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Song And Dance

In the weeks leading up to the New York primary, Al Gore finally came to life in the spotlight as Bill Bradley, bright ideas and all, seemed to fade into the chorus.

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So I'm riding around Manhattan with Bill Bradley in his campaign van when to my surprise -- and, it appears, to his, since he doesn't really talk about it all that much -- I've somehow got him on the subject of his old Knicks days. The conversation courses over topics like where he and Ernestine used to live and what their favorite haunts were, until he finally gets to the heart of the matter. "When I was playing," he says, "I used to love to rebound. And I used to love to put my body up against guys, guys bigger than I was, and put my elbow into their ribs, and I used to love to hear that" -- he makes a sound that's hard to translate into letters -- "Unghnfff! That's what I wanna hear! I wanna hear that unghnfff!"

The story of his campaign, I guess, is that he's never managed to get that unghnfff. The Apollo debate was about as close as he'll get. He landed a few elbows, but Gore gave at least as good as he got. When Bradley said maybe some members of the Congressional Black Caucus weren't familiar with Gore's record, he said it, I felt, not arrogantly but innocently. Bradley's notions about race, like pretty much all his notions, are just too resistant to category for debate sound bites. But when the mock-humble vice-president managed to turn it around and say that the members of the caucus are smarter than Bradley thinks they are, making it sound as though Bradley was trying to be superior again, that, I thought, put him ahead as the buzzer sounded.

Gore closed the deal with the crowd in a way that Bradley has never quite figured out how to do. "It's the weirdest thing," says one Democratic operative who's sympathetic to him. "Here's this guy, this great athlete, very competitive. But he doesn't seem to have the fight in him. It's very puzzling." Actually, it's not: The qualities that make Bradley an interesting person -- his contemplative nature, his circumspection, his innate need to question assumptions and see all sides of an argument -- are exactly the qualities that someone running for president can't have. It's just about that simple.

Al Gore is going to be the demo-cratic nominee. He's changed in the last few months, and he's earned it. Underneath the shallow symbolism of moving his office to Nashville and changing into polo shirts, he does seem to have finally justified to himself why he ought to be president, beyond the facts that (a) he's the vice-president already and (b) he was born to be, which were more or less what he was running on last year. He even looks like he can win now -- last fall, he and George W. Bush both looked like frat boys, and today, only Bush does.

But I still have this soft spot for Bradley. Or, to put it more precisely, I have this soft spot for his ideas. Universal health coverage. End of child poverty. Sexual preference as a civil right. These are things the Democratic Party just ought to be for, without equivocation. Gore dances around them, and Bradley just says them flat out.

Bradley had a core New York group -- Nadler, Pat Moynihan, Ed Koch, former Cuomo aide Michael Del Giudice. But against the Gore machine they were like the Polish army of 1939, on horseback.

And I thought, for a while, these ideas might put him over the top. In spite of his lack of support from the unions and pols. In spite of the fact that he didn't seem to hire real political professionals who weren't already working for him. In spite of his cactusy personality (I was in a green room not long ago with a famous liberal comic actor; he was intrigued by Bradley last year, he said, but Dollar Bill lost him with that "Let me explain how the private sector works, Al" business at one of the debates).

Well, they didn't put him over the top. Instead, John McCain sucked up all the outsider energy in this race. There's a reason that happened, and the reason is that Bradley made the mistake of trying to run on ideas. But regrettably, ideas don't matter. What matters is biography. Of course candidates have to present a few ideas. But what they really have to do, in the run-up to the primaries and during the early ones, is put themselves out there for everyone to see, touch, smell, take the measure of in every conceivable way. They have to become some metaphorical totem or other -- the next-door neighbor we'd like to buddy around with, or the man we'd choose to lead us out of a foxhole.

McCain, of course, did exactly that. But that's not Bill Bradley. In Des Moines, just before Christmas, I watched him make his pitch to employees of something called the Principal Financial Group. This event took place, oddly enough, in the very building, or renovated version thereof, where Bradley had competed for a Rhodes scholarship way back when. He said: "I'm running under the radical premise that you can go out, tell people what you believe, and win. Don't support me for me. Support me for those beliefs." I liked that. I circled it, which is how I signal to myself that I might want to use that quote. Unfortunately, it was exactly the wrong way to run this year.


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