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  • Relaxed Bradley Invokes Myth, Magic

    Bill Bradley
    Democratic presidential hopeful Bill Bradley speaks at the town hall in Hartland, Vt., Aug. 29. (AP)
    By David Von Drehle
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Monday, September 6, 1999; Page A1

    HAMPTON BEACH, N.H. A big man in worn gym trunks and old sneakers is moving up the beach, reaching out to shake hands with children, with moms too young to have given up on their bikinis, with lifeguards and with leathery old sun freaks.

    The man has a bald spot and a spare tire. He has a slow, monotonous voice.

    He passes a group of lean young wolves with buff torsos and bad attitudes. One of them steps forward and shakes the big man's hand. Then he cups his cigarette and sidles back to his friends.

    "My new bro," he says mockingly. "See the little rings on his tube socks?"

    The man cruises on, untouched by this silly scorn. He is Bill Bradley. Basketball phenom, Olympian and Hall of Famer; author, lawmaker and thinker of deep thoughts. Who is lofty enough to look down on Bradley? This is his magic, and his burden.

    On Wednesday, Bradley will announce officially his candidacy for president of the United States. Though he trails his only opponent, Vice President Gore, by large margins in most national polls, he is in as good a spot as he could hope. His bank account is flush, a lot of people know and like him, he gets good press and he has plenty of time.

    "It's a long campaign," he said at the end of his hand-shaking stroll down the beach in New Hampshire earlier this summer. "It's the first-ever one-on-one campaign to last over 11 months."

    Relaxed can be a very good thing. Kennedy beat Nixon, Reagan beat Carter, Clinton beat Bush and Dole and Perot. It could be a rule of presidential politics: The relaxed man wins.

    There aren't many of them, of course. How many humans have the sheer alpha assuredness to be entirely comfortable with the idea of running for president? Bill Bradley has it. He has always had it.

    Bradley can be relaxed because the toughest and trickiest job of any candidate is already long behind him. Harder than the fund-raising, harder than the travel, harder even than the compromise, is the work of transforming oneself from a person into a symbol. Americans don't elect mere humans to the highest office. The country chooses representative figures, who stand, depending on the moods and needs of the times, for hope, or integrity, or promise, or moderation, or cunning, or strength.

    At the tender age of 21, William Warren Bradley became the symbol, for America's elite, of virtue. In 1965, he was profiled at nearly book length in the New Yorker magazine by a fledgling writer named John McPhee. The New Yorker in that period was the most admired magazine in the world.

    In those pages, America's opinion makers met Bill Bradley, rendered by the dazzled McPhee as an almost unimaginably good and gifted young man -- not only the finest basketball player in college at the time, but perhaps "the most exemplary youth since Lochinvar," an outstanding student, a religious leader, a model of self-discipline, a physical marvel, a philosopher-prince.

    Decades later, people who read the profile can still remember certain miracles that McPhee reported: the time when, having fired a few shots at a prep school hoop, Bradley paused and announced that the basket was an inch-and-a-half lower than regulation (he was off by three-eighths of an inch); the time when Bradley grew impatient as a squadron of mere mortals searched for a lost contact lens, marched onto the court and immediately pointed it out; the climactic moment when the newly selected Rhodes scholar set the NCAA tournament record for scoring, smashing the marks set by Oscar Robertson and Jerry West.

    Throughout the article (which later became a book, "A Sense of Where You Are") it was clear that basketball was just the beginning. Bill Bradley was so good, so able, and so inspiring that -- as the author noted more than once -- he would probably be president someday.

    "I agree with you that there is a natural aristocracy among men," Thomas Jefferson once wrote to John Adams. "The grounds of this are virtue and talents." More than 30 years ago, in what was, perhaps, a more credulous time, Bill Bradley was confirmed into this rare class.

    So he can walk a beach in his yard-sale outfits serene in the assumption that other men wish they could be him. It is constantly ratified. Even on a sun-baked shore, people turn up with old photos of Bradley and the New York Knicks battling their arch-rivals the Boston Celtics.

    They want autographs. He signs a beach chair. He signs a girl's hand. One man asks his opinion on teacher salaries (he favors more respect for teachers), but most people are more interested in recalling the smart guy with the perfect set shot, the man known to his teammates as "Mr. President."

