Running on a message of integrity
But is Bill Bradley too intellectual for his own political good?
MANCHESTER, N.H. — At the height of Bill Bradley's fame as a superstar New York Knick, he rented a cottage on Mt. Desert Island in Maine for a solitary retreat to write. When his time was up and the next renters appeared at the door, they found him at the dining table, tapping away at his portable typewriter, engrossed in his work.
"He wasn't even packed," recalls Lou Stanek, who was to occupy the house next. "He had no idea it was time to leave, but he was very apologetic and gracious."
From his days on the hardwood floors of the National Basketball Association through his time in the clubby US Senate, Mr. Bradley has been a disciplined, cerebral, and, at times, solitary figure. His NBA teammates still joke about how he eschewed wild nights out in favor of museums and lectures.
Now, almost 25 years later, the Rhodes scholar is applying his independent and single-minded focus to his most challenging quest yet - winning the US presidency.
So far, Bradley is doing better than expected. What started as a long-shot bid for the Democratic nomination against a sitting vice president has turned into a real contest, particularly in the test states of Iowa and New Hampshire.
But in an era of sound-bite coverage and attack politics, the question remains: Can the former senator from New Jersey connect well enough with the voting masses to sustain his momentum - and become competitive across the country?
"The more off the cuff he is, the better off he is in presenting himself, because that's the real guy," says writer John McPhee, a Bradley friend since the senator's days at Princeton. "He sits and talks to you, he's very impressive. He reads a speech and you snore."
Through the early part of the campaign, Bradley has deliberately taken the high road. When he left the US Senate in 1996, he concluded that politics was "broken," and he says not much has changed. But he hopes that, by running a positive campaign, he can lead by example.
As a result, he talks often of his mission to restore "trust in the public process and confidence in our collective will." In a characteristic burst of idealism, he told 5,000 fans at a recent fund-raiser at Madison Square Garden: "I am running for president because I want to use the power of the office to do good."
More recently, however, he has adopted more of an edge. As Bradley has risen in the polls, Al Gore has stepped up his attacks - battering Bradley's positions on health care and Social Security. And Bradley has recently started striking back. Last week he accused the vice president of distorting "another Democrat's record so he can score a few political points."
But even as Bradley tries to defend his record and still maintain the standards he set, some analysts say integrity alone won't be enough. "It's a theme that resonates, and in that sense it's well-suited to this particular time in presidential politics," says Thomas Patterson of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government in Cambridge, Mass. "But ... rarely is it enough. It just doesn't have the driving force of the pocketbook as an issue."
Even Bradley's critics praise his integrity, but many see hints of hypocrisy in some of his proclamations. They point to his call for campaign-finance overhaul, but note that he's an adept fund-raiser who works the system from Wall Street to Main Street. As a senator, he for years opposed the ethanol subsidies that are so dear to Iowa voters. Now he's switched his stance.
For other critics, the former senator's focus on ending child poverty, guaranteeing health insurance, improving race relations - and the sweeping nature of his proposals - are simply old-style Democratic. In a phrase, they're too liberal. In addition, Mr. Gore has questioned Bradley's party loyalty for refusing to "stay and fight" the Republicans after they won control of Congress in 1994.
Amid it all, Bradley seems unruffled, confident in his convictions. Indeed, he's often unwilling to heed consultants' advice, instead trusting his own instincts.
It's a lesson he learned early, drawn from his days at Princeton. Bradley's senior thesis was on Harry Truman's 1940 Senate reelection bid, a race in which the Missouri native didn't have much of a chance. His competition in the primary was keen, and the state Democratic machine with which Truman was associated had been revealed as corrupt.
"Truman just kept saying, 'This is who I am, this is what I believe, and this is what I've done,' and he won the primary," Bradley said during a recent interview in the borrowed New York office of a supporter. "He was reelected because he was true to his convictions."
Since Bradley was a child in Crystal City, Mo., conviction has been a defining characteristic. His parents, a homemaker and a banker, drilled into him the importance of discipline, hard work, sacrifice, and courage. His father, who struggled with what doctors say was arthritis, couldn't bend down to tie his own shoes, but he nonetheless managed to walk to the bank every day.
His mother believed "endless energy and the human will could conquer anything," Bradley wrote in his memoir. Often, when he'd beat a friend or a cousin in basketball, she'd "unilaterally declare" the other the winner, telling her son he had to learn to share.
But beyond parental exhortations and example, Bradley has said that, at least in basketball, he was "driven to excel by some deep, unsurveyed urge." "I couldn't get enough. If I hit 10 [baskets] in a row, I wanted 15. If I hit 15, I wanted 25," he wrote in "Values of the Game," another of his four books. "I played until my muscles stiffened and my arms ached."
His drive propelled him to Princeton, where he was a three-time basketball All-American. He won a gold medal at the 1964 Olympics. During his 10 years with the New York Knicks, the team won two championships. When he first signed on, he received the largest contract in the NBA to date - $500,000 for four years. But he was notoriously tight-fisted, earning the nickname "Dollar Bill."
He refused to endorse products, believing it cheapened the game, and he "sensed that the deals were being offered because I was a 'white hope.' "
Bradley's independent streak was evident, too, in the Senate. He was a liberal on social issues, but a fiscal conservative with a strong international bent. He gravitated to big issues with moral overtones. He helped pass the 1986 Tax Reform Act, which lowered rates and closed loopholes. He also took on powerful California agribusiness, pushing through a reform of the nation's largest irrigation and power project, giving environmental interests more control.
Critics say he shied from the rough and tumble of legislative battles. His admirers point to an intellectual integrity and a willingness to take risks. He voted for many of President Reagan's budget cuts, but against the 1981 tax cut. Bucking the Democratic leadership, he supported the contras in Nicaragua.
But intellect or independence can be an albatross as much as an asset, a possibility not lost on his supporters. Bob Dilenschneider, a public-relations executive who has known Bradley for 15 years, says the candidate may be "too smart" for the American people. "I don't think we necessarily want a smart guy, and I think that's unfortunate ...," he says. "To a degree, he may have to submerge his intelligence to get elected, and that's a sad thing."
Bradley himself sees a "perennial problem" in his speaking ability. Like Gore, Bradley can deliver a stultifying speech. His first major policy address last spring, on America's race problem, was so somber that some pundits dismissed him as a serious presidential prospect.
But like the teenager who dissected his jump shot into five parts in order to perfect it, Bradley appears to have applied a similar analysis to his stump speech. On a recent New Hampshire tour, he held crowds' attention as he mixed policy goals with stories about growing up in Crystal City and joked about the bumper sticker: "Another Celtic Fan for Bradley."
Indeed, he's become so relaxed on the campaign trail that a goofy side sometimes slips out. Recently, after a long day and night in Iowa, Bradley passed reporters who had covered him that day. "Are you going to with us to New Hampshire tomorrow?" he asked. "We're on your tail," replied one. Bradley then turned his head, and with a broad grin bent his knees and elbows, stuck out his derrire, and shook it, saying, "Cover it baby, cover it!"
It's a side the public seldom sees. Usually, it's the earnest Bradley, striving to convey his overarching goal, which he says is to revive a sense of "goodness" to help all Americans feel more part of a "collective humanity."
Sound syrupy? "That's why I'm saying you take a risk. Goodness is corny, except it's real," he says. "Everyone knows what you're talking about - everybody knows when they encounter goodness. It's a kind of otherness...."
The candidate pauses, as if about to expand and then stops, smiles, and says: "I'm not going to try to define it."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society