All the Wrong Moves

Bradley Hasn't Played the Hardball of National Politics

Bill Bradley's in a bind: He never fought the gooks. He never got captured by the gooks. He never was tortured by the gooks. The Democratic presidential candidate's problem these days isn't exactly his pedigree.

Bradley's Ivy League/Oxford/NBA résumé is far from weak. In fact, compared to most pols, the former New Jersey senator shines. It's just that this election season there appears only enough enthusiasm to go around for one supposed insurgent. And it is Republican John McCain's scrappy gook-battling POW arc that enchants.

Really, what misfortune could Bradley possibly counter with? Remembrances of the night in Detroit when he ran into a hellacious Bob Lanier pick? Or that game versus Washington when Elvin Hayes elbowed him in the throat during a scrum under the boards? Maybe that hard foul from Tommy Heinsohn in the Boston Garden? In the schoolyard, these are called slaughter sides.

Bradley's ongoing slump, of course, coincides with the public's and press's fascination with all things McCain. With New York's primary and other Super Tuesday contests looming on March 7, the Bradley campaign has palpably lost steam. In fact, when we last saw the Democratic presidential candidate around these parts, he was heading out of town after getting rolled by Al Gore at the Apollo Theater. It was a messy debate notable only for the vice president's feral behavior, a prime-time rumble that again revealed how the White House underboss shares Bill Clinton's contemptible taste for brass knuckles.

Bradley, on the other hand, still hews to the quaint notion that ideas trump attack ads. While not exactly adopting an Amish turn-the-other-cheek posture, the ex-senator has blanched at the kind of hand-to-hand combat now commonplace in high-stakes elections. Bradley assumed that voters would be turned off by another candidate engaging in the dread "politics of personal destruction." Bad assumption on his part.

With one week to go before New York's March 7 primary, Bradley fled Harlem to campaign in the Great White Northwest. Surprisingly, he spent the last week trying to secure votes (all of the nonbinding variety) in Washington towns like Walla Walla and White Salmon. Woodside and Whitestone would wait, since Bradley is trying desperately to notch a victory—any victory!—before Super Tuesday. Otherwise, he might not be able to dispel the notion that his campaign, which started with such promise, has run out of gas and is now showing signs of rigor mortis. By turning Washington's relatively insignificant beauty contest into a must-win situation, Bradley risks a loss that carries with it some disproportionate consequences.

For his part, Bradley seems to recognize that his campaign has lost momentum. Last week he called reporters traveling with Gore to inquire when they might deign to cover some of his events. He joked that if the journalists were to leave the vice president's tightly controlled operation (where reporters have little access to Gore), they would actually get the chance to speak with a real, live presidential candidate.

While he was campaigning in Washington last Friday, Bradley received further indication that his effort here is flagging. A Marist Institute for Public Opinion poll showed that Gore has opened a substantial lead among state Democrats. Among those surveyed who said they would definitely vote next Tuesday, Gore was up 15 percentage points. Among likely voters, the Gore advantage jumped to 26 points.

Bradley got these poor numbers despite his repeated attempts to portray Gore as the conservative Democrat in the race, a candidate whose positions on key issues like abortion and handgun control have, over the years, been flexible to a fault. Though he has matched the vice president's fundraising machine, Bradley has gotten little bang for his bucks. While he scored initially with criticisms of Gore's role in the sleazy White House/Democratic National Committee money chase, Bradley's subsequent shots at Gore have proven harmless. In fact, the multitude of Clinton scandals over the past seven-plus years has apparently resulted in little collateral damage for Gore, at least when it comes to his fellow Democrats. Maybe some of Clinton's Teflon has worn off on Gore. Or perhaps Bradley erred by not hitting his opponent hard from the outset, especially since Gore has the built-in advantage of being the party brass's choice, not to mention his benefiting from the country's robust economy.

So Bradley now relies on basketball legends like Michael Jordan and Willis Reed (who used to razz Bradley by calling his teammate "The Senator from New York, the President of the United Socialist Republic") and hoops fans like Spike Lee to try and generate some excitement. And while it would be difficult for any candidate to reject the chance to glow in Jordan's reflected light, the former Chicago Bulls star is an odd choice for a candidate whose central campaign themes include a vow to reduce child poverty (Bradley has promised to "lift" 7 million U.S. children out of poverty during his first two terms in the White House, in part by raising the minimum wage). Jordan, Nike's chief spokesman, has assiduously avoided commenting on the shoe giant's sorry record when it comes to employing third world children to manufacture its pricy kicks.

Bradley's emphasis on race inequalities (such as the Racial Justice Act, which was abandoned by the Clinton administration in its drive to pass the 1994 crime bill) might also be expected to resonate with minority voters, yet Gore holds a large lead among that group of Democrats. Bradley has spoken forcefully on race issues for about 25 years, first in Life on the Run, his book chronicling the close of the New York Knicks 1974 basketball season. Bradley recounts an episode following a home game when Earl "the Pearl" Monroe gets into a fight over a cab with four white men who call Monroe "boy."

"How many times, I thought, will racial hatred erupt unexpectedly before I learn that it is a part of the American experience?" Bradley wrote. Noting that he had changed because of his black friends, Bradley said, "It is hard to say exactly how, but after witnessing their joys, fears, perceptions, and spontaneous reactions for seven years I am different. I regard authority a little more skeptically than I once did."

Bradley's hoops book is not totally policy oriented, though. He critiqued the best masseurs (the legal kind) in a variety of NBA cities, helpfully noting that his regular New York masseur, who taught at the Swedish Massage Institute, "is the best quadricep man in the United States" (if you're into that thing). Dollar Bill also let readers in on his weird "pregame fantasy ritual" at Madison Square Garden. During warm-ups before every game, Bradley would stare at three female Garden regulars. "I don't want to meet them," Bradley wrote, "and I'm sure they aren't aware of their strange role in my preparation."

Bradley opened his book by quoting from "Ring," an F. Scott Fitzgerald essay about men playing a boy's game and the difficulty they face applying those athletic talents to "the horribly complicated mess of living, where nothing, even the greatest conceptions and workings and achievements, is else but messy, spotty, tortuous—and then one can imagine the confusion that Ring faced on coming out of the park."

Surely Bradley saw this as some type of reflection on his own life to that point. And while his subsequent admirable career in public office speaks well of his departure from that park, Bradley will soon likely have to settle for something less than a victorious final exit.

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