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Post Reporter Dale Russakoff On Bill Bradley

Free Media
Related Links
Bradley Series:
Bradley: Meandering Toward a Candidacy (Dec. 17)
In the Senate, Big Issues, and a Close Call (Dec. 16)
For Bradley, a Religious Journey of Twists and Turns (Dec. 15)
Bradley's Private Journey Comes Full Circle (Dec. 14)
At Princeton, Bradley Met Impossible Demands (Dec. 13)
Big Hopes for a Small Town Boy (Dec. 12)

Bradley Photo Gallery
Post reporter Barton Gellman on Bradley
Live: "Free Media"
Who do you want to talk to? E-mail us

Friday, December 17, 1999

Bill Bradley's tenure in the Senate, on the New York Knicks and as a scholar all helped form his personality, intellect and style as a candidate. Washington Post reporters Dale Russakoff and Barton Gellman have traveled with Bradley on the campaign trail, interviewed him and spoken to scores of people who knew him in Crystal City, Princeton, Oxford, the NBA and the Senate. The result is their Post series, The Life of Bill Bradley.

Dale Russakoff, a national staff writer based in The Post's New York bureau, was hired by The Post in 1980. She has covered the environment, fiscal policy, politics, child welfare, children and youth and special assignments including the Columbine High School shootings, the Tawana Brawley defamation trial, and the changing world of AT&T Corp. She has written about Bill Bradley since 1984, when she covered tax reform for The Post. She first profiled Bradley in 1987 in the Sunday magazine. Born and raised in Birmingham, Ala., Russakoff graduated from Harvard University and worked on The Atlanta Journal before coming to The Post. She is married and has two sons, both scholar athletes, but not basketball players.

Russakoff joined "Free Media" live online on Friday, Dec. 17 to talk about the life and presidential candidacy of Bill Bradley. The transcript follows:

Free Media: Good afternoon, Dale, and welcome. You've covered Bill Bradley for a long time. How is he different in this presidential campaign than he was when you first began following him in 1984, or when you profiled him in 1987?

Dale Russakoff: The first difference I noticed was a personal one. He is much more relaxed and spontaneous, which I think must reflect his relief at having made the decision to run after so many years of contemplating and at times resisting it. As a politician, he now talks much more about moral leadership, asking voters to make themselves better people. This was only an undercurrent during tax reform, which was of course about fairness, but mainly about tax rates and loopholes and economic efficiency arguments.

San Francisco, Calif.: Hi Dale, I'm thinking of taking some time off from work and volunteering for the Bradley Campaign here in SF. I spent some time at the Bradley Web site today and read his speeches, which I think are great.

But then I watched him speak. He's not that good of a speaker from what his media clips look like. What are your thoughts on Bill the speaker? (And, of course, President Clinton has raised the bar, maybe to absurd heights with his speaking ability.) He doesn't look like he's speaking from his heart if he has to spend all of his time reading from his notes.

Dale Russakoff: Bradley has always had a lot of trouble projecting as a speaker. He has worked incredibly hard at is, as we mentioned in the series. And now, I think he has become more comfortable as a speaker, but I don't think he'll ever be a rousing one. It does seem to raise a question: How can someone summon the country with moral leadership if he doesn't move them with his spoken words? I think Bradley's hope is that people will get used to his style, accept it as authentic, and trust it.

Arlington, Va: Do you think Bill Bradley is too sleepy looking to be president? He seems very lethargic, even on the stump, and as a candidate, I don't find that too appealing. I mean, he wouldn't have to do much to be more energetic than Al Bore.

P.S. I was born in Birmingham, too.

Dale Russakoff: Yes he does. I have seen him very energized, and I've seen him very low-energy. We'll see how it develops.

