Last week on Twitter, CNN political reporter Andrew Kaczynski posted an October 2002 clip from that network’s show Crossfire in which Bernie Sanders discussed the implications of the U.S. invading Iraq, something that you’ll recall was still merely theoretical at the time. Kaczynski’s point in circulating the clip was, presumably, to highlight Sanders’ prescient perspective. But when I watched, I thought about the year 2002. It was a long time ago. I looked very different in 2002 than I do now; most of us did, because it was fully 18 years ago. But not Bernie. At present, he is 78 years old. But this clip strongly suggests he was also 78 years old back in 2002.
There’s been a lot of talk this election cycle about Sanders’ age, as well as the ages of other candidates in the Democratic primary race. What this talk has failed to take into account is that Sanders clearly does not age like other mortals. Remember the scene in Twilight when Bella asks Edward how old he is? “Seventeen,” he replies. She follows up, very intuitively, with, “How long have you been 17?” Edward’s answer is, “a while.” I think we all need to ask ourselves how long Bernie has been 78.
I am not the first person to point out that Bernie has looked very old for a very long time. Last year, when Bernie was technically a spring chicken of 77, The Daily Show aired a segment that reviewed footage of Sanders from the local-access TV show he used to host in the 1980s and concluded that he was indistinguishable then from he is today. “Bernie Sanders, he’s never changed,” Trevor Noah said, zeroing in on footage of Bernie talking about some of his favorite hobby horses, our shameful lack of national health care system and wealthy people not paying enough taxes. “And I’m not talking about his platform. The dude looked exactly the same back then as he does today.” Noah went on, “If you traveled back in time in a time machine and the first person you met was Bernie Sanders, you’d be like: ‘Ah, this piece of shit doesn’t work!’ ”
Noah wondered, “Has Bernie just looked like this his entire life?” Well, no. Most of us have seen old photos of Bernie Sanders in his radical, curly-haired youth. As one of my perceptive colleagues put it, “Bernie was in his 20s for a few years and then immediately turned 70 and has been 70 for decades.” I wondered, then, if it would be possible to isolate the exact moment that Bernie entered his 70s. All is achieveable through meticulous research. To the archives!
A note on methods: I decided to focus on judging Sanders’ age from video footage rather than photos, first of all because this all started with a video clip, but also because where photographs lie easily with good lighting and angles, news footage is usually a pretty good way to gauge whether somebody is 78 or not. And please remember, this isn’t about looks but physics; I am simply trying to determine why the normal rules of time do not seem to apply to one of our presidential candidates.
The Very Late 1970s
There are a few famous photographs of Bernie in the early 1970s where he looks genuinely young—I think of photos like this and this one as exemplifying that era—but the earliest video footage I could find of him is from 1979. Whether he looks his actual age, 38, here is debatable, but I think we can all agree that this is a Bernie who is not, I repeat, not a septuagenarian, either in appearance or in fact. Ruling: Not in his 70s yet.
So we arrive at 1980, the year Sanders ran for, and won, the mayorship of Burlington, Vermont. Here is a Bernie still in the blush of youth. I mean, kind of: His hair is gray but not white, at least, which for Bernie we’re going to count as the “blush of youth.” I will be skipping over any discussion about whether Bernie was “hot” during his pre-septuagenarian years, by the way: Listening to him talk reminds me so much of my grandfather that I think there’s no way we’re not at the very least cousins. I wonder if genetically that means I can also expect to spend three to four decades of my life in my 70s? Something to ponder. Anyway, ruling: Not in his 70s yet.
Shall we look at Bernie in 1981, then? Here he is on the Today show that year. He was, as you can see, still relatively young. Ruling: Not in his 70s yet.
Footage of Bernie in the early ’80s is hard to come by, so we jump ahead to the Bernie of 1985, when he was still the mayor of Burlington. He is very reminiscent of our permanently 78-year-old Bernie … but no, this Bernie’s hair is still gray, rather than the white that would come to define him. Still, I want to point out that this man is a good six years younger than J. Lo at the Super Bowl. What is time? Ruling: Not in his 70s yet.
Let’s look at the year 1986, when Sanders was (chronologically) 45. It looks like this might be the year his hair tipped over from mostly gray to mostly white, a key indicator, so from here on out we can no longer rely on hair shade alone to categorize the stage of Bernie’s life. (It’s like how a clue for understanding the timelines in Greta Gerwig’s Little Women is whether Florence Pugh has bangs or not.) But I would say that what ultimately marks 1986, 45-year-old Bernie as not yet 78 is his hair texture. We know that during the decades Bernie spends in his 70s, his hair will take a turn toward whiteness over graydom, but it will also eventually go from being curly to taking on a fully Doc Brown–from–Back to the Future unkempt quality, where it becomes just totally uncontrollable, an anarchic contrast to the socialist head it sits on. In 1986, that has not yet happened. Ruling: Not in his 70s yet.
And that brings us to 1987. Are you seeing what I’m seeing? Oh man. It happened. Exactly here. Seventy-eight-year-old Bernie has arrived. If you watch all the available videos of Bernie in 1987 on YouTube, you’ll see that he seems young in some and old in others. In some, it’s the opposite of a photo finish: In stills, Bernie looks like he’s 78, but you have to watch him actually talk in clips to see that he is still in his 40s. It’s remarkable! I actually think it’s impossible to narrow down the day or month that it happened, because it looks like, for a while, he was switching back and forth from being in his 40s to in his 70s, like a glitch in a time-traveling movie come to life. You might not think it would work that way, but to understand Bernie’s life, I would encourage you to abandon your traditional understanding of time. Ruling: Bernie’s 78 now.
Onward to 1988 and ’89. I’m gonna say Bernie is 78 here, that he’s crossed over and is permanently post-septuagenarianification. But I want you to look carefully at his glasses; these are the thick frames he favored throughout the 1980s, which could lull one into a false sense of thinking Bernie is his chronological age here, his 40s, rather than his true age, his 70s. Don’t be fooled by things like glasses. Ruling: Bernie’s 78.
If Bernie entered septuagenarianhood in 1987, logic would dictate that he should stay 78 for the entirety of the 1990s. Let’s test that hypothesis.
1990: Checks out. Ruling: Bernie’s 78.
1991: Oh yeah, hasn’t changed a bit. Ruling: Bernie’s 78.
1992: No question, this is a man in his 70s, even if his birth certificate says he was only 51 at the time. Ruling: Bernie’s 78.
1993: He’s 78 if he’s a day. Ruling: Bernie’s 78.
1994: Indubitably 78. Ruling: Bernie’s 78.
1995: He may be sporting a fun weekend polo shirt look here, a rarity for Bernie, but he is demonstrably the same 78-year-old we know (and some of us, love) today. Ruling: Bernie’s 78.
1996: Back in his suit, going strong at 78. Ruling: Bernie’s 78.
1998: He’s now been 78 for 11 years. Ruling: Bernie’s 78.
The Year 2000
Just checking if anything weird happened with Y2K where someone turned Bernie off and on again and he went back to his 20s or 40s … nope, looks like he stayed 78. Ruling: Bernie’s 78.
And so it would go on into the 2000s and 2010s, with each passing year Sanders’ age becoming less and less remarkable. After all, now that he’s for real, fact-checkably 78, it doesn’t seem that incredible that he also looks 78. It’s just that unlike most 78-year-olds, he’s had 33 years of practice. I think the evidence speaks for itself.