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 TIME CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics with Congressional Quarterly

The art of being Bradley

He's compassionate, prickly, introspective and shrewd--and his high-minded pitch could grab the nomination from Gore

By Eric Pooley

TIME magazine

September 27, 1999
Web posted at: 12:30 p.m. EDT (1630 GMT)

This is a good day to be Bill Bradley. It's a warm September afternoon, the day Bradley presides over his campaign kickoff in his boyhood hometown of Crystal City, Mo.--and the day the chattering classes begin to realize what Bradley already knows: he has maneuvered himself into position to wrest the Democratic presidential nomination from Al Gore. The former basketball star and three-term New Jersey Senator has just given what some are calling the most effective speech of his career, a fuzzy, conversational, unabashedly idealistic sermon that sells him as the savior of politics itself ("The American people have a right to be skeptical, but I have a right to try to change that skepticism"). Polls in key states put him in a dead heat with Gore. In the new TIME/CNN poll, he leads Gore in New Hampshire for the first time. While the Vice President is suffering the effects of Clinton fatigue, message confusion and a consultant-heavy campaign that's hemorrhaging money, Bradley is running a lean, focused operation. More and more it seems that Bradley's inscrutable nature--high-mindedness, dogged integrity and apparent indifference to the game of politics--might be tailor-made for the post-Clinton era. And surely it doesn't hurt that he had that wicked jump shot way back when.

So how does Bradley mark this euphoric moment? Half an hour after his big speech--an act of enormous extroversion that required him to brag about his athleticism, discipline and small-town purity--he is visibly withdrawing, pulling back into himself. Folded into a chair on the stage in the packed and jubilant Crystal City High School gym, the scene of his earliest hoop glory, he's listening to old friends extol his essential goodness, but he's looking bored and distracted one minute, uncomfortable the next: it's hard for him to cede control of his own story. A black Little League teammate reminisces about the 11-year-old Bradley threatening to call the mayor of Joplin, Mo., if a local hotel didn't rent the black kid a room, and the 56-year-old Bradley chews his lip and looks at the floor. His second grade music teacher sings his praises, and he gazes into the distance, even forgetting to thank her as she goes by--until his wife, Ernestine Schlant, elbows him and he hauls himself out of the chair and gives the old lady a hug.

Finally it is Bradley's turn to speak. Back in control, he relaxes; surrounded by supporters, relatives and old buddies, he tells a story about being alone. "I cannot tell you how many hours I spent in this space," he says, looking around the gym. "After one night when we lost, early the next morning I was back." He'd come by himself to work on his shooting. "The bleachers were still pulled out, there were popcorn boxes on the floor, and I felt I was home--in the place I spent more time than any other."

At a moment that calls for an ode to community, Bradley offers a parable of solitude. It's a revealing story, because what's most fascinating about Bradley is the tension between his ambition and his reserve, between where he wants to go and what it takes to get there--the essential contradiction of an introspective man forcing himself into that most outgoing of roles, the big-time presidential candidate. "My problem is that my aspirations demand that I create something that I cannot control completely." Bradley wrote those words about basketball, but they ring equally true about his presidential bid. Watching him bridge the distance between himself and others, you see a man trying to overcome his nature in order to achieve what he regards as his destiny. "The thing that is most attractive to him is the thing that eludes him," says his friend, the writer John Edgar Wideman. "It's the thing he'll devote endless time, energy and concentration to."

And so Bradley taught himself how to meet and greet. "He seems to want to prove that he finds other people interesting," wrote John McPhee in his famous 1965 New Yorker profile of Bradley. Today Bradley can interact warmly with strangers, flatter business moguls with disarming questions about their lives, yet never quite lose his proud reserve, a diffidence stoked by 40 years of stardom in sport and politics--in high school, as a three-time All-American at Princeton, as captain of the gold medal-winning 1964 Olympic team, as a Hall of Famer with the world champion New York Knicks and in 18 years as a U.S. Senator. "Detachment became his protection," says McPhee, who remains a friend. Bradley is confident, watchful; when he left the Senate in 1996, he spent two years traveling the country, talking and listening to people, looking inside himself. And when he decided that he was ready and that those who said the nomination belonged to Gore were wrong, he committed himself to the race with a shrewd, methodical relentlessness that harks back to his Scotch-Irish forebears--members of the tough and lonely ethnic group that in the 18th century emigrated from the British Isles, tamed the Appalachian highlands and led the great push west to California.

