The Unnatural

Cruising down the New Jersey Turnpike in a Lincoln Town Car on a bright fall morning, Bill Bradley is master of his realm. An hour south of here is Princeton, where the young Bradley became a basketball All-American and won a Rhodes scholarship. Visible in the east is the skyline of Manhattan, where Bradley led the New York Knicks to two world championships and earned a place in basketball’s Hall of Fame. And awaiting Bradley at events in three towns today are the adoring citizens of New Jersey, who sent Bradley to the U.S. Senate for eighteen years.

Earlier this month, Bradley formed an “exploratory committee” (read: fund-raising vehicle), making him the second Democrat to dip his toe in the presidential pool, joining Minnesota’s Senator Paul Wellstone, a liberal dark horse. Blue-blood senator John Kerry of Massachusetts is believed close to entering the fray as well. The heavy favorite, naturally, is Al Gore, who appears so formidable at the moment that Senator Bob Kerrey of Nebraska defied expectation and opted not to run. House minority leader Dick Gephardt is said to be leaning against a run now, as well.

All of which could leave Bradley as the top alternative to Gore. And if this maze of asphalt in northern New Jersey were representative of America, Bradley could start planning his inaugural. When the six-foot-five superstar arrives at a breakfast in West Orange, he gets spontaneous applause, and a rousing standing ovation after he speaks. State Senate minority leader Richard Codey, who in the past called him “Abe Lincoln with a jump shot,” introduces him glowingly. The Essex County Democratic chairman is showing off a bill bradley for president 2000 button. The reception is much the same for Bradley later in the day at a rally in Jersey City and a festival in Cliffside Park, where a local sheriff candidate calls Bradley “the next president of the United States” and someone else greets him as “Mr. President.”

Bradley has been considered presidential material for years. Pundits have been tantalized by his on-paper assets – a flawless résumé, an unimpeachable character, a brand name. But he’s always waffled and then demurred, citing the usual obvious reasons (family, privacy, etc.). He just didn’t want it bad enough; that much was clear. The question now is whether he’s suddenly found some new inspiration or if it’s just that, at the age of 55, he doesn’t know what else to do for the rest of his life.

Shortly before he retired from the Senate in 1997, Bradley famously declared that “politics is broken.” That blends neatly into his latest tune that politics is “not beyond being able to fix. It starts with a politician who is true to his convictions, and you build a movement from there.” This is part of his nascent stump speech, and practically every sound bite is loaded with veiled and not-so-veiled jabs at Clinton. Bradley’s chief strategy is to package himself as the un-Clinton: straight as an arrow, earnestly bookish, squeaky-clean.

“The presidency is only a potential,” he said in a speech at Notre Dame University. “It can be grand,” he added, citing Lincoln and others. “Or it can be less grand, as it has been from time to time,” he said with a smirk, as the audience obligingly chuckled at the not-so-funny dig at Clinton.

Taking the high ground comes naturally to Bradley. In the Senate, he devoted himself to thankless issues such as strategic petroleum reserves and tax reform. And when it comes to personal conduct, the man is clearly no Clinton: Bradley would never have an “inappropriate relationship” with his interns; he probably wouldn’t be able to pick them out of a lineup.

Since leaving the Senate, Bradley has dutifully been solidifying his credentials as an outsider – never straying too far outside, of course. Every position he’s held has had clear strategic purposes: a teaching job at Stanford (where he courted Silicon Valley), an advisory position at J.P. Morgan & Co. (where he wooed Wall Street), a stint as a commentator for CBS News (which maintained his national visibility), and most recently a teaching job at Notre Dame (from which he is developing a heartland presence). There’s also the obligatory campaign book, and Bradley’s is a best-seller. Values of the Game has a basketball on the front and a photo of young Bradley in uniform on the back. Senator Tax Policy is once again Dollar Bill, drawing an unbroken line between himself and Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, even bad boy Dennis Rodman.

As a lecturer at Notre Dame, Bradley got his students to help him polish his presidential message. His syllabus for the seminar he’s teaching there requires “a four page paper for Senator Bradley which addresses … what they believe a presidential candidate in the year 2000 should address both as candidate and president.” “He’s testing the waters with us for a possible presidential run,” says Mary Beth Lasseter, a student in the seminar. It’s sort of cute that Bradley thinks he can base a presidential campaign on feedback from college students. But it’s also further evidence of the senator’s position in American politics as the darling of the middlebrow. “He’s the Meg Greenfield?Lehrer News Hour choice,” says one Democratic operative. “He doesn’t want to get his hands dirty.”

