Way back in the summer of 1992, when Spike Lee was plodding through the talk-show circuit to promote his new film, Malcolm X, he told Charlie Rose he'd feel more optimistic about the future of American race relations if he had someone to vote for.
"You don't like Bill Clinton?" asked Rose, slightly surprised.
"Nope," said Lee.
Lee gave Rose a look that could have curdled milk.
"Who could you vote for? Could you vote for Cuomo?"
Lee gave a faint, faint shake of the head and stared impassively into space.
"Yeah -- "
Rose started to follow up, but Lee cut him off. "You know a white candidate I could vote for?" he said. "Bill Bradley."
"You could vote for Bradley?"
Lee nodded. "Yeah."
More than seven years later, the filmmaker is showing his zeal -- with cash, well-placed phone calls, and at some point, he expects, a campaign commercial for the former New Jersey senator and small forward for the New York Knickerbockers. "It's not that I dislike Gore," says Lee today. "It's just that I'm not feeling it."
Bradley will need Lee's help. Though Gore may have recently declared himself the underdog this primary season, his black support outstrips Bradley's by a ratio of at least two to one in polls nationwide. In New York State, the vice-president's popularity among blacks has actually grown over the past two months. African-Americans appear to be one of the few segments of the population without any visible symptoms of Clinton fatigue, and most black members of Congress, whether out of personal or party fealty, feel an obligation to support Gore.
Another candidate might have cut his losses and moved on. But Bradley has had a lifelong interest in race matters. Sensing that African-Americans could be his natural constituency, he is waging an aggressive campaign for the black vote by bypassing the Democratic Party establishment and appealing directly to the nonelected black elite: actors, academics, community leaders, media figures, and (naturally) ballplayers.
This isn't a mere campaign-season crush. Many African-American luminaries are thrilled with Bradley's candidacy and are asking, like Lee, to do for him whatever they can. The former senator has also made racial unity one of the widest planks in his political platform, speaking about it in almost every appearance he makes. "Do you care about race?" he asked a group of students at Cooper Union in his first campaign speech of the spring. "If you do, then do something about it. Don't just listen to the old folks who tell you about the glory of the civil-rights movement. Don't conceive of race as just affirmative action. Don't tolerate businesspeople who claim they can't find minorities of talent. Don't coddle excuse-makers of any race."
You can imagine Gore's surprise. The heir to "America's first black president," as Toni Morrison so cheekily described Clinton, now finds himself fighting for a constituency that should have been a slam dunk. In New York, he and Bradley are locked in a statistical dead heat. If Bradley can steal away the black vote, he'll probably take the state.
Celebrity endorsements do not a campaign make. But hell -- let's start with those celebrity endorsements. There's Laurence Fishburne, who popped in at a fund-raiser for Bradley four weeks ago at Lee's home, and Samuel L. Jackson, who recently co-hosted a benefit in Washington, D.C. There's Harvard academic Cornel West, the omnipresent public intellectual and author of Race Matters, who has spent the past few months introducing Bradley to black leaders around New York, Washington, Boston, and Seattle. "Ninety-nine percent of blacks who talk to Bradley," he says, "discern a genuine passion for racial justice. On a very deep level, he can identify with persons who are catching hell. He feels this issue deep in his heart and soul."
Then there's Al Sharpton -- subtle as pepper spray but no slouch at delivering votes -- who's already had Bradley up to his National Action Network headquarters in Harlem. The reverend won't be making any formal declarations of support until mid-November. But it sounds like his mind is already made up. "I'd be wrong," he says, "if I told you I wasn't leaning toward Bradley."
Which says nothing of all the black Hall of Famers, so numerous they could form their own senior league of the NBA, who've been lining up to lend their support: Willis Reed, Earl Monroe, Bill Russell, Isiah Thomas, Julius Erving. November 14, they'll all be filing into Madison Square Garden for a king-size Bradley fund-raiser, where network coverage will surely be ample and hoops will surely be shot. The prospect of a Bradley White House has even coaxed Michael Jordan, perpetually under siege from black activists for his failure to participate in the political process, out of his hiding place: Last March, he sent Bradley a check for $1,000, the maximum allowable contribution from a single individual. He's also planning to lend his celebrity to the campaign in some way yet to be determined. (On the stump? At fund-raisers? In commercials with Bugs Bunny and Tweety Bird?)
Perhaps all this high-voltage assistance won't make one bit of difference to Bradley. "When it's time to actually vote, African-Americans don't look to athletes and entertainers as their political guides," says George E. Curry, the editor of Emerge magazine. "We like our entertainers and our athletes, but we like them to entertain and to play ball. And we can stop at that."
Maybe. And maybe Madison Avenue knows better. After all, MCI is willing to shell out millions to place Jordan's charming smile in its ads; surely the telecom giant believes it's getting something in return. Even George W. Bush understands the value of a little urban glamour. During game two of last season's NBA championship finals, the Texas governor, presumably emboldened by his home-court advantage, strode right up to Spike Lee and asked if they could have their picture taken together. "Look," the filmmaker blurted out, "I'm voting for Bill Bradley." (To his credit, Bush replied, "I didn't ask.")