Bradley bores but scores in Boston

Beantown finally gets a visit from a candidate who knows his foreign policy inside and out.

By Michael Joseph Gross
Published November 30, 1999 3:00PM (EST)

Last month this city played host to a conspicuous little foreign-policy blunder by George W. Bush, when he failed local news reporter Andy Hiller's pop-quiz game of "Name That World Leader."

On Monday, Bill Bradley, no doubt intent on parading his much-more-impressive foreign-policy prowess, came to the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University for what promised to be an invigorating question-and-answer session with some of this country's smartest foreign-policy students.

The contrast between the candidates would hardly be lost on anyone who was paying attention.

This time, Andy Hiller stayed away -- even his cameraman claimed to not know where he was -- and, boy, was he missed! Petty as it may have been, Hiller's gambit had added a snappy surprise to an otherwise boring news day when Bush visited.

Bradley's appearance had no such snap.

The Democratic candidate for president delivered a 21-minute speech, punctuated by bullet points describing lessons learned from his foreign-relations work in the Senate. "Define the problem right ... Seek bipartisan support ... No appeasement," and so forth.

Once finished, he opened himself up to a half hour of softball questions from the students. Bradley's strongest statements in this part of the session concerned U.S.-Russian relations, as he proposed strategic-arms-reduction talks to cut the number of nuclear warheads deeper than President Clinton would like. He also expressed his intention to strike a diplomatic stance toward Russia that focuses less on Boris Yeltsin and more on the Russian people.

He also took a sidelong swipe at Gore and Clinton with his promise to "always be straight with" the American people regarding foreign affairs. And though he defended America's moral obligation to intercede in foreign humanitarian disasters such as "genocide" in Bosnia and Kosovo, he emphasized that Americans "cannot give an open-ended humanitarian commitment to the world."

None of this, of course, was news. More details of Bradley's foreign-policy proclivities were articulated by James Dao's preview piece about the Tufts event in Sunday's New York Times than were revealed during the event itself. So, on to the real stuff: The auditorium was too hot. The Fletcher School's final exams are coming up, so students were jumpy. Bradley had big bags under his eyes. Pushy white men hogged the pitifully short question-and-answer period, after which Bradley rushed off to a meeting with the editorial board of the Boston Globe. These were some of the factors to blame for the lack of excitement on Monday.

After Bradley was gone, Fletcher students crammed into the graduate program's tiny cafeteria and engaged in some grumbling about the poor quality of the dialogue they'd just witnessed. Nevertheless, they said they liked Bradley -- they really liked him.

On television, Bradley comes off as professorial, but in person, he's more, well, paternal. Gazing over his half-moon glasses at the audience, he comes off like a richer, smarter Atticus Finch. "And he's exactly the age that he could be our dad," noted one 27-year-old student.

Sure, he was spinning us -- with that ostentatiously correct pronunciation of "East Tee-moor," the gratuitous list of Russian cities he'd visited and a multiculturally-hip story about an Indian government official -- "Cha-bimba, or whatever," clucked one otherwise-liberal Tufts student.

But Bradley moved with such self-assurance, and engaged his mind so fully with his own words that his mild pandering was quickly forgiven. Denouncing foreign policy that is "made through polling or focus groups to score domestic points," he stated flatly, "I deplore that." A perfectly elegant, strong, unambiguous judgment by a man who knows what he thinks.

The Fletcher students repeated that line like little kids rehashing the plays of last weekend's big game.

Bradley also gave this audience glimpses of a vulnerability that served only to underscore his powerful presence. He told the students that as a 10-year-old, he had designed his own bomb shelter, with a place for his sporting equipment. "The premise was, even after nuclear holocaust there would be basketball."

The only hint of profligacy to match Bradley's recently unveiled, pie-in-the-sky health-care plan came in his remarks about the domestic impact of free trade. "Trade will benefit more people than it will hurt. But some people will lose their jobs." He then reiterated his support for expanded health care, portable pensions and "transitional assistance" for people who are bumped down from high-wage to lower-wage sectors as the economy changes.

Margaret Sloan, studying for a master's in diplomacy, came to the event with a list of questions she hoped to ask, and was next in line when the question period was cut short by the school's dean, John Galvin. In the cafeteria, she described the direction in which she had hoped to steer the discussion: "[Bradley] talked too much about the easy topics -- Israel, Colombia. He needs to address the situations that actually threaten us -- Iraq and China."

Answers to these hardest questions will have to come another day, and somewhere else. The feeling at Tufts was that even if Bradley hasn't delivered the goods yet, he certainly has them in his possession. There's something refreshing about a person of substance who does not yield intimacy too easily -- even when given the chance. He gives you something to look forward to. Which may have been what Bradley's spokesman Eric Hauser was trying to say, in an oblique way, when he explained ahead of time to reporters how the Q&A format of the event would work:

"It's like Oprah. But not really."

Michael Joseph Gross

Michael Joseph Gross is a freelance writer living in Boston.

MORE FROM Michael Joseph Gross

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Democratic Party New Jersey