Campaign diary of Steve Lopez: Bradley's soft sell
On the trail, Gore's Democratic rival discovers the joys and
perils of restraint
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
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.
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Cover Date: December 20, 1999