Bill Bradley: Can He Get Into the Game?

Bill Bradley: Can He Get Into the Game?

Bill Bradley: Can He Get Into the Game?

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.


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.”

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.

We can be less lonely. We can help one another. We can be good. We are on the verge of an economic golden age. Bradley is running a metacampaign of deep thoughts. But he does attempt to attach his abstractions to policy matters. Boasting (gently) that he has tackled the “big issues” of taxes, international trade, global finance and race, Bradley identified areas where his vision can touch the ground. He mentioned the need for universal health coverage, campaign finance reform and more affordable childcare. All of this is possible, he maintains, for Bradley foresees a historic burst in the wealth of the nation. The economy could be a trillion dollars bigger in the next decade, he said, and this will afford the nation the opportunity to reduce child poverty, assist the 40-45 million Americans without health insurance, address teen pregnancy and heal the racial rift. Forget shorter commutes to work, one of Gore’s leading issues. Bradley is reaching for…a better society.

How can that be attained? Bradley wasn’t ready with the specifics. This spring, he said, his campaign is in the “vision-thematic” mode. Later he will move to “principles” and then “policy.” Check back in September. Still, in New Hampshire there was principle and policy creep. At a high school in Londonderry, he talked of registering handguns. At a law firm in Manchester, he favorably referred to a proposed constitutional amendment permitting limits on campaign spending. (Most campaign reform advocates consider that an impractical proposal.) He has spoken favorably of means-testing Medicare. In trying to reach out to union members–who are likely to be put off by his let-it-rip trade positions–Bradley has said he is predisposed to reforming labor law to ease union organizing. But when a student at Phillips Exeter Academy asked Bradley for specifics on how one could take up his call to confront racial discord, this policy hound did not offer much policy. Rather, he proposed the “tangible steps” of conducting dialogues in clubs and dorms and convening multiracial gatherings where participants could compose a list of what they have in common.

On Kosovo, Bradley would not creep far. At every stop in New Hampshire, he was asked about the war then under way. He was not shy about highlighting problems in Clinton’s policy, noting that the bombing had not prevented ethnic cleansing. But he declined to say whether he supported or opposed continued bombing. “I don’t have access to the intelligence,” he maintained. In the basement of the Knights of Columbus Hall in Franklin, one voter asked if he would back ground troops in Kosovo. “It’s a decision the President will have to make,” Bradley replied, stating the obvious. The questioner spotted the waffle. “I mean you, Senator,” she shouted at him. “It’s not a wise thing to do in the current circumstance,” he said before pausing. “But I would never want to foreclose that.” Bradley reacted cautiously to the announcement of a peace accord, noting that the “devil is always in the details.”

Bradley is keeping his options open. He is in a fortunate spot: a one-on-one race for the nomination. By being sentient, vertical and not Al Gore, he can expect to start with 35 percent or so support in contrarian-friendly New Hampshire. His Peter Sellers-like ability to play multiple roles allows him to make contact with different blocs of potential voters. Reform-minded Democratic activists can sidle up to him as the anti-establishment candidate. Wall Streeters and financiers–who have generously funded his previous and present campaigns–can back him as an unabashed cheerleader of the global economy. Character-first voters can latch on to his from-modest-roots story, his unsullied personal reputation and his be-good example. Partisanship-averse independents can embrace him as a not-one-of-the-usual-SOBs pol. Liberals can be heartened by his call to help the poor. Defining himself and his message further may only serve to limit his appeal.

Perhaps Bradley can maintain his poo-poo-platter politics for the entire campaign, for his history shows he does not rush to take sides. In 1967, when he was a student at Oxford as a Rhodes scholar, he appeared on a CBS “town meeting of the world” on Vietnam. While Bobby Kennedy and Ronald Reagan debated the war, the young Bradley declined to ally himself with either and ducked the basic issue. “Discussions of Vietnam,” he complained, “somehow degenerate into polemical accusations, disputations of fact, et cetera. I think there’s a basic understanding that must be had in any discussion here, and that is that the United States is not out to achieve a position of power in land or economic force in the world…. So we have negotiations…then what do we negotiate for? Do we negotiate for a stable Asia, and what does a stable Asia mean?” Bradley offered questions, not answers.

Bradley is reputed to be a lone thinker. He twice won the NBA championship on a squad renowned for its cohesive teamwork, but he’s not a natural joiner. His record in the Senate reflects his go-it-alone approach. He supported some arms control measures (such as the SALT II treaty) but not others (such as a ban on the testing of certain nuclear weapons and antisatellite weapons). In the early Reagan years, he voted for the President’s budget cuts but opposed his supply-side tax cuts. He pushed his own tax proposal to close loopholes and lower rates. When a bill similar to his initiative passed in 1986, Bradley voted against a liberal-sponsored amendment to make the rates more progressive. He urged debt relief for developing nations and voted to increase the minimum wage. He voted for the death penalty for drug kingpins and for a $30 million school voucher program sought by conservatives. He was a steady backer of abortion rights. Surprising many Democrats, he voted for Reagan’s request for military aid to the Nicaraguan contras, even though he criticized Reagan’s contra policy. At various times, he was described in the media as a liberal, a moderate and a centrist.

“He’s smart and feels he can figure out policy issues on his own,” one former colleague recalls. “Bradley was not the kind of guy who could bring others along with him on an issue.” He was, former Senator Paul Simon notes, on his own cloud. “I don’t recall ever getting a call from him or being asked to help on a particular subject,” says former Senator Howard Metzenbaum, a liberal Democrat. Senator Paul Wellstone, who has endorsed Bradley and praised his record on race and the environment, doesn’t think the loner label is so awful: “I don’t know if it’s a bad thing that he kept some distance and perspective.”

