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Bill Bradley: Can He Get Into the Game? | The Nation

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Bill Bradley: Can He Get Into the Game?

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On April 30, 1992, Bill Bradley strode to the podium of the US Senate. The previous night, riots had erupted in Los Angeles following a not-guilty verdict in the first Rodney King trial. With a state of emergency under way in America's second-largest city, Bradley, the former New York Knicks basketball star, first elected to the Senate in 1978, was looking to underscore the injustice of the jury's decision. He also realized this was an important moment for himself. Nine months earlier, Bradley had delivered a pair of much-noticed speeches pronouncing race to be a defining issue in American society. He had bemoaned the high rates of child poverty and unemployment in the African-American community. Citing his own experience as a white man in a black man's world, he had chastised the nation for not confronting racial tensions. He had slapped liberals for failing "to emphasize hard work, self-reliance and individual responsibility," and conservatives for failing "to use the power of government for the common good." The country, he had declared, must "begin an honest dialogue about race in America."

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David Corn
David Corn is Mother Jones' Washington bureau chief. Until 2007, he was Washington editor of The Nation. He has written...

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Now, with South Central LA smoldering, Bradley referred to the blows King had received from the police: "Fifty-six times in eighty-one seconds." Bradley then took six pencils fastened together with rubber bands and banged the makeshift baton against the podium. "Pow," he said. He banged again. "Pow." Another bang. "Pow." Fifty-six times: "Pow, pow, pow..." Showing his anger, he said, "If we as a nation continue to ignore the racial reality of our times...we're going to pay an enormous price.... the fire the next time is going to engulf all of us."

It was a powerful moment, probably the most emotive one in the career of a quiet legislator known more for studying tax law arcana than for producing memorable rhetoric. The performance made Nightline. In New Jersey, the state Bradley represented, the Rev. Reginald Jackson, a board member of the Black Ministers Council of New Jersey, was impressed with Bradley's dramatic remarks, as he had been with his previous speeches on race. Jackson eagerly waited for Bradley to make good on his passion.

But, Jackson says, "It never came to that." The reverend saw little follow-up action. "Senator Bradley is right on target with his diagnosis and observations, but there's concern over whether he's engaged in the struggle," notes Jackson, who now leads the ministers' group. "He can articulate the thing. But we want to see him act on his words." In the two decades that Reverend Jackson has been involved with civil rights work in New Jersey, Bradley, he says, has visited with the Black Ministers Council only once or twice: "He doesn't come into the community, meet with its leadership, say, 'What can I do?'" These days, as Bradley raises racial issues while challenging Vice President Al Gore for the Democratic nomination ("If I'm President I want one thing to be known: If you want to please the boss, one of the things you'd better show is how your department or agency has furthered tolerance and racial understanding," Bradley has said), Jackson wonders why Bradley, whom he admires, has not gone beyond speechifying. "I'm sure he believes racial profiling is wrong," Jackson says, referring to the controversy that ensued after New Jersey state troopers were found to be searching the cars of blacks at a much higher rate than those of whites. "But we don't see him engage. We don't see him meeting with the state attorney general or governor and proposing steps to end it. What he says comes from the heart, but people would rather see a sermon than hear a sermon." Jackson is leaning toward Gore.

In his quest for the presidency, Bill Bradley, who grew up in Crystal City, Missouri, and then gained fame as a Princeton hoopster who led the US Olympic team to a 1964 gold medal victory over the Soviet Union, has been sermonizing. On the hustings, he says it's time to "repair" the "trust" between the public and the President. (He does not venture an opinion as to who spoiled that trust.) He contrasts his small-town roots with Gore's inside-the-Beltway upbringing. Speaking softly in a flat timbre that barely carries, he calls for a bold politics of "big ideas" and jabs at the Clinton/Gore Administration's cautious strategy of dishing out overhyped, bite-sized policy proposals. Bradley, 55, projects earnestness and seriousness. "It's like listening to your dad," coos a twentysomething female campaign aide. With his low-key, professorial, I'm-no-slick-gladhander manner, he is this year's antipolitician. Bright, like Clinton, but--thank god--without the sizzle. Ambitious, but in a reserved, not a whatever-it-takes, fashion. Driven and disciplined, he is laconically intense. After six long years of Clinton, Bradley is smart to campaign as a values hawker. But he's more than a character salesman. Throughout his hard-to-label Senate career, he has shown several different personas, all of which emerge while he's campaigning. It's not yet clear whether he will be able to get his various selves to play together as a team--or if that will be necessary in order to win.

On a recent tour through New Hampshire, Bradley offered the full buffet. On display was the policy maven who worked with Republicans in the early eighties on tax reform; the former symbol, as he once put it, of the "Christian scholar-athlete" who philosophizes in Sunday school fashion about the search for meaning in life; the ardent advocate of globalization, free trade and high technology who expresses boundless enthusiasm for the World Trade Organization; the not-so-emotional bleeding heart who worries about those Americans being left behind; the independent-minded politician with a nonpartisan style who decries the institutional corruption of the campaign finance system; and the sports folk hero who said no to commercial endorsements and moved on the court with a less-than-graceful but determined style.

Bradley easily shifted from one to the next. At Rivier College in Nashua, he praised volunteerism and promised that if he were President he would not "take the spotlight...but call attention to the millions of Americans who every day make their communities a better place." At several stops, he offered a New Age-ish riff on the positive power of America. At a house party--more a mansion party--at the hilltop home of a Fidelity Investments executive, Bradley stood in front of a glorious view of the Berkshire Mountains and told the crowd that in thirty years of traveling he has listened to Americans tell their stories: "It gives me a sense of who the American people are.... There is goodness in most of us.... If you see that in your neighbor, you can make a connection. And if you make that connection, you are less lonely, less frightened.... And if you make all those connections, you have a picture of our collective wisdom." (Upon hearing this, an elderly woman murmured, "What a sweet man.") The next day, at the Fidelity offices, Bradley hailed the new economy, praising "open markets and the free flow of capital." He tossed out factoids: Did you know that if automobile efficiency had grown as much as data efficiency, a car could drive from New York to Los Angeles on four milliliters of gas? At more intimate campaign gatherings, he asked people in a Mr. Rogers-like way, "Do you have a story to tell me?" When they did, he knitted his Jack Nicholson eyebrows and listened intently. But he did not listen the way Clinton would, exuding empathy. Bradley is a seminar leader. He doesn't feel your pain, he notes it.

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