He has refused to say where (or whether) he goes to church. He won't talk about who advises him on economic or education issues. He won't even tell what books he likes or which movies he has seen.
Bill Bradley, headed into the frantic final month before his New Hampshire showdown with Vice President Gore, is trying to remain the most private of public figures. The former New Jersey senator continually suggests in words and actions that if he were elected, the presidency would be dramatically depersonalized for the first time since Gerald R. Ford was photographed toasting his own English muffins 25 years ago.
While larding his brochures with photographs from his days of basketball glory, Bradley, 56, is attempting to draw the widest zone of privacy of any presidential candidate in memory. His reticence was already on display in his first campaign for Senate, in 1978, when he would not allow the college students who were serving as his drivers to pick him up at his house, but instead met them each morning at a nearby gas station.
In his insurgent quest for the Democratic presidential nomination, Bradley's secrecy has shown up in ways that are simply curious (he was the only major presidential candidate who sent no holiday cards), and in ones that have had serious consequences. Bradley had known he had an irregular heartbeat for four years but refused to release his medical records--turning the not-uncommon condition into a major distraction when he was forced off the campaign trail the week before two debates. And he still has not released his medical records for the period before 1996.
It is his silence on religion that is most surprising, given that he once was a frequent evangelist for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. Just last year, Bradley toasted Billy Graham, pastor to presidents, