Bill Bradley’s Secret Weapon

The invitation to the Idaho democratic party fund-raiser said Ernestine Bradley was to deliver the keynote address. It didn’t say anything about Tipper Gore. So when Bradley-campaign workers got word that the vice-president’s wife was planning to hijack the event, they flipped. “We just learned Tipper’s going to be there!” moaned spokeswoman Emma Byrne, barely two weeks before the big night. At the Bradley-campaign headquarters in West Orange, New Jersey, the worry was that Bradley’s wife, a college professor who has spent more time in the classroom than on the campaign trail, would be upstaged by Tipper, who spent most of the past decade practicing her people skills. What was supposed to be an easy warm-up for Ernestine, well away from the national media glare, now threatened to become a full-blown bake-off, sure to attract reporters and television cameras from as far away as … well, as far away as New York.

Idaho, which in recent years has become one of the most Republican states in the union, is customarily written off by Democrats. But this year, the competition between Al Gore and Bill Bradley has heated up so quickly that every state counts. In Concord, in Des Moines, in Los Angeles, even in Boise, the two candidates are throwing everything they’ve got at each other, including their wives. Tipper Gore, like Al, is the known quantity; Ernestine Bradley, the wild card. Eight years older than her husband, she grew up in Germany, where her father was a Luftwaffe pilot. She became a stewardess, emigrated to this country, earned a Ph.D. in comparative literature, and recently wrote a book about the Holocaust. This is a woman who still speaks English with a distinct foreign accent, and who knows how that’s going to go over in Idaho?

The day of the dinner starts out clear, cold, and bright. By 6 p.m., as dinner guests are filing into the student union on the campus of Boise State University, it has already turned dark. In the foyer outside the Jordan Ballroom, members of the Idaho Democratic Women’s Caucus are serving Swedish meatballs and bright-orange cheese cubes. Midwestern neighborliness only partially covers the fiercely competitive mood. “Democrats in Idaho are, as you may know, struggling,” Anne Marie Martin tells me. “We’re scarcer than hen’s teeth,” adds Lucy Artis, who greets complete strangers like they were prodigal family members. For reasons that have nothing to do with Ernestine Bradley, or even Bill Bradley, these women are predisposed toward the challenger from New Jersey. Al Gore’s association with the current administration does not work in his favor here. “People in Idaho loathe Bill Clinton,” Martin explains. “Gore still has that Clinton stench hanging around him.”

Still, it’s not every day you get a chance to meet the vice-president’s wife, and whatever their misgivings about Al Gore, the women are delighted at the prospect of seeing Tipper. Her appearance is the work of Bethine Church, a grandmotherly figure with the soul of a cigar-chomping deal-maker, referred to locally as the “godmother of Idaho politics.” She has known the Gore family since the days when her late husband, Frank Church, served with Al’s father in the Senate, and she still refers to Tipper and Al as “the kids.”

“I thought of Bill as such a gentle and kind and sensitive person, yet on the court, you know, he used his elbows. It was rough! That contrast I found most intriguing.”

“We invited Mrs. Bradley,” says Dottie Stimpson, who is wearing a sweater set and has her hair in perfectly rolled curls. “Then Bethine said we ought to have Mrs. Gore here, too. You know, have a level playing field. We thought it would be a wonderful opportunity for them to get to know each other, and for us to get to know them.” By 6:30, the ballroom is packed. For the first time in years, the Idaho Democrats have drawn a sell-out crowd, thanks to the promised spectacle of the two would-be First Ladies facing off in public.

Ernestine is the first to arrive. She’s wearing a simple dress between gray and brown in color, with smoky-brown stockings, brown pumps with stacked heels, and a velvet blazer. She is slight, with birdlike features and luminous blue eyes. Her gray-streaked brown hair is cut in a short pixie, giving her a waifish, spritelike appearance … and she does not look 64 years old. You can see the surprised reaction among the Idaho Democrats: This is no stuffy academic; this is a Teutonic Audrey Hepburn.

Ernestine has never really played the Washington game before – when her husband was in the Senate, she was busy writing books, carrying a full teaching load at Montclair State University, and, for a period of several years beginning in 1992, battling breast cancer. But she works the room like a natural pol. “I’m Ernestine Bradley,” she says over and over. She radiates warmth and delighted curiosity. Oh! She’s so pleased to meet a mother and a daughter here together! This man’s half-remembered German is sehr gut!

By her side is a courtly white-haired gentleman. This is Cecil Andrus, former four-term governor of Idaho and the state’s leading Democrat. “What do you think about Tipper Gore showing up?” a reporter yells.

“I think it’s great for the Democratic Party in Idaho,” Ernestine replies brightly. “I hope the presence of myself and Mrs. Gore gets things bubbling.”

A reporter presses Andrus for his view. “We’re supporting Bill Bradley,” he replies firmly. “We don’t want anything to do with that other guy.” But behind Andrus, a Gore supporter waves a giant blue placard trumpeting TIPPER in the direction of the TV cameras. Throughout the evening, the Gore loyalists prove the more determined, better-choreographed team.

Once Ernestine has made her way to her table just to the left of the stage, Tipper arrives at the main entrance with her entourage, and the Gore supporters leap to their feet, triggering a lengthy standing ovation. Ernestine gamely stands and applauds, too, then turns away and chats with her neighbor, studiously ignoring what all the others are twisting and craning their necks to see.

Even from a distance, Tipper is instantly recognizable, thanks to her familiar blonde bob. She works her way diligently through the room, escorted by Bethine Church, who turns out to be a creaky grande dame in a red blazer with a wild grin on her face. Bethine has commandeered a table directly in front of the podium.

Tipper delivers her remarks first, after Bethine introduces her with a reminiscence about the Gore family. Tipper looks as corn-fed and sturdy as any Idahoan in the crowd – she fits right in. She refers to Bethine as “a national treasure” and then announces that her old family friend has agreed to serve as the honorary chair of the Gore 2000 campaign in Idaho. “I would also like to say how delighted I am to acknowledge my good friend Ernestine Bradley.” She never mentions Bill Bradley by name but repeatedly uses the words “stand and fight” – as in, “My husband has been proud to stand and fight with Democrats” – the same phrase that Al Gore has used to depict Bradley as someone who deserted the Democratic Party in its hour of need when he quit the Senate in 1996. Tipper knows the rules: Candidates’ wives can attack, but never harshly; they must be cheery at all times; and they must somehow manage to be both demure and forceful. Tipper doesn’t mention her husband’s service in the Clinton administration. Instead, she reminds the audience that Al served in Vietnam, became disillusioned with the status quo, and worked as a journalist. Her coda is red, white, and blue: “Thank you for being a part of the lifeblood of democracy. Thank you for having me.” The Gore supporters are on their feet again, waving placards, cheering wildly.

Former governor Andrus rises to introduce Ernestine Bradley, and he comes out swinging. “It’s been announced tonight that Bethine is going to chair the Gore campaign,” says Andrus. “Well, I am the honorary co-chair of the Bradley campaign.” After Tipper’s heartiness, Ernestine looks even more waiflike as she walks to the podium. She starts off by suggesting that Tipper may have exaggerated the extent of their friendship – the words sound innocent enough, but their effect is to make her rival seem saccharine and insincere. “We didn’t see each other that much in Washington, and right now we are on the opposite ends of the playing field, so to speak, but we are united in the fact that we are campaigning for our husbands, who are dearest to us,” she says. “There’s nobody else for whom we would put ourselves through this!” She defends her husband’s decision to challenge Gore. “Bill is – has always been, I should say – a great competitor. Bill thinks that competition is the lifeblood of our democracy and our business, but he thinks that it also does great things for the political process.”

