Bill Bradley's presidential campaign faced an unusual quandary in early October. The Nobel Prize for Literature just had been awarded to German writer Guenter Grass, and journalists wanted a reaction from Bradley's wife, Ernestine.

This wasn't an ordinary question for a potential first lady, but Ernestine Bradley is not your ordinary presidential candidate's wife. Born in Nazi Germany, she is well known in academia as Ernestine Schlant, multilingual scholar of German and comparative literature. Her latest book criticizes post-Holocaust German novelists, including Grass, for what she calls their "language of silence"--a failure to come to terms with the slaughter of 6 million Jews.

The award to Grass offered Schlant an enviable platform to expound on her scholarship. But the campaign had no interest in a transoceanic argument with a Nobel laureate. "The Language of Silence" speaks for itself, she responded.

It was a rare moment of tension between Prof. Schlant and Mrs. Bradley, who for much of Bill Bradley's Senate career operated from different locales. Ernestine Schlant wrote and taught at Montclair State University in New Jersey; Ernestine Bradley spent long private weekends with her husband and daughter in Washington, making only rare political appearances, mostly during Bradley's Senate campaigns.

In the past eight months, Ernestine S. Bradley (her legal name) has gone increasingly public as both scholar and wife--campaigning in 33 states, delivering book lectures to intellectuals and stump speeches to the masses, in English and Spanish. She also has answered endless media questions about the same few subjects--her hard-won triumph over breast cancer, her father's wartime service in the Luftwaffe (he was not a member of the Nazi Party, she emphasizes), her long-distance marriage, the eight-year age gap between her and her husband (she is 64; he is 56) and her 1970s romance with Bradley, a former Rhodes scholar and a star forward for the New York Knicks. At Democratic fund-raisers, they roar at her life-with-Bill stories, including the one about her first Knicks game, where the basketball innocent was amazed to discover that her "gentle, totally open, inquisitive" beau threw elbows like a street fighter. "Watch the elbows!" she warns to applause.

In four hours of conversation over three interviews, Bradley appears impervious to scripting. Wearing bluejeans, low-cut boots and a sweater at one session, her brown (undyed) hair cut short--exactly as she has worn it for more than 30 years--she looks younger, not older, than her husband. With girlish exuberance and a light German accent, she talks easily of her love for her husband, her "great respect" for his intelligence and integrity. But she exhibits no patience for adulation of him--among political groupies today, basketball groupies in past years.

"He's a human being. I don't love a statue or something!" she exclaims, her blue eyes blazing. "He has his little weaknesses. Mostly they're adorable and sometimes they are not."

She laughs at her breach of political-wife protocol, then turns serious. "If you admire someone, you really don't know that person--you get stuck in your own admiration."

Erna's Choice

There is a reason she relentlessly questions appearances, she says--one rooted in a painful family secret from wartime Germany. It has nothing to do with Nazism--the main preoccupation of American inquiries into her past--but rather with the traumatic and remarkable love story of her parents, Erna and Sepp Misslbeck.

The two were childhood sweethearts in the small community of Ingolstadt, she said, when her mother at 18 discovered she was pregnant. Terrified, and afraid that the truth would dash Sepp's dreams of great adventures, forcing him to stay home and support her, Erna hastily married a hair salon owner in Passau named Max Baumeister, explaining nothing to a heartbroken Sepp. About nine months later, Erna gave birth to a baby girl, Ernestine, whom everyone took to be Baumeister's daughter.

Seven years later, at the height of World War II, Erna and Sepp met unexpectedly at a memorial service in Ingolstadt, where each had come to mourn a brother killed on the Russian front. "I understand you have a little girl," Sepp said, attempting to make conversation. "What do you mean I have a little girl?!" she demanded. "We have a little girl!"

Sepp, who hadn't married, insisted that Erna get a divorce, which she did, and so Ernestine learned that the man she believed to be her father was gone from her life. Her last memory of Baumeister is of bicycling with him at age 4, in 1939, just before he went off to war. "Then he vanished, but it wasn't a big deal because all the men vanished. Only in a sense he never came back. For me."

