What a thrill! Last night, I was dining with a friend in Piccola Italia, a charming restaurant in Manchester, New Hampshire, when who should walk in but Bernie Sanders!
He was having dinner (chicken parmigiana) with film director Michael Moore — more stardust! — and an entourage of about 15 people, including a low-level security detail.
Half the restaurant stood up and cheered and clapped as he walked to his table.
But then Bernie took the electric atmosphere and promptly switched off the power. As fans clutched his hand — one enthused, ‘Thank you for everything’ — Bernie looked like a rabbit trapped in the headlights, quietly saying, ‘Thank you’ and ‘All right’. When I shook his hand, and wished him well, he said nothing.
I wasn’t expecting a full-on, Clintonian hug. And you could call his attitude a nice exercise in diffident modesty. But, if you want to beat the big old show-off showman in the White House, you’ve got to sprinkle a little magic dust over proceedings. You want people to think, ‘I’ve just shaken the hand of the future president of the United States.’
Instead of coming away from my accidental meeting with Bernie dazzled, I came feeling sorry for him. He looked like an exhausted old man. And who can blame him? He had a heart attack just four months ago.
It was 25°F outside on snowy Elm Street — where he was inundated again with lovely, friendly locals who he greeted with the same low wattage. It was 9.30pm. The night before, he’d taken part in an exhausting debate in St Anselm College, Manchester, New Hampshire, with six other Democratic candidates. And, last week, he’d been buzzing back and forth across Iowa, where, it’s said, every voter likes to meet every candidate — at least twice.
And Bernie’s 78 years old. I’d have found that routine pretty exhausting and I’m 30 years his junior.
But that’s the extraordinary thing about this presidential race — how old these candidates are. Joe Biden — who looked out for the count, washed out, doddery and shaky in the debate on Friday — is 77. Bloomberg turns 78 on Valentine’s Day. Elizabeth Warren is 70. And Donald Trump is 74.
There are precedents for this, of course. Ronald Reagan was 69 when he took office in 1981; 77 when he stepped down from office. Bob Dole was 72 when he was Republican candidate in 1996.
But the pressures of running for office now are so extreme — in the 24-hour, rolling news, internet age. And Bernie’s got another nine months of racing across America, with people desperate to shake his hand. He’s got to locate a fountain of eternal youth somewhere in New Hampshire and drink deep if he wants to keep his mojo going all the way until November. Say what you want about Pete Buttigieg. He’s only 38.