A place called Crystal City

Bill Bradley kicks off his presidential campaign with an old-fashioned tug at the heartstrings.


Jake Tapper
September 9, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

As a Princeton basketball star, Bill Bradley had one major weakness on the court: he had too much faith in others. Bradley would hurl stellar passes -- as the future senator explained at the time to writer John McPhee -- "to the spot where [a teammate] should have been if he had kept going and done his job." The Princeton coaches had a name for these athletic gambles: "Bradley's hope passes."

Bradley threw the hope pass of his life on Wednesday morning, in his hometown of Crystal City, Mo., when he formally announced his candidacy for the presidency of the United States.

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This hope pass, like his others, depends upon his faith in the "correct" positioning of others -- specifically, that Democratic primary voters will align themselves with his quixotic mission and loftily obtuse rhetoric instead of the steady, plodding loyalty and efficiency of Vice President Al Gore.

The daunting odds that Bradley will actually pull this off have never seemed more in his favor. In a late August Boston Globe/WBZ-TV poll of 800 likely voters in the New Hampshire Democratic primary, the out-manned, out-funded, out-organized Bradley appeared to be in a statistical dead heat with Gore, 36 percent to 40 percent, with a margin of error of plus or minus five points.

Buoyed by the news that his efforts were finally showing results, the lanky, intellectual underdog headed back to the Show Me State where his hometown, 30 miles south of St. Louis, welcomed him with open arms.

Bradley was greeted at the airport Tuesday morning by his friend Dick Cook. Cook steered off the interstate a little early, just so Bradley could relive the thrill of heading down Herky Hill, an age-old touchstone.

"I'm coming home," Bradley said as the car headed down the slope.

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But Crystal City, population 4,088, is no longer the Rockwellian dreamland Bradley speaks longingly of on the stump, a town of one traffic light and three policemen.

There are now four traffic lights and 17 cops.

But there's also a bleakness about this town than doesn't mesh with the mythical tranquillity the candidate describes when he speaks of the place "where the world of possibility and hope all began, a world that I want to open for all Americans."

The Pittsburgh Plate Glass factory, which employed 3,500 workers at its peak, started declining, symbolically, right after Bradley left for Princeton. In its heyday, PPG funded the town fire department and paid for the lights for high school football games. But as glass production became an automated industry, PPG started dying. In January 1991, the firm's remaining 263 employees were finally canned.The plant has since been demolished; a weedy field of 100 acres stands in its place.

"It's as if somebody ripped out the pictures from our family album," Bradley said Wednesday as he stood by the site where PPG once stood.

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Crystal City is now largely made up of retirees and commuters to St. Louis. Early Wednesday morning, both bars on the city's main stretch on Mississippi Avenue had customers.

To hear the worshipful citizens of Crystal City tell it, however, one item of the Crystal City legend has remained constant throughout all their town's various economic and sociological changes: their favorite son.

In many ways, Crystal City is an eight-square-mile shrine to the man deemed special way back when he was just an outstanding basketball player for the Crystal City High School Hornets, scoring 45 points in the school's 81-47 rout of Owensville in December 1959.

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A glass case of Bradley memorabilia stands in the lobby of the City Hall, packed with high school and college All-American trophies, his two Sports Illustrated covers ("Best in the Nation: Princeton's Bill Bradley" from the 1964 special college basketball issue and "How Good? New York's Bill Bradley" from 1968), a first edition of McPhee's literary valentine to him ("A Sense of Where You Are," from 1965), his 1964 Olympic jersey, a 1990 reelection poster painted by LeRoy Neiman, some of his books. And on and on.

Local residents have adopted him as their own. "I've known him ever since he was a child, everybody knew him," said Laverne Reecht, 78, a retired medical secretary whose son Rick shot hoop with the former All-American. "You couldn't find a nicer young man if you searched the world over. He's honest and decent; he's the kind of man we'd like to have as president."

"I've known him since he was a small boy," testifies Robert Koester, 75, who once managed the Sears & Roebuck. "He was very, very intelligent and very polite. Down-to-earth. When he got older, and started playing basketball, I went to every game, wherever it was. As far back as grade school I remember him practicing for hours and hours." (Pronounced "Ahrs and ahrs.") "I'd see him after school shooting baskets in the gym. Then I'd see him at home shooting baskets at night. I always knew he could do whatever he set his mind to."