Her parents married two years later, in 1944, when she was 9, and had two more children--a son, Sepp, and a daughter, Monika. Within a few months of the end of the war they had settled in Ingolstadt.

Bradley cries three times as she tells this story, saying she hurts not for herself, but for her mother, now widowed and frail in Germany. Her parents rhapsodized all through her childhood about their unquenchable love, vowing to write a book about it. But they never did, and now here she is, spilling it out in the context of an American political campaign, one step ahead of the German tabloids.

"What it has meant to me--and really for my whole life--is that you can never judge anything by appearances," she says. "That works very well for literature. It works for everything. You can't judge a text by a first reading; you can't judge a person by a first impression."

Her memories of wartime Passau are vague. No one told her at the time that it was a center of Nazism, proud to be purged of Jews, or that there was a forced labor camp nearby. She now shudders at the remembered sound of trains forever whooshing in that direction. She remembers serving tea to wounded German soldiers in her school, which was requisitioned as a hospital.

After the war, she became both sister and mother to young Sepp and Monika (her own mother, who had had tuberculosis, was in poor health). She would rise at 5, make the fire, cook breakfast, brush Monika's long hair, wash and dress the little ones for school, walk them to their classrooms.

From her, they learned to tie shoes, ride bikes, wash dishes, respect others' belongings and clean floors, making sure they got under all the rugs and furniture. "She was tough--always the boss," recalls Sepp, now 55 and a self-employed consulting engineer to the auto industry. Still, he calls her an "idol"--beautiful, smart, remarkable at languages and music, his number one defender. His mother would say, "Your sister plays [piano] so well and willingly. Why don't you?" And Ernestine would retort: "He's a boy. He's not supposed to do this. He's supposed to play soccer!"

She completed her baccalaureate degree with top grades, and left home to become an interpreter. Her skill at English, French and Spanish won her a job as an "air hostess" for Pan Am in 1957, an elite post in the early days of international air travel. Soon afterward, she married Robert Schlant, an American physician whom she met on a blind date, and moved with him to Atlanta, where they had a daughter, Stephanie, in 1959.

The young mother graduated Phi Beta Kappa, then earned a PhD in comparative literature, both at Emory University. There she first confronted the Holocaust, under the guidance of her undergraduate adviser, Walter Strauss, who also supervised her dissertation. With him, she explored the writings of Franz Kafka and his life as a Jew in an antisemitic society. Then came the work of Austrian-born Jewish refugees Albert Drach and Hermann Broch, on whom she wrote her dissertation and first book. In the process, she became fascinated and horrified by the mass psychology of Nazism.

Eventually she confronted her father, demanding what he knew of the genocide of Jews. Typical of his generation, he responded that he hadn't known of it, even in the Luftwaffe. He mentioned once being on furlough in Berlin, seeing a Jewish couple branded with yellow Stars of David, and giving them his ration cards in sympathy.

"So you knew they were half-starved!" she demanded.

"Well, yeah, sort of," came the answer.

"Did you know they were sent to Auschwitz?"

"No. No."

Her father died in 1974, revealing no more than that.

A Note Under the Door

Schlant and Bradley arrived in New York at about the same time--he as a rookie for the Knicks with the biggest contract in NBA history, she as a lecturer at the state university at Stony Brook. She recently had divorced--"We were young and we picked the wrong partners"--and had left Stephanie with Robert, whom the couple deemed a better provider, given his physician's salary. Ernestine flew to Atlanta monthly to spend weekends with Stephanie, taking her to Europe in the summers and around the United States on school holidays.

In 1970 she tried filmmaking and was named assistant producer of a film in which Bill Bradley, the basketball star who loved literature, was to interview Marianne Moore, the poet who loved sports. By coincidence, Schlant and Bradley lived in the same apartment building--888 Eighth Ave.--and she slipped a note under his door, requesting a meeting.