Ernestine speaks in a vivid and slightly theatrical manner that she must have developed to hold the attention of distracted freshmen. She describes her husband’s campaign as a fight for social justice. She talks about racial unity, universal health insurance, and ending child poverty. On the subject of the environment, Ernestine’s language veers off into the poetic. “When he first invited me to go to Missouri, there was the Mississippi, which for Bill is really a kind of mythical river,” she tells the crowd. “The small town that he comes from is on the Mississippi River, 30 miles south of St. Louis. But there is a dimension to the environment, when I listen to Bill speak about it – for me, in literature, I would call it a mythical dimension, but for Bill I really think it is a spiritual dimension.” It’s hardly standard stump-speech rhetoric, But the Idahoans look transported.

The applause is furious and sustained. After she gets back to her table, an aide hands her a cell phone. It’s Bill, who checks to see how she fared. Ernestine covers her mouth with one hand, so it’s impossible to decipher what she tells him. But the reaction in the ballroom speaks for itself. For an early campaign appearance by a newcomer to the national scene, her speech is a solid win. Gore and Bradley supporters alike are left to wonder: Who is this woman?

“The cancer has given me a strength, and has set my priorities and my values. The campaign – of course it’s very, very important, but it’s not the most important thing.”

Recently, the German media woke up to the possibility that the United States might have it’s first German-born First Lady. (She would be only the second who was foreign-born.) As the headline in Der Spiegel put it: USA: EINE DEUTSCHE ALS FIRST LADY? The American public is starting to ask the same question now that Ernestine Bradley has begun campaigning for her husband full-time. In Santa Monica, California, I watch her befriend a classroom of recent immigrants by giving them tips on speaking English – she suggests that they tape-record themselves and listen to the way they talk. In Burlington, Vermont, she captivates scholars at the Holocaust Studies program with a lecture on German literature of the postwar period. In Manhattan, she defies a midday downpour and drops by Gray’s Papaya on 72nd Street for a hot-dog lunch. At every stop, she flits like a firefly – alighting here, glowing with charm, then moving on to another voter. Perhaps because she has traveled so far in her life, Ernestine never seems to feel out of place.

It makes you feel for Al Gore. Tipper was always one of his strongest assets. She is as playful and all-American as her name suggests yet still champions serious causes like better care for the mentally ill. She manages to remain her own woman without getting in her husband’s way. (It’s hard to imagine her feeling the need to run for Senate while her husband is president.) There aren’t going to be any surprises with Tipper and Al – and that was supposed to be what the country wanted. All of a sudden, though, being unusual is back in vogue. On the Republican side, John McCain emerges as the main challenger to George W. Bush, largely because of his extraordinary personal biography. Bradley the former basketball hero is no cookie-cutter candidate either, and Ernestine … no other candidate’s wife has a story quite like Ernestine’s.

Ernestine Misslbeck grew up in Nazi Germany. She remembers visiting wounded German soldiers at age 7, when her school was converted into a military hospital. Her father served in the Luftwaffe, though she says he did not join the Nazi Party. The years after World War II were bleak. Chilled by the drabness and the difficulty of the recovery period and made claustrophobic by the stifling atmosphere of denial that permeated German culture, she dreamed of escaping. She studied maps and atlases, plotting how she might make it to some other country where life would have more color. “Germany was – at least this is how I felt – it was very closed,” she recalls. “It was such an effort just to survive, to get food, so there was no way that people thought about traveling. And I think I wanted to get out. As a first step, I studied languages, thinking that that would be a way of eventually getting out. And then, while I was a student in Munich, I worked at a travel agency, thinking that would get me out.”

She started an undergraduate degree in journalism and French but abandoned her studies in 1957 when she got a job with Pan Am as a stewardess. The job not only permitted her to travel but provided her with a green card. She became an American citizen in 1963. Ernestine remembers her time as a stewardess as “wonderful, really, really wonderful.” After just a year and a half, however, she left Pan Am to marry an American physician named Schlant. “I was married for a couple of years” is all she’ll say about that half decade in her life. Her daughter from that union, Stephanie, is now 40 years old and has four children of her own. (“She’s very loving and full of energy,” Stephanie says of her mother. “She’s very smart, but a lot of people are smart. My mom has a sparkle to her.”)

