Bill Bradley Takes a Shot
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 1, 1999; Page A1
DOVER, N.H.óBill Bradley's first campaign trip to New Hampshire ended in a kitchen at a Head Start center, with the man who would be president talking intently to two cooks about their families, their work, their values, their hopes for the future.
Bradley never said anything about Washington or the mess it's in. But after he left, the cooks erupted at the first mention of the subject. "Talk about turnoff!" Eve Krook, 35, exclaimed. "Turn on the TV and see a whole bunch of congressmen!" She spat out the word "congressmen" like a wad of rancid food. Watching Vice President Gore, who happens to be Bradley's opponent for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination, wasn't much easier, she said. "You can tell how strong a person is or isn't by how they act toward their boss. He hasn't stood up to his boss. He hasn't stood up FOR him. He just stands there."
"Show some backbone!" said Priscilla Boudreau, 47, slapping the chopping block.
This was the dynamic of Bradley's debut as a presidential candidate. He kept walking into the fabled "disconnect" pollsters have identified between Washington and the rest of the country.
"People are making one decision when they vote for president: Who do they trust?" Bradley said. "Does this person have remotely the same ideas I do about life?"
Throughout his three-day trip last week, he talked about tapping "the unfulfilled potential of the American people;" about delivering politics from the influence of big money, back to people; about leading by "core convictions," including racial unity. He recounted his rise from small-town Missouri boy to Rhodes scholar to basketball star and senator. He offered few specifics, such as where he would set the minimum wage or the defense budget or what he would do in Kosovo. He said all this would come later. And he never talked about impeachment or Gore until asked.
But as in the Head Start kitchen, he didn't have to. Thirteen months before this state's first-in-the-nation presidential primary, New Hampshire was more focused on venting than voting, and Bradley became a vehicle without even trying. The more he vowed to be civil toward opponents, remain true to himself, govern for the general interest -- not special interests -- the more clear it became that many in his audiences had all but given up on finding these simple, civics-text virtues in national politics.
At event after event, he was approached by people who said they were looking for a way out of the lies, the partisanship, the muck of impeachment. Applause broke out spontaneously at Plymouth High School when a man who said he was a libertarian rose to say, "I read that your integrity is beyond reproach. Keep that in the forefront!"
"I'm looking not only for someone who's bright and who carries my legislative agenda, but who's honest," Susan Herman, a college instructor and self-described liberal, said as she shook Bradley's hand at the Bagel Works in Keene. "Right now I've got two out of three, and I'm telling you, it's not enough." Of Gore, she said, "He's not the winds of change."
But if Bradley represents a change voters yearn for, it was unclear how and whether he could mount a campaign that galvanizes voter disaffection. Although he has been a national figure since he was in high school, Bradley has rarely been comfortable in the spotlight. Year after year, political observers have predicted that Bradley would run for president -- and year after year he has demurred, saying the timing wasn't right. Now he seemed exhilarated to "reach a time," as he put it, "when the inside feels right with the outside."
His inner feelings were a recurring subject in his chats and news conferences, a contrast with his cerebral-senator image. He said he was changed by his wife's struggle through breast cancer, the suicides of two friends and his near-defeat in 1990 -- by a then-obscure Christine Todd Whitman -- when he remained aloof to a roiling anti-tax uprising in New Jersey. "I knew that I had led from my mind, and you also have to lead through feeling," he said.
Bradley apparently felt he had made an emotional connection here, through coffees, ambles down Main Streets and open-ended conversations. "I'm loving it," he said at one point. "I called my wife last night and said I haven't felt this way in I didn't know how long."
It was unclear whether the voters' disaffection would last until primary day -- and even less clear whether it was widespread enough to pose a threat to Gore, whose network of battle-tested party activists here is said by supporters to be more formidable now than Clinton's was on the eve of the 1992 primary. Most people who came to see Bradley said they rarely if ever have worked in presidential primaries -- meaning the campaign will have to build phone lists and get-out-the-vote teams from scratch.
Still, the disgust was such that Bradley's retirement from the Senate in 1996 -- when he pronounced politics "broken" -- loomed much larger than his years-long work to reform taxes and western water policy. His limitations as a politician -- his wooden speaking style, his aloofness from the often-muddy party trenches -- seemed to work in his favor. "I think there's a lot of pent-up emotion for Bradley," said Dover attorney Allan Kraus, 47. "He adds a new element -- a non-slick candidate."
"I don't think he would have been electable in another time," John Moores, the San Diego Padres owner who supported Clinton in 1992 and is working to raise $1 million for Bradley, said by telephone. "He's not going to be a spellbinding orator. It's not within him to do that. But everyone will sense he is above lying. And he won't even brag about it. He's sort of the anti-politician."
But of course, he is also a politician, and Bradley seemed keenly aware that for now, his opening is wider the less he clutters it with positions on issues -- most of which are the same as Gore's. Asked at every stop for contrasts between himself and Gore, he emphasized personal ones: that he grew up in the nation's heartland and "had a life before and after Washington." He also added, "I've not been a part of the partisanship that's shaped debate in the last couple of years."
To go further would mean taking on not only Gore, but Clinton and the Democratic Party establishment now unified behind him. Bradley's supporters seem to be hoping Gore's lead -- 34 percent to 14 percent in a recent poll of likely primary voters -- would vaporize before it comes to that. "I'm hoping the establishment will see the light and decide that Vice President Gore has too much political baggage for the Republicans to attack," said Democratic state Rep. Kathy Taylor. To which outgoing state party chairman Jeff Woodburn, a Gore supporter, countered, "Anybody who gets to know Al Gore will know these aren't his problems."
Bradley insisted that his emphasis on personal values was not calculated. "I'm doing this the way that is truest to who I am," he said. "This is the only way I could do it and look myself in the mirror."
There is another reason he gave little detail about his positions: He is still writing them. He said publicly that he wants to lead a national assault on childhood poverty -- including an expansion of Medicaid and a broader approach to welfare reform, which he voted against, to address root causes such as teenage pregnancy. Asked how he would pay for this, he said, "You have to make some choices: Are we serious about children or not? Do we want postage-stamp programs or rhetorical approaches or not? And if so, is it more important than some other things we spend money on?"
Asked specifically what he would cut, to keep the budget balanced -- which he vowed to do -- he said he doesn't know yet.
Still, Bradley said he will roll out an ambitious governing agenda on health care, families and children, Social Security, fiscal policy and foreign policy in the next several months, and then run on it -- which he implied was another contrast with the Clinton White House. "The election has to be about some specific agenda so you have a mandate to do something as opposed to running a campaign strictly on tactics, and then when you win, defining what it was about."
He blamed Clinton as well as Republicans for the impeachment crisis -- once others brought up the subject. Impeachment was not a "proportionate response," he said, but "any time a president lies, it undermines his own authority and people's trust. That's the most unfortunate thing about what happened."
A caller named Jim on WEVO radio in Concord angrily asked Bradley if he'd have lied "if you'd done that." Bradley answered, "I'm not going to do that."
Bradley seemed increasingly at ease as the trip wore on. At Plymouth High School, spotting the girls' basketball team in the front rows of bleachers filled with teenagers, parents and teachers, the former New York Knick delivered a 10-minute rhapsody about the spirit and athleticism of the women's game and how it ascended -- with major assists from federal Title IX legislation and activist parents. "So you can make change in this country for the better with leadership at the top and broad-based support from parents and families," Bradley said. This lapse into campaignese seemed to remind him why he was there.
"Oh! In case you didn't know who I am or what I'm doing," he said, comically sweeping his hand down and to the side as if preparing to take a bow, "I'm running for president!"
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company