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The Priest At The Party

He says he hasn't decided about running for President. But Bill Bradley--former Senator and NBA star--does want to be the Democrats' conscience

By Eric Pooley

TIME magazine

(TIME, April 27) -- There is a power in giving up power," Bill Bradley is saying, "and I didn't expect that." The former NBA star and three-term Senator from New Jersey explains that after he left public office in 1996, he kept right on talking about his signature issues--race relations, global trade, economic stress, campaign-finance reform--"and people would come up and say, 'So you really believe the things you've always said? You weren't just trying to manipulate us for our votes?' And I'd say, 'No, this is what I feel.'" Bradley gives an impish grin, as if he had just admitted to something wild and risky. He is luxuriating in a new role: outsider, truth teller, incipient presidential contender. "I'm still trying to figure out how to use this new power," he says. "And I haven't ruled anything out for 2000."

And with that, a roomful of pols break into applause. It is a perfect Bradley moment, because his Zen-like musings on the power of no power are delivered at a proto-campaign stop in Greensboro, N.C., where 100 local activists, officials and campaign operatives have come to meet a not-quite-candidate who looks like he wants the real kind of power back. It is Jan. 21; the Lewinsky scandal has engulfed Washington this very day, and the news is racing through the crowd. "This could be good for Bradley," says an old friend of his, "but he'll wait to see how Gore's doing before jumping in. If Gore has the money and support locked up, he won't get in."

Those who know Bradley best say that's dead wrong. "The more this race seems like a long shot, the more likely it is Bill will get in," says a key Bradley adviser. "To Bill, the only attractive presidential candidacy is the one where everything's stacked against him." In a recent New Hampshire poll Bradley had the lowest name recognition in the field--yet placed second, well behind Gore. That delighted Bradley because it means that those who know him tend to like him and those who don't can learn about him on his terms. He plans to announce his decision before the end of the year.

Though he has no organization and isn't yet raising money, Bradley is laying the groundwork for a run. Last year he hired a chief of staff, veteran Democratic operative Ed Turlington, who operates out of Bradley's small office in Palo Alto, Calif., near the campus of Stanford University, where Bradley is a visiting professor this year. And sources close to Bradley tell TIME that their man has been in discussions with New Jersey trial lawyer Ted Wells, a major Democratic fund raiser and former Bradley finance chairman, to plan what a clean-but-effective fund-raising operation might look like. Campaign money is a ticklish subject for Bradley, who was criticized for raising a Goliath-like $12 million before his 1990 Senate race against Christine Todd Whitman, which he just barely won. This time he knows he must raise $25 million to compete in the primary, but he has been a vociferous critic of the campaign-finance system. He hoped the issue would launch a tide of grass-roots reform--a tide he could ride--but that didn't happen. He toyed with starting a third party but rejected the idea as costly and impractical. So if he runs, he must raise pots of cash without looking hypocritical. Asked whether he would refuse soft money and PAC donations, he changed the subject. "Too early," he said. "I'm not a candidate."

At least not yet. But some past obstacles are gone. In 1992 his wife Ernestine had breast cancer diagnosed, but the disease is in remission. His daughter Theresa Anne is at college, old enough to handle a presidential race. And Bradley has been tilling the soil carefully, working at an array of jobs with built-in access to crucial constituencies: the Stanford professorship, which gives him a platform for speeches and contacts in academia and Silicon Valley; a senior adviser's chair at J.P. Morgan & Co., which puts him in touch with Wall Street; and a gig producing soft-focus, nonpolitical essays about American life for the weekend CBS Evening News, which keeps him in the public eye (but will end when his contract runs out in May, a CBS executive says, because the news bosses found his work pallid). To compete with the Vice President in the high-tech arena, Bradley--who wrote his 1996 memoir, Time Present, Time Past, using No. 2 pencils--maintains a Website and is working with a technology-consulting firm to bone up on the issues. Given the chance, he will talk at length about the Year 2000 computer-clock problem--just like Gore.

The two men have plenty in common. Both believe in tireless practice and painstaking prep; both have compared themselves to inanimate objects: Gore to wood, Bradley to a waxworks dummy. And each is working to improve his speaking performance. While Gore has been getting louder and more self-consciously Southern, Bradley has been experimenting with spontaneity--scribbling remarks on the back of an envelope moments before a speech, gathering thoughts in a green room just before a flat-tax debate with Steve Forbes. "Making music out of a speech is a special skill," he writes in his memoir. "It comes from going out on the road as if you were a musician, playing the small clubs until you get it down." And that's what he has been doing. Since Jan. 1, he has traveled to Los Angeles; San Diego; Tucson and Phoenix, Ariz.; Seattle; New York City; Greensboro; Springfield, Mo.; New Orleans; Mobile, Ala.; and three cities in Florida. He is working on his chops, talking, sometimes for pay, about this prosperous but perplexing American moment, about race and the pace of change, about how to fix our dysfunctional democracy. Life on the run is familiar to Bradley; it happens to be the title of his first book. At 54, he has been on the road for 30 years--as a Princeton basketball star for four, a New York Knick for 10, a Senator for 18--but suddenly he's in charge of himself. After so many years of schedules, he says, "I feel like a bird released into the sky to fly."