In the late fifties, Ernestine went back to school at Emory University to complete an undergraduate degree in Romance languages. She obtained her doctorate in comparative literature from Emory as well, and today she is known professionally as Dr. Schlant. In a country where political life has always had a vital strain of anti-intellectualism, Ernestine Schlant has written three books (the first two about the Austrian novelist and philosopher Hermann Broch and the third about how German novelists have treated the Holocaust), co-edited a collection of scholarship on postwar fiction in West Germany and Japan, co-written several college textbooks for students of German, and translated Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics into German.

Ernestine Schlant met Bill Bradley in 1970, when she was living in midtown Manhattan. She had temporarily left the university world to work for a film-production company. “I felt I could not spend the rest of my life saying, ‘Oh, if only I had … ,’ ” she explains. “I thought I was going to be the Kafka interpreter on film.” The company made educational films, and she worked on a series of interviews with artists about the creative process. Somebody suggested that she ask Bill Bradley, who was then playing basketball for the Knicks, to interview the poet Marianne Moore, since Moore was such a great sports fan. Ernestine found out that she and Bill lived in the same apartment building and slipped a note under his door. The film never happened, but Bill asked her out on a date. “What I found fascinating was that he was so sweet,” she recalls. “And then, he’s so tall. The combination of that gentility and yet this overpowering physical presence I found very interesting. I thought of Bill as such a gentle and kind and sensitive person, yet on the court, you know, he used his elbows. It was rough! That contrast I found most intriguing.” Bill had always been eager to prove himself more than just a jock, and he appreciated that Ernestine was highly intelligent. That she knew nothing about sports made her more appealing.

The two were married in 1974. Four years later, when Bradley ran for Senate, Ernestine campaigned for him at night and on weekends. But because of her job at Montclair State, where she is a professor of German and comparative literature, she spent much less time in Washington than the average Senate wife. Typically, she would visit from Thursday through Sunday, or Bill would return to New Jersey on the weekends. Even when their daughter, Theresa Anne, moved to Washington to be able to spend more time with her father, Ernestine stayed in New Jersey. (Now 23, Theresa Anne is a student at NYU.)

These days, the family’s main residence is in Montclair. “We used to live further out, towards the Delaware Water Gap,” says Ernestine. “But after I had cancer, the commute was too far for me. I said, you know, I really want to live very close to where I work. And Montclair is a wonderful community; very interesting people live there. It’s a little bit artsy. It’s also very well integrated racially. And it has a beautiful view of New York – you sort of rise up on those moraines from the Ice Age and you can look at this city.” Ernestine was treated with a mastectomy and chemotherapy, and she has now been free of cancer for seven years. Last May, she took a sabbatical, switched to using her husband’s last name, and started campaigning full-time. When she makes health-related speeches, often at hospitals, she discusses her battle against cancer. “I feel the cancer has given me a strength, and has sort of set my priorities and my values. The campaign – of course it’s very, very important, but it’s not the most important thing. Bill and I, we have always had a good marriage, but the cancer has sort of crystallized it and helped us find a new depth of relationship that we didn’t even know existed before. And that is the most important thing. That’s what cancer has helped me to see, and to be grateful for.”

It might have been expected that Ernestine’s job would be to add sophistication or heft to the campaign, but her husband is cerebral enough. Paradoxically, what the highly credentialed Ernestine has contributed most to the Bradley campaign has been to supply a window into her husband’s human side. Bill Bradley can seem aloof, but his scholarly wife turns out to be warm, outgoing, and affecting – the very qualities that he’s often accused of lacking.

On a balmy night in southern California, the grounds of the Hotel Bel-Air look like a fairyland, sparkling with strings of small white lights. In a salmon-colored room lit by white votive candles, furniture designer Rose Tarlow and Jane Eisner, who is married to Michael Eisner, the CEO of Disney, greet the Los Angeles power brokers whom they have invited to a literary discussion with Ernestine Bradley. Her latest book, The Language of Silence: West German Literature and the Holocaust, was published last year. Its topic is the way in which German non-Jewish authors have dealt with the Holocaust, or, more specifically, how their language inadvertently reveals the failure of German society as a whole to come to terms with it.

