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.
He just couldn’t open up. The following day, as he finished a press conference in a back room of a senior center, I managed to catch him one-on-one, and I asked him to name a few books that had influenced him. Books as character-enhancement prop were fairly fresh in the news then, W just having fished James Chace’s Dean Acheson biography out of some fortunate memory hole as evidence that he did, in fact, read. We all know you genuinely do read, I said to Bradley; but what?
He smiled nervously, looked at the ground, shook his head, and fidgeted. “If I mention something,” he said, “then that will get picked up, and that will become the book. So …” he carried on in that vein, but by this time three or four other journalists had gathered around, started gently teasing him. He had to say something now, so he came up with The Unconscious Civilization by John Ralston Saul. I vaguely know Saul (though I don’t know this book) as a political philosopher from Canada whose notions about the Enlightenment are, well, resistant to category. But neither title nor author struck the slightest chord with the group. The conversation, no doubt to Bradley’s great relief, went pffft.
That’s who he is; it wasn’t going to change. In 1978, during his first Senate campaign, staff and volunteers weren’t allowed to pick him up at home. They met him at a nearby gas station. After he won, the Washington Post “Style” section – a D.C. tastemaker, and a place where people pay flacks thousands to try landing them a nice write-up – wanted to profile him, and he said no (“I wanted to be a U.S. Senator,” he wrote in his memoir, “not a star”). This is reticence as eccentricity. The No-Talk Express.
Ideas, especially Big Liberal Ideas, have limitations, because only about a quarter of the country really gives a fig anyway. And ideas kind of throw people, even, or perhaps especially, their endorsers – in a presidential race, to be too specific is to hand the foe ammunition, like letting the other army visit your gunpowder magazine. Bradley’s health-care proposal is, as a matter of policy, a fine idea. But politically, it did a lot more for Gore, however dishonestly Gore represented it, than it did for Bradley, who was never able to defend it. The appeal of ideas – Bradley – is narrow, while the appeal of the personal confessional – McCain – is boundless. Some liberals love McCain, even though he votes for everything they detest, while the man whose ideas are the most liberal, they don’t like so much. I guess it’s what Bradley deserves, because he miscalculated, made lots of mistakes, came across as superior. But if you actually happen to believe in the things Bradley’s been espousing, and suspect that he could be a better president than he is a candidate, it’s a little depressing.
Gore understood this. He’s not Mr. Personal Confessional, but he understood, and understands, that you don’t win a political race with intellectual depth and abstraction. You win it by speaking at banquets, taking people’s calls, and listening, just endlessly. That’s what politics is, really. When Gore attacked Bradley for being a quitter because he left the Senate, it was ridiculous, in one way, because obviously a man should be free to pursue his own path in life. But it stuck as a charge; people who pursue their own paths in life don’t win a party’s presidential nomination. Party animals do.
So when the vice president was stumbling last October, when Bradley was comfortably ahead of him in New York, Gore didn’t put out a raft of policy proposals. He went and spent the night at Eliot Spitzer’s farmhouse up in Columbia County. He and Spitzer went for a jog. “I had a couple of hours to talk to him alone,” Spitzer says, “and he did say to me that they did not take the Bradley campaign seriously until early September. It shows that the Washington operation was out of touch.” The next morning, Gore, Spitzer, Carl McCall, Sheldon Silver, and a few others strategized in Spitzer’s living room, talked about how to put the pieces of the campaign together. Afterward, Spitzer hosted a meeting of 150 party leaders from around the state out in a tent in the yard. “He was great,” Spitzer says. “It was clear that he had released himself from the emotional baggage of Washington.”
Also in October, Gore’s New York people – state director Eric Eve, communications director Peter Ragone, Karenna Gore-Schiff, others – took control of a campaign saddled with way too many chefs. “There were a lot of factions,” says one Democrat. “Andrew Cuomo’s group, Silver’s group, McCall’s group. Not them deliberately, but their supporters. If any one segment tried to dominate, the others would act out.” The Gore operatives corralled everybody. They met with various local party leaders around the state, and saw that local activists had face time with the candidate to “make sure there was a connection between Al Gore and the activist base,” in the words of Long Island Democrat Robert Zimmerman. They sat with other local leaders – for example, in Jerry Nadler’s congressional district. Nadler had endorsed Bradley, and the Gore camp didn’t want to see this virus spread any further. It didn’t. Charlie Rangel got Harlem together. “We said, ‘We’ve gotta turn this thing around,’ ” Ragone says. “We did.”
