Those who are not students of U.S. politics might be asking why the latest social media craze features an older gentleman in a dark puffer coat sitting in a folding chair and wearing large woolen mittens with a zig-zag pattern.
Bernie Sanders, a U.S. senator from the small and often very cold New England state of Vermont, was seated at the presidential inauguration of his former rival, Joe Biden, dressed for warmth rather than fashion.
And the world can’t seem to stop getting enough of the image. Tweets and posts have received millions of likes and shares.
At 79, the senator, who is often referred to as Bernie when people talk about him - was more popular with younger voters during the Democratic primary than younger candidates. Now, after his appearance at the inauguration, he is everywhere.
The photo of him sitting with legs and arms crossed comfortably has been superimposed into images from around the world – showing him with the K-pop boy band BTS; dancing with South Korean K-pop star Psy; or as overlord Wizard of Oz. Other images show Sanders sitting outside a mosque in Aleppo, Syria, or watching a half-naked Putin take a polar plunge. There is also a superimposed image of Sanders on the moon.
The photo was snapped by Washington-based photojournalist Brendan Smialowski during the Jan. 20 inauguration unlike any other. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, and the Jan. 6 attack on the capitol, only hundreds were allowed to attend the event, and their seating was scattered apart to deter airborne virus contamination.
Senator Sanders sat alone, looking characteristically grumpy behind his surgical mask, observing the scene.
But after days of his image being shared around the world in various settings, the senator appeared to be delighted and amused in an interview with CNN.
“Not only are we having fun, what we’re doing here in Vermont is we’re going to be selling around the country sweatshirts and T-shirts, and all of the money that’s going to be raised…will be going to programs like Meals on Wheels that feed low-income senior citizens,” Sanders said.
“It turns out actually to be a good thing, not only a fun thing,” he said.
To engage younger constituents in government, the senator’s office is sponsoring its 11th State of the Union essay contest, in which Vermont high school students are invited to write about issues important to them. A diverse group of past winners has written about voter suppression and Islamophobia.
“Over the past 10 years, more than 4,600 students throughout Vermont have written essays about critically important issues, including climate change, access to mental health care, criminal justice reform, and much, much more,” according to his website.
The annual State of the Union address by the president of the United States to a joint session of Congress is typically a report card on how the country is doing and what plans the leadership has for the future.
Biden, as is the case for presidents starting a first term in office, will not give an official “State of the Union” address. Presidents traditionally are in office for a year before they give their first “State of the Union.”
But Biden will speak to the joint session of Congress in a few weeks.
No doubt, Senator Sanders will be there. And everywhere.