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 TIME CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics with Congressional Quarterly

Campaign diary of Steve Lopez: Bradley's soft sell

On the trail, Gore's Democratic rival discovers the joys and perils of restraint

Time magazine

December 13, 1999
Web posted at: 2:03 p.m. EST (1903 GMT)

Several times daily, as Bill Bradley's wandering gaze carries him out of whatever room he happens to be in on the campaign trail, dark shadows cover his face, and he looks as though he might be considering how good it would feel to throttle Al Gore. It gets old going around telling audiences about the goodness in all of us and the untapped potential of human kindness, while at every turn Gore waits to beat on him like a birthday pinata.

In November, when the Gore people had been swinging from the heels, characterizing Bradley's health-care plan as a budget-busting debacle that would leave minorities dying in the streets, I asked Bradley if the thought of strangulation appealed. He dropped his eyes and said, "He crossed the line." But he went no further, except to say with typical restraint that if you have a "positive vision," you don't need to play dirty.

Restraint at the dessert cart can be a healthy thing. In politics, it can crush you. Even Bradley's campaign rally cry is subdued. "It Can Happen" would have been great for a Viagra ad, but it's a little flaccid as a campaign slogan.

It's time Bradley--who briefly left the campaign trail late last week to see a doctor about an irregular heartbeat--learned that there's a difference between playing dirty and just taping the other guy's mouth shut. When the Gore folks teased him for making hay of his basketball career, he might have said that if the Veep had been so much as an NBA water boy instead of the inventor of the Internet, he'd be wearing a jersey and doing the soul shake on the campaign trail. It would have rung true.

But Bradley has no appetite for following any script from the manual of conventional wisdom. At times you find yourself watching in amazement, if not admiration. Last week in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, he walked into a Rotary luncheon where the faces were paler than the chicken and urged people to find "the courage to stand up" to evils such as bigotry.

"Some got the heart; some got the head. Bill's got both," Libby Murphy, 45, said after flying last month to New York City from Jackson, Tenn., and ponying up $1,000 to attend Bradley's Madison Square Garden fund raiser. "When he talks, it doesn't sound like it came from a focus group."

Since the time of the first Neanderthal primary, rule No. 1 in politics has been to tell people what they want to hear. That's why, despite unprecedented prosperity, so many candidates are yammering about tax relief. Greed is in. People are driving to the store in $40,000 vehicles that look like panzers. But Bradley goes around talking about the shame of child poverty and the medically uninsured as if the TV show everyone's yapping about were called Who Wants to Be a Humanitarian?

"He seems to be pushing a message of love," said Darian Tarver, 21 and a senior, after hearing Bradley's stump speech at Atlanta's Morehouse College. "He's different from the traditional politician, but to me that's what we need."

Maybe so, but is the rest of the country ready for Bradley's message of kindness and civility? Not if they happen to catch him on an off day--and he has his share of them. He's sharper in evening appearances, at roughly the same time an NBA basketball game begins, by coincidence. He wowed Teamsters Local 238 at an evening chili feed in Cedar Rapids last week. But in the morning you half expect to see him sleepwalk into a room with the hanger still in his coat.

At the Witwer Senior Center in Cedar Rapids last Monday, surrounded by health-care professionals, Bradley looked as if his mind were a million miles away. At such times, it doesn't help that he speaks in a whisper and as if emotion would cheapen the content. Add the loping rhythms, and there are times when a listener wonders if he has enough energy for his own passions.

He, of course, does, despite his low-key manner, but I didn't quite feel it until I rode with Bradley one day in his van between campaign stops in Los Angeles. Bradley told me the story of a Hispanic California state senator whose grandfather, an L.A. resident for a half-century, was afraid to leave the house without a passport after former Governor Pete Wilson started dumping on immigrants. That kind of injustice had, in part, inspired the granddaughter to get into politics in the first place. "You live for that kind of story on the trail," Bradley said. So I told him one about the immigrant bellboy named Juan Romero who cradled a dying Bobby Kennedy in his arms--a few miles from where we were at that very moment--and shoved his rosary beads into Kennedy's hands on the night of the 1968 assassination. I told Bradley the former bellboy says he's been waiting for another Kennedy ever since.

Bradley's spirit rose. "Why do this if you don't try to move our collective humanity forward?" he said of his candidacy. "Why do it unless you think there's something inspiring about being in public life?"

And why do it if you're not going to play hardball now and then? The options, for Bradley, are to indulge an occasional weakness and go wild on Gore, or to stand back from the fray and slowly fall victim to his very strengths.


Cover Date: December 20, 1999

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