That, too, is what a campaign’s about. Bradley had a core New York group – Nadler, Pat Moynihan, Ed Koch, former Cuomo aide Michael Del Giudice, a handful of elected officials. But against the Gore machine they were like the Polish army of 1939, on horseback. Naturally, it helps to be the sitting vice-president, and most of Gore’s backers had already endorsed him months before. But give Gore credit for going to these people, asking for direction. By the time New Hampshire was over, Gore’s New York people were able to watch their man fly into La Guardia after midnight and have more than 500 people there to greet him. Freezing-cold night, too. Let’s face it, they weren’t there because they adore Al Gore. They were there because he is the deal they’ve struck; they feel, all things considered, like he’s earned it, and maybe he has.
The day after the New Hampshire primary, Bradley spoke at the Judson Memorial Church, on Washington Square Park. He was fresh off his decent finish in New Hampshire – truth be told, coming within five points wasn’t all that great; it seemed better because the networks didn’t call it until nearly three hours after the polls closed, which gave the numbers a touch of drama they didn’t quite earn. But it kept him alive, and it jazzed the crowd, which was huge. Ed Koch spoke, and he was great. Awfully impressive set of lungs for 75. He makes everyone raise their right hand, swear they’ll “rush to the polls on March 7 and bring ten friends” to vote for Bradley.
Bradley himself has this unfortunate habit of going on about fifteen minutes longer than he ought to. Twenty minutes in, he’s got ‘em. He’s talking about being on the Senate Finance Committee and seeing the hallway packed with lobbyists when the committee is writing the tax bill. He imitates a lobbyist calling a client, crouching and whispering: “Mr. Jones! Mr. Jones, I got your loophole through! You don’t have to pay any taxes!” Then, three weeks later, the committee holds a hearing on child poverty, and of course, the only thing in the hall is dust. I’ve heard the speech more than a dozen times by now, and this is always the part that really sinks in.
Then he goes on for another ten, fifteen minutes; the rhetoric, about the “innate goodness of the American people” and “the untapped potential of the presidency,” starts to go a little soupy. Imagine going to see Springsteen, watching him ripsnort his way through his five greatest hits, you think the show’s ending, and then he decides to do side two of Nebraska. And why, in Greenwich Village of all places, doesn’t he mention that he wants to protect sexual orientation under civil-rights law? “Well, maybe … Yeah. Fair point,” says one supporter.
It’s after this that I’m scheduled to ride with the candidate from the Village up to the Sheraton. Riding with a candidate is always complicated business, because you kind of don’t want to let other reporters know you’re doing it, but then you kind of do, because, after all, they aren’t. And, as ever, this process involves lots of standing around and doing nothing. It turns out that after the event, Bradley went down to the church basement to give a speech that was being fed live to supporters gathered in hotel ballrooms around California and other March 7 states. Upstairs, press secretary Eric Hauser was holding a press conference with about ten reporters, straining to be heard above the clamor of metal chairs being folded up and carted off.
Finally, an hour and a half after the event ends, we climb in the van. Bradley, Ernestine, a couple of aides. I know writers almost always say this about politicians, but up close … you know. He’s a nice guy. He’s no different, really, than he is in public – he does not, in other words, gush warmth. But he’s friendly enough, and he actually asks me a couple of questions about me, which I take as a sign of decency not only in politicians but in people generally. Of course we talk about New Hampshire and what it means and how he plans to proceed from here and so forth; then we get into the West Thirties, and even though we’re going up Tenth, we’re close enough to the Garden that I figure I can work it in. I tell him about taking a train to New York one night in 1966, alighting at Penn Station just after a Knicks game had ended, and winding up with his autograph. Window to the old days jimmied open, I ask about them.
“I lived at Eighth and 52nd,” he says. “Well, my first year I lived on 57th between Eighth and Ninth, and then we moved a couple of blocks down to Eighth Avenue – 888 Eighth Avenue. I took a taxi to the games. It became a ritual. My wife always used to joke that I was this great athlete but I’d take a taxi five blocks.” (She chimes in: “Five blocks? Half a block!”) They went to Gallagher’s, and a place on 51st called Cheshire Cheese.
I hope, I’m thinking, that this New York that he clearly loves doesn’t end up finishing him off. “Hope springs eternal,” Koch told me last week, suggesting that Bradley’s last best hope is a series of Perot-style infomercials. Bradley may win some states on March 7, in New England, but, unless lightning strikes, not New York, certainly not California. The better candidate, technically speaking, will have won. But in victory, Gore ought to note the millions who went with the other guy. In November, ideas will matter again, and Bradley has some good ones.