Bill Bradley: Al Gore's debate coach

The vice president may call his main opponent a "bad Democrat." But Bradley helped Gore prep for the most celebrated debates of his career.

By Jake Tapper

Published November 10, 1999 8:00PM (EST)

When Vice President Al Gore hammers his only challenger for the Democratic presidential nomination, he and his surrogates intimate that former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley is both a "bad Democrat" and a quitter -- a slap at Bradley for his occasionally moderate voting record, as well as his retirement from the Senate in 1996.

Gore fails to mention, however, that Bradley was one of his key advisors when he prepared for two of the most celebrated debates in his career.

The studious Gore was always a gifted debater, which is one of the reasons why he keeps after his challenger to appear next to him. Bradley has declined Gore's invitations to weekly debates, and Gore continues to hammer him for it. Ironically, Bradley helped Gore develop the skills that have established his reputation as an able debater.

In the fall of 1993, President Clinton was lobbying hard for passage of the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), facing tough opposition from Ross Perot among others. To help get out the administration's message and gin up congressional and popular support, Gore agreed to go on CNN's "Larry King Live" to debate -- and discredit -- the diminutive, populist billionaire.

In preparation for the Nov. 9 appearance, Gore turned to a number of people -- including Bradley, one of the Senate's foremost NAFTA proponents. Bradley was a natural advisor -- his interest and expertise on the subject predated Clinton's election. And though Bradley and Gore weren't friends, and had never served on any committees together when both were in the Senate, Bradley had worked closely with the administration on the Clinton deficit reduction package and was more than willing to help out on NAFTA.

"As a loyal supporter of both the administration and a longtime supporter of the NAFTA treaty, [Bradley] was interested in helping both the [Clinton] administration -- in its greatest legislative priority at the time -- and also in making sure that the public argument to the American people was the most effective it could be," says Bradley communications director Anita Dunn.

In the week preceding the debate, Bradley went to the vice president's residence at the Naval Observatory and met with Gore for an hour and a half.

He talked him through some of the arguments he'd been using for years. NAFTA represented a historic opportunity for the United States, he argued. Only 4 percent of the world's consumers lived in the U.S., and if the country wanted to continue growing, it needed to be able to sell to the other 96 percent. The best way to do that was to create trade partnerships and remove barriers. Bradley framed the argument as being about the future vs. the past.

Bradley repeated arguments he had made in a June 1993 interview with the National Journal, in which he said: "I think NAFTA will be the most important foreign policy measure that [the president will] take up in his first term. I mean, it's like Jefferson and the Louisiana Purchase, almost."

George F. Will had slapped Bradley for the comparison, writing, "Bradley exaggerates when comparing NAFTA's importance to the Louisiana Purchase."

But Bradley stuck with it. He liked the analogy.

After debate prep with a number of others, Gore went on Larry King and did a bang-up job -- and he used Bradley's Louisiana Purchase line.

"This is a major choice for our country of historic proportions," Gore said. "Sometimes we do something right; the creation of NATO, the Louisiana Purchase, Thomas Jefferson did the right thing there, the purchase of Alaska. These were all extremely controversial choices, but they made a difference for our country. This is such a choice."

Perot, as always, came across as somewhat cuckoo, repeatedly whining to Gore, "How can I answer if you keep interrupting me?"

And Gore had him on the ropes, hammering Perot for various hypocrisies, recalling the protectionism of the Hawley-Smoot tariffs and bandying about facts and figures like a pro.

"This is a choice between the politics of fear and the politics of hope," Gore said. "It's a choice between the past and the future" -- another one of several Bradleyisms that came out of his mouth that night.

The reviews for Gore's performance were solid, thanks in part to the senator from New Jersey. "Whether any viewers' minds were changed by the debate -- and whether many viewers even bothered to tune in -- is hard to say," wrote the Washington Post's Tom Shales, "but in terms of who came off looking the least ridiculous, Al Gore was the winner. And Larry King the runner-up."

Unbelievably, the Gore 2000 team trotted out Bradley's Louisiana Purchase-NAFTA comparison again this year -- but this time, to slam Bradley -- as the vice president campaigned for the endorsement of labor organizations. Bradley had repeated the comparison in a couple of interviews this year, including one given to ABC's "This Week." The Gore team made sure that union leaders were well aware of the quote -- but somehow neglected to mention the vice president's prior use of it on Larry King.

During an Oct. 13 appearance on CNBC's "Hardball With Chris Matthews," union leader Gerry McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), groused, "I saw Bill Bradley on a television show  where they asked him about his vote on NAFTA, and he said ... he thought NAFTA was as important to the people in the United States, as prestigious as the Louisiana Purchase."

Almost three years after the CNN debate, on Oct. 9, 1996, Gore was scheduled to face off against Jack Kemp, the Republican vice presidential nominee, at a debate in St. Petersburg, Fla.

When Kemp had been a member of the House from Buffalo, N.Y., the former NFL quarterback had worked closely with Bradley, the former NBA foward, on tax reform. The two worked together on bills that advocated closing loopholes and reducing tax rates. Their work was a model of bipartisan cooperation, and along the way they had become friends. Soon they also worked together on various outreach programs to low-income African-Americans.

So, in preparation for his debate, and with knowledge of the New Jersey senator's close relationship with Kemp, Gore phoned Bradley at his Senate office and asked him what he should expect. They had a lengthy conversation in which Bradley told Gore that he thought Kemp would play it straight, be substantive, and would not go negative. That's what Gore should expect, Bradley advised, that's what he should prepare for.

Again, after prepping with others, Gore performed ably and garnered solid reviews.

Reviews for Kemp -- who played it straight, spoke substantively and refused to go negative -- were devastatingly harsh.

"Never before in the history of televised presidential and vice presidential debates dating back to 1960 has there been so flagrant an example of underachievement," opined conservative columnist Robert Novak. "What is beyond dispute is that the luster of the brightest Republican star was dimmed here Wednesday night. That might be more important for the politics of 2000 than of 1996."

Gore and Bradley have "had an amicable relationship over the years," says Dunn, who was Bradley's Senate chief of staff in 1991-93. She recalls a time in 1992 in Chicago when the two bumped into each other. Bradley was leaving a radio station, where he had been talking up the congressional race of then-Rep. Marty Russo, D-Ill., who was facing off in a redistricted congressional race against Rep. Bill Lipinski, D-Ill. Gore, on a book tour for "Earth in the Balance," was entering the same station. They joked around, Dunn recalls.

"Bill respects the vice president and thinks he's done a good job and has been a very loyal vice president," Dunn said.

Dunn said that their relationship has changed a bit since Gore started going negative.

"It's unfortunate that [Gore] feels that he has to turn to these scare politics and the attack tactics," she said. "The vice president in his campaign has adopted a variety of positions and attitudes typical of the tactical politics of Washington, D.C. They will talk about one vote instead of an 18-year record. They will pull quotes out of context. It's easier to tear an opponent apart instead of putting your own positive vision forward."

Dunn noted that even though Bradley endorsed Russo -- who had worked tirelessly for tax reform in the mid-'80s -- Lipinski was the first member of the House to endorse Bradley. Lipinski's clearly able to let bygones be bygones, she notes.

When it comes to "bad Democrat" Bradley's help when Gore needed him in '93 and '96, Gore seems to be able to put the past behind him, too.

Jake Tapper

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

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