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Jewish World Review June 17, 1999 /3 Tamuz, 5759

David Corn

David Corn
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The Book On Bill --
HAVE YOU CAUGHT Bill Bradley fever? A few weeks ago, he was the story of the presidential campaign, which still has nearly 17 months to run. This week, obviously, it’s George W. Bush, who has finally left his cocoon in Austin.

In the midst of that media run on Bradley -- raising $4 million in the first quarter did impress the political reporters -- I spent three days with him for a profile in The Nation due to appear this week. The man may be a political threat to Al Gore, 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 community center, the onetime Knicks star was stiff as he asked children to share their dreams and fears. He had trouble connecting. Maybe it’s tough with 15 reporters looking over everybody’s shoulders, but that’s how the game is played.

When Bradley first arrived at the center, he passed a group of boys who’d been shooting baskets while waiting for him. They stood still as he walked by. It was clear what they wanted; 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 the direction of the court or the kids. He looked at one of the boys, who was clutching a basketball. "Are you tempted?" I asked. "Maybe," he said, without breaking stride, without expanding on his reply. He entered the community center and left behind disappointed youngsters.

This man wants to be president, and he’s willing to do most of what one must do to become president: hustle money, travel constantly, tell the familiar stories over and over, 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 to the pack. When reporters ask him for details regarding his stands on various issues, he waves the questions aside. Then he gives speeches in which he blames the media for trivializing politics by focusing on the horse race, the peripheral and the personalities.

During the New Hampshire trip, reporters were granted one 15-minute "press availability" each day with Bradley. There, we could fire questions at him but not engage in any lengthy exchanges. At the last of these sessions, after his press secretary said, "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 to be suggesting that only a numskull would think that a well-read man such as he could have just one favorite novel. "Well," I answered, "Eric said he wanted a short question." Feel free to give me two or three or 20 favorites, I added.

Bradley said that if he named any book now and then happened to mention another novel in an interview next year, the media would blast him for the inconsistency. I thought he was being a bit sensitive -- if not paranoid -- and promised I wouldn’t play gotcha should he later praise another book. What’s the 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. "I don’t want to go down that road," he said.

Bradley is selling himself as a thoughtful, values-driven fellow who has had a life outside of Washington. He notes that in addition to his career as a politician he was a professional athlete and a businessman. (Businessman? His press secretary explains: After he left the Senate in 1996, Bradley ran his own office and supervised a small number of employees who helped him coordinate his speaking, teaching and writing activities.) Yet he won’t say what books he fancies.

There is something odd about Bradley, in that Gary Hart manner. As he’s looking for millions of Americans to invest their hopes and dreams in him, he is trying to keep a significant part of himself far from the crowd. No doubt this stems from the fame that befell him early in life as a college basketball star. He once was a 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 the athlete/entertainer, that helps sell seats, movie tickets and CDs. But that identification is a means toward the ends: a purchase. Ultimately, what is the responsibility of these celebrities? To entertain or engage us with their work. These celebrities have the option of trying to construct a barrier between themselves and 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 responsibility for how our society functions. To succeed, a politician has to offer himself" the genuine self, or the artificial self created for the purpose of winning elections—to the voters. Gore, for instance, is blabbing these days about his relationship with G-d; 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 the books he reads. On the campaign trail, he does not mention his one child, a daughter 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 count The Fair Tax, a slim volume he published in 1984 to advance his own tax reform proposal. The others are the recent Values of the Game, a beautiful coffee-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 of the 1973-1974 season, is a classic of sports literature and probably the most revealing of his books. Not that Bradley spills locker-room secrets about himself and his teammates—this is no Ball Four. Life on the Run is a cool and detached chronicle of the lives of professional athletes. One typical passage reads: “Sunday passes quickly. I sleep until 11, eat breakfast, and read The New York Times. Around 4 P.M. I go to a movie with a friend, then to a Chinese restaurant. Later I read and then more sleep.”

In the book, Bradley speaks of his “wariness of the press,” noting that it comes from his years as a college player “when much of what I said and did received exaggerated attention.” He maintains he is “bad copy” because he won’t provide instant analysis after games. He muses on the meaning of success and failure: “Like getting into a college of your choice or winning an election or marrying a beautiful mate victory is fraught with as much danger as glory. Victory has very narrow meanings and, if exaggerated or misused, can become a destructive force. The taste of defeat has a richness of experience all its own.” He identifies with the circus performers who share Madison Square 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 these women—some are regulars looking to be introduced to him—he never pursues them. “People-watching is my number one pastime,” he writes.

He reflects on the fame of athletes: “The athlete’s honest performance on the court surprisingly 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 said that 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 years in Congress has to have some effect. But much of present Bradley can be seen in 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 minute or two,” he writes, “looking out the window at the cars passing on the freeway. I luxuriate in small decisions such as these. Making a choice has always fascinated me, and the delight in weighing each side and then acting remains the same for me however insignificant the decision.” (There’s a good campaign pitch: Vote for Me. I Obsess Over All Decisions, Large and Small.)

His own personal solitude is a recurring theme: “There is an overpowering feeling of loneliness on the road.” And even though his roommate is Dave DeBusschere, another constant companion is alienation. “The press and public approval mean little to me,” Bradley observes.

“What is important is my own judgment as to whether the team plays according to my estimation of how an ideal team should... Some friends say I am functioning in a world that bears little resemblance to reality. At times I feel as if I am an artist in the wrong medium.” An alienated, thinks-too-much, private perfectionist? That makes Bradley an intriguing personality. But a successful presidential candidate? Reporters have found it tough to get Bradley to say anything off-message. It’s not because he 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 spent hours shooting baskets by himself to perfect his shot is disciplined enough to stay within his own lines. As the campaign progresses and more Americans tune in, it will be interesting to see how this self-contained man plays with the public.

“To me, every day is a struggle to stay in touch with life’s subtleties,” he writes in Life on the Run. Let’s see how much contact Bradley can maintain with these subtleties in the crazy crossfire of a national campaign.

JWR contributor David Corn, Washington Editor of The Nation, writes the "Loyal Opposition" column for The New York Press.


06/15/99: George W. owes Bubba big
06/10/99: You’re Okay, I’m Running For Senate
06/04/99: Gore to South Africans: Drop Dead
06/02/99: Gone Fishin’
05/28/99: It’s in The Water
05/26/99: Pistol-Whipped
05/20/99: Combat Pay
05/19/99: Meet the New Boss
05/14/99: A 37-Year Losing Streak
05/12/99: Funds Before Guns
05/07/99: Missing In Action
05/05/99: Gun Shy
04/30/99: A Flyover War
04/28/99: Darwin Made Me Do It
04/16/99: Spin to Sell
04/16/99: No Controlling Authority
04/16/99: Damage Done
04/14/99: No Left Churn
04/12/99: Clinton’s Policy Bombs
04/09/99: A Cuban Frost
04/05/99: Coups and Fibbers
03/31/99: The Flynt Fizzle
03/24/99: Liddy and St. Steve
03/19/99: Hope in Hollywood
03/12/99: Clinton: The Novel
03/08/99: A Tale of Two Clintons
03/04/99: ..and Dumber
03/01/99: Post-Mortem Ad Nauseam
02/25/99: What’s Next?

©1999, David Corn