep running. His campaign cochair, Nina Turner, cautioned the crowd to be on the lookout for “ageism” in the press. “Memo to the mainstream media, memo to the haters: Hashtag Bernie is Back.”
And one of his earliest supporters, filmmaker Michael Moore, warned of pundits who would say Sanders, age 78, is just “too old.” The crowd booed back with vehemence. “Well here’s what’s too old,” Moore went on. “The electoral college is too old. That’s what’s too old. A $7.25 minimum wage — THAT’S TOO OLD. Women not being paid the same as men — THAT’S TOO OLD.”
“Superdelegates,” Moore yelled to the crowd with disgust. “What’s that??”
“TOO OLD!” they called back on cue.
“Fossil fuels — what’s that?”
This October has been perhaps the most testing month of the Vermont senator’s long career. The heart attack he suffered three weeks ago at an event in Las Vegas landed him in the hospital, where doctors discovered a blocked artery and inserted two stents — putting a sudden halt to a campaign that remains competitive in large part due to its relentless pace and sense of urgency.
But at his first campaign event since the procedure — advertised by Sanders officials as a “Bernie’s Back” rally — the health scare mattered only insofar as it seemed to serve as an incongruous source of triumph and energy in the face of those who might doubt the candidate and his cause.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the New York City representative and progressive icon, delivered a forceful endorsement. Supporters sounded chants of “We will win” and “We must win.” And Sanders, visibly moved by the size of the crowd, took the stage to AC/DC’s “Back in Black.”
“I am happy to report to you that I am more than ready — more ready than ever to carry on with you the epic struggle that we face today,” Sanders said to cheers across Queensbridge Park.
“I am more than ready to assume the office of president of the United States.”
“To put it bluntly, I am back.”
Sanders began his remarks with an unusually personal series of thank yous, for his wife Jane, “whose father was a cab driver from Brooklyn, who is going to make an outstanding, outstanding first lady for our country,” and for his children and grandchildren. “This is a family that you will be proud of,” he said.
Sanders campaign officials viewed the rally as a show of political force, drawing a crowd that outnumbered Elizabeth Warren’s 20,000-person rally in New York’s Washington Square Park last month and Kamala Harris’s launch event of a similar size this spring in Oakland.
His first public appearance after the heart attack came earlier this week at a three-hour Democratic debate in Columbus, Ohio. “We do call him the Wolverine in the office,” longtime top strategist Jeff Weaver joked with reporters after the debate. “Because he has amazing regenerative powers. The guy is phenomenal. The guy is phenomenal. If I get a pint of his blood I’m gonna store it next time I’m ill.”
“You will all follow him on the trail and be winded as you always are. Imagine Bernie now with 100% blood flow,” Weaver said in reference to the two stents doctors inserted this month.
This Saturday, on a bright fall afternoon in New York, there was a loose sense of celebration in the crowd as supporters waited for Sanders and the star speaker, Ocasio-Cortez. “I just noticed there was a honeybee just flying around the podium right now,” Moore said from the stage at one point, sounding wistful. “And how sad it is, how rare it is, that you see a honeybee these days.” The crowd of Sanders supporters responded with a wave of chants: “Save the bees! Save the bees!”
Ocasio-Cortez, whose shock primary win in 2018 over one of the House’s most powerful Democrats made her an instant political celebrity, said Sanders’ career helped show her “my inherent value as a human being that deserves health care, housing, education, and a living wage.”
“Now that I’m on the other side, I can tell you, the halls of Congress are no joke. It is no joke to stand up to corporate power and established interests. It is no joke.” Behind closed doors in Washington, she said she discovered, “your arm is twisted; the vice pressure of political pressure gets put on you; and every trick in the book, psychological and otherwise, is used to get us to abandon the working class. It has been in that experience over the last nine months that I have grown to appreciate the enormous, consistent, and nonstop advocacy of Sen. Bernie Sanders.”
Other speakers at Saturday’s rally put it more bluntly — as if to suggest that Sanders, and Sanders alone, was equipped to solve the problems of the day. “There are many copies,” said Turner, the campaign co-chair, before making a pointed reference to comments made by the senator’s top two rivals, Elizabeth Warren and Joe Biden. “People who wanna talk about a ‘framework,’” she said to a round of boos. (Last month, Warren said she viewed Medicare for All as a “framework” without set details.) “People who stand up in other folks’ living rooms and say to them, multimillionaires and billionaires, ‘Nothing will fundamentally change for you.’” (This summer, Biden assured donors “nothing would fundamentally change” if he’s elected.)
“So yeah, there are many copies. But there is only one original. I don’t know why you would take the copy, baby, when you could have the original,” Turner said. “There is only one Sen. Bernard Sanders.”
“There’s only one. There’s only one. There’s only one. There’s only one. There’s only one. There’s only one,” she said six times.