Barrelhouse Reviews: Bernie by Ted Rall

Review by Sean Sullivan

     Ted Rall’s Bernie, a graphic biography, is a little book that delivers politics in cinematic fashion.  The book portrays Sanders as a fighter and a champion for the people, but also as a relative outsider to the political system in Washington.  If ever there was a candidate worthy of the ‘graphic biography’ form it would be Bernie.  While the nature of the book is strangely personal and often colloquial (like Bernie himself), it doesn’t stray too far from the political history.  The presentation of the history behind Bernie is informative and entertaining:  the reader learns about the Coalition of a Democratic Majority, the Reagan Revolution, the Democratic Leadership Council and the Occupy Wall Street movement.  In another form the material would come across as dry or in danger of being yawn-worthy, but Rall captures the importance of this history while inserting Bernie as a liberal outlier.  Reading this, it is clear how situations gave rise to liberalism and progressive politics this election year, but it was nice to see the personality of Bernie on the pages. 

     On the back cover, in bold white letters reads “ONLY AN OUTSIDER CAN CHANGE THE SYSTEM FROM THE INSIDE.” This statement captures the almost mythic allure to Bernie.  While Rall details Bernie’s early years, the pictures he has drawn provides context.  We see Bernie in a rent-controlled apartment with a John Coltrane concert poster, reading John Locke’s "Second Treatise on Civil Government."  Another page, shows him sitting in front of his television in a white t-shirt, breaking the fourth wall telling us the reader: “I don’t wake up every morning thinking about whether I should be the President of the U.S.”  It is this humanity in Rall’s depiction of Bernie that allows us to see a glimpse of the appeal to Sanders. 

     A citizen’s politics are often derivative of their experiences and while one’s politics may tell a lot about a person, it is rare for any candidate, presidential or not, to capture every view or opinion of their followers.  To understand Sanders, one must understand how he became ‘Bernie.’    Rall explains this “There was no political journey.  There was, instead, a startling steadiness, impervious to the shifting winds of ideological fashion.  Bernie was waiting.  Waiting for the political winds to shift in his direction.”  Rall does not force Sanders upon us, but presents him in this honest fashion.  He explains in his afterword about what drew his attraction to Sanders and why he wanted to write this biography.  Sanders was often ridiculed within the beltway.   He is a rarity in politics and in fairness to Bernie Sanders himself, a rarity in American History.  While there are many who may not have felt the Bern or even cozied up with his politics, Rall offers a concise history of Bernie and his followers.  How he factors into the 2016 election remains to be seen, but his presence and his followers have made an impact.  Over the years, some students of American History may look at this time period and may ask “How?” or “When did our citizens become so engaged?” - Rall’s Bernie may stand out as an answer to these questions.


Sean L. Sullivan lives in the Hudson Valley of New York. His previous work has appeared in BULL, Saw Palm and Barrelhouse.