Bradley told his close friend and Princeton roommate Dan Okimoto soon after that meeting how dazzled he was by Schlant's seemingly boundless intellectual curiosity and passion for her work. But asked in a recent telephone interview for his first impressions, Bradley focuses on his future wife's all-business obliviousness to his celebrity. Unlike almost everyone else in New York, Schlant didn't know the world champion Dollar Bill from a dollar bill. Accustomed to peeling female groupies off his sleeves, he found himself in the apartment of a single woman who insisted on calling him "Mr. Bradley," as in her cool, crisp windup: "Mr. Bradley, now let me summarize." When the summary was complete, he recalled, she rose and extended her hand. Bradley, a foot taller at 6-5, was surprised by her firm handshake.

"And I thought, 'Well, this is unusual,' " he says, chuckling.

So that's what grabbed him?

Long pause.

"I also thought she looked a little like Audrey Hepburn," he confesses.

The film fell through when Moore suffered a stroke, but the relationship flourished. Schlant soon gave up on cinema, resuming teaching in 1971 at what was then Montclair State College. The conventional wisdom was that their romance was an unlikely match--the 27-year-old prince of professional basketball and the 35-year-old German scholar and divorcee.

But those who knew them were struck by their synergy. She was fascinated by the sociology of literature--how a society shaped and was reflected in its writings. He had the same questions about politics and society, and was taken with her passion and insight.

He also shared her deep-rooted skepticism of appearances--although his was formed in reaction to the fickleness of celebrity. Asked about the parallels, he throws up his hands and says, "That's why we love each other! There's this 'Let's go deeper, let's go deeper.' "

For the obsessively private Bradley, it didn't hurt that Schlant had an uncanny capacity to read beneath surfaces, to divine meanings in silence. "She understands me and how I'm feeling at a particular moment and she can intuit where that heads," he says.

They married in January 1974 during the All-Star break in a small ceremony that they kept secret until afterward. He was 30; she was 38. Even Rita Jacobs, Schlant's good friend at Montclair State, was caught off guard, despite daily commutes from Manhattan during which they talked about seemingly everything--sometimes in Jacobs's red, broken-down Toyota, other times in Schlant's red, broken-down Datsun. "I knew they were dating," Jacobs says. "I had no idea they were about to get married."

Just as Bill Bradley has legions of loyal Princeton friends who three decades later are rallying behind his campaign for the Democratic nomination, Ernestine Schlant Bradley has intensely faithful female colleagues of almost 30 years at Montclair State. Jacobs came to Washington often to cook "comfort food" for her as she braved chemotherapy after a mastectomy in 1992, and loves telling stories about her friend's purposefulness, even at the beach. ("If the waves crash around our thighs," Bradley once told her, "it's great for cellulite.")

Linda Gould Levine, a professor of Spanish, helped Bradley fashion an independent study in that language when she wanted to perfect her already proficient skills for use on the campaign trail. Levine says she is amazed by her friend's progress. Last week she got a thank-you note, written at midnight ("better than nada"), ending victoriously: "I am making progress!"

And just as Bill Bradley has been a star since his youth, Ernestine Schlant Bradley had star quality from the outset. Columbia University's Fritz Stern, honored in Europe and America as a German history scholar, says he was struck by "the intelligence, the intensity" of the young woman who introduced herself at a conference some 20 years ago. "She exuded a quiet, totally unpretentious seriousness. I was fascinated by her, by the way she combined passion with scholarly responsibility."

'Always Work'

Ernestine Schlant Bradley remained at Montclair State, despite continuing feelers from elite universities, telling friends she felt attached to her colleagues, to her many first-generation college students and to the school that allowed her to spend semesters occasionally in Washington with her husband and their daughter, Theresa Anne. The family had agreed in 1985 to move Theresa Anne, then 10, from New Jersey to Washington, after Bill said he felt he wasn't seeing enough of her.

Once again, Ernestine Bradley found herself the nonresident parent. But this time, she traveled every few days to make up for it--jamming a heavy teaching schedule into 3 1/2 days, spending Thursday night to Monday morning in Washington. On her three-day weekends, she prepared a week's worth of meals for Bill and Theresa Anne, washed a week's worth of laundry, jealously guarded the family's private time--avoiding almost all political functions--and headed back to New Jersey on Monday once Theresa Anne left for school. She insists this wasn't hard on her.