"Being Scotch Irish," Bradley wrote in his 1996 memoir, Time Present, Time Past, "is always to assess your chances before you strike... Being Scotch Irish is to recognize that once or twice or several times in your life defeat will seem certain, but never to give up when faced with this moment, instead to persevere, to advance... Being Scotch Irish is to recognize...that only you, the solitary individual, will make your own way in the world... Loneliness can be full of existential angst, but it can also provide room to rest. "

Bradley believes Americans are lonelier than ever, and he talks frequently about the need to become "less lonely, less isolated, less fearful." When asked about this, he at first says his feeling for the issue is based on surveys. Asked again, he says, "There have been periods of my life where there was a loneliness. Now, if you talk about that, please don't exaggerate it." Bradley's friend Cornel West, the Harvard professor of Afro-American studies, recalls deep conversations on the subject in which Bradley drew from the works of Emily Dickinson, Sherwood Anderson and Thornton Wilder, all of whom dealt searchingly with themes of solitude and aloneness. "I think he recognizes the personal and the political" dimensions of the issue, says West.

The heart of Bradley's appeal isn't his Senate record or athletic prowess but what supporters see as his deep and abiding virtue; detractors call it sanctimony. At Princeton, McPhee reported, Bradley was such a straight arrow that classmates called him the Martyr; he listened to Climb Every Mountain from The Sound of Music before each game. "Basketball...is not an ordeal," said his Princeton coach, Butch van Breda Kolff. "I think Bradley's happiest whenever he can deny himself pleasure." Today Bradley's "moral altitude," as McPhee called it, manifests itself in a campaign devoted to liberal ideals: racial harmony, justice for the poor, campaign-finance reform, health coverage for the uninsured. (This week he is scheduled to present his health-care-reform plan; aides say it will go well beyond Gore's insure-the-children platform.)

To signal his own decency, Bradley makes a show of presenting himself honestly, unhandled by handlers. "The idea," he told me recently, "is to run a campaign that's not packaged." So he is low-key and intelligent on the stump, refusing to indulge in some of the sillier rituals of the trail and poking fun at the process when he can. He means this to be wry and amusing, and sometimes it is. When Sam Donaldson asked him about drug use on ABC's This Week, Bradley was playful enough to turn the question around: "I have used marijuana several times in my life, but never cocaine... Have you?" Soon the pundits were engaged in a deliciously silly round of what-I-did-and-didn't-do. But at other times, Bradley's style just comes off as cranky. He doesn't want to name his favorite books; he's mock-aghast when a TV reporter asks him to pose for the camera on an X that's been duct-taped to the floor, because it feels too show biz ("Have we already come to this?").

In other words, not packaging has become its own package. Bradley likes to pretend that everything he says and does flows naturally from who he is and what he believes. In fact, he is a calculating man who approaches campaigning the way he approached basketball: by analysis and repetition, breaking every shot and move down to its component parts, then mastering them. He boasts about taking no polls but has a pollster, Diane Feldman, who will soon be conducting surveys. He doesn't mind reporters knowing that he drives an '84 Oldsmobile or that his Iowa headquarters rents for $500 a month, but he doesn't want them to see the borrowed Gulfstream IV he sometimes flies in. High-end corporate jets don't fit his insurgent image. In fact, nothing about Bradley is as simple as he makes it sound. He exploits his legend while maintaining an ironic distance from it ("He carries his celebrity around like a little backpack," says McPhee) and makes the most of his fame while fiercely guarding his privacy.

But when Bradley works hard to connect, when he really tries to project himself to an audience, his ironic detachment vanishes. He becomes earnest, a secular minister preaching a message that has only the most tenuous relationship to conventional politics. Bradley isn't comfortable delivering a tub thumper, and he isn't any good at it. But he is good at drawing people into his verbal world, creating a quiet space in which his ideals seem within reach. "The Dow Jones is at record heights," he said in Crystal City, but "such numbers are not the measure of all things. They do not measure what is in our heads and our hearts. They do not measure a young girl's smile or a little boy's first handshake or a grandmother's pride... They tell us little about the magic of a good marriage or the satisfaction of a life led true to its own values." Such words tell us little about what he intends to do as President, so pundits find them easy to ridicule, but voters are responding to them.

