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.”)
In any case, this constellation of superstars has clearly gotten to Gore. Whether his aides care to admit it or not, they’re quietly waging a celebrity-endorsement war, and the subtext is race. Just two weeks ago, Bill Cosby provided the entertainment at a Bethesda fund-raiser for the vice-president, where Gore gleefully shared with the mostly black audience his latest letter of endorsement – from Los Angeles Lakers center Shaquille O’Neal. (“My biggest supporter,” the vice-president crowed.)
The Gore campaign also made a little splash last week by appointing veteran Capitol Hill pro Donna Brazile, an African-American woman, as the vice-president’s campaign manager.
Bradley may have the political edge, though. By running to the left of the vice-president, he’s floating policy proposals that appeal to many blacks who’ve lost faith in their representation. “There is an uneasiness between rank-and-file blacks and party people,” says Ronald Walters, deputy campaign manager to Jesse Jackson in 1984 and a political-science professor at the University of Maryland, “because the Democratic party has shifted to the right, and Bradley could easily capitalize on that. The blacks he’s going for are precisely the ones the party has alienated – the ones in the hinterlands who don’t see policies working for them.”
And the political dilemma could become a financial one. “There is, potentially, a giant conflict in the middle of the black community on this issue,” says Walters. “The sports and entertainment people – these are the money people. If they start to give money to Bradley in large amounts, it’s going to cut into the relationship with blacks and the Democratic Establishment in a very fundamental way.”
So what is it about Bradley that has so many members of the African-American vanguard enthralled? Based on his television persona, he’s just about the last man on the planet with whom one can imagine getting jiggy. He speaks in stentorian tones, he looks uncomfortably burdened by his own strapping bulk, and he seems almost estranged from an essential part of himself.
Get Bradley in a small room talking about the subject of race, however, and his audience is immediately spellbound. “He’s the only white politician I’ve ever heard use the phrase white-skin privilege,” says Tavis Smiley, the host of BET Tonight, one of the top-rated programs on Black Entertainment Network. “I mean, it just knocked you back in your seat. You could feel it in the room. I said to myself, ’My God, did that white boy just say white-skin privilege?!’ “
Smiley is talking about a speech Bradley gave at a forum for black business and media leaders sponsored by Emerge in September. It was a beautiful Washington evening, the skyline was in full view, and Cornel West, prancing on tiptoe and speaking with his usual pyrotechnics, introduced the former senator. Smiley remembers thinking it could only go downhill from there. “I really only planned to walk in and do the courtesy visit,” he says. “Instead, I found myself staying the entire time.”
He isn’t the only one Bradley has enchanted. Anna Deavere Smith felt compelled to channel Bradley’s intellectual and, yes, emotional intensity about race in Twilight Los Angeles, 1992, her one-woman show about the aftermath of the L.A. riots. Dropping into a masculine baritone, she slipped on Bradley’s persona and told a riveting story, using the senator’s own words, about a young black law intern who got pulled over by the police in a posh white neighborhood of Los Angeles. He was on his way to a partner’s Sunday social event. “What did the senior partner of that law firm do on Monday?” she re-enacts him saying. “Did the partner call the police commissioner? Did the partner call anybody? The answer is no. And it goes to, well, who’s got responsibility here?”
It’s tempting (and, indeed, clichéd) to trace Bradley’s passion about racial equality back to his experiences on his integrated Little League baseball team in Crystal City, Missouri, and, later, as a basketball player for both Princeton University and the New York Knicks. But that doesn’t do justice to either Bradley’s supporters or Bradley himself.
True, Bradley experienced firsthand the effects of racism when his Little League team had to stay in third-rate hotels. And true, he discovered early in his Knicks career that he, not his black teammates, would be the one to receive offers for product endorsements. But Bradley also turned down those endorsements. A different person might have done otherwise.
“I think growing up in the family I grew up in was important,” says Bradley. “My father was a small-town banker, and he had a lot of expressions. One of them was: ‘You can never tell whether somebody is going to pay their loan by the color of their skin.’ That’s the earliest I can trace it to.”
What Bradley’s life in basketball may have enabled him to do is speak with more familiarity and less trepidation about race. (Or, as Bradley casually puts it: “I have a lot of friends who are African-American.”) And because honesty about race is one of the qualities black Americans crave the most in their leaders, Bradley’s unflinching candor is one of his best assets – and weapons. He’s the same guy at a lectern that he was on the basketball court: a straight shooter.
When Bradley spoke at the National Action Network three weeks ago, for instance, he didn’t mince words. While condemning police brutality, he told a willful audience of 500 that no, he did not support a reparations bill to compensate its victims. “That struck me,” says Sharpton, “because he wasn’t just playing to the crowd.”
In an interview with Spike Lee two years ago, he was even more blunt. The two men were sitting up in the Schomburg library in Harlem, talking basketball for Lee’s book, Best Seat in the House. Over the course of the discussion, Bradley mentioned that his aunt – “Aunt Bub” – habitually used the term nigger to describe black people.
“I think most politicians would be leery about suggesting that any of their relatives used that word,” says Lee. “And I know George Bush wouldn’t confess to that. Hell no. Never.”
Yet for a man who feels so strongly about racial unity, Bradley has alarmingly little to show for it on paper. His most significant legislative accomplishment was the big tax-reform bill of 1986 – not exactly a priority for African-Americans at the time – and the other subjects he mastered in Congress lay in obscure corners of public policy: Third and Second World debt relief, water subsidies for California farmers. When he announced his retirement in 1996, the pundits promptly mourned the departure of another moderate – moderate – from Congress; the health-care plan he unveiled last month is a far cry from the health-care plan he crafted with Senate moderates in 1994, which would have insured far fewer children and even fewer adults.
