When Rick Stengel was covering the ‘88 and ‘96 presidential races for Time magazine, he often tried to imagine what was going on behind closed doors. Now, as Bill Bradley’s speechwriter and senior adviser, Stengel has had an intimate minute-by-minute view as last year’s jubilant jump-start has given way to the frustrating free fall of recent weeks.
“We’re trying to rekindle the love affair between New York and Bill Bradley and show people that Al Gore isn’t the man he says he is,” says Stengel, an Upper West Sider and Scarsdale native. But with Bradley getting minimal press coverage and just one week to go before the March 7 primaries, the most stirring rhetoric in the world can’t prevent the ex-Knick from playing Don Quixote.
Stengel, who’s been flying around the country for months with the former New Jersey senator, spent last Monday writing quips and rehearsing with Bradley for his slash-and-burn debate with Gore at the Apollo Theatre. “My role is helping him make his answers punchier and pithier,” says Stengel, 44, who like Bradley played basketball at Princeton and was a Rhodes scholar. “I’m Bradley lite,” jokes the former Spy contributor.
“I have a default key in my brain by now for what he wants to say on issues,” says Stengel. “Bill always wants to talk about ‘the goodness’ of the American people. But a guy can’t always talk about goodness when running for president.” Particularly when he’s up against a take-no-prisoners opponent like Gore. These days, Stengel provides as much mood as message. “Rick has a way of injecting a lighthearted comment in a tense situation,” says Richard Wright, Bradley’s fund-raising chief.
Stengel, who ghost-wrote Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, has another book coming out this spring on a topic that should resonate with New Yorkers: the art of sucking up. You’re Too Kind, a history of flattery from Aristophanes to Eddie Haskell, is a humorous and erudite look at how people use and abuse flattery to get ahead. Deconstructing the current campaign rhetoric, Stengel says that “Bill is the candidate of frank speech, a truth-teller. Al Gore’s catch phrase – ‘I’ll fight for you’ – is the ultimate political flattery, pandering to each and every voter.” Alas for the Bradley campaign, flattery can get you far in life.