    During his 18 years in the Senate, Bradley was almost ostentatious about his humble refusal to talk about his basketball career. He was intent on proving himself to be more than just a jock. At 21, he had been, according to McPhee, "a national figure . . . whose time was under siege by every sort of organization from the wire services to religious groups and the National Basketball Association," but as a senator he cultivated an image as a bore. He succeeded so well that a favorite line among Washington pundits goes: Bill Bradley is the only Democrat more boring than Al Gore.

    Then, last year, he published "Values of the Game," a glossy volume of photos and essays about the soul-forming crucible of the gym. Now, every campaign appearance is likely to feature a few stories about his days on the road to the Hall of Fame. At a recent speech to labor unionists in Washington, he had his audience laughing, cheering and -- when he was through -- chanting his name.

    He is working the myth; he will work it intensely this week, when he returns to the little town on the Mississippi where he grew up, Crystal City, Mo.

    On a late summer morning, when the playgrounds and streets are nearly empty in the gathering heat and nothing moves in the town square save the burbling water in the cast-iron fountain, Crystal City feels like a place suspended.

    Everything is just as he left it. The brick high school. The warm and woody gymnasium, scented by years of floor wax and young sweat, with its little shrine to Bradley. The town center, just one block long -- a police station, City Hall, a barbershop and three saloons.

    His father's bank, and the Presbyterian church where his mother taught Sunday school, still stand watch over the town square. Midway between them is the Bradley family home. The grass and shrubs are neatly trimmed. The windows are clean and curtained.

    Bradley owns the empty house and pays for its immaculate upkeep. He owns the broad expanse of rich bottom farmland between the town and the riverside bluffs.

    He is keeping Crystal City intact, just as it was -- all the way down to the basketball hoop behind the house, dead level and precisely 10 feet high, where, as countless Bradley stories have recounted, the exemplary youth delivered hundreds and thousands of jump shots, set shots, hook shots, layups, turnaround jumpers, fadeaway jumpers, no-looks and free throws because he believed that preparation and planning could master any situation.

    Everything awaits the culmination. After he announces his candidacy at Crystal City High School Wednesday morning, Bradley will lead the national press corps on a tour of these mythic sites -- from the school corridor where his portrait hangs to the sturdy backyard hoop.

    So far, Bradley is doing especially well in New Hampshire. At the end of last year, he trailed Gore there by 40 percentage points. A poll yesterday had the difference at 4 percentage points, a statistical dead heat.

    Bradley's ascetic and virtuous myth is tailor-made for New Hampshire, where a very substantial sect of Democrats and independents have always gone for candidates who hold their hems above the mire of politics. Paul Tsongas won there in 1992, using a stump speech that reminded listeners of their impending deaths. Gary Hart's gloomy message did well in New Hampshire -- at least until he was revealed with a blonde on his lap in Bimini.

    Bradley enjoys an advantage over those earlier avatars of cool liberal rectitude. Because he has gotten Gore into a two-man race from the start, he has the luxury -- and the money -- to plan beyond success in New Hampshire.

    As a senior campaign official explains it, Bradley plans to score well enough in New Hampshire to leave Gore looking weakened. (Granite Staters love to rough up front-runners.) That will bounce him into the crucial March 7 primaries. New York votes that day -- New York, where Bradley is beloved as a starter on the two-time world champion Knicks. And California votes that day -- California, the presidential grail, where Bradley has spent months and months since retiring from the Senate in 1996.

    "If we do well in those places, you could see the leaders of the party going to Gore and telling him he is too weak to win it," one Bradley organizer says hopefully.

    The candidate will not be rushed into discussing prospects or strategy. In the coming months, he has promised to offer his vision of the "big issues" that he will contrast with what he considers to be the small-bore perspective of Al Gore. As for tactics -- he allows that "New Hampshire will really set the tone and send a message" for the March 7 sweepstakes.

    And that's about it.

    "A great day is when you win the championship," Bradley said after his walk on the beach, "not when you're playing well in mid-season." Then he took a swig from a bottle of water, his grip so relaxed he might not even leave fingerprints.

    © 1999 The Washington Post Company

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