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Jewish World Review Nov. 22, 1999 /13 Kislev 5760

Ben Wattenberg

Ben Wattenberg
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Athletes feat -- On more than one occasion I have ladled scorn upon actors and actresses for getting involved in politics. And so, I wonder: Why was I so impressed by the assemblage of athletic talent that came together at Madison Square Garden to raise big bucks for Bill Bradley? Why do I feel good that Dollar Bill not only raised about $1.5 million but also reaped a publicity bonanza of talk-show appearances and front-page color pictures on newspapers all across America?

These days, more than ever before, professional athletes get a bum rap. "Dumb jock," is an oxymoron. Athletes operating on a professional level have worked very hard to get where they are; it is an intensely competitive field, and sometime a transcendental one. They endure physical punishment that most of us can only imagine, risking career-ending injuries. The intricate complexities of the games today go far beyond the old bromides of "three yards and a cloud of dust" or "take one and hit to right." There is a bonus for working hard as a team player (occasionally honored in the breach). The celebrity life has its downsides.

But actors and actresses also have achieved status through hard work, study and talent. Their craft, too, requires extreme discipline. Surely they face the problems of celebrity. If you want to know about endurance, try doing the lead role in a play, matinee and evening. The good thespians have a refined intellectual sense of what they are trying to accomplish, also often transcendental.

So what's the difference?

Put theater folks in front of a microphone and camera, non-scripted, and they will tell you why Roe v. Wade is sacrosanct, why soft money is corrupting American politics, why guns kill people, or, in Charlton Heston's case, why it's people that kill people. As a class, they tend to believe that they have not only a right, but a duty to talk substance. They often believe they are very, very serious people, "artists" in fact. But in the public-policy arena, they typically talk much about what they do not know much about. Think Barbra Streisand. Viewed as a group, they are professional actors and amateur politicians.

On the other hand, the athletes endorsing Bradley were talking about something they did know: Bradley. They said he was a highly competitive, disciplined, fair, intelligent, friendly, tough team player who didn't trash talk. After all, Dave DeBusschere was Bradley's roommate on the road during the Knick's NBA 1973 championship season; he ought to know something about the guy.

Bill Russell, ex- of the Boston Celtics, said, "In these days of spin control, Bill Bradley is one of the most honest people I've ever met."

Julius Erving, "Dr. J.," said that Bradley was "someone who has always been fair... (and) would always try to stand by his ('impeccable') record of supporting the African-American community." Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was nervous, he said, because, "I have been intentionally apolitical my entire life." As the exception to prove the rule, Bill Walton talked politics, which he has been doing since he was five feet high. In his opening minute, he committed a foul against Clarence Thomas, who is smarter than Walton is tall.

Athletes, in sharp contrast to actors, are always complaining that they are taken too seriously. Think Charles Barkley: "I am not a role model." Speaking of trash talk, Al Gore's campaign manager, Donna Brazile, said, "Al Gore doesn't need a one-time show at Madison Square Garden where you get to dribble with old-time greats." True enough, no dribbler he. But Gore does need something. Kayaking? A male counterpart to Naomi Wolf? An anti-obsessive medication to deal with his thoughts about the Big He?

In one sense it's good for Bradley that the players did not talk about policy. Most of them are rich men, and their younger cohorts on the court today are far richer. My semi-peccable sources tell me that most of them believe that Republicans look out for the rich guys, so they lean Republican. (If you make $5 million per year, Clinton's 1-percent uncapped Medicare surcharge adds up to $50,000, each year. Tsk. Tsk.)

And Bradley, for the moment, is on a fast break "to the left" of Al Gore.

Hmmm... After all those nice things the smart, rich jocks said about him, perhaps they are hoping that his public positions are nothing more than head fakes.

Ben Wattenberg is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and is the moderator of PBS's "Think Tank." You may comment by clicking here.

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