At the end of the prosperous '90s, middle-class Americans seem inclined to ruminate about matters of soul and spirit, about doing good in addition to doing well, and politicians are responding by wearing their religion on their sleeves and offering slogans like George W. Bush's "Prosperity with a Purpose." But Bradley's spiritual pitch differs from his rivals' in two important respects. First, he was offering his brand of cosmic humanism long before the political consultants realized people might be receptive to it. Almost two years ago in Greensboro, N.C., I watched him transfix 1,200 people at a volunteerism conference with a riff about "being alive to the smallest things: a child's question, the color of a turning leaf, a sight you've never seen that you pass on your way to work each day." Second, unlike Bush and Gore, Bradley doesn't mention God during his poetic flights. He is a believer--he was raised a Presbyterian, passed through a period of Christian Fundamentalism while young, but then rejected what he has since called "the narrowness of view" of evangelicals. He has written about being "open" to the essential truth of all faiths, but today he declines to discuss the subject. "That's one of the places where I draw the line," he says, and that feels refreshing in a year when other pols call press conferences to discuss their personal relationships with the Lord. For Bradley, though, this doesn't seem to be a tactical move so much as an ingrained character trait. Even at his most revealing, part of him remains cloaked.

"The issue is, How well can anyone ever know another person," Bradley asks, "if they only know that person in a public context?" We're sitting on the second floor of a cheerful bookshop in North Conway, N.H., sparring about the politician's obligation to reveal himself. Though Bradley's speeches trumpet bits of his glittering biography, he hates surrendering his story to others--especially to reporters who, he feels, take "snippets" and use them to draw wild conclusions. I ask if people have a right to learn about those who would be President. "That's more so today than any other time in our history," Bradley replies. "I'm not so sure they tried to figure out who Lincoln was or who F.D.R. was."

"So you prefer the 19th century--"

He cuts me off. "That was the 20th century." Bradley likes to challenge your question before it's out of your mouth; sometimes, it seems, he treats political reporters with the same disdain athletes routinely show sportswriters. In this case, we're both right, but I let it go. "You prefer the model of a politician who steps up, says his piece and then gets left in peace."

"Sure," he says. "You do have to share a certain amount. I think I have. But certainly you don't have to share everything."

He is still learning to share. Asked why such a private man would commit himself to public service, he at first replies with a terse, "My mother was always helping other people; that was a theme in the house," but becomes more expansive. "I always felt, you know, I was taller, bigger; I always wanted to help the smaller kid."

Bradley still owns the house where he grew up, across from the Presbyterian church and around the corner from the bank his father ran for three decades in Crystal City, on the west bank of the Mississippi. The town is now a sleepy bedroom community a half hour south of St. Louis, but when Bradley was growing up there, it was a vibrant place with a huge plate-glass factory, since closed. His father and mother were at the center of things. William Warren Bradley, who never attended college yet became majority stockholder of the Crystal City State Bank, suffered from calcified arthritis of the spine but used his Scotch-Irish stoicism to live with the pain. He couldn't bend at the waist or dress himself, but he walked to work every morning and sat at his desk so his customers would never see him as disabled. He was devoted to propriety and privacy. "He's twirling in his grave that we're telling you things," says the candidate's aunt, Hardeman Bond, "and Bill has that same quality."

Warren was 39 when he married Susie Crowe, then 31, a schoolteacher who was always volunteering to head a civic-club committee, teach Sunday school, throw a pot-luck party or lead choir rehearsal. She was the kind of woman, Warren once said fondly, who'll "even try to breathe for you." Susie poured her energy into her only child, structuring his time, fostering his sense of duty, making sure her Fine Young Man never got a swelled head. "She wouldn't let Bill win," says his high school teammate Tom Haley. "She told him he had unfair advantages, because she didn't want him to think he was special." Bond says, "Bill wasn't permitted to be difficult. Susie expected him to be well trained." When his mother held dances in her basement for the kids, she made sure Bill asked the fat girls to dance.

Bill never rebelled, but he did tune Susie out. At age 9, he withdrew into long, solitary hours on the basketball court, walling himself off with the game. "For many years, basketball was my only passion in life," he wrote in his first book, Life on the Run. "I pressed my physical and emotional life into basketball alone, and it made for a very intense feeling. I felt about the court, the ball and playing the way people feel about friends."