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According to local Bradley lore, the candidate has always been interested in leading -- and not just on the court. When he was in fourth grade, Bradley brought in "I Like Ike" buttons and handed them out to his classmates. When he was just 12, Bradley turned to his 13-year-old friend, Eddi Evans, and told him a secret: "One of these days, I'm going to be president of the United States," he said as the two boys stood on Mississippi Avenue.

So when Mayor Grant Johnston, standing at the entrance of CCHS, began Wednesday's ceremony by saying, "Senator, we have waited a very long time for this day," everyone knew what he meant.

A little over an hour before his announcement ceremony was to kick off, at 9:45 a.m., campaign manager Gina Glantz stood in the CCHS superintendent's office and looked out the window. It was raining. She picked up the phone, called Bradley at his childhood home, which he still owns, and told him that they'd have to hold the ceremony indoors.

"No, we won't," Bradley said. "It'll stop."

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"It's pouring," she said. "We're looking at a weather map on TV and there's a big green glitch hovering over the town."

"Give it a few minutes," Bradley said. "It'll stop."

And it was so.

Stepping out into the humid Missouri air, Bradley's wife, Ernestine Schlant, introduced her husband with spark and emotion. She described her first visit to her husband's hometown, the tour he took her on of his house on Taylor Street, to Grace Presbyterian Church, to CCHS, to Crystal City State Bank, where his father worked his way up from "shining pennies" to becoming majority shareholder.

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Schlant, a German-born comp lit professor who choked up at the beginning of her remarks, described the town as the place "in which Bill grew his roots and from which he went out and achieved."

Then she introduced her husband, whose lackadaisical performance managed to suck all the oxygen from the air.

Bradley spoke a bit about playing basketball, how he "absorbed the idea that a team is not just about winning. It is not about applause, or endorsements, or even championship rings. It's about shared sacrifice; it's about giving up something small for yourself in order to gain something large for everybody."

"And y'know?" he said to the crowd of roughly 2,000, "it's the same for our country."

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Recalling Robert Kennedy's admonition that Dow Jones numbers "are not the measure of all things," Bradley excoriated the fact that "the positive effects of globalization and technological change are falling on us unequally."

"Median family income seems stuck," Bradley said. "Personal debt and bankruptcy are at all-time highs. One out of five children in American still live in poverty. And while kings and dictators come to this country for the best health-care treatment in the world, you and I both know that this care is not available to the 45 million citizens who have no health insurance at all."

"Shouldn't we be fixing our roof while the sun is shining?" he asked.

In a rhetorical tick strikingly similar to George W. Bush's "prosperity with a purpose," Bradley called for " a deeper prosperity."Deeper not just in the fact that it will reach down deeper into the underclasses, but "deeper in the sense we have a prosperity that adds up to more than the sum of all our possessions, a prosperity that makes us feel rich inside as well as out."

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A couple of weeks ago in Iowa, a woman approached Bradley after a speech he'd given about political involvement. She told him, "It all sounds so wonderful. If only it could be true."

Bradley thinks it can be true because he has faith both in humanity and in himself, and not necessarily in that order.

While offering little in the way of tangible policy points -- a recent education speech by the fairly substance-less Bush was "Das Kapital" by comparison -- Bradley promised that "we can reduce childhood poverty, we can increase the number of Americans with quality health care, we can mute the voice of big money in our elections, and we can put in place long overdue gun control."

"If we do these things," he said, "if we do them, we will be safer, healthier and more in control of our future."

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It's a lot to shoot for, clearly, and it can be argued either way as to whether Bradley's Senate record of legislative accomplishment implies that he could carry even half of it off.

Some say he's too decent a man, for one. "I was hoping he wouldn't run; he's too nice," said 86-year-old Herb Bosch, a retired policeman in a white Cardinals baseball cap who drove from St. Louis to see his man speak. "It'll tear him apart. He deserves something better than that."

After Bradley's seven-week-long speech (which his press secretary says only actually ran 26 minutes), the town opened the CCHS gymnasium and, with an array of thousands of homemade cookies on hand, heard from 10 or so Crystal Cityans who knew him when.

There was his aunt, and his second-grade music teacher, and a neighbor, all of them gushing momentously for the man of virtue and ethics and ideals, a man whose most notorious act of juvenile delinquency was committed when he accidentally spat on a man's shoe at a St. Louis bar.

There was grade school chum Evans, who recalled Bradley's mother, Susie, taking an early stand on civil rights by raising hell when, on a Little League trip to Joplin, a hotel manager spoke of refusing to rent a room to Evans, who is black.

