Bill Bradley's fast break

With a big campaign war chest, he thinks he can upset Al Gore.

Published April 22, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

The Cheshire County Democratic Committee dinner got under way here earlier this month when an angelic fifth-grade girl grabbed a microphone and began singing the national anthem. While someday she may wow the town at high school musicals, on this night the girl's voice was a little off. But even though she changed keys several times, the crowd of 400 was behind her -- they wanted her to succeed -- and she kept plugging away, with grace beyond her years. Finally she reached "home of the brave," and was met with applause in appreciation of her dedication, if not her delivery.

For almost the entirety of former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley's political career, he was that little girl. No matter how much the crowd rooted for him, his podium performances, at least, inevitably disappointed. His keynote speech at the 1992 Democratic National Convention in New York's Madison Square Garden was more of an air ball than anything he ever lobbed in the same arena during his 10 years as a New York Knick.

His performance that night was the nadir of his life as a public speaker. His continued reference to then-President George Bush as having "wiggled and waffled and wavered" was lame and uninspired; his delivery was crippled by the distractions of unruly Jerry Brown delegates and, more importantly, his wife's recent breast cancer diagnosis. (She has since recovered.) The speech was so bad, in fact, pundits all but stopped bandying about his name as a prospective presidential candidate -- having forgotten, perhaps, about the sleep-inducing stemwinder Gov. Bill Clinton gave in 1988. When Bradley retired from the Senate in 1996 to lecture, teach and write a coffee-table book called "Values of the Game," he seemed to be riding off into the sunset, off to that land where former senators go to earn boffo bucks and escape reporters and constituents forever.

That's how it seemed, anyway, until last December, when Bradley charged back from the horizon to emerge as the only Democrat willing to challenge Vice President Al Gore for the 2000 nomination.

The fact that Bradley has chosen this as the year for his candidacy -- as opposed to '88 or '92, when the nomination was far more up for grabs -- makes perfect sense, given his quirky academic's personality and his love of the quixotic cause. Previous election-year opportunities just weren't his moment, he explains. He looked in the mirror and felt that it just wasn't the right time. Now, he says, "I'm on top of my game."

He might be right. On the crisp April weekend I watched him work New Hampshire -- from the state Democratic convention in Manchester to a county party fund-raiser in Keene to a Q&A with Dartmouth students in Hanover -- Bradley proved more warm, accessible and charismatic than ever before seemed possible. At his speech on race in New York on Tuesday, he was bold and sincere, and said things that few politicians even seem to think about, much less communicate.

Far from the elitist fumblings of previous gigs, Bradley's speeches and off-the-cuff chitchat now win converts one by one.

"Up until now I was a Gore supporter," says Jean Fahey, a teacher and registered Democrat leaving a Bradley appearance at a Claremont Dunkin' Donuts on Sunday morning. "Now I have to think about it."

Bradley says that his newfound voice is partly due to a busy lecture circuit schedule since his Senate retirement. "I've spent the last three years 'working the small clubs,' as Bruce Springsteen used to say," he explains in an interview. "The microphone is now kind of a friend, instead of a spotlight in your eye."

"His speaking has gotten a lot better," says New Hampshire Senate President Clesson "Junie" Blaisdell, whom the Keene dinner honored, and who has yet to endorse either Bradley or Gore. "I thought he did a very good job ... He related to that crowd. They seemed to receive him very well."

But Bradley's comfort in front of a mike isn't only due to practice, he says. "I feel at peace with myself, and I realize that's the key to communication." He refers to a section in his bestselling memoir "Time Present, Time Past," when various speech coaches offered prescriptions for his soporific oratory, ranging from "Raise your cheeks" to "Stand straight but not stiff" to "Don't hold your hands like that" to "Above all, be natural."

Not surprisingly, that kind of advice didn't help. Then Bradley realized speaking is not unlike "shooting a basketball. The mechanisms are down but you've still got to be able to think. One of the key things is keeping yourself open enough to respond spontaneously to things, and not be locked in so much that you're going to follow some script no matter what happens. A lot of times, thing pop up that are enormous opportunities if you access your humanity or your sense of humor."

