Gee, Bradley Really is a Stiff

| 17 Feb 2015 | 01:19

    Have youcaught Bill Bradley fever? A few weeks ago, he was the story of the presidentialcampaign, which still has nearly 17 months to run. This week, obviously, it'sGeorge W. Bush, who has finally left his cocoon in Austin. In the midst of thatmedia run on Bradley-raising $4 million in the first quarter did impressthe political reporters-I spent three days with him for a profile in TheNation due to appear this week. The man may be a political threat to AlGore, but he's no competition in the race for Mr. Congeniality. In many ways,former New Jersey Sen. Bradley is Al Gore without the personality. At a communitycenter, the onetime Knicks star was stiff as he asked children to share theirdreams and fears. He had trouble connecting. Maybe it's tough with 15 reporterslooking over everybody's shoulders, but that's how the game is played. When Bradleyfirst arrived at the center, he passed a group of boys who'd been shooting basketswhile waiting for him. They stood still as he walked by. It was clear what theywanted; they had been told a former professional basketball player was coming.Surely he'd take a few shots with them. But Bradley never took a step in thedirection of the court or the kids. He looked at one of the boys, who was clutchinga basketball. "Are you tempted?" I asked. "Maybe," he said,without breaking stride, without expanding on his reply. He entered the communitycenter and left behind disappointed youngsters. This manwants to be president, and he's willing to do most of what one must do to becomepresident: hustle money, travel constantly, tell the familiar stories over andover, appear at an endless series of house parties, answer the same stupid questions.But he doesn't seem to want to please anyone, particularly the press. My theory:He thinks he's smarter than most people, and that would include most journalists.He doesn't pal around with the reporters who cover him. He reveals little tothe pack. When reporters ask him for details regarding his stands on variousissues, he waves the questions aside. Then he gives speeches in which he blamesthe media for trivializing politics by focusing on the horse race, the peripheraland the personalities.

    During theNew Hampshire trip, reporters were granted one 15-minute "press availability"each day with Bradley. There, we could fire questions at him but not engagein any lengthy exchanges. At the last of these sessions, after his press secretarysaid, "Time for one more question, a short one," I piped up: "Senator,what's your favorite novel?" One novel? he asked. Just one? He seemed tobe suggesting that only a numskull would think that a well-read man such ashe could have just one favorite novel. "Well," I answered, "Ericsaid he wanted a short question." Feel free to give me two or three or20 favorites, I added. Bradley said that if he named any book now and then happenedto mention another novel in an interview next year, the media would blast himfor the inconsistency. I thought he was being a bit sensitive-if not paranoid-andpromised I wouldn't play gotcha should he later praise another book. What'sthe point of this? Bradley asked. Did we want him to compare himself to Rubashov?(He was referring to the protagonist of Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon,with whom Clinton reportedly identified during the Monicagate tribulations.)Bradley paused, as if he were about to take the dive. Then he pulled back. "Idon't want to go down that road," he said.

    Bradleyis selling himself as a thoughtful, values-driven fellow who has had a lifeoutside of Washington. He notes that in addition to his career as a politicianhe was a professional athlete and a businessman. (Businessman? His press secretaryexplains: After he left the Senate in 1996, Bradley ran his own office and superviseda small number of employees who helped him coordinate his speaking, teachingand writing activities.) Yet he won't say what books he fancies.

    There issomething odd about Bradley, in that Gary Hart manner. As he's looking for millionsof Americans to invest their hopes and dreams in him, he is trying to keep asignificant part of himself far from the crowd. No doubt this stems from thefame that befell him early in life as a college basketball star. He once wasa genuine celebrity. And that's a different beast from a political celebrity.Sports and entertainment need the masses to buy whatever it is they are selling:performances, albums, movies, diet books. If the consumer identifies with theathlete/entertainer, that helps sell seats, movie tickets and CDs. But thatidentification is a means toward the ends: a purchase. Ultimately, what is theresponsibility of these celebrities? To entertain or engage us with their work.These celebrities have the option of trying to construct a barrier between themselvesand their consumers/fans. The work can speak for itself.

    A politician,however, needs large numbers of people to believe that he or she is one of them-and,consequently, deserving to be anointed a leader who can assume responsibilityfor how our society functions. To succeed, a politician has to offer himself-thegenuine self, or the artificial self created for the purpose of winning elections-tothe voters. Gore, for instance, is blabbing these days about his relationshipwith God; his wife Tipper keeps telling interviewers how sexy her man is.

    Bradley,who was not a limelighter as a basketball celebrity, won't even talk about thebooks he reads. On the campaign trail, he does not mention his one child, adaughter in college. For those who wish a glimpse into his inner life, though,there are other places to look: his own books. He's written four, if you countThe Fair Tax, a slim volume he published in 1984 to advance his own taxreform proposal. The others are the recent Values of the Game, a beautifulcoffee-table book on the lessons of life taught by basketball, Time Present,Time Past, a memoir of his Senate days and 1976's Life on the Run,an account of his time on the Knicks. The latter, a dispassionate telling ofthe 1973-1974 season, is a classic of sports literature and probably the mostrevealing of his books. Not that Bradley spills locker-room secrets about himselfand his teammates-this is no Ball Four. Life on the Run is a cooland detached chronicle of the lives of professional athletes. One typical passagereads: "Sunday passes quickly. I sleep until 11, eat breakfast, and readThe New York Times. Around 4 P.M. I go to a movie with a friend, then to a Chineserestaurant. Later I read and then more sleep."