There was Juanita Jennings, the daughter of Bradley family assistant Alex Maul, who broke down and only regained her composure after Bradley embraced her. From early on, Bradley spoke of being president, Jennings said, "so he could bring about complete freedom and equality for all of the people" and "champion the cause of the weak, the poor, the oppressed and the disenfranchised."

"If you ask children today who their hero is, you'll hear 'Stone Cold' Steve Austin more than any other political figure," testified former neighbor Rolla "Duke" Herbert. "Bill Bradley is a hero to most of us today; he could become a hero to the rest of the nation."

Sam La Presta, who met Bradley on their first day in kindergarten, recalled being moved when his friend read the Rudyard Kipling poem "If" during a Missouri student council convention. So he repeated it for the crowd, 40-or-so years after he first heard it from his friend's lofty lips.

"If you can dream -- and not make dreams your master/If you can think -- and not make thoughts your aim/If you can meet with triumph and disaster/And treat those two imposters just the same ... Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it/And -- which is more -- you'll be a Man my son!"

Then, two buses full of reporters and cameramen loaded up for the Bill Bradley Magical Mystery Tour. (One probably not unlike the one he took his future wife on, only with two buses full of disgusting reporter types whom he probably wouldn't invite in for a cup of coffee, much less marry.)

Beginning at the Bradley home on Taylor Street, Bradley guided the media hordes across the street to the Presbyterian church, the tranquil sight of which would calm his father after tough days at work. He took us through the expansive grassy churchyard in which he played touch football, to the bank where his father worked. We passed by the grave of PPG, his Little League baseball diamond, through the oak-tree-lined streets adorned with bicentennial-era flags, up and down the roads Bradley would run when he was getting in shape for the basketball season each fall.

Our last stop was the Plattin-Rock Boat Club on the bank of the Mississippi.

"Every time I come to town, the first thing I do is get in the car and come down here," Bradley whispered. "Usually when I come down here no one's here."

When Bradley normally comes here, alone, he walks out on the dock and looks back up toward the land. "I would be still, and I would listen to the wind blowing through the cottonwood trees, look at the current carrying what it's carried for half a continent ... It's not only a world of solitude, this place, this river, these bluffs are to me a sense of permanence."

It was a dramatic moment. Bradley. His thoughts. The wind. The river. And 100 sweaty members of the media, eating it all up.

Bill Bradley's been both chef and consumer of this diet of sugary hero-worship since he was in high school, if not longer, and it's remarkable that through it all he's managed to keep his feet mostly on earth.

Now, however, he's trying to become ruler of said planet. With such stakes, it's only fitting that Bradley will have to rely on more than just his own virtue to get the golden fleece. The town of Crystal City could build an eight-story-high solid gold statue in his honor and he would still have to contend with the fact that he has the legislative record not of a God, or a Myth, but a U.S. senator -- just a politician.

The Gore campaign has already begun hammering Bradley for once speaking open-mindedly about school choice. The RNC is coming at him for being almost as liberal as Sen. Ted Kennedy, and for hypocrisy on his new interest in campaign finance reform. Bradley supported "16 out of 17 tax hikes, costing your family $8,600," an RNC press release said, accusing him of being "almost as liberal as Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy."

On campaign finance reform, "the record shows that this 'Dollar Bill' has two faces," added RNC Chairman Jim Nicholson.

That's a bit harsh, of course, especially considering the RNC's unabashed embracing of the big-money corporate set. But when Nicholson fouls Bradley he illustrates one of the biggest obstacles in the cager's past: He has to compete with his own myth.

Bradley's campaign bears some similarities to that of Republican Sen. John McCain. Words like maverick -- and even hero -- are often tagged to Bradley's name (though McCain's heroics were clearly of a much more important kind). But unlike McCain -- who wears his flaws like some Republicans wear the flag -- Bradley is seldom self-critical. (He'll admit that he's a fair speaker at best, but he'll argue, convincingly, that oratorical skills are a shallow measure of a man.)

But the problem lies not in the fact that Bill Bradley has always believed the toadying that's come his way.

The problem is that we have.

And when Gore starts throwing elbows his way, or if Bradley wins the nomination and the Republicans start charging at him, the tarnish will come off both the man and the statue. The legend will be rewritten.

Bradley can stand to come down from his pedestal a few dozen yards before he's within reach of most of us mortals, but there are still a lot of people who want to believe that -- as was concisely summed up by Crystal City's Danny James, 11 -- "he's the coolest guy in the world."

In a way it's a shame. How much longer will that myth remain?


Jake Tapper

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

MORE FROM Jake Tapper

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Al Gore George W. Bush Republican Party

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