Post Reporter Barton Gellman On Bill Bradley|
Thursday, December 15, 1999
Former New Jersey senator Bill Bradley has been in public life in one form or another for more than a quarter-century. But do voters really know who he is? Washington Post reporters Barton Gellman and Dale Russakoff 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
Knicks and the Senate. The result is their Post series, The Life of Bill Bradley.
Barton Gellman is a special projects reporter for The Washington Post, based in the New York bureau. He previously served as diplomatic correspondent, Jerusalem bureau chief, Pentagon correspondent and local courthouse reporter. He has won a variety of professional awards, including the 1998 Overseas Press Club award for best coverage of foreign affairs and the 1998 Society of Professional Journalists (Sigma Delta Chi) award for best non-deadline reporting. Gellman graduated with highest honors from Princeton University in 1982, and earned a masters degree in politics at University College, Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar.
He joined "Free Media" live online on Wednesday, Dec. 15 to talk about the life and presidential candidacy of Bill Bradley. The transcript follows:
Free Media: Good afternoon, Bart, and welcome. For this series, you and Dale Russakoff spent a lot of time talking to people who have known Bill Bradley for years. What kind of information did you find? What was their feeling on is qualifications to be president?
Barton Gellman: We worried at the beginning that there was nothing new to say about a man who had been under a microscope since his teenage years, and who isn't eager to talk much about himself. But it turns out that you can find patterns when you see a life whole, and a lot of people had stories they had never told before. No one really knows all of Bradley, so even the people closest to him are learning something. As for qualifications to be president, that has been his own mission since college. We're deliberately leaving for readers to judge that issue themselves.
Gaithersburg, Md: Today's story brings to light a facet of Bradley's background and personality that's not widely known. Why haven't the Republicans and Gore attacked his evangelical background and do you think this could become a problem for his campaign?
Barton Gellman: The extent of his evangelical background was not widely known until now. Some of his Christian writings came to light, and a few right-leaning commentaries have used them against him. Chuck Colson in an Internet commentary said Bradley had "renounced Christ"; the current American Spectator has a piece that calls him a hypocrite, especially on abortion. There's a certain anachronism in that: although a central focus now of the American Tract Society and other such groups, it was not so in the '60s when he worked with them.
Chicago, Ill.: Is Bill Bradley really as big a brainiac as he's portrayed?
Barton Gellman: Judge for yourself: there's a huge record out there in the four books he wrote (he really did them himself, in case you're wondering) and the trove of (mostly) self-written speeches on his Web site. He certainly mastered the issues on which he focused tax reform, Third World debt, western water, Soviet economy to a degree unusual among politicians.
Washington, D.C.: Bill Bradley has been in the public eye for a long time. What were you unable to uncover in your reporting about him that wasn't known already? It's not as though people are meeting him for the first time, like George W. Bush.
Barton Gellman: As I mentioned above, that worried Dale Russakoff and me a lot as we began this project. But we found lots of things that interested us his encounters with the "bully" over the years in part one, his rule-bending and raging competitive drive in part two, his postponed adolescent rebellion in part three, his intense evangelism in part four that haven't been published before.
Orono, Maine: There are those who believe that Bill Bradley's recent tango with heart trouble was nothing more than a publicity stunt to keep him on the front pages of all of the major newspapers. What is your take on his brief stay in the hospital? And do we really want a president who forgets to take his medicine?
Barton Gellman: Reporters and voters probably begin with a shared understanding that presidents and would-be presidents very rarely level with the public when they are in fact seriously ill. But that doesn't mean Bradley is seriously ill. From what is known so far, his condition is minor. And I assure you this front-page foray was most unwelcome in the Bradley camp. Nothing could be worse for him than doubt about either his health or his candor.
Ann Arbor, Mich.: How do you think about your common biographical background with Bill Bradley alumni of Princeton University, Rhodes Scholars in shaping your point of view? Is this a non-issue? A potential source of bias? How did you and your editors think about this?
Barton Gellman: Reporters tend to use what they can. When I have something in common, I take advantage of background knowledge of the institutions and cultures I'm writing about. It sure helped here in ferreting out his college and grad school life. I knew where to look. When we don't know much, it helps us on the back end of the project explaining what we've found to the general reader. We can still remember not knowing. I understand the question about bias as a theoretical matter, but it doesn't strike me as meaningful here. I'm a rotten athlete: what if I turned out to be resentful of jocks? I'm a very moderately observant Jew; today we wrote about evangelical Christians. We all have a lot of different identities, by this measure.
Free Media: As we've seen many times in presidential races, what makes a good candidate does not always make the best president. And conversely, a person who has the right stuff to be president might not have the best campaigning skills. How would you rate Bradley's campaigning skills and his skills as a senator and legislator as he runs to be the leader of the free world?
Barton Gellman: I'm not in the rating business; I'm a supplier of raw material for those who are. I would observe that Bradley tends to inspire a certain intensity of support among those who turn out to see him, and I've felt for a while that the "boring" reputation misses this. On the other hand he has a pretty fixed message, and there's a take it or leave it quality to him that doesn't win every audience.
Washington, D.C.: Given their similarities even their voting records in the Senate what does Bill Bradley need to do to distinguish himself from Al Gore? You have to figure he'll benefit at least somewhat by not being associated with "Clinton fatigue."
Barton Gellman: That depends a bit on what you think voters use to judge a candidate. I tend to think there come moments in every campaign that crystallize perceptions of character, whether someone is "presidential" or not. When they come, voters will take a swift measure of both men, as people and leaders.