His backers, of course, love Bradley's newly accessed humanity and sense of humor. (So do academics and journalists.) His most prominent New Hampshire supporter, failed Senate candidate John Rauh, puts it this way: "Bill Bradley brings not only tremendous intellect to the race, but he's a very introspective public servant. He cares deeply. And he's extremely mature. We respect Al Gore ... But it's an important time and we think we have the opportunity here to elect a very unique individual. We find him very in touch with himself."

In touch with himself or not, Bradley must now face the toughest opponent of his career in Gore, who has been running for president almost since birth, more or less officially so since November 1992. The Gore 2000 infrastructure in New Hampshire and throughout the land is solid; his campaign checks are flowing in; he flies in on Air Force Two. The vice president is seen as so tough to beat, he's scared away all other potential challengers but Bradley: Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt and Jesse Jackson have all remained on the bench.

"I am smaller than the Chicago forward I play against so I try to overplay him," Bradley wrote in "Life on the Run," his 1976 memoir of life as a New York Knick. "He takes me low, near the basket, and simply shoots over me. I draw three quick fouls. I also miss four open jump shots. [Knicks coach Red] Holzman replaces me."

Bradley is hoping for a better outcome against an even bigger player this time around. And while he's clearly the underdog, it's almost a full year until primary season, and a lot can happen. Bradley has raised $4.5 million, far more than many political observers thought he could, and the front-loaded primary system means that a critically timed misstep by Gore could be fatal. The New Jersey Democrat raised more than $1 million in San Francisco last week alone, at a political star-studded gala that included Republicans and Democrats. A sudden bad break for Gore could suddenly, and decisively, throw momentum Bradley's way. "I'm bullish on Bradley. I think he has more of a chance to upset Gore than people think," says William Kristol of the conservative Weekly Standard.

"We have no earthly idea what the next election's going to be about," says Charlie Cook, editor of the Cook Political Report. "Not a clue. Is it going to be about Kosovo and the war? About the economy? Or about nothing in particular? We just don't know, and it adds just another layer of uncertainty."

Bradley is counting on that uncertainty to throw a few breaks his way.

For all his NBA-accrued street smarts and geopolitical Senate expertise, Bradley considers himself a small-town Midwesterner. Born and raised in Crystal City, Mo., Bradley was the only child of Warren and Susie Bradley. Warren was a high-school dropout who worked his way up from shining pennies at the local bank to amassing a controlling ownership of the same bank a year before his son was born; Susie was a churchgoing grade-school teacher. Because Warren Bradley suffered from arthritis of the lower spine, his son never saw him so much as tie his shoes. Susie Bradley tried to use her husband's example as a lesson for her son about overcoming the adversities of life. "Look at what happened to your father," she would lecture him. "He just gave in to pain."

From early on, Bradley says he made decisions based on intuition and hunches -- what he calls thinking "outside the frame." He accepted a basketball scholarship to Duke University, but changed his mind during a senior-year trip to Europe, when a bunch of high school girls expressed shock that he would choose Duke over Princeton. He also wanted to return to Europe -- to Oxford University -- to study, and found out that Princeton had produced more Rhodes scholars than any other school. Four days before Duke's freshman class was to convene, he switched schools.

After fame and championships as a Princeton scholar-athlete, Bradley opted not to hit the pros, instead taking his chance to return to Europe, thanks to Mr. Rhodes. There his horizons were so broadened he didn't touch a basketball for almost a year.

But in his second year at Oxford, he had an epiphany -- one that's not unlike the recent awakening that spurred him to head for the White House. "I went to the Oxford gym for some long overdue exercise," he wrote in "Life on the Run." "There I shot alone -- just the ball, the basket, and my imagination. As I heard the swish and felt my body loosen into familiar movements ... [a] feeling came over me that stirred something deep inside ... I knew that never to play again, never to play against the best, the pros, would be to deny an aspect of my personality perhaps more fundamental than any other ... Three weeks later I signed a contract with the New York Knicks."