"My life from age 10 was always work," she says. "When I talk to my friends and colleagues, everybody's life is filled to the seams." As for the separations, "I really feel even in relation to myself or Bill that distance was never an obstacle to love. Love, in a sense, negated distance." This, too, was a legacy of her early childhood, she says. "Love could have complications. It was never an easy thing. But it was always a strong bond."

The strain didn't show in her teaching, which consistently drew high praise in student evaluations. "Very demanding professor, but so interesting it's not a problem," read one assessment that Lois Oppenheim, her department chair, calls typical. "Such a complete picture of literature--politically, culturally, socially," read another.

In May 1992, her daughter Stephanie married Paul St. Onge, a match made in the Hart Senate Office Building (he had worked on Bradley's staff). At about the same time, Ernestine discovered a lump in one breast. The next month she learned it was malignant. For the first time, her lifelong indomitability failed her. Bill Bradley became her rock, she says, mastering the subject of cancer as he had tax reform and Western water rights, consulting countless experts. The couple settled on a mastectomy and chemotherapy.

Ten days after her surgery, relieved to learn the cancer had not spread to the lymph nodes, her husband delivered the keynote address at the 1992 Democratic National Convention, where Bill Clinton was nominated for president. Ernestine watched from a Manhattan hotel room, with Jacobs at her side. Before beginning his speech, her husband whispered something into the microphone so unobtrusively that his press secretary, Eric Hauser, didn't notice it until he replayed the tape days later. Ernestine caught it, though: "I love you, Wuschel," he said. This is Bradley's term of endearment for his wife, taken from her German childhood nickname, Wuschie.

"That's their relationship," Jacobs says. "It's very deep; and it's not public."

Bill Bradley says his wife's cancer and her survival spurred him to face his own mortality, probably influencing his decision to run for president. It certainly clarified her own choices: "You get a perspective on what is important and how far you go and where your values are."

She redoubled her commitment to her book, her vehicle for wrestling with the burden of her past. Determined to finish, she remained in New Jersey to write almost all of the 1997-98 academic year, forgoing plans to spend time in California with her husband, who had retired from the Senate and become a lecturer at Stanford.

She spent 10 years on "The Language of Silence," but really, she says, "this is the book that, in retrospect, all my prior publications have tended toward." So had her life.

The Next Step In late November 1998, the Bradleys had a series of private dinners with friends to let them know Bill was planning to launch his presidential exploratory committee soon. Disney Chairman Michael Eisner remembers reacting with shock, assuming along with most of America then that Vice President Gore was unbeatable. "Are you running for vice president?" he asked.

Before Bill could respond, Ernestine scolded Eisner for questioning her husband's resolve. "That was the other shock--that Ernestine was the first one out of the box," Eisner says. "My feeling always had been this was not for her. But she was completely supportive."

On the other hand, Ernestine says she struggles often with her and her husband's loss of privacy as a couple. One day last September, when both were fund-raising in California, surrounded continually by staff, she declared to him: "You know I really, really want to be with just YOU!"

"Another man would've said, 'Well, sorry, don't you see, honey? This is the staff and the campaign. That's what the guys would do, right? But he said, 'You know what? Let's rent a car.' So the team went in their buses and we were alone in the car for 2 1/2 hours. It's so much Bill. He immediately not only understood that I was gasping for fresh air, but he identified with it and he needed it, too. And so I adored it. He immediately had an answer that was not putting me down or putting me second, but on the contrary! This is Bill and this is our relationship."

Of course, if Bill Bradley becomes President Bradley, there will be no more driving alone together. She pauses, seeming to focus on something far away. "Yeah," she sighs. "I think it still hasn't quite dawned on me."

Dita Smith and Tim Gossing of The Washington Post contributed to this report.

CAPTION: "You can't judge a text by a first reading," Ernestine Schlant Bradley says, and "you can't judge a person by a first impression."

CAPTION: "He has his little weaknesses," she says of her husband, presidential candidate Bill Bradley. "Mostly they're adorable."

CAPTION: Ernestine Misslbeck as a child in Germany: "My life from age 10 was always work."

CAPTION: "He's a human being," Ernestine Bradley says of her husband. "I don't love a statue or something!"

CAPTION: Ernestine with her father, Sepp Misslbeck, during one of her trips to Germany from the United States.