Madison, Wis.: There is much controversy about Bradley in the progressive community. On the one hand there are folks like Wellstone claiming that Bradley is the "great white hope" of progressivism, pointing to his stands on welfare reform, race, etc. On the other hand, his health proposal falls far short of a single-payer plan, he supported Reaganomics and NAFTA, etc. He doesn't appear to be a dyed-in-the-wool progressive like Wellstone or Harkin or Jesse Jackson, but in some areas at least he makes progressive noises, at least as compared with Clinton and Gore. (And Gore, at least, is trying to exploit that.) Where do you come down on this?

Dale Russakoff: I think Bradley's politics are somewhat eclectic. He's liberal on the issue of government spending for the underprivileged. He's more conservative on the issue of free trade. He did vote for the first Reagan budget, but so did most Democrats and Bradley at the time also was one of the few Democrats to vote against the Reagan tax cut. I think his point then – I wasn't covering him, but this is what I read – was that if congress was going to cut taxes that much, it had to cut spending or else create disastrous deficits. He now likes to point out that he was right about that.

Free Media: The headline on today's story – "Meandering Toward a Candidacy" – is telling. Is this presidential bid really something that Bill Bradley sort of drifted toward, or was it part of a plan? Did he know he was going to do this when he left the Senate?

Dale Russakoff: He will not say that he knew this was where he was headed, but I think that's because he didn't ABSOLUTELY know – that is, he didn't have his campaign in place, his platform, his office space, etc. The headline, I thought, captured the two Bradleys – the one you see on the surface, who is taking his own time, going his own way, sometimes seeming to be off in his own private Idaho; and the one inside his head, who has thought through the implications of every single thing he does before he does it.

Somers, Conn.: Why do you suppose that men are more inclined to support Bill Bradley than women are? Is it his past pro sports background, or his appearance perhaps? As a woman, and a strong supporter of Bradley's, I have yet to understand this – especially since so many of his policies would be beneficial to women.

Dale Russakoff: You know, that's something I'd like to understand better myself. I suppose it's the pro basketball history, and to that end, his Madison Square Garden fund-raiser may have reinforced it. Perhaps as the campaign progresses, and voters pay more attention to each candidate, we'll see lots of shifts in lots of categories of voters.

Free Media: In his discussion Wednesday, Bart Gellman mentioned that Bradley says there is a generation of men to whom he will always be "Dollar Bill."

Malvern, Pa.: It's been said that Bradley is Adlai Stevenson with a jump shot, meaning he could not win a national election because he is too cerebral. Is this true?

Dale Russakoff: Very good question. I guess we'll have to wait and see. One thing that has been interesting about Bradley's candidacy is that none of the pundits seem to have assessed it accurately at any stage. He is now viewed as Adlai Stevenson by many, but people who have worked closely with him on some of his most focused efforts (tax reform, western water reform) say the comparison doesn't fit. In other words, we'll have to watch and wait.

Grand Rapids, Mich.: Once a card carrying Evangelical Christian... What religious allegiance does Bradley espouse today?

Dale Russakoff: Bradley will say only that he believes in God, nothing more, not even where he goes to church. He's one of the most aggressively private politicians I've ever followed, and he has decided that when it comes to religion, he's not talking other than what he wrote in his book.

Contoocook, N.H.: In his New Hampshire appearances, Bradley seems so diffident, removed from the admiring crowds, almost lacking in fire, all perceptions not helpful to a political campaign. How would you explain this? Could it be a return to "arrogance" or a hesitancy in commitment on his part?

Dale Russakoff: I don't think it's a hesitancy of commitment, but I do know what you mean. My guess is that it's just personality – that's him; he's not a backslapper; he seems to want to have ironic distance on staged events, as if he resents phoniness and can't hide it. Return to arrogance? I think he's always been this way. On the other hand, I have seen him very engaged – almost giddy – at a few events on this campaign. So maybe his energy level ebbs and flows.

Washington, D.C.: Hi Dale,

During your time spent with Bradley, have you ever witnessed a temper tantrum or on the other hand, a time when he was perhaps silly?

