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 TIME CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics with Congressional Quarterly

The importance of being Ernestine

By Tamala M. Edwards/Iowa

TIME magazine

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

If it's true that people hunt for the person who somehow gets us closer to the dream of who we hope to become, then the gaze of the attractive, petite brunet often at Bill Bradley's side is instructive. From the beginning, academic and author Ernestine Misslbeck Schlant, 64, seemed to see him for who he wanted to be: a thinker, not just a jock; a statesman, not just a pol; sensitive and warm, not just arrogantly bright. Indeed, Dan Okimoto, Stanford professor and Bradley's college roommate, recalls that when Bradley first told him of Ernestine, he didn't start off by describing what she looked like but, rather, how she looked at him: though 30 cm shorter than the Knick, she would trot two steps ahead, looking intently up at him as they debated. While others stared at the athlete or fawned over the star, she clearly was searching out the intellectual, the man he craved as his truest self.

The two should have met in an elevator bank in 1969, since they lived on the same floor of a New York City building near Madison Square Garden. But while Schlant was many things--a German World War II survivor, a former Pan Am stewardess, an emigre, a divorced mother (she was married to an Atlanta doctor for five years and had a daughter, Stephanie St. Onge, now 40), an older woman (she's eight years Bradley's senior), a comparative literature Ph.D. and professor--she was not a sports fan. She says she had no idea who "Dollar Bill" was. "I saw him once or twice. We didn't even say hello," she recalls. She had taken the year off from her teaching to work for a film company. One project was to get an athlete to interview Marianne Moore, the poet and baseball fan, and Schlant was asked to approach Bradley. Moore died before the project began, but three months after they met, Schlant and Bradley had their first date, on New Year's Eve 1970. It was not wildly romantic: they took the bus and had dinner with a group. But soon the relationship deepened. Schlant had to be tutored in basketball and still was often found in the stands more focused on her books than his play. Some might have been offended, but "he found it reassuring," says Schlant, speaking English with a German accent. "He was sure I was there for his person, not his history or status." And so both found something the other needed when they married in 1974: the divorce got a hunky, younger second husband who loved to listen to her literary lectures; the hoopster got a wife whose erudition and command of five languages nurtured a side of him the tabs and fans overlooked.

These days Bradley's wife often helps him appear more whole. Both are smart. But while Bradley is reticent in public, Schlant is fun, her megawatt smile and crinkling blue eyes on display as she leads girlfriends into the New Jersey surf--giggling about how the waves break up cellulite--or pulls her husband onto a hotel dance floor after a serious speech. "She brings him joy and laughter. They tease each other a lot," says St. Onge, mother of Schlant's four grandchildren. Friends say Schlant relaxes Bradley and, when need be, defuses his icy temper. "She lets him be himself," says Cornel West, a Harvard professor and longtime Bradley friend. "She comes back and accesses his charming side. And soon he's back on track."

In politics, she lets Bradley have the court to himself. "Some of the Senate wives played an active role in policymaking or in running the office," says Marcia Aronoff, the campaign's senior policy adviser. "Ernestine never did that, and she won't be running the education department either." Schlant says the extent of her influence on her husband is the literature she presses into his hands as he travels abroad: Carlos Fuentes for a trip to Mexico, for instance. "I'm the wife, not the politician."

And the politician has shown he can be the liberated husband. When his daughter with Schlant, Theresa Anne, was 10, Bradley fretted that he was not seeing enough of her. But instead of requiring his family to move to Washington, the then-U.S. Senator from New Jersey moved just his daughter there and became the primary parent, while his professor wife at Montclair State University became the commuter. "I was the one who called the doctor, worried about where dinner was coming from, made the rules," he says. (Theresa Anne, now 22, is an English major studying abroad.)

Bradley also found a way to play an active role in his stepdaughter's life. He and St. Onge, both night owls, would stay up late after Ernestine had retired at 10 p.m. Bradley would read as St. Onge did her homework, and sometimes she would ask him questions. "He'd give these elaborate, wonderful 'I-was-there' kind of answers," she recalls. Once, when she was studying Vietnam, he brought out textiles from there, which she used to help illustrate her report.

It is Bradley's marriage that gave his life its biggest test. At a recent stop in Iowa, Bradley was asked by a man in overalls if he had ever had a brush with adversity. Bradley answered that nearly failing his first semester at Princeton and a lackluster rookie Knicks season were hard. "But neither were as hard as when my wife developed breast cancer," he said. The disease was diagnosed in 1992, and Schlant underwent a mastectomy and chemotherapy. Bradley became her secretary, taking notes in doctors' offices and making schedules for his shell-shocked wife. "I just remember his long arms around her, protecting her," says Betty Sapoch, Bradley's finance director.

Bradley says the episode made him more willing to speak from the heart. Ernestine says it helped her shed life's unimportant demands. "I refuse to be harassed," she says. She calls it quits at 9 (the hour she and Bradley talk if they are apart) and fiercely holds onto her one day a week off with her husband. But what about campaign life, which is famous for riling--and pigeonholing--spouses? Shrugs Bradley: "Ernestine is going to be Ernestine."


MORE TIME STORIES:

Cover Date: October 4, 1999

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