Tom Bradley's Politics of Dignity

I covered Tom Bradley, on and off, for more than 20 years but never really knew him. He was a stoic, his face seldom reflecting pleasure or pain. The former Los Angeles mayor, who died Tuesday, was the same in the best and worst of times. He'd go for hours in silence, not speaking unless spoken to.

My decades on the Bradley beat were a struggle to get him to say something provocative or at least mildly newsworthy and to break through the stoic's mask. We'd spend a day in a car, traveling through the city, or on a plane, riding across the state. I would chatter away with his aides, exchanging political dirt. Bradley ignored us, as if we were annoying children.

I'd try to think of funny things to say to make him laugh and get a conversation started. Or I fell back on sports, especially college football, a consuming interest for the ex-UCLA Bruin.

Unlike the rest of the 1970s and '80s political crowd, he never drank much. I only saw him high once, during his 1986 campaign for governor. He had given a successful speech and that evening the campaign party flew to Lake Tahoe for an event the next day. We all went out to dinner, and the mayor had a few glasses of wine. He took over as emcee, making fun of the reporters, joking, and finally crossing the hall and joining a wedding party, to the delight of the bride and groom. His Tahoe escapade - at least it was an escapade for him - was so rare that those of us present talked about it for years afterward.

Mostly it was more like the hot afternoon I chased the mayor, desperate for a comment at a moment of civic crisis. I drove across town at rush hour hoping to intercept him as he toured the business district of Pacific Palisades. Nervous, sweating, and disheveled from the heat, I caught up with him. He told me he was sorry I'd gone to all the trouble, but he couldn't say a thing about the crisis.

Another time, he called me to complain that one of my reporters had violated a confidentiality agreement. Aware of the circumstances, I disagreed. There was a moment of silence before he spoke. Never, he said, will I share a confidence with you or any member of your staff. Never, never, never. Wait a minute, mayor, I replied. You've never shared a confidence with me in my life. He hung up without another word.

I wasn't surprised. Bradley didn't try to curry favor with reporters. He was part of a pre-PR political generation that believed deeds were more important than words. He was suspicious of rhetoric. He thought construction workers were more important than speech writers. Sitting around and philosophizing about politics and policy bored him. His politics were the opposite of today's "politics of feeling." He was a liberal but didn't beat his breast about it, and he had a lot of contempt for some of his more soft-hearted followers.

Take, for example, the homeless. In the later years of his administration, they congregated on skid row in increasing numbers, sleeping in the doorways of businesses owned by Bradley supporters. Early one morning the cops cleared them out. Advocates for the homeless and other liberals cried out against the police. They didn't know Bradley had personally ordered the cops to sweep through the area. He'd been poor. He'd had tough breaks. He had persevered. He didn't end up on the streets.

Another time, Bradley sent liberals up the wall when he talked about taking kids away from parents who were criminals or drug addicts and sending them to camps. Why, he wondered, should kids have to grow up in such homes?

Both times, he never agonized or expressed sympathy that he didn't feel.

I'm lonesome for his kind of politics. I'm sick of politicians feeling my pain or making tear-jerking speeches about their family's troubles. I don't want to see another commercial starring a politician bragging about his familial virtues. I don't want to know about any politician's inner life or underpants.

No, I never really knew Tom Bradley. I didn't have to.

* Bill Boyarsky is city editor at the Los Angeles Times. This article originally appeared in the Times.

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