Before Ernestine hit the campaign trail, she talked with her husband about how her German background would be received by the American public. There is the fact, for example, that her father served in the Luftwaffe. “Bill and I talked about it, but, you know, we are a country of immigrants,” she says. “From that point of view, I am a typical American. You come from different cultural backgrounds, and I think it’s an enrichment. I think that’s why this country is so dynamic as opposed to other countries. So I feel good about it, and I have yet to find adverse reactions.”

Less than two miles from Passau, the Bavarian town where Ernestine grew up, was a labor camp where prisoners were worked to death. As is the case with many Germans of her age, she has been unable to determine exactly how much her parents knew about what was happening down the road. “When you asked, ‘Well, why didn’t you know?’ they said, ‘We simply didn’t know,’ ” she says. “So, you could choose not to believe it, but you couldn’t get much else of an answer.”

The cover of The Language of Silence features an eerie photograph taken by Ernestine of a memorial at the Grunewald train station in Berlin, where trains once departed for Auschwitz. The memorial consists of a solid concrete wall perforated by a series of human silhouettes. It is an embodiment of absence. In her book, Ernestine argues that the texts she examines are like the wall and that the gaps or silences in them, like those silhouettes, reveal profound absences – emotional voids in the German psyche. Her Bel-Air audience consists of Disney executives, academics from UCLA, and doctors from Cedars-Sinai Health System, as well as Sydney Pollack, and Patricia Richardson of Home Improvement fame. Many, if not most, of the people in the room are Jewish. Michael Eisner arrives late, looking tall and stoop-shouldered in a navy suit, and goes straight over to greet Ernestine, who’s surrounded by people. I ask if he is supporting her husband. “Because of ABC News, my support has to be in my heart as opposed to in my mouth,” he says. “I’ve known Bill forever, supported him in all of his Senate races, but now I’ve got to be relatively bi-partisan. But obviously, I think he’s great.”

Waiters in white jackets serve puff pastry to the guests, who sit at small round tables. Jane Eisner, who is wearing black go-go boots, a short black skirt, and a powder-blue silk jacket, silences the crowd by walking onto the stage. “Ernestine is the ultimate juggler,” she tells the crowd. “She’s a wife, a mother, grandmother, educator, author, cancer survivor, and Bill Bradley’s secret weapon.”

What follows surely ranks among the most unusual campaign-related events of this election cycle. Before plate-glass windows that look onto an elaborate fern garden, Ernestine delivers a passionate and highly detailed 75-minute lecture on postwar German literature. At one point, she summarizes the plot of a story by Heinrich Böll called “Across the Bridge.” The narrator is a war veteran who is returning home by train. It turns out that this is the same journey he used to make as a messenger for the Third Reich, delivering documents marked pending cases. He claims not to have known what the pending cases were about. But as Ernestine points out, the folders were yellow, a color that she notes was “not innocent” in the context of Nazi Germany.

It’s jarring to hear a presidential candidate’s wife discuss the Holocaust in this lush setting. But even if there is a certain impropriety to the evening, it was propriety that had silenced her parents. Ernestine is drawn to difficult subjects, the things you aren’t supposed to talk about. The typical politician’s wife spends most of her time avoiding anything that could be considered problematic, but here is Ernestine Bradley, wading into the thorniest subject of the twentieth century. The more she speaks, the less she seems like any First Lady this country has ever known … or imagined.

After she finishes her lecture, the group keeps her for another 45 minutes. She answers questions, then signs copies of her book. She stays until the last guest leaves, then walks out with Jane and Michael Eisner. “You were a star!” Jane tells her. Michael chimes in: “You were! You were fabulous!” Then they all slip into the sleek black Lincoln Town Car with a tan leather interior that is waiting for them in front of the hotel and disappear into the Los Angeles darkness.

Bill Bradley’s Secret Weapon