    In the book,Bradley speaks of his "wariness of the press," noting that it comesfrom his years as a college player "when much of what I said and did receivedexaggerated attention." He maintains he is "bad copy" becausehe won't provide instant analysis after games. He muses on the meaning of successand failure: "Like getting into a college of your choice or winning anelection or marrying a beautiful mate victory is fraught with as much dangeras glory. Victory has very narrow meanings and, if exaggerated or misused, canbecome a destructive force. The taste of defeat has a richness of experienceall its own." He identifies with the circus performers who share MadisonSquare Garden with the Knicks. Before games, he stares at women in the stands,fantasizing about them. But even though he could arrange to meet any of thesewomen-some are regulars looking to be introduced to him-he never pursues them."People-watching is my number one pastime," he writes.

    He reflectson the fame of athletes: "The athlete's honest performance on the courtsurprisingly produces the phenomenon of a more general credibility off the court.I can't tell you, for example, how many times people have come to me and saidthat they used me as a model for their children. I guess that's all right...But the people don't really know me."

    Most certainly,the Bradley of today is not entirely the man who wrote the book. Eighteen yearsin Congress has to have some effect. But much of present Bradley can be seenin the Bradley of those pages. When he has a spare 25 minutes, he has a choice:whether to read a book or a magazine. "I ponder the decision for a minuteor two," he writes, "looking out the window at the cars passing onthe freeway. I luxuriate in small decisions such as these. Making a choice hasalways fascinated me, and the delight in weighing each side and then actingremains the same for me however insignificant the decision." (There's agood campaign pitch: Vote for Me. I Obsess Over All Decisions, Large and Small.)His own personal solitude is a recurring theme: "There is an overpoweringfeeling of loneliness on the road." And even though his roommate is DaveDeBusschere, another constant companion is alienation. "The press and publicapproval mean little to me," Bradley observes. "What is importantis my own judgment as to whether the team plays according to my estimation ofhow an ideal team should... Some friends say I am functioning in a world thatbears little resemblance to reality. At times I feel as if I am an artist inthe wrong medium." An alienated, thinks-too-much, private perfectionist?That makes Bradley an intriguing personality. But a successful presidentialcandidate?

    Reportershave found it tough to get Bradley to say anything off-message. It's not becausehe is scripted a la Dan Quayle. He does not rely on index cards or memorized,consultant-crafted phrases. But he draws his own lines. And the man who spenthours shooting baskets by himself to perfect his shot is disciplined enoughto stay within his own lines. As the campaign progresses and more Americanstune in, it will be interesting to see how this self-contained man plays withthe public. "To me, every day is a struggle to stay in touch with life'ssubtleties," he writes in Life on the Run. Let's see how much contactBradley can maintain with these subtleties in the crazy crossfire of a nationalcampaign. Whose Public Service Is It, Anyway? Hillary.It's almost a cult. The First Lady inspires serious loyalty among her colleagues,past and present. Writing in the San Jose Mercury News last week, DeeDee Myers had this to say of the First Victim: "She's old-fashioned. Thatmay seem ironic, since Clinton has become the far right's poster child for theassault on 'traditional values.' But in truth, she is uncomfortable with manymodern ideas and prefers the security of an orderly world in which public serviceis the highest calling and power derives from respected institutions." Myers, whooffered valuable insight during Monicagate, was making sense until she trottedout Hillary's devotion to "public service" and "respected institutions."It's true that Hillary once served as counsel to the Impeachment Enquiries Staff,when it was pursuing the impeachment of President Nixon. And she has workedfor do-good outfits, such as the Legal Services Corp. and the Children's DefenseFund. But she did not devote her entire career to the public interest. She eventuallybecame a corporate lawyer at the now-infamous Rose Law Firm and handled thelegal work for, among other clients, a suspicious real estate deal linked tothe Madison Guaranty Savings and Loan, that less-than-respectable institutionthat brought us the Whitewater scandal. She also allowed her friend James Blairto orchestrate her highly profitable commodities deals, even though he was alawyer for Tyson Foods, one of the leading economic interests in the state governedby her husband. There arepeople who spend their whole lives in public service. They teach. They workfor the EPA. They raise money for battered-women's shelters. They counsel troubledyouths. In most cases, their efforts do not bring them fame, power or wealth.Their path is the real tribute to public service. Hillary Clinton has displayeda commitment to public service and a commitment, just as strong if notmore so, to her and Bill's joint ambition and bank account. There is nothingwrong with following multiple courses in a single life, but Hillary's life storyshould not presented as one exemplifying public service. If she eschewed theglitz and self-validation of a Senate bid and instead organized a nonprofitorganization to champion the rights of indigent patients, her desire to servewould deserve cheering. But her senatorial campaign is not about Hillary actingon her love for New York and its citizens, it's about her winning thelove of New York and its citizens so she can do what she wants. Long Gone Man Hillaryappears to have made up her mind. Her husband seems to have avoided quagmirification.The Republicans in Congress are proving to be more feckless than imaginable.Gore-aka Mister Sexy Thang-won't shut up about God. Steve Forbes is runningads on CNN (in which he sits on an Oval Office-like set and talks to himselfabout the American dream-you know, the one in which your dad leaves you severalhundred million dollars and then you grow up to become president). The Cox Committeereport on Chinese espionage was a big fizzle. And we haven't had a new JaneDoe in months. Seems like a good time to head out of Washington. I'll be farbeyond the Beltway for the next month, so this column is going to take a break.I hope I don't miss the Lamar Alexander boomlet while I'm gone.