Since his father ran the bank in a factory town, Bill had to deal with class resentments. He had toys the other kids didn't--a TV in his bedroom, a pinball machine in the basement, which became the unofficial neighborhood rec center. Once when he was small, Susie went out looking for him, and saw bigger boys beating his legs with switches and jeering, "Dance, banker's son, dance!" ("I wasn't bloody or anything," Bradley says.) Every winter Bill and his parents went to Palm Beach, Fla., for six or so weeks because the warm weather soothed Warren's arthritis. There, he was the low-status kid. "We lived in a hotel," Bradley says. "Everybody else had mansions." After school in Florida, Bradley would find a court and spend hours alone practicing. "He was all by himself...communing with his basketball and his thoughts," says McPhee. "It was a very lonely scene. I've heard him speak a good bit about the absence of siblings." When he was 13, he told his parents he wouldn't go to Florida anymore.

Basketball was becoming his great connector: it turned him into one of the guys in Crystal City, where he made the high school varsity squad as a freshman, engendering further resentment until his play took the team to the top. An extraordinary shooter, he became famous for passing--another way to connect with his teammates. He practiced three or four hours a day, with weights in his sneakers to improve his jumping. It led to an acclaim that as McPhee once said, made Bradley "a personality before becoming a person." Known as the best high school ballplayer in Missouri history, he had college recruiters and newspapermen coming around all the time, but his parents weren't content to have their child be a jock. The pressure was always on him to study harder, aim higher, make something more of himself. And Bradley was willing to stay up half the night after a big win--not partying but studying. He seemed to enjoy the punishment. As his fame grew, he found escape in what he calls "a deepening of my own private world." He had to figure out who he was and what he wanted--choosing Princeton over basketball powerhouse Duke, for example, because Princeton graduated more Rhodes scholars and he wanted to go to Oxford. After graduating from Princeton and leading the U.S. Olympic basketball team in 1964, he won his Rhodes scholarship and spent two years at Oxford, then turned pro.

Playing for the Knicks was a standing invitation to the round-the-clock bash that was Manhattan in the late 1960s and early '70s, but Bradley did not partake. He kept his head in his books. "If you asked him a direct question, he'd answer you," says former teammate Willis Reed. "But in terms of volunteering information? That was not Bill." When he met Ernestine, in 1969, the attraction sprang in part from the fact that she didn't care what he did for a living. They were wed in a Palm Beach ceremony that all but one of his teammates learned about in the newspaper. "If you want to keep something quiet," he explains, "you keep it quiet."

In the early 1970s, Bradley traveled to Missouri to test the political waters. The state's Democratic machine offered to back him for state treasurer, but he turned the offer down; he wasn't interested in dues paying. As his Knicks career wound down in 1977, Bradley began preparing for a '78 Senate run from New Jersey, where he and Ernestine had moved a few years before. He was a celebrity, but he didn't have strong ties to the state's Democratic Party. "Bill was always in the party but never of the party," says Senator Robert Torricelli, who succeeded him in 1996. "He did not come from the ranks. There was always a little distance." Instead, he built a network of outsiders--Princeton alumni, basketball stars, business leaders who'd been courtside at the Garden season after season. It's the same kind of network he has put together for his presidential run. "Nobody else did it before or since," says Torricelli. Bradley won his first race in a romp, 55% to 43%.

As a fledgling politician, Bradley took his hunger for privacy to extremes. In his first campaign, he met his driver at a gas station in order to keep his address secret. His staff learned not to ask even innocuous personal questions, and new hires often didn't understand his attachment to silence in his car. They'd try to chat and he'd respond briskly, barely looking up from his book or paper, finally offering a sharp, "Can't you see I'm trying to read?" When Ernestine was found to have breast cancer in 1992, Bill leaned on no one. For weeks the staff watched as medical texts were delivered to his office from the Library of Congress. The books went into his chamber and the door shut. The staff members knew someone was sick, but they didn't know who. Since Ernestine's recovery, Bradley has often shown kindness to other couples coping with the disease. He calls up the husbands and empathizes. He likes to be leaned on.