Winging it seems to be paying off. At a volunteerism conference in Greensboro early this year, Bradley drew a standing ovation from a crowd of 1,500. Not with tub-thumping oratory--he'll never be any good at that--but with a thoughtful approach that trusted the intelligence of his audience. He was talking about what's wrong with politics: too much special-interest money, too many politicians relying on consultants instead of convictions, too many reporters chasing "the lurid and the sensational" instead of the issues--a fairly standard critique, and the audience was polite, nothing more. Then he wandered into a quiet, reflective place that political speeches seldom find. And he drew the crowd in there with him.

"Everywhere I go, I sense that Americans are yearning for something deeper than the material possessions in their lives," he began. To the doubters, he asked, "Why do you think there's a perfume called Eternity?" Towering over the lectern, his heavy-lidded eyes getting wider and brighter, he talked about coming to terms with loss and disappointment, about frustrated hopes and difficult children, about the unresolvable tension between family and work. "Ever get to the point where you realize that the best thing about being being alive?" he asked in a low, intimate voice. "Being alive to the smallest things: a child's question, the color of a turning leaf, a sight you've never seen that you pass on your way to work each day. These are not unimportant questions."

If it wasn't quite poetry--or politics--it was moving. With the audience rapt, Bradley linked these questions to the simple idea of getting involved--mentoring kids, caring for seniors, joining community groups--and suggested that such work gives meaning to the private daily struggle. And when he was through, the crowd stood and cheered, not just because Bradley had been good but also because he seemed to have faith in their goodness. It was hard to imagine Bradley replicating the moment day after day on the campaign trail, where amped-up phrases and shrink-wrapped personae stand in for nuanced thought. But Bradley has neither taste nor talent for mass marketing, and if he does run, he will make a point of creating plenty of moments like that one. Even if they don't play well on TV.

Bradley genuinely doesn't see himself as a conventional politician. A sports hero before he could vote, he never had to seek the spotlight. He complains that people have always tried to pigeonhole him--as a Young Christian, a scholar-athlete, a white man in a black man's sport, an ex-jock in the Senate cloakroom. "They lock into who you were at a particular moment and don't allow for your capacity for growth," he says. He professes to hate so much of what politics has become, yet loves the image of himself cutting through the noise, telling the truth, offering more questions than answers. To hear Bradley tell it, he is not so much setting up an outsider's bid for the Oval Office as conducting a search for "the New American Narrative," the storyline that crystallizes where the country is and where it's going. When he lays out his vision of that in a May 14 speech at Stanford, he won't want anyone to think he's doing it for callow political reasons.

Some former Bradley aides, who remember how unfocused and adrift he seemed during his last years in the Senate, have become impatient with his to-run-or-not-to-run act. They don't believe his intellectual quest is leading anywhere. "Is he doing this to improve the nation," asks one, "or just to improve himself?" He reminds them of another bigfoot Democrat who seemed to regard himself as better than the process--Mario Cuomo, the longtime New York Governor, now a lawyer in private practice. Plenty has changed since Cuomo's big moment: Paul Tsongas and Ross Perot have come and gone, and the political truth teller has become just another available package--one that journalists may like more than voters do. The public that twice elected Bill Clinton seems to favor politicians who revel in the game, and Bradley never has. He guards his privacy and prefers to float above the fray--which could make him seem arrogant, unwilling to sully himself in the free-for-all of a primary. "Bill wants very much to be President," says a former aide, "But he doesn't particularly want to run for President."

When Bradley was a Knick, his teammates used to call him "Mr. President." During the team's first championship season, in 1969-70, he showed up one night at a wild party thrown by his teammate Dave DeBusschere. Bradley, a teetotaler, was dressed as a priest. As DeBusschere later wrote, "Every now and then our future President tapped a guest on the back and said, 'Excuse me, but I'm ready to take your confession.'" It was Bradley's idea of a practical joke. Today, with his indictment of a "paralyzed and polarized" system in the thrall of money and pollsters, Bradley is again the priest at the party. But this time he's not kidding, and the party is the Democratic one. Is it ready for its confession?

In TIME This Week

Cover Date: April 27, 1998

The Currie Riddle
The Priest At The Party
Greens Flip Over Turtles
Dividing Line
The Notebook: He Said, She Said
Spiriting Prayer Into School

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