“I’ve often said that no one speaks more eloquently on the subject of race than Bill Bradley,” says Charles Rangel, the Harlem Democrat who was serving in Congress when Bradley was still refining his jump shot. “But if my life depended on it, I could not think of what his legislative legacy is.”
Nor did Bradley take much advantage of the Senate floor – which, thanks to C-span, is one of the nation’s greatest soapboxes – to make a rhetorical contribution to the national dialogue on race. When Rodney King was brutalized by the Los Angeles Police Department, the New Jersey senator did give a moving speech, thumping the lectern 56 times to demonstrate just how many blows King had sustained. But it’s one of the few speeches anyone can remember from his eighteen-year career.
Once he left Congress, Bradley started talking seriously about racial unity again. But to political veterans, mere talk was not enough. “I heard him deliver three major speeches in person this past summer,” says Walters, Jackson’s former aide. “He spoke in relative generalities, and I’ve been looking for the meat here.”
Bradley begs to differ, saying that he has provided “specific, programmatic answers that really are aimed to reduce the number of children in poverty,” such as universal access to health care and solutions for day care. Yet the one specific human-rights initiative Bradley has thus far proposed on the campaign trail – extending the Civil Rights Act to cover gays – has alarmed some black leaders, including Rangel, who supports Gore, and the Reverend Jesse Jackson, who has yet to endorse a candidate. They fear that ripping open the 35-year-old measure, the cornerstone of racial justice since the Johnson administration, will give the Republicans in Congress a chance to repeal it altogether. Who in the Congressional Black Caucus wants this bill in the hands of Trent Lott?
Of course, Gore’s record on issues of concern to most African-Americans looks almost exactly like Bradley’s. Both candidates have had their differences with African-American leaders: Bradley, by voting for an experimental program in school vouchers; Gore, by promoting with Clinton the most sweeping changes in welfare reform. (In “reinventing government,” Gore also managed, inadvertently, to trim a disproportionate number of blacks from the executive branch of government.)
The critical difference between the candidates may not be about race at all, but about political style. While still in Congress, Gore was much more accessible to his colleagues than Bradley, who generally kept to himself. And Gore did understand that his pet issues, like the environment, weren’t isolated from the issue of race. As James E. Clyburn, the South Carolina Democrat who heads the Black Caucus, points out: “When you talk about economic development and you don’t deal with the environmental component of it, you are asking people of color to choose between a good job and good health. Gore understands that.”
Over the past seven years, Gore also helped push several measures through Congress that black lawmakers had crafted – most notably, Rangel’s 1993 initiative to create dozens of empowerment zones around the country, which now total 31. Gore can also claim that he helped create the most diverse White House administration in history, and that he presided with Clinton over a booming economy in which median incomes of African-Americans rose and poverty rates dropped to the lowest they’ve been since 1959.
For many current members of Congress, feelings of gratitude and personal loyalty extend even beyond Al Gore. They go back to his father. “Those of us who came out of the civil-rights movement in the South became enamored with certain people who had the intestinal fortitude to stand up for the issues we were fighting for,” says Clyburn. “And of course, Al Gore Sr. was one of those people – he opposed the Southern Manifesto.”
Then again, members of Congress, both black and white, are under considerable pressure to endorse the Establishment candidate. Consider: Edolphus Towns, a black House Democrat from Brooklyn, supports Gore. But his son Darryl, a Democratic assemblyman also from Brooklyn, supports Bradley. “I think my father’s perspective is a little more Washington-based,” Towns Jr. says judiciously.
Congressmen Towns and Major Owens didn’t protest, either, when another Brooklyn assemblyman, Al Vann, invited Bradley to speak with a group of community leaders last June.
“Before I reached out,” says Vann, who backs Bradley, “I talked to them, and they were very supportive of the move. They thought it was a good thing to do. That, in and of itself, gives you a strong indication of their feelings about him. They didn’t say, ‘No, we’re with Gore – don’t do it!’ I think they’ll be going with Gore, but their hearts will be with Bradley.”
Clearly, Bradley’s best hope in this campaign is to circumvent the Establishment and take his message directly to the disaffected. But projecting empathy, sincerity, and compassion – what we might call character, in short – is not easy to do in a big forum or on the big screen. By definition, these are understated traits; to declaim them would negate them, or at the very least arouse suspicion. When Clinton famously declared that he felt our pain, we ridiculed him for weeks, and seven years later, we’re still not sure he meant it. Bradley, who probably does feel the burden of his white-skin privilege and probably can feel the pain of those who don’t have it, may never be able to convey that to a national audience. Or at least not to screaming stadiums of thousands, which he so ably commanded as a ballplayer two decades ago.
Bradley concedes that this may be true but believes he can overcome it. And then, he says, he’ll be able to make his appeals straight from the Oval Office. “I think the bully pulpit of the presidency cannot be underestimated,” says Bradley. But is it enough?
“Part of being good on race is not marginalizing the question of race,” says Sharpton. “So do I want Gore, who’ll do something for me in private, or do I want Bradley, who will speak to my issues in public?” He pauses. “I’ll put it to you even more bluntly: Sometimes a mistress gets more gifts than the wife. But I want someone who will be seen with me when I go out.”