With almost no warning, Bernie Sanders scheduled a town hall at Gettysburg College. And when I say "with almost no warning," I mean students got an email Wednesday night for an event happening Friday afternoon. The student body seemed pretty excited about it. Even people who didn't agree with his policies told me how awesome they thought it was that a presidential candidate would visit a small liberal arts college in a relatively small town. Here's my personal experiences from that day.
The doors to the gym where the event was being held opened at 11 a.m., which was when I got there. Good thing students got in before the general public, because the non-student line was over two blocks long. Still, campus security and campaign volunteers kept the lines moving, and even though I thought the gym was going to be too small to accommodate everyone, it seemed like everyone who was in line eventually got in. I got in the gym itself at around 11:30 a.m., and it was already packed with reporters and camera crews. The gym pretty much filled up by 12:30 p.m., and Sanders was scheduled to speak at around 1:30 p.m.. So, being a group of largely college students and/or fervent Bernie supporters, we did various things to pass the time. There were chants, waves and one particularly spirited man with a huge Bernie flag. Around 1 p.m., a representative from the school came out and gave a standard disclaimer stating that Gettysburg College does not endorse any one candidate. Everyone took this as a sign that it would be beginning shortly, so we waited with baited breath. And waited. And waited. And waited. We were so bored that the person who brought out the water glasses got a standing ovation. Campaign volunteers passed around signs, but not everyone got them. The section I was in nearly revolted because we didn't get nearly as many signs as the other side of the gym. As 2 p.m. passed, some people started to talk about leaving. There was word that Sanders wouldn't be coming until 3:30 p.m. at best. A lot of people were getting really frustrated that they had been sitting in the same spot for three hours and Bernie might be a no-show.
And then it started. Right around 2:15 p.m., a veteran of the Iraq war gave the opening remarks. He talked about the problems that soldiers must deal with upon returning home and how little help they received from the federal government. He brought to light a lot of issues that I don't think about all that much, simply because I don't have any close relatives that are in the armed forces. It was incredibly powerful nonetheless. Next, U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii came out and spoke. Based on how short her remarks were, I think she was told to keep it short so that Bernie could get out sooner. That's who everyone really came to see.
He didn't disappoint. When he took the stage, the crowd went absolutely ballistic. I didn't think a group of maybe a couple hundred people could make that much noise. It took a bit for the crowd to calm down and let Bernie speak, but they did eventually quiet down. His opening remarks were essentially what he's said in every debate and at every rally: break up the big banks, make the super wealthy pay more in taxes and use that new revenue to generate a better-educated workforce and provide more opportunity for people who don't have a lot. He got a thunderous applause after every sentence. I almost felt bad for him. He didn't have a chance to complete a thought without being drowned out by the crowd. I loved the enthusiasm, but at first the crowd really didn't let him talk all that much. He spoke well, but I just thought the applause got out of hand at times. For example, at one point he said something to the effect of, "I live in Burlington, Vermont. It's about 50 miles outside of Canada." Then someone in the crowd shouted, "Canada!" and everyone applauded. Really? Canada is what gets applause? Don't get me wrong, I love Canada, but I don't feel the need to interrupt an important American politician because he said the word "Canada."
What really struck me about this town hall was how genuine Bernie was. I'd listened to him before and seen some of the debates, and I knew that transparency and straightforwardness were major parts of his appeal. But it was something else to see in person. Even if you didn't agree with what he said, you could tell he genuinely wanted to see change occur where it needs to. When he started talking about veteran's healthcare, I could see just how much that issue meant to him. He talked about being on the Senate Veteran's Affairs Committee and how he would always act with the best interests of the veterans in mind. I absolutely believed him. He spoke with such a passion that it was apparent that he knew the system, as it stands, hurts veterans more than it helps them and that he genuinely wants to fix that; it wasn't just political posturing.
It lasted about an hour and a half, and every issue he talked about, he spoke with the same desire and intensity. He wasn't building himself up as being the greatest politician ever, but he wasn't selling himself short either. He came across as a man who knows what's wrong and has some good ideas for how to fix those things but wants to affect change for the good of everyone, not because of his own political motives.
Most Americans, myself included, are generally distrustful of politicians, but in that hour and a half, Bernie Sanders genuinely came off as one of the good ones. I'm glad that I got to see him in person, and it's certainly an experience I'll cherish for the rest of my life.