In his 10 years as a Knick, and 18 as a senator, Bradley traveled the nation and the world asking people to tell him their "story" -- the short bios of regular folk that he peppers throughout "Life on the Run" and "Time Present, Time Past." Through these experiences, he says, he developed a sense of this country unlike that of the Washington-raised heir apparent. "I got up a lot of mornings ... where I never thought of the federal government," he tells the crowd at a Hanover meet-and-greet.

Bradley also credits his upbringing, and his years with the Knicks, with developing the central preoccupation of his political life: race. He grew up close to an African-American family employee, who introduced him to basketball, since the disabled Warren Bradley couldn't. When Bradley was 21, his concern took a political turn when he served as a summer intern in the U.S. House of Representatives during the debate over the 1964 Civil Rights Act. His interest in the subject grew during his days on the road with Knicks like Willis Reed, Earl "the Pearl" Monroe, Dick Barnett and Walt Frazier, and it became increasingly complex upon his realization that his beloved Aunt Bub was as bigoted as Jesse Helms. Bradley has been forced to come to terms with race in America as have few white men -- especially few white men running for president.

"I have changed in some ways because of my black friends," Bradley wrote in "Life on the Run," published two years before he first ran for office. "I regard authority a little more skeptically than I once did. I am more interested in experiencing life than in analyzing it ... And, I feel less guilty about the black man's experience in America, realizing that though some of my friends have come from a poorer background, it did not lack in the richness of family love and joy. I not only think less in terms of a black race but also in terms of other group labels. But, above all, I see how much I don't know and can never know about black people."

Seven years ago, on April 30, 1992, Bradley delivered one of the strongest -- and oddest -- speeches of his career, just after a Simi Valley, Calif., jury acquitted the policemen charged with beating Rodney King. Bradley stood on the floor of the Senate and re-created the 56 blows Rodney King suffered in 81 seconds by banging a lectern with a pencil 56 times. "Pow. Pow. Pow. Pow. Pow," Bradley said, hitting the desk each time. He called on the attorney general to file criminal civil rights charges against the police officers, and invoked James Baldwin to warn the nation that "the fire the next time is going to engulf all of us."

In his presidential race, though, it's not yet clear how his concern about race will translate into policy. Bradley supports hate crimes legislation -- unlike Gov. George W. Bush, he points out. He applauds the diversity of Clinton's presidential appointments, and says that Clinton is "at his most authentic" when talking about race. Above all, he says, his desire to heal the wounds of a racist society are seen in his plans to throw a lifeline to those left behind by the economic recovery.

"One in five children in America live in poverty," Bradley observed Tuesday, in his long-awaited campaign speech on race. "Among black children, 40 percent are destitute." While the speech was light on policy prescriptions, Bradley called for "a multiracial coalition" -- like the ones that fought "for civil rights in the 1960s and [rebuilt] burned-out black churches in the 1990s" -- to help society's neediest kids, making "sure they have a healthy start, a nurturing childhood and a chance for a good education." Bradley sees his children's crusade as a means to provide a "shared purpose" for all of us, reaffirm "our common humanity."

Conversely, on the Gore 2000 Web site, a questionnaire asking browsers what issue they feel is the "most important facing the United States today" lists seven policy concerns, none of which has anything to do with race. His "issues" page lists 11 categories; again, race isn't mentioned.

And yet Gore is expected to reap the endorsements of leading black politicians. In what could be a microcosm of Bradley's uphill struggle for the nomination, sources say most black leaders are likely to endorse the front-running vice president, whose positions on race, poverty and urban issues are strong, if not as strong as Bradley's. Donna Brazile, a leader in Jesse Jackson's two campaigns for president, was recently hired to help Gore line up high-profile black supporters.

When Bradley is asked if he hopes that his long-held interest in bridging the racial divide might somehow translate into African-American votes, he says, "Quite frankly, that's not the central consideration. But if there's any arithmetic, it's that way over 50 percent of the American people would like there to be racial understanding. If there is a calculation, that's the calculation."

By Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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