He doesn’t like putting his hands out, either. A serious contender for the Democratic nomination will need to spend at least $25 million, but Bradley thinks he can mount a credible campaign for half that amount. He’s essentially betting, as many failed candidates have in the past, that his candidacy won’t be a slave to TV, that voters will see through his opponents’ overreliance on the tube and grasp the importance of his straight-from-the-heart message. But there’s good reason to believe that in 2000, TV will be more influential in the nomination process than ever. As states scramble to increase their influence, the primary season has been condensed, and that puts the wealthier candidates in better shape than ever. In the past, an underfunded hopeful could reasonably expect that a strong showing in New Hampshire would open up the money channels and give him a chance to build an organization in the bigger, more expensive states. Now only candidates who can afford airtime in New York and California before the New Hampshire primary and Iowa caucuses will have a realistic shot.

That could cost Bradley dearly. He hasn’t had to raise serious money since 1990, and it was widely reported that he was having trouble raising funds for his ‘96 Senate re-election before he pulled out. And Bradley’s political-action committee is not too impressive. Called Time Future, it handed out a paltry $81,000 this year through mid-October; Gore’s pac, by contrast, contributed $1.3 million during the same period.

Pollsters don’t have much good news for Bradley, either. John Zogby sampled registered Democrats around the country this fall and found a huge margin in favor of Gore (43 percent). Only one other Democrat broke double digits – Jesse Jackson, with 11 percent. Bradley got 4 percent, which isn’t necessarily fatal for someone who’s never run before and wasn’t officially in the race at the time of the poll. But it is kind of bleak, considering that in a similar poll from February 1998, he’d scored 10 percent.

To be sure, Bradley is what Democrats need: a decent and principled man with moderate, mainstream views. But Gore is all those things, too, and after the Democratic resurgence in November’s midterm elections, he appears as invincible as ever, particularly given the front-loaded primary season and his awesome campaign apparatus. Bradley’s electoral calculation, if there is one, is to win in New York, which because of its early primary has increased importance in 2000. Yet even there, he’s got trouble. A Marist College poll in November found Democratic voters’ support for Gore at 40 percent, with Bradley a distant second at 16 percent.

Bradley is undaunted by the numbers. “People always said I would pick the time when it was hardest to do,” Bradley told an audience recently. “We may be approaching that time.” Gore’s commanding lead, he insists, has nothing to do with his decision. “The only given in politics is, whatever you think will happen won’t happen,” he says. “You don’t make this kind of life decision on a tactical basis. It’s an internal issue not related to external dynamics.”

In a sense, that seems absurd: How can a man run for president without considering “external dynamics” such as whether he has a chance? But it’s also genuine Bradley. His inner voice told him not to run in ‘88 and ‘92, when everybody was begging him to; now it seems to be telling him to run at a time when nobody is asking him to. It is a politics of self-absorption. In his Notre Dame talk, Bradley offered a favorite quotation: “The tragedy is to die with commitments undefined, convictions undeclared, and service unfulfilled.” I asked Bradley the next day how he measured up. “The commitment and the convictions are there,” he said. “The question is whether the service is fulfilled.”

To come from this far behind, with this many built-in disadvantages, Bradley will have to display some charm and powers of persuasion that we’ve never seen from him. During his recent address at Notre Dame, he stood with his glasses low on his nose, a red necktie not quite covering his lengthy torso, and read straight from his prepared text in a slow, stultifying drone. After ten minutes, many of his 300 listeners were resting their heads in their hands. The speech started to seem like a filibuster. After half an hour, the university’s venerable president emeritus, Father Hesburgh, who was sitting next to me, emitted what sounded like a snore. After 45 minutes, I was nodding off, but Father Hesburgh broke the spell with another loud snore.

“I was listening to everything he said – when I was awake,” admitted Tim Casale, a fellow in a Notre Dame jacket, when I confronted him after the speech. Casale, a junior from New Jersey, said he wanted to see whether Bradley was the kind of guy who could challenge Gore in 2000. Casale was underwhelmed. “It seemed there was something missing, like a spark,” he said.

Even in Jersey, the faithful have their doubts. Doug Bern, one of the local Democrats for whom Bradley is campaigning, lets it slip that he “wouldn’t be a Bradley man” in 2000. “I don’t know if he has the fortitude to do it,” says Bern, who adds that he would have wholeheartedly backed Bradley for president a decade ago. “He missed his wave,” Bern continues, as Bradley works the crowd nearby. “Sure, he’s Mr. Clean. He’s a good man. But Americans care about job performance. Guys like Gore and Gephardt stayed in there and did the heavy lifting. I’d go with somebody who stayed in there.”

The Unnatural