ABOVE BURLINGTON, VT -- It was the eve of Super Tuesday as Bernie Sanders’ charter jet lurched through the evening sky, swaying to and fro to the rhythm of the powerful winds that blew above his home state of Vermont. The old Eastern Airlines jet was packed with the Senator and his staff up front, a cadre of Secret Service agents toward the middle, and a pack of 20 or so journalists bringing up the rear.
Sanders’ wife Jane had come back and talked to the press earlier, as she often did along the campaign trail -- mostly checking in to see if the embeds had been fed enough and were staying awake. She posed for a picture with the group, and I stood up on the armrests of the seats to get in a position stacked behind some of the more regular reporters on the trail. The mood was upbeat, but the group was exhausted. The day had started in Fort Collins, Colorado, where Sanders had delivered a rousing speech to thousands in a high school gymnasium the previous night. We’d taken the press bus that morning to Denver, and had then flown to rallies in Minneapolis, Minnesota and Amherst, Massachusetts before we headed for Vermont.
Shortly after Jane returned to her seat in the front was when the plane started its turbulent descent into Burlington. As the plane shook wildly, I looked to some of the other journalists and joked that if we went down, nobody would remember us. We would be among the “others” who perished, while riding along with the progressive Left’s new poster child.
A few thousand feet before landing, we could feel the engines kick back into gear and the plane started to rise again. The captain came over the loudspeaker as we peered about nervously. He told us that the winds had been a bit too much and they were going to take shot at the approach.
A rapid climb high into the sky, some twists and turns, a white-knuckle ride all the way back to Earth, and finally, we arrived safely in Vermont.
In many ways, that summed up my adventures with Sanders quite nicely. Over the course of 8 months, I traveled with the Senator’s presidential campaign to 16 different states, through each of the country’s time zones, from gymnasiums across the East Coast to motorcade stops at the U.S.-Mexico border. I chronicled it all with a camera viewfinder glued to my left eye, shooting on assignment for The New York Times.
It’s a tired trope in politics that the campaigns are not about one individual, but about the people who are part of a broader movement. At stops around the country, like clockwork, he’d get a thunderous roar from the crowd as he’d tell them “This campaign is not about Bernie Sanders. This campaign is about the needs of the American people, and the ideas and proposals that effectively address those needs.”
With that in mind, as we set out across America, I did all I could to break out of the typical zones reserved for the press and to focus much of my attention not only on documenting the candidate but on documenting the movement he represented.
Doing so was as simple as turning around, as Bernie spoke, looking into the eyes of the voters, and trying to understand who they were and what motivated them to be in that place in time -- wide eyed, looking toward the stage where they heard promises of a better America.
There was Alicia Sacks and Gene Kendall, who sat in the bleachers near the 30-yard line of the football field at Rancho Buena Vista High School, staring deeply and intently into each others’ sunglasses as Alicia attached a small American flag to the back of Gene’s hat, protecting his neck from the beating sun.
And there was 18-year-old Muryem Quadri, a Muslim activist in Chicago Illinois with a nose piercing who had an American flag of her own already wrapped tightly around her head as a hijab. “"I have this strapped on my head because Trump wants to take it away from me," she told me. “He wants to tell me I’m not American enough because my skin isn’t white enough.”
And finally, in Louisville, Kentucky, there was 5-month-old Lucian Toler, riding in a stroller as a Baby Bernie while his sister, 4-year-old Kathryn dressed as Lady Liberty. Mom, Ruth Smith, wore a shirt with Bernie presented in cat form and their father Chris dressed as the Secret Service agent shepherding the whole operation along. “Ruth and I always seem to be working to get by with not enough family time,” Toler told me later as I shared pictures with him by e-mail. “But the Sanders rally was truly an epic experience for us, and it will never be forgotten.”
The March to Super Tuesday; SOUTH CAROLINA, MASSACHUSETTS, VERMONT
This was my first big campaign swing with Bernie. Or really with anyone for that matter. I'd never been to an "OTR" before -- meaning that it was off the record we were attending the event until we arrived. Bernie kept a surprise schedule through much of this swing, running a fluid campaign based on the whims of staff and also the whereabouts of his rival.
