Only the lonely

We might have been able to predict that Bill Bradley's campaign would ultimately self-destruct if only we'd known that his favorite novel is "Victory" by Joseph Conrad.

Published February 17, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

Bill Bradley's game is fading. Since losing to Vice President Al Gore in New Hampshire, his campaign has not been able to recover any of its previous momentum. As the Democratic race heads toward the big showdown on March 7, pundits and pols have written off the former senator, and polls show he is not able to make a dent in Gore's substantial lead nationally.

Accordingly, the morning-after analysis has begun: Bradley was a remote, reluctant candidate. He was not assertive enough, and didn't fight back fast enough when Gore attacked him. He miscalculated when he thought his lofty ideas and storybook life would somehow prompt Democrats to dump a sitting vice president.

There's also another explanation for the Bradley fizzle -- a one-word explanation: "Victory." Not as in, Bradley didn't achieve victory, but as in the title of the novel by Joseph Conrad. In the debate before the New Hampshire primary, Bradley revealed that "Victory" is one of his favorite books. Anyone who reads this novel can obtain an insight into what now appears to be the first major career failure in Bradley's adult life.

First, some background. Last spring, I traveled with Bradley during a three-day swing through New Hampshire. He remained distant from the few reporters who were accompanying him; there was little, if any, informal chit-chat. During the daily 15-minute media availability -- a mini news conference -- he treated most queries as if they were trick questions. After the final event -- a speech on race at a prep school -- Bradley met with us in a classroom. We asked about his ideas for combating racism and his strategy for taking on Gore. Then Eric Hauser, his press secretary, said there was time for one last question, a short one.

"What's your favorite novel?" I piped up. I was genuinely curious -- Bradley's a smart guy. It would be interesting to know what he reads. But he scowled and reacted as if I had asked him his preferred sex act. If he named one book now, he said, and six months later referred to another, the media would criticize him for flip-flopping. I promised not to do so. "How do you know there's just one?" he shot back. "Feel free to name a few," I replied.

By now, I felt we had entered into a duel. "What's the point?" he asked, "To figure out what literary character I identify with?"

Bradley paused for a moment, as if he was formulating an answer. Then he shook his head. "No, I'm not going into that," he said.

The man who was asking to be placed in a position where he could launch a nuclear attack and destroy the planet was refusing to tell voters what books he fancied. This exchange became part of Bradley lore. Subsequent stories on his penchant for privacy referred to this incident. More importantly, here was an early indication that Bradley was not willing to do what it takes to be president. Forget making a strong case for dethroning Gore. He couldn't even open up an inch.

But, in retrospect, perhaps it was a wise move after all, for if anyone had gotten hold of that privileged information, they could have seen that Bradley was finished from the start.

At that debate in New Hampshire, CNN's Judy Woodruff pressed Bradley on the books that have influenced him, and he finally caved. With a trace of petulance, he said, "Well. Judy, if you want me to share a little bit with you, I will. I'll give you two books that I like. One is "Victory" by Joseph Conrad. I like that because there's something in there by a character named Heyst who says, 'Woe be it to the man who has not learned while young to put his trust in life.' Now what does that tell you about me, running for president of the United States? It tells you that I've read the book."

But Bradley's reference to this novel was telling. (He never named the other book.) He got the quote mostly -- but not exactly -- right. It occurs two pages from the end. And it is the words of protagonist Axel Heyst, shortly before he commits suicide. "Victory," written by the author of "Heart of Darkness" and "Lord Jim" and published in 1915, focuses on Heyst, the representative of a bankrupt European coal company who lives in solitude at a shut-down mining site on an island in what is now Indochina.

Heyst is a marginally sympathetic character. He is a loner disengaged from much of life. He lives, Conrad wrote, "as if he were perched on the highest peak of the Himalayas." One associate calls Heyst a "utopist." He has, Conrad noted, an "unattached, floating existence." Another associate says of Heyst, "He had always had a taste for solitude ... He isn't the sort of man one can speak familiarly with." Heyst is a brooder who cooked up an unrealistic plan to extract coal where no one else would think of trying.

The book is not Conrad's best work; it's a bit melodramatic. While visiting a trading port, Heyst helps a young British woman named Alma escape from a traveling, all-woman orchestra (the "band was not making music; it was simply murdering silence"), and he brings her back to his island. With this action, Heyst starts to involve himself in the world beyond his hermitic environs. But, as Conrad observed, "Those dreamy spectators of the world's agitation are terrible once the desire to act gets hold of them. They lower their heads and charge a wall with an amazing serenity."

Sound familiar, Senator?

Alma -- whom Heyst calls Lena -- and Heyst ("a masterpiece of aloofness") fall in love, and Heyst gains a partner-in-solitude and a semblance of a real life. The plot turns when bandits, misinformed that Heyst is sitting on a treasure, arrive on the island and plot to kill him. Heyst's Chinese servant has purloined his revolver, and Heyst is left defenseless. Yet even when threatened, he remains dispassionate. He tries to outwit the bandits, but his feeble plan goes awry.

It is Lena who, by seducing one of the intruders, saves the day. Still, she ends up shot inadvertently and killed. "For you," she says to Heyst, as she expires. And how does Heyst honor her ultimate sacrifice? He burns down their conjugal bungalow with himself in it.

"Victory" is not an inspirational tale. This book is a downer. I hope that Bradley doesn't really identify with Heyst. It is puzzling that Bradley would cite this novel as personally significant. Perhaps he considers it a cautionary tale about what can happen to someone who tries to live by his own rules, on his own island, apart from conventional realities. If so, he did not apply that lesson to his campaign. He adopted an above-it-all attitude to politics and campaigning that was not useful for an insurgent effort that, in essence, sought to mount a coup against a party leader.

Bradley's campaign has in fact proved one of the better lines of the book: "It is not easy to shake off the spell of island life."

By David Corn

David Corn is the Washington editor of the Nation, a columnist for the New York Press and author of a political suspense novel, "Deep Background" (St.Martin's Press).

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