"Dollar Bill" never sold out

He was an honorable antidote to Clinton, but for an electorate conditioned to empathy from their leaders, Bradley didn't work.

Published March 9, 2000 5:45PM (EST)

Thursday marks the end of the insurgent campaigns for president, the brief flirtation by the American people with two candidates -- Sen. John McCain and former Sen. Bill Bradley -- who represented something other than what their party leaders wanted, which voters were then expected to rubber-stamp.

As an avowed independent who routinely splits my ticket, I was drawn to the insurgents -- first to Bradley because I am a fallen Democrat, seduced by President Clinton when I was just 18, then routinely disappointed by him over the course of the seven-plus years that followed. The final betrayal was when he looked me in the eye, shook his finger and lied to me about Monica Lewinsky. I didn't think something like that could affect a jaded Watergate baby like myself, but it did. I joined Clinton as a young Democratic idealist, and left him as a grizzled independent cynic.

Enter Bill Bradley. On paper, when he launched his campaign, Bradley was the candidate who should have reignited my moderate political optimism. Before he reinvented himself as a liberal, he had developed a reputation as a centrist iconoclast, an independent thinker who during his 18-year Senate career frequently cut deals with Republicans to get key pieces of legislation signed by Republican presidents and, later, through a Republican-controlled Congress. Bradley fell out of love with the Democratic Party at the same time I did, resigning in a huff in 1995, complaining that both parties had strayed from the American people.

When Bradley reemerged as a presidential contender some four years later, I was actually attracted at first by his style. He seemed soft-spoken and sincere, sometimes aloof, even slightly stoned. He reminded me of my favorite college professors, who derived strength from their deliberateness, their aura of gravitas, their detachment.

In fact, watching Bradley in action made me think of the professor who led my senior seminar in American politics. He made us read a short story by Herman Melville, "Bartleby the Scrivener." At the time, I couldn't quite figure out why we were reading "Bartleby" in a politics course; it was a simple tale of a clerk who refused to do anything his boss asked him to do, with the haunting refrain, "I would prefer not to." Strangely, watching Bradley on the stump four years later made sense of the story assignment.

On the basketball court Bradley, like Melville's Bartleby, lived life through repetition. In John McPhee's famous portrait of the young Bradley, "A Sense of Where You Are," we see him shooting free throws over and over again in empty Missouri gymnasiums, singularly driven, even vaguely autistic. Both characters are the kind of people who can make their opponent tear their hair out, and in that quality, I found something to admire. As Melville writes of his protagonist, "Nothing so aggravates an earnest person as a passive resistance."

And like the narrator in Melville's Bartleby, I was awed by and curious about Bradley's brand of resistance. But that awe quickly turned to frustration. I found myself wanting Bradley to animate -- he wasn't just professorial, he was off-putting. Though he professed to love the values and virtues of democracy, he also seemed to have frighteningly little patience for their practice. A handshake with Bradley was always from a distance, and watching him at a press conference was like watching a feverish child swallow cough syrup.

Reading the early dispatches from the Bradley campaign, it was as if Melville himself were following Bradley on the campaign trail. "A man of so singularly sedate an aspect, pitiably respectable, incurably forlorn," wrote Melville, "Bartleby sat in his hermitage, oblivious to every thing but his own peculiar business there."

"Bill Bradley's wandering gaze carries him out of whatever room he happens to be in on the campaign trail," wrote Time magazine's Steve Lopez.

I covered Bradley a handful of times, including a five-day stint in the days leading up to the New Hampshire primary. And every time, without fail, I walked away trying to describe the strange brand of diffidence and devotion he embodied. I tried glossaries and dictionaries, worked studiously at trying to capture Bradley in a phrase or a metaphor, yet even now he remains elusive.

In Melville's words, "The passiveness of Bartleby sometimes irritated me. I felt strangely goaded on to encounter him in new opposition, to elicit some angry spark from him answerable to my own. But indeed I might as well have essayed to strike fire with my knuckles against a bit of Windsor soap."

Say what you will about Clinton, he has a human touch. Indeed, he suffers from feeling and touching too much. He has an unparalleled capacity for empathy, a trait America now seems conditioned to seek out in its politicians. Look at the criticisms of the two current presidential front-runners: Al Gore is too stiff, George W. Bush too scripted. They are lacking public humanity. But privately, both are able to exude it, especially Bush. It was Bush's human touch, his normalness, his accessibility, that brought the Republican Party to its knees in his presence last year, and made him the early GOP front-runner.

Bradley, like Bush and McCain, was refreshingly anti-Clinton, which was part of his initial appeal. But unlike Bush or McCain, Bradley was always just slightly out of reach. He never seemed to get a charge from a crowd, never appeared to reflect anything. He was himself, the anti-politician -- which is what first drew me to him and ultimately drove me away.

Bradley once told Bob Woodward that "no one should ever be able to have you," and truly in this campaign, no one ever did. And so Thursday, Bradley's campaign ends pretty much as it began, with the boy from Crystal City, Mo., firm in his resolve, begged even by his closest advisors to play the game, and responding, in Melville's words, "in a singularly mild, firm voice, 'I would prefer not to.'"

By Anthony York

Anthony York is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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