After a few days on the road, we were joined on the trail by Killer Mike, whose South Carolina bonafides were strong. He always introduced Bernie as "Bernard Sanders," which really got the crowd going. But there wasn't always much of a crowd to speak of.
We'd jump from event to event in a Secret Service motorcade, at times pulling directly onto the tarmac of a local airport and climbing onto Bernie's campaign plane.
It was a popular myth at this point that he was still flying commercial, but it would have been impossible with all the staff, protection and journalists involved.
We traveled up and down the East Coast, finishing up in Vermont where Bernie addressed a hometown crowd. I cried as I watched him sing "This Land is Your Land," on Super Tuesday in Vermont -- not so much because of his message but just because of the thrill of the ride and the place I'd found myself at in life.
The Battle the Boroughs: NEW YORK CITY, NY
The New York primary felt very personal for Bernie. Though he had the crunchy veneer or a Vermontian, he took pride in his Brooklyn roots and the rough and tumble style he learned in the borough spilled into everything from his accent to his values. But while his roots were personal, Hillary's were political. She'd been Senator there during 9/11, ran her campaign out of a Brooklyn headquarters and lived in a home in Chappaqua.
On the day of the primary, after a bit of gladhanging in the city, we traveled to Pennsylvania. Breaking from norms, Bernie's staff wouldn't let us photograph him getting on the plane. It was clear they didn't like the visual of him giving up on New York. Hillary trounced him there, with 54.5% of the vote.
The In Between Days: FLORIDA, ILLINOIS, INDIANA, KENTUCKY
Traveling on the road with Bernie was at once exhausting and exhilirating.
When we'd arrive at our final destination each night, known in campaign lingo as the RON for "rest over night", he'd often stroll by as the embeds drank beer or tried to sweet talk the kitchen into staying open at the hotel restaurant.
"Aren't you tired," he'd ask.
It always stunned me. "Are we tired?" This was a group of modestly in-shape, mostly 20- or 30-somethings who had to chroncile his every step day in and day out. Here he was, 75 years old, delivering speeches to thousands of voters in multiple states, across multiple time zones every day. It didn't seem to occur to him that he should in fact be the one who was tired.
His rallies were unlike any of the other campaigns. He was a bonafide rock star. As he'd work the ropeline at every event, begrudgingly shaking hands with as many voters as could crush toward the bike racks, David Bowie's "Starman" would blare over the speakers.
The Summer Sojourn: SAN DIEGO, CA
Bernie's trip through California was a homecoming of sorts for me. I spent a few days with him in San Diego, where I'd spent 27 years of my life and a decade as a journalist. I marveled as we wove through the S curve on Interstate 5 in a Secret Service motorcade, not another car on the road. I tried to do as much as I could to educate the rest of the pool on the significance of everything. As we got further south, I knew, for instance, that we must be heading to Friendship Park, the southeastern most point of the United States.
At one point, the motorcade headed to a taco shop, but found out that we were at the wrong one. "How many could there be," the pool wondered.
I had the chance to bring my parents along to a rally in Vista, not far from my childhood home. Bernie was right at home in the California sky.
Bern it Down: THE DEMOCRATIC NATIONAL CONVENTION
It was supposed to be a coronation.
But the party Hillary Clinton planned for is not the one she got.
Outside the Ritz Carlton in Downtown Philadelphia, tensions were high. Days earlier, Wikileaks had released a trove of e-mails showing the coziness of Clinton's campaign with the Democratic National Committee.
It was all the fodder Berniecrats needed to stoke their collective political outrage. For months, Bernie had told them that the system was rigged against them; that the elite class bought and sold elections and that's what kept the common man down.
Now, they had their proof. Clinton's supporters came for one party. They got two.
Moments after watching Bernie make a motion from the State of Vermont to grant Secretary Clinton the nomination by ascension, I was sent sprinting out of the arena following scores of protestors who walked out of the convention. One of them grabbed my camera lens and slammed it into my face. "Don't touch my fucking camera" I told him. He screamed in my face not to photograph the protestors. "Oh the irony" I thought, wondering what good a protest was if the world couldn't see it.
Back inside, I ran into a Bernie staffer. "What the fuck is going on in here?" I asked him.
"They've gone rogue," he said.