Bill Bradley Tiptoes Down the Campaign Trail
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 25, 1999; Page C1
DES MOINES The small knot of reporters surrounding Bill Bradley wants his reaction to the Georgia school shootings three hours earlier, and the candidate quietly broaches the issue of gun control.
"The things that have been proposed by the White House are minimums. . . . I think before this is over we're going to have to do something much stronger," he tells Kay Henderson of Radio Iowa.
"Well, stay tuned," Bradley says. "I have some ideas, but not for this morning."
The Democratic presidential candidate has just done a nearly unthinkable thing: He has passed up an opportunity to make news. He stubbornly stuck to this approach as his low-key campaign ambled its way through this first-caucus state, just as he has refused for months to appear on television talk shows. In short, the former basketball star, who has been dealing with reporters since his locker-room days, is playing the game by an unorthodox set of rules.
Bradley explains in an interview that he is trying to get away from "the ridiculous interaction where you stand in front of a backdrop with four sound bites, and try to make sure those sound bites get on the evening news, and the reporter sits there skeptically knowing what you're doing and resenting the fact that you're trying to manipulate him or her."
Leaving aside the existential issue of whether journalists prefer to be manipulated so they can churn out predictable stories, Bradley's approach raises this question: Doesn't the self-proclaimed candidate of "big ideas" have some responsibility to at least outline them?
"The specifics will come in the fall," Bradley says. "Let's face it, I lay out a specific program today, next fall when I want people to focus on it, I reintroduce it and you say it's old news."
So far, at least, Bradley's approach is paying dividends. While Vice President Gore is suffering through a prolonged spate of bad press--"Off and Stumbling," declares Newsweek's cover--his rival is drawing strikingly upbeat coverage. "Suddenly, Bradley Develops Following," said the lead story in last Thursday's Des Moines Register (which also advanced the questionable proposition that the presence of reporters for The Washington Post and the New Yorker meant that Bradley had attained crucial momentum).
The former New Jersey senator is clearly determined to stay below the electronic radar, concentrating instead on old-fashioned retail politicking in places like Des Moines. When MSNBC's John Hockenberry was here last week for a show on presidential politics, Bradley passed up the chance to reach hundreds of thousands of viewers. His "schedule conflict": meeting with a single community leader.
"If your definition of television coverage is Sunday talk shows, that's not what we're about now," says Gina Glantz, Bradley's campaign manager. "We're about going into communities in Iowa and New Hampshire, raising money across the country, introducing him to the public and community leaders. This is really an opportunity for people to take his message, eyeball to eyeball."
It takes a long time to work the individual eyeball circuit. But Bradley strategists are acutely aware that with every other Democratic rival having passed up the race, their man faces a one-on-one contest against Gore for the next 10 months. And that means Bradley, whom no one has accused of being a charismatic speaker, must find a way to sustain media interest in his laid-back candidacy.
On paper, he remains a clear underdog. In a recent USA Today poll, Bradley trailed Gore 66 to 23 percent among likely Democratic voters. And while he impressed the cognoscenti by raising $4.3 million in the first quarter, that was less than half the vice president's haul.
Still, David Yepsen, the veteran political writer for the Des Moines Register, recently quoted the head of Iowa's Democratic Party, Rob Tully, as saying that Bradley could upset Gore in next year's caucuses here.
"He's getting pretty good coverage," Yepsen says of Bradley. "None of us are taking very critical looks at any of these guys at this stage. It's the candidates introducing themselves."
What the media would prefer, of course, is conflict and drama. Journalists frequently press Bradley for sharper rhetoric, hoping he will swing away at Gore rather than taking a few gentle jabs. Newsweek grumbled last week that Bradley's policy talk is "mostly boilerplate and bromides."
Bradley is unperturbed by such criticism. "This is very early in the first quarter," he says. "I've made a few baskets, but the idea is to win at the end."
Indeed, the onetime Rhodes scholar is "amused" by stories about his supposed progress, saying nothing has really changed since last week or last month. The media insistence on a daily scorecard reminds him of his days with the New York Knicks.
"After a game, people would come in and say, 'What happened?' Well, you saw what happened. . . . I don't know what reporters want."
As Bradley arrives at the local Best Western, it's evident that he is as much a celebrity as a candidate, posing for pictures and signing autographs, even scribbling on one man's basketball. His hair has touches of gray, with a Gorelike bald spot developing at the back. He's put on some weight since his playing days; in fact, a recent 6 a.m. game of basketball left him with a strained calf. But the Best Western crowd immediately warms to the tall, loping figure, with several recalling his exploits as a Princeton hoop star.