Bradley often went his own way in the Senate, voting in favor of aid to the Nicaraguan contras in 1986 and against the welfare-reform bill of 1996. He made some friends among free-thinking colleagues such as Bob Kerrey of Nebraska and Pat Moynihan of New York (who endorsed him last week), but to most colleagues he remained a cipher. He was capable of looking beyond the horizon on complex issues--tax reform, Third World debt, the breakup of the Soviet Union--but never cared for dealmaking, horse trading or the care and feeding of colleagues, the dark arts that are essential to legislative success. "He arrived here a superstar," says Delaware Senator Joe Biden, who considers Bradley a friend. "It was the John Glenn thing, a big star from a big state. That automatically made him suspect to half his colleagues." Bradley never bothered to woo them. "When you shake hands with most politicians, they pull you toward them," Biden says. "Bill would push you away. I think it was because people were always in his face."

"When you look at him in politics," says Thomas Mann, a congressional scholar with the Brookings Institution, "you are disappointed because you know him to be an intelligent and good man. You want him to lead the charge, and you don't see him doing it. You expect so much and yet you usually come away having been let down."

When it really mattered to him--when he had a major bill to pass--Bradley was able to join the fray and get it done. To win votes, he did what he had to do, whether playing pickup basketball with other legislators (something he normally avoided) or teaming up with pols who played the legislative game better than he. For his landmark 1986 Tax Reform Act, he was the wonk and Illinois Representative Dan Rostenkowski was the strategist. And in his final term, when he championed the reform of water rights in California--a typically unconventional issue for a New Jersey pol--his guru became California Democrat George Miller, then chairman of the House Resources Committee. Perhaps he was thinking ahead to his presidential run and wanted an issue that would raise his profile in a key primary state. In any event, he plunged into this knotty local issue--well-connected California ranchers, growers and developers had for a century been getting far more than their fair share of the state's scarce water supply--and after years of study and consultation, proposed a new structure that helped small operators.

To get it passed, Miller proposed a delightfully diabolical strategy. He had Bradley, subcommittee chairman of Water and Power for the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, block every federal water project that came across his desk. By the time he and Miller were ready to move their bill, the demand for those "water pork" projects was enormous. Next, Bradley and Miller rolled their reform together with many of those projects in a single piece of omnibus legislation, so that for other lawmakers, the price of getting water pork was a vote in favor of reform. For Bradley, the price was agreeing to pork projects he loathed. "You bet he swallowed hard," says Thomas Jensen, then a top subcommittee staff member. "Given his druthers, he never would have supported them. But he knew what other Senators know--logrolling works."

Bradley makes fun of Clinton-Gore policies as "baby steps" and loves to tout his own "big ideas," but he knows the value of legislative incrementalism. Each year between 1986 and 1990, for example, he quietly passed legislation that extended Medicaid benefits to a larger and larger pool of pregnant women and children, lowering the eligibility requirements a little bit more each year. He used the same strategy to expand the Earned Income Tax Credit, which puts money in the pockets of low-income workers, and he championed such modest but helpful measures as the mandated 48-hr. maternity stay in hospitals. This is a self-effacing leadership style; Bradley calls it being "the leader that people didn't know was a leader." But that kind of leadership isn't necessarily presidential. And it isn't clear that Bradley, who had to rely on others to build the coalitions that passed his important bills, would have the skill as President to get his big ideas through Congress.

In his last race for the Senate, in 1990, Bradley got a comeuppance. While pundits were writing about his presidential ambitions, he was almost beaten by Republican Christine Todd Whitman--then a political novice, now New Jersey's Governor. To many, Bradley seemed out of touch with his state, and he refused to denounce Governor Jim Florio for a series of tax increases that had cost Florio his popularity. "It was a peculiar political price for Bradley to pay," says Torricelli, "because loyalty to local leaders was not his reputation. He didn't understand the sensitivity to these taxes, and it almost ended a brilliant career."

Bradley's close call changed him. "He came back a little angry," Biden says. "If he had won big, he would not have been so down on politics, but he had to find an explanation of how the hell this happened." Politics had almost rejected him--it must be broken. He declared it so in 1995, saying he would not seek re-election. He spent two years out of the spotlight and as happy as he'd ever been--making money, giving speeches, getting to know Silicon Valley and Wall Street, positioning himself for an outsider's run at the White House.