In the Clinton years, Bradley was neither a consistent friend nor a foe of the White House. He applauded Clinton’s don’t ask, don’t tell policy on gays in the military. He was peeved when Clinton justified tax hikes by asserting that they hit the rich. (“Because you’ve done well and earned money doesn’t mean that you are guilty of something,” Bradley huffed.) In 1993 ABC News reported that Bradley had fought a Clinton proposal to close a tax loophole under which drug companies–many of which are headquartered in New Jersey–reap benefits by basing operations in Puerto Rico. Bradley criticized the Clinton healthcare proposal for not providing adequate coverage, and he worked with a group of moderate Republicans to propose an alternative. He backed Clinton on the NAFTA and GATT accords. He called for independent counsels to investigate Whitewater and the campaign finance scandals. He voted against the welfare reform bill that Clinton signed.

Local public interest lobbyists in New Jersey got along with Bradley. He usually supported their positions, but they found he was generally not interested in the nitty-gritty of politics. “He doesn’t give many people the feeling he’s working with them,” says Curtis Fisher, the executive director of New Jersey Public Interest Research Group. Rob Stewart, the chief lobbyist for NJPIRG in the eighties, recalls that “people would want to talk to Bradley about certain issues, and he’d want to talk about the World Bank…. He played it so he wouldn’t be a Don Quixote. He wasn’t interested in a battle just to fight a good fight. He can be cautious, and he wanted to be seen as balanced and middle of the road.”

As he was leaving the Senate, Bradley did feint in the direction of daring. When he announced in 1995 that he would retire from Congress–he had won his second re-election bid in 1990 by only 3 percentage points–Bradley lashed out at both parties: “The Republicans are infatuated with the ‘magic’ of the private sector and reflexively criticize government as the enemy of freedom, and the Democrats distrust the market, preach government as the answer to our problems, and prefer the bureaucrat they know to the consumer they can’t control. Neither party speaks to people where they live their lives.” Here was Bradley-knows-best. He toyed with the idea of challenging Clinton as an independent but eventually concluded that it was too difficult to raise money outside his party. When courting Democratic voters now, he tells them he considered running for President in 1988 and 1992; he does not mention the renegade bid he eschewed.

Eventually, Bradley will probably have to share more of himself and his ideas with the public. (When a reporter in New Hampshire asked him to name his favorite novels, he testily refused.) He will have to take sides–at least on certain policy issues. If he’s for universal health coverage, how will he propose to reach that goal? That one decision could cost him money from corporate contributors or support from healthcare activists. For now, though, Bradley is sticking to his values-for-all vision, trying to demonstrate that he can guide and galvanize the nation.

In Manchester Bradley was the guest at a YMCA “character” breakfast held in a gym. Standing beneath large banners that bore the buzzwords of the day–HONESTY, CARING, RESPONSIBILITY, RESPECT–he was in values overdrive. He talked about the importance of diligence. Why work so hard? he asked the children present. Because, he answered, “those who love you are watching you.” This was the cue for a wonderful tale. Many years ago, Bradley said, there was a player on the Georgetown University football team named Billy Carroway. He was not a starter and never got to play. In his last year on the squad, the team reached the championship game. Throughout the game, Georgetown trailed. No matter what the Georgetown coach did, he could not move his team into the lead. Meanwhile, Carroway kept trying to win the coach’s attention and earn some playing time. Then, in the closing moments, with Georgetown down by three points, the frustrated coach signaled to Carroway.

Carroway entered the game, and, as time ran out, he caught the winning touchdown pass. After the celebrating, the coach asked Carroway what had made him so determined to succeed. Carroway explained that he was motherless and that his blind father had never been able to watch him play. But his father had recently died, which meant he could now look down on his son. This game would be the last chance his father would have to see him play. Carroway had no choice, he told the coach: “I had to succeed.”

The story held the imagination of the crowd. It was drenched with values: faith, love, dedication, determination. No politics. No policy. It was out of the movies–the old-fashioned movies. Bradley used it to connect to the crowd, to demonstrate that he is a man of those values and that he can inspire millions of others to strive toward such stirring success–which is why, he says, he is running for President.

Later that day, I asked Eric Hauser, Bradley’s press secretary, for the origins of the Carroway story. It took him a week to respond. When Hauser called, he said Bradley told him that he first heard the story about thirty years ago. But–to save me time–Hauser had contacted Georgetown. The school, he said, “has no record of that player, and, on a hunch, I checked with Notre Dame. There’s no record there. Everyone thinks it’s a true story. But I can’t source it.”

Is Bradley dishing out substance-free inspiration? Was there no Billy Carroway? Does it matter? After all, how concrete can one expect a campaign of values to be? There is an elusive quality to Bradley’s bid (big ideas without specifics, tell-me-your-stories campaigning)–and perhaps to Bradley himself. At the end of May, the Pew Research Center published a poll revealing that most voters who believe they are familiar with Bradley rate his ideology as identical to their own, scoring him precisely in the middle of the conservative-to-liberal scale and to the right of Al Gore. At this point, people see in Bradley what they want to see. Is he Chauncey Gardiner with brains?

For Democrats nervous about Gore or alienated by Clinton, Bradley offers a safe escape route. He challenges the Democratic status quo without challenging the foundations of that status quo. He represents change without change. Although Bradley, in his fireless way, has suggested that he favors universal healthcare, an unfettered global economy, restrictions on handguns, Medicare change, school vouchers, public financing of campaigns and labor law reform, he is popularly viewed as a man of moderation. Maybe that’s because, as the Rev. Reginald Jackson learned, Bradley has rarely taken up in full the challenges of his own sermons.

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