Bill Press reflects on Clinton, Sanders and a life in politics

Bill Press reflects on Clinton, Sanders and a life in politics
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Progressive radio host Bill Press can’t help but wonder what might have been if Democrats had nominated Sen. Bernie SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersSanders: Trump setting 'terrible example' for our children Gabbard considering 2020 run: report Sanders, Harris set to criss-cross Iowa MORE (I-Vt.) instead of Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonO'Rourke's rise raises hopes for Texas Dems down ballot Gabbard considering 2020 run: report Claiming 'spousal privilege' to stonewall Congress MORE in 2016.

Press, a close confidant to Sanders, just published a new memoir about his life in politics. The radio host told The Hill that he believes Sanders would have won the general election against President TrumpDonald John TrumpDemocrats slide in battle for Senate Trump believes Kushner relationship with Saudi crown prince a liability: report Christine Blasey Ford to be honored by Palo Alto City Council MORE.


“Bernie would have won if he were the nominee. He would have beaten Trump because you would have had an authentic progressive versus a phony progressive and people would have been able to tell the difference,” he said.

“I think he would have won — but I know he would have campaigned in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan.”

Press brushed aside complaints from Clinton and her supporters, who argued Sanders’s challenge added to the division in the party that hurt her candidacy. Instead, Press said, both Clinton and the Democratic Party as a whole were in a better situation because Sanders ran.

“That primary and Bernie Sanders was the best thing that ever happened to the party,” Press, a columnist for The Hill, said.

“The Democratic Party needed a swift kick in the ass, and that’s what it got from Bernie Sanders.”

In his new book, “From the Left: A Life in the Crossfire,” Press ties together the stages of his life to explain how a kid growing up in a conservative Delaware neighborhood in the 1940s ultimately wound up in Sanders’s kitchen cabinet.

Press remembers harboring a distrust of authority at an early age, when his parish priest sermonized about how Catholics shouldn’t socialize with anyone except other Catholics. It was a puzzling order for a young Press to hear, particularly as his Protestant mother was home cooking the family pancakes for breakfast upon their return from church.

“I learned at an early age the most important lesson I ever learned about organized religion: listen to and respect what church leaders say, but don’t assume they always get it right — and don’t necessarily obey everything they say,” Press writes.

It’s a lesson Press said he’s internalized with politics too, and one that helps explain why he supported for Sanders while still admiring Clinton.

“You can see a reflection of that in my support for Bernie Sanders in that the establishment party was lining up for Hillary before she announced she was going to run. That really offended me, the whole concept of a coronation,” Press told The Hill.

“Today, more and more people refuse to accept party orthodoxy, not to mention religious orthodoxy — the churches are empty. And I think that’s healthy for a democracy and for the political system. I think we get more people involved that way and better people in politics, and hopefully better results.”

His religious upbringing drew him to the seminary, a decision he describes as a way to engage in public service without having to shell out the tuition for law or medical school.

That study took him to nearby Maryland, Pennsylvania and New York, abroad for two years of graduate school in Switzerland (where a broken leg gave him his first run-in with universal health care), and then to the West Coast, where he settled in San Francisco after taking a leave of absence that ultimately became permanent.

“The seminary took a big slice out of my life. But I have no regrets, because those ten years in themselves constituted an invaluable educational experience. I came out of them older, wiser, surer of what direction I wanted to take in my life,” Press writes.

“Not only that, which is itself a minor miracle, I left the seminary even more of a progressive than when I entered — despite the concerted efforts of some to make me a doctrinaire conservative Catholic.”

It was in California where Press had his first real taste of politics, spurred to volunteer for then-Sen. Eugene McCarthy’s (D-Minn.) 1968 presidential bid.

After meeting his wife on the campaign trail, Press bounced around California Democratic politics before joining Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown’s staff and subsequent 1976 presidential bid.

Press then pivoted to journalism, winning a commentator gig on a top Los Angeles television station despite no formal journalism experience. He took a brief hiatus during an unsuccessful bid for Senate in California.

He continued to appear on television even after he took the reins of the California Democratic Party from 1993-1996, when he joined CNN and its pivotal “Crossfire” program.

That stint sharpened Press’s media chops, pitting him against conservatives such as Tucker Carlson and Pat Buchanan before Press moved to MSNBC for a short-lived show alongside Buchanan.

From the ashes of that MSNBC show, Press started “The Bill Press Show,” which airs on radio networks five days a week.

It was in that role Press forged a relationship with Sanders. After appearing as a regular on Press’s radio show, Sanders summoned him to his office to discuss his bid for president. After Sanders laid out his initial goal — to ensure there was a candidate pushing Clinton to address progressive issues — Press agreed to assemble a small groups of advisers to act as a sounding board.

The small group of Sanders confidants and seasoned strategists met at Press’s house on two occasions to lay out a path for Sanders in the presidential primary.

But, as Press admits, the campaign took on a life that few had predicted in those early meetings, giving Sanders enough support to mount a real challenge to Clinton and walk away as one of the party’s most important faces.

“I think he won that campaign. Who has the lasting influence today out of the 2016 primary? It’s not Hillary Clinton — it’s Bernie Sanders,” Press told The Hill.

That’s not to say that Press has no kind words for Clinton. He reminisces about his joy in spending time with her while he ran the party in California, in his book calling her a policy wonk with a “wicked sense of humor,” and said he’s always looked upon her favorably.

“She was a big, stalwart asset to the Democratic Party. And particularly because she was the first woman to achieve all that, her legacy might be the great number of women we see today, in record numbers, running for office,” Press said in the interview.

“But at the same time, her time at the helm, if you will, has come and gone. This country has moved on and the party has moved on from the Clinton era.”

In contrast, Press still sees the moment as ripe for Sanders to take the plunge in 2020. Admitting that he hasn’t sat down with Sanders to discuss specifics yet, Press said he expects Sanders to “Feel the Bern” again.

“My read is that now he will run again, wants to run again, and this time, from the get-go, it will be to secure the nomination, not just to raise the issues,” Press told The Hill.

“I think he’s got a good shot at it, but it’s not going to be a free ride. Hardly.”