Washington, D.C.: At first I looked at the Democratic candidates and thought, "Bill Bradley and Al Gore. Now there's a fun-filled personality fest." But I've been pleasantly surprised. Do you think these two will be the ones to sling mud, given that the GOPers seem to be playing nice?
Barton Gellman: There hasn't been much mud in the sense of scandal. But there has certainly been attack. Gore felt by late fall that he had lost momentum to Bradley, and he began a program of nearly daily criticisms of Bradley's voting record and new proposals. Bradley said he wanted to resist negative politics, but has returned some of the fire. It tends to get only more negative toward the end.
Free Media: Bradley's decision to hit the campaign trail with John McCain is unorthodox, to say the least. What do you think gimmick or kindred spirits bringing their message to the voters?
Barton Gellman: Do I have to choose? Of course it's a gimmick it grabs attention, and it has tactical value for both of them in energizing independents (who can register for either party on election day in NH). They're both true believers in campaign finance reform, though, and they have some similarities in what Newsweek called their "authenticity". Up close, they look and sound comfortable in their skins.
New York, N.Y.: How much do you think Bradley's tenure with the Knicks is helping him among male voters?
Barton Gellman: Bradley always says there is a generation of men, now maybe in their 30s to 50s, for whom he will always be Dollar Bill. That's got to help. More importantly it helps with fund-raising the glamour of his stardom, and the stars he brings along with him, always has.
Washington, D.C.: What information if any did his Senate staffers provide to you during the research stage of writing this profile? For example, Marcia Aronoff, his AA and now a senior policy adviser?
Barton Gellman: You'll see Marcia Aronoff quoted in tomorrow's paper. One of the things that Dale and I have worked hard for in this series is transparency. So far I don't think we've had a single blind quote. We haven't and couldn't (without footnotes) displayed all our sources, but the ones we have are representative. To answer the question directly, we spoke to lots of former Senate staffers and campaign workers, but found most of our most compelling stuff about his previous lives elsewhere.
Arlington, Va.: If Gore gets the nomination how likely is Bradley to accept a VP spot (assuming it's offered to him)?
Barton Gellman: Preface this with a confession. My predictions are nearly always wrong. One reason I like my job is that it's empirical. Facts matter, and they often surprise you. But I will hazard a guess on this one. Bradley has said unequivocally that he will not be anyone's running mate. You'll see additional reason in the next two parts of the series to believe him. I would be stunned if he joined a Gore ticket.
New York, N.Y.: What's your sense of Bradley's abilities as a fund-raiser? (Madison Square Garden notwithstanding)
Barton Gellman: The numbers, which I don't have in front of me, speak for themselves. He was among the very top Senate fund-raiser in the '90s, and he has actually outraised Gore during certain key periods in this campaign. But for his fund-raising prowess, he would long since have been eclipsed as a plausible challenger to a sitting vice president.
San Francisco, Calif.: How big a role is Ernestine Bradley playing in the campaign? What's your sense of their marriage as a partnership?
Barton Gellman: She is as strong a personality and has as supple a mind as he (some friends would say more so). Everyone who knows them says they're crazy about each other, and she has spoken feelingly to Dale (you'll read about it later) about how much she misses time alone with him. When he ran his first Senate campaign, she said she preferred to campaign separately because "I felt I didn't just literally want to stand in Bill's shadow and stretch out my hand and say, 'This is the wife.'" She is by any measure his closest confidant.
Washington, D.C.: I understand Bradley and Gore are going to face off on a couple of TV shows this weekend. How does he prepare for these meetings? Do you get any sense of what he thinks of Gore as an opponent?
Barton Gellman: I don't know that much about how he prepares. Certainly he spends time with an inner circle of "message" advisers. He tends to be suspicious of "lines" in these debates, preferring to stick to his own agenda and let the cards fall. I have a gut feeling with insufficient evidence to qualify it as reporting that these guys don't much like each other. The time they spent talking in the Senate could be measured in minutes, not hours, which has to say something in light of the similarities in their outlooks and resumes.
Raleigh, N.C.: That take-it-or-leave-it quality could run a president into trouble with Congress, couldn't it?
Barton Gellman: I think that's a very important question. You'll be reading more about it in the next two parts of the series. It is not that Bradley is naive about Congress, as perhaps Jimmy Carter was, but he has not often chosen to play the game of legislation as it is commonly played.
Richmond, Va.: Do you think Bradley is a true believer in campaign finance reform, or like McCain, is he sort of a late-comer to the dance and has now begun to preach that gospel?
Barton Gellman: Oh, I think he's a true believer. The irony is that he has been among the strongest of fund-raisers and though uncomfortable about it at the start came to terms with using his celebrity to raise cash.
Indianapolis, Ind.: Is Bradley viable after New Hampshire and Iowa?
Barton Gellman: Reread my caveat on prediction. Unlike some past dark horses, he won't be out of money or organization after Iowa and New Hampshire. But he is certainly counting on momentum from those contests to carry him to New York, California, New Jersey, Florida and elsewhere.
Rockville, Md.: Did you ever talk with Jeremy Larner, author of a book entitled, Drive, He Said ? He once traveled with Bradley in the late '60s to places like India and elsewhere in Asia.
Barton Gellman: Never heard of him, I'm afraid. But I'd like to. Send me email to email@example.com if you know how to reach him.
Free Media: That was our last question today for Post reporter Barton Gellman. Thanks to Bart, and to everyone who joined us today.
Tune in tomorrow to talk about the Miranda case and the latest on the Supreme Court with Joan Biskupic on "Holding Court" at 11 a.m. EST. And continue the discussion about campaign finance reform with Paul Taylor, founder of the Alliance for Better Campaigns, on "Free Media" at 2 p.m. EST.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company