Dale Russakoff: I've never seen a temper tantrum, but I've seen him very silly. He's a very funny man. One funny story: When I was covering tax reform, I was on the story for two years. On the last night of the last conference committee debate, the New York Times sent some financial writers down to Washington to help their tax reform reporters – they called them "leg people." One of them was unbelievably arrogant (typical New York times reporter). As I was interviewing Bradley that night at about midnight, this reporter stepped between Bradley and me, as if I weren't even there, and said: Senator Bradley. _______ from THE TIMES. (as if THE TIMES were Heaven). Bradley looked at him confused and said: "The Trenton times?" I don't think the guy ever realized Bradley had just stuck a knife between his ribs.

Editor's Note: Dale Russakoff regrets that her attempt at humor in this section offended some people at The New York Times. For the record: this was a joke. Dale is married to a New York Times reporter, who is not at all arrogant.

Boston, Mass.: Sen. Bradley, why don't you wear your wedding band? While it may initially appear to be a superficial question, if you at all understand the power of the symbol, you will realize that its absence is puzzling.

Or maybe it is just a Catholic thing.

Free Media: This question was directed to Sen. Bradley, but Dale, can you shed any light on it?

Dale Russakoff: Fascinating. I never noticed that, and I feel caught short. I do know he doesn't wear a watch. Maybe he hates ornaments, but I agree... a wedding ring? I'll ask.

Somers, Conn: Are the Gore attacks getting Bradley boxed into a corner? I can tell he wants to rise above political backstabbing, attacks, etc., but how can he progress unless he goes on the offensive with Gore? He'll always be playing catch-up.

Dale Russakoff: Yes, you can see that he's struggling with this. I think he's decided that he'll respond when necessary but won't get trapped in a day by day, back and forth rat-a-tat attack.

Washington, D.C.: Great series. I think it's such an interesting contrast between Bradley – who has been moving toward this moment his entire life – and the other candidates (esp. Gore and Bush) who seem so shifty and manipulative. And when's the last time someone actually wanted a guy like this to run??

Dale Russakoff: yes, I think Bradley is using that contrast very consciously, but not specifically talking about it. Rather, hoping that it dawns on people all by itself.

Washington, D.C.: From reading the series on Bradley in the Post it seems that his apparent detachment, or lack of energy goes beyond appearances and dull speeches. Do you think it's fair to say that Bradley has shown a certain aloofness at times?

It also seems like Bradley has shown a strong aversion to failure. Do you think he would have benefitted if he had tried to run for president earlier, like Gore did?

Dale Russakoff: Yes he does seem aloof at times, but on the other hand, something one of his friends said in the series rings true to me. He "thinks from the inside out," whereas most politicians are classic extroverts, responding to people and situations around them. Bradley seems to have a "thing" about thinking for himself, charting his own course – and sometimes makes such a point of it that some people around him are left feeling, "Hey, what's so wrong with the way we do it?"

As for whether he would've benefitted from running sooner, he has said many times that in his mind "running for president is the worst way to prepare for being president."

Concord, N.H.: I moved here recently and there are all sorts of opinions on Bill Bradley's rise. Do you have a new or differing opinion or does he have an opinion of his rise in N.H.?

Dale Russakoff: I think his rise is attributable to people wanting to vote for a president who seems 1. different from politicians as we now know them and 2. more character-based that issue-based or interest-group based. When I went to NH with Bradley, I was struck by how many people in his audiences had not worked for a presidential candidate before, even in NH where I had the impression everyone had worked for at least 10 candidates. So I think there are people who've felt estranged from politics who see him as a candidate for them. What I don't know is how many of these people there are, and how lasting their feelings will be – that is, whether they'll become disaffected with him too at some point.

Washington, D.C.: After all of these years of Bill and Hillary Clinton and Al and Tipper Gore, I think it's really interesting to see the dynamic of Bill and Ernestine Bradley and John and Cindy McCain. First, who ever thought that guys who talk about campaign finance reform would do so well in the polls and fund-raising? What's your sense of the partnership in the Bradley family? And they've managed to keep their daughter out of the spotlight.

Dale Russakoff: They seem very, very in tune with each other. I don't feel that I know them well enough to go further, but my guess is that they both have very deep passions for learning and getting to the bottom of things. I'm told they spend hours discussing the meaning of movies they see.

Los Angeles, Calif.: How has Sen. Bradley reacted to the claims by Vice President Al Gore that his plans are too expensive and may hurt some minorities? It seems to me that Bradley's plans for health care, child poverty and education are better plans than VP Gore's. Bradley's proposals seem like a better fix to the problems that the American people want to see fixed.

Dale Russakoff: Bradley so far has said that these kinds of attacks by Gore constitute scare tactics and they're not accurate.

Washington, D.C.: Democrats have traditionally campaigned in black churches. Given Bradley's aversion to talking about religion, and his own religious convictions, will he use black churches to shore up support in the African-American community? Has he spoken at any black churches in his run for president?

Dale Russakoff: I'm not sure if he has spoken in black churches but I've seen him speak to black audiences and in fact that's when I've seen him at his most animated. He gets very gospel-sounding (I don't want to say Bill Bradley sounds rousing, because that would be a contradiction in terms!), and I've seen audiences really connect with him. So my guess is that he will speak at black churches.

Minneapolis, Minn.: I have read five of your six installments on Bradley. Haven't read today's yet, but I will. You both write admirably, have done a lot of digging. My question: Bradley is liberal on most questions of public policy, but why is he in favor of the death penalty? We don't have that in Minnesota. I have always been opposed to it. Why does such an enlightened person support such a barbaric policy?

Dale Russakoff: Very good question. It's one I've wondered about, and it was one of the things we didn't get to raise with him. I'll be sure to do it at the next opportunity. So keep signing on to washpost!

Somers, Conn.: Bill Bradley is obviously very intelligent – nobody's raising any questions about him being too "light" for the job. I was wondering, though, if he is having trouble communicating with the average to low-average IQ citizen. I see the polls show him to be favored by people with college level educations. Can he mix it up with people of all levels without appearing condescending?

Dale Russakoff: Another great question. I do think Bradley relates well to people of many backgrounds, but it's true he does tend to explain things in very cerebral ways. One interesting aspect to the way he talks: Sometimes he sounds very spiritual. For example, on a question about why environmental protection is important, he said: We all need to encounter things that are bigger and greater than we are (or something like that). It sounded like something from Indian lore. but to get back to your question, it sure didn't sound like something a factory worker or taxi driver would relate to.

Fairfax, Va.: I am having a hard time forgiving Bradley for quitting the Senate when Newt and his minions took over. It seemed like a cowardly act. Please tell me that I'm wrong. I really want to like this guy.

Dale Russakoff: Bradley and his campaign are emphatic that this does not constitute being a quitter. They say Congress was caught between Clintonian incrementalism and triangulation on one hand and Republican destructionism on the other. Their argument is that he left to try to get outside the situation and figure if it could be changed.

Philly, Pa.: Do you think Bradley would be an effective president at getting legislation passed, given his track record in the Senate? How might he compare to Gore in terms of making a platform reality?

Dale Russakoff: A big question lots of people have asked. Bradley did show that he could be very effective on legislation, but he was not in the fray on many big issues. I think he would say that if he sets the agenda, he'll make sure it happens. How good he'd be at dealing with a Congress that wasn't in league with him is an open question. As for the question about Bradley versus Gore making a platform a reality.... hard to say. Gore was in the Senate for a relatively short time, so it's hard to compare.

Free Media: Bradley seems to have had a big emotional learning curve. Yet to many voters he comes off as detatched and wonkish – though maybe not as laconic as Bob Dole in '96. Do you think Bradley could suffer the same problems that Dole did in connecting with the electorate?

Dale Russakoff: I think Bradley is hoping that the electorate will realize that he's not the kind of politician they're used to and, instead of turning away, accept him on his own terms. It's an interesting proposition, and I'm curious myself how it will play out. One thing about this campaign, those of us following it are seeing a lot of new warps and weaves in the electorate, simply because Bradley is relating to people in atypical ways

Boston Mass.: Bill Bradley claims he will refuse "soft money." Is it not true the Democratic National Committee benefits more from "soft money" than the candidates?

Dale Russakoff: They both benefit. Who benefits more is a question I can't answer.

Arlington, Va. : I have two questions:

My understanding is that Bill Bradley is at a distinct disadvantage to Al Gore because of the number of "Super Delegates" Gore has "locked up." Is this is a serious issue and, in your opinion, a fair development in our political system (the voting population as a whole does not, I believe, elect Super Delegates to support a particular nominee)?

Second question: Assuming Bradley wins the nomination and does run against George Bush for the presidency, will Bush's lack of achievements for the first 40 years of his life vs. Bradley's setting and achieving remarkable goals for the first 40 years of his, make a difference to the voting public? Or will they care? Fine series on Bradley in this weeks Post, by the way. Thanks for your reply.

Dale Russakoff: The superdelegates are a huge advantage for Gore. Is it "fair?" Well, I think that's one of Bradley's themes: Politics today ain't fair. It's broken. On the other hand, superdelegates are themselves elected officials, and so they are representative of the people.

As for Bradley v. Bush, there's miles to go before we get there, if we do. My guess is that Bradley would relish that comparison, but probably wouldn't make it. On the other hand, he'd make sure voters made it.

Fredericksburg, Va.: Bradley has refused to rule out a tax increase and often says what he thinks he best and doesn't consult to heavily with advisors. People say they like that in candidate, but it leads to gaffes like Bradley's statement that new taxes are possible. Republicans will crucify him in the general election with this stuff. If he won the nomination, would he actually have a shot at winning?

Dale Russakoff: The tax answer was very interesting. I think Bradley was trying to emphasize that he wouldn't say anything he couldn't stick behind – and as we all know George Bush raised taxes after promising not to (read my lips). But this might have been a case of terminal honest because I do think the GOP will use it. What was fascinating, though, was that Gore made the same statement a couple of days later. I do think Gore worded it with more political adeptness than Bradley, but the bottom line is: The Republicans can use it as a defining issue. Now here's another question: Have voters so lost faith in anything politicians say about not cutting taxes that the Democrats will win points for candor on this one?

Chicago, Ill.: I read Bradley's book, "Time Present, Time Past," and I liked how he referred to the fact that the U.S. is the only country that has a middle class...it is what makes us special and we are losing it. In his campaigning I have not heard him talk much about this and I think that he should. We still do have a "silent majority," don't you think?

Dale Russakoff: Yes I do, and frankly I've been surprised that Bradley has not made a more emphatic pitch to these voters. Certainly that's the group to whom he targeted tax reform (although those who benefited the most from tax reform were the poor and the rich. The middle got the smallest percentage reduction)

Chicago, Ill.: In your article on religion, you mentioned a 1965 interview with "Christian writer, James R. Adair." He is my uncle, and I was at his house in Wheaton, Ill., when I read the article. He was amazed to see this after so many years and couldn't even recall the specifics of the interview. How did you dig up the reference?

Dale Russakoff: Bart Gellman dug up that reference. Send me an e-mail at russakoffd@washpost.com and I'll find out from Bart where he found it.

Silver Spring, Md.: Why is the series on Bill Bradley's life so incredibly long? I don't recall your series on Al Gore being as long. Are you planning to devote the same number of columns to George W. Bush or John McCain?


Free Media: The Gore series has been intermittent and is ongoing. The Post has not profiled John McCain yet, but the series on the life of George W. Bush was seven parts, and the series on his Texas record was six parts. You'll find them on the George W. Bush page in OnPolitics.

Dale Russakoff: See above.

New York, N.Y.: Hi,
From what you know of Bill Bradley (and I must tell you it is quite impressive), do you think he will be tempted to return fire with overwhelming fire? In other words, do you think that Gore's relentless assault on him will force him to react forcefully and viciously? Let me be more clear: do you think if evidence surfaces that Gore's attacks, fair or unfair, are having major negative impact on Bradley, altering the elections decisively in Gore's favor, will Bradley respond with negative attacks of his own?

Dale Russakoff: He already has begun responding more forcefully. I think he's prepared to respond more aggressively, but is holding back, and is determined not to get drawn into a day by day back and forth hit and run. Clearly he's trying to draw a distinction between him and Gore on this, but as time goes on, it may be hard for voters to discern it if things get increasingly belligerent.

San Francisco, Calif.: I've been arguing with a friend of mine over who is more pro-gay rights. Do you think it's Bradley or Gore?

Dale Russakoff: It's complicated. Bradley has said he'd open the civil rights act to include sexual preference alongside race and other categories. But many gay rights activists don't want this and insist that Bradley has good intentions but in the end would hurt their cause by triggering a backlash. On gays in the military, Bradley definitely came out loudly, early on against the don't ask don't tell policy.

Baltimore, Md.: The Clinton-Gore administration has not been particularly kind to federal employees – from reducing benefits, contracting out jobs, jeopardizing public health and safety through reckless de-regulation, to open collaboration with regulated entities. Do you think life under Bradley would be any better for America's feds?

Free Media: This would also be an interesting question for Mike Causey on "Federal Diary" on Monday.

Dale Russakoff: I haven't heard Bradley address these issues.

Gaithersburg, Md.: Consciously or not, people tend to (or perhaps always try to) apply their winning experiences in other aspects of their lives as much as they can. Out of his desire to win, Bradley was described as one of the dirtiest basketball players during his time at Knicks in your second report. Did you find that he is a completely different person in politics after finishing this series of reports?

Dale Russakoff: I love this point. Bradley is a very aggressive political player, but a very disciplined one. You didn't see his aggressiveness as openly in the Senate, but there were certainly some issues – his Western water reform and the Sterling Forest watershed – where he held up dozens or even hundreds of pieces of legislation until he got what he wanted.

Palo Alto, Calif.: Thank you for the excellent reporting. Two questions-comments.
(1) Among the four main candidates, Bradley's health looks the most fragile, a striking fact for the athletic superstar. Why so?
(2) You have vividly portrayed his character. It is less clear, however, how he came to take the stands on issues as he does (e.g., strong emphasis on the poor). His upbring as a banker's son does not explain. Neither does his strong religious faith, for it can go both ways. Most curious of all, he did not seem to have much experiences in contacting the disadvantaged in his life course.

Dale Russakoff: I don't think it's fragile. According to the doctors we interviewed, this is a manageable condition. Gore doesn't appear to have conditions, period, which is definitely a difference. But I'm not sure it's a significant one in terms of their physical fitness for the job.

As for his stands on the poor, I don't know for sure but I'd guess that Bradley's religious beginnings and his parents led him to feel, as a son of privilege, that he had a responsibility to those born without the advantages he had.

London, UK: Who do you think is a better campaigner, Ernestine Bradley or Tipper Gore? Who can and has better connected with Americans?

Dale Russakoff: I haven't seen either of them on the stump so can't comment. I've interviewed each of them (Tipper almost 10 years ago, Ernestine recently) and they're both incredibly appealing and authentic people.

Free Media: That was the last question today for Post reporter Dale Russakoff. Thanks to Dale, and thanks to everyone who joined us. The questions were terrific.

Tune in on Monday, Dec. 20, at noon EST for Federal Diary with Mike Causey, and at 1 p.m. EST, when Rep. Robert Andrews (D-N.J.) will join "Free Media."

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