He continued a habit he had taken up in college, asking strangers about their life: Excuse me, are you happy? Tell me your story. It was a way to learn about the world, a way to come out of his shell, a way to build his network of elite supporters. "One of the first things he did was ask me about my life," says John Roos, a Bradley fund raiser and partner at a powerful Silicon Valley law firm. "Who I was, what I thought was important. I was extremely surprised."

And flattered. The Bradley network is full of the high-profile people he has stroked and courted for decades: billionaire moneyman Herb Allen, media moguls Barry Diller and Michael Eisner, film director Sydney Pollack, Barnes & Noble chairman Len Riggio. They build support and raise money for Bradley, and in return he makes them feel good about themselves. Says Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz: "I just feel better for knowing him." Bradley likes to say, "This is not just a campaign, but something more"--a high-minded mission. That sounds trite, until you see it in action.

Wind chimes are tinkling in the warm night breeze, and on the wraparound porch of an old Victorian house in Des Moines, Iowa, 50 Democrats--most of them early middle-aged, well-off and politically progressive--have gathered to hear Bradley. It's September, before the pundits notice Bradley's surge, so only a few national reporters are on hand. Standing near a hanging plant, Bradley's about to begin, but something's wrong. "Do we have to have the TV on?" he asks. A crew has the camera rolling, its lights in his eyes. "I'd kind of like to see the people," he says. "Shine the light on the people!" He may be the only candidate in Iowa who'd rather see his audience than make the news.

The TV folks shut down their rig, and Bradley starts talking. It's the best possible way to experience him. He draws the group in, using the microphone expertly, letting a rich Midwestern gruffness emerge in his voice--it's the political equivalent of a Garrison Keillor radio monologue. "There's justice that this is where the presidency begins," he says, "in a neighborhood, on a front porch, on a summer night." He likes the line so much he repeats it, rhapsodizing about "running for the highest office in the land the same way you run for mayor," and never mind that Bradley never ran for such a lowly post. He offers well-modulated, impeccably timed, quasi-mystical stories about his past and America's future, about his crusade to create "an economy that takes everybody to higher ground," lifting 14 million children out of poverty, covering the 45 million uninsured, helping people look beyond skin color and eye shape, cleaning up the political money game, standing up to the N.R.A., protecting abortion rights, fixing welfare reform, "finding a meaning in life that's deeper than the material."

He's not saying how he'd do this--when the details start coming this month, the sledding gets rougher for Bradley--but his words are thrilling to the chastened idealists on the porch, people who feel betrayed by Clinton and want to believe again. Still, some of them wonder if Bradley's ideas are a winning platform in the America of 1999. During the Q&A period, someone praises him for dreaming big dreams, then asks, "Why, sir, are you more electable than Gore?"

In reply, Bradley talks about being tougher on handgun registration and campaign-finance reform, then says, "There's a set of differences that are a little deeper." He styles himself an outsider, talks about trust and tells about the Independents and Republicans who approach him in airports and hotel lobbies, saying, "I'd vote for you, but I'll never vote for him." His message: I can beat Bush; Gore, with all his baggage, never will. Bradley doesn't say whether those Independents and Republicans have heard about his unapologetically liberal platform. Maybe he thinks his halo will keep them by his side.

Marketing one's virtue has its limitations. It magnifies each compromise he makes: his opposition to taxing products on the Internet, a big hit with Silicon Valley; his reversal on clemency for Puerto Rican terrorists; his overtures to New York's black power broker, the Rev. Al Sharpton; his sudden support for ethanol subsidies (which he once called "highway robbery"). Then he insists he isn't just another vote-grubbing pol. "When you're a national candidate, you see things in a different context," he says. "I'm being upfront and direct about it."

Riding across the plains in Bradley's van, I ask him if it wouldn't be more honest--less packaged--to admit that he switched positions on ethanol in order to stay alive in Iowa. He does his best to seem offended. "What am I supposed to say," he sniffs, "'All you family farms should go bankrupt?'" The van pulls into the parking lot of Bradley's motel. "My little bit o' heaven," he says, stepping out and gathering up his papers. His staff members are staying at another motel. And so, with a little wave, he escapes again into blessed solitude.

--With reporting by Ann Blackman/ Washington and Tamala M. Edwards/New York

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Cover Date: October 4, 1999

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