As Bradley works the room, Gene Messenger, a white-bearded Iowan, buttonholes him to talk about long-term care. "The nursing home business is screwed bad," Messenger says.
Bradley's response: "I'm waiting for you to tell me what you guys need."
Grabbing a hand-held mike, Bradley, 55, sketches his background for the 100 assembled folks: Growing up in a one-stoplight Missouri town. Posing for a picture with Lyndon Johnson as a member of the Olympic basketball team. Getting elected to the Senate in 1978. Twice refusing to run for president because his "inner voice" told him he wasn't ready.
When the audience questions begin, Bradley doesn't pander. Asked about the Colorado school massacre, he says: "Anybody that tells you they have a facile, easy answer to what happened in Littleton, I would urge you to be skeptical of."
As for offensive material on the Internet, he admits that "we will not be able to totally control what comes into our homes."
But his responses can be maddeningly vague. Asked about the war in Kosovo, Bradley scrambles for safe ground, saying that "our objectives have not been clear from the beginning. . . . I think we should seek a negotiated settlement."
As the evening wears on, it becomes clear that Bradley is not the sort of candidate who declares that "we must" do such-and-such. He does not raise his voice or pound his fist. He makes no exhortations. He does not attack Gore. He does not invoke the 21st century. He is not interrupted by applause because he offers no applause lines.
Instead, Bradley talks in a soft voice about the need to reduce poverty among children, and for greater accountability in education. He says the country should cover the 44 million Americans without health insurance--as if Congress had not fought a huge battle over deep-sixing the Hillary Clinton health plan--but offers no clue as to how this might be accomplished.
No matter--someone else asks about the Knicks' playoff chances. Bradley says he wouldn't bet the ranch.
After the talk, Register reporter Jeff Zeleny asks Bradley: "Are you concerned that you're possibly peaking too early?"
Most candidates would be happy to plead guilty to premature success; Bradley sidesteps the question. "I don't know what I can do about it. . . . I wouldn't say we're at a peak at all," Bradley says, looking puzzled.
On WOI-TV that night, reporter Jody Shields describes Bradley's "warm welcome" and says that he plans to make monthly visits to Iowa. The anchor adds matter-of-factly that Gore's office says the vice president will be here every three weeks.
Fairly or not, Bradley's fame is a huge advantage in an age when politics has become entertainment. And many reporters are sports fans who retain a special affection for Dollar Bill. But journalists also have a way of cutting heroes down to size.
Boston Herald reporter Wayne Woodlief, who has written positively about Bradley's New Hampshire campaign, says the candidate's caution may simply be an attempt not to offend voters. "It's a stealth strategy. . . . If you make headlines, you can also make waves," Woodlief says.
Gore, of course, is an incumbent who can make news at any time. He's also been working the television circuit, showing up on the morning shows, with Larry King and at an MSNBC town meeting on school violence. Bradley, however, is narrowcasting to the activists, the kind of folks who will trudge through the snow to vote at local gatherings next February.
"The real audience here is 200,000 caucus-going Democrats and Republicans," Yepsen says. "Bradley gets 250 people in Creston, Iowa, on a nice Sunday afternoon, that tells me something. I think Gore's feeling the heat."
But Bradley's style is anything but hot. The next morning, the candidate chats with a dozen physicians, staffers and patients at Broadlawns Medical Center, which caters to the poor. He hears the usual complaints about bureaucracy and pointless federal regulations. But most troubling is the tale of a striking tire worker who says he had some polyps removed and now has new symptoms and needs to be checked for cancer, but has put it off for months because he has no health insurance.
It would have been a Bill Clinton moment. It is not difficult to imagine candidate Clinton hugging the man and making an impassioned speech about America's soul and how he will not rest until every citizen has access to high-quality health care. But Bradley stays in his seat, nods his head and quietly encourages the man to seek treatment.
Only when the group breaks up does Bradley show a bit of emotion. "The stories are always unbelievable," he tells a reporter. "This guy could be dying."
The ultimate question for the Bradley boomlet is whether a presidential campaign can really be about having a "conversation" with the country, as so many contenders pretend to do when they are really using audiences as props to get themselves on television. The man who left the Senate insisting that "politics is broken" seems determined to pursue a more discursive style of electioneering.
"It's not a matter of me descending from on high and telling the country what we should do," Bradley says. "I haven't made my mind up which are the things I want to focus on."
The candidate has an even more elusive goal in staging so many community meetings: to educate journalists about the problems of America.
"I want to allow the press to have a human experience as well as simply covering the pol," Bradley says. "I'm trying to break out of this idea that . . . you try to manipulate the press and the press tries to destroy you."
Now there's a big idea--if Bradley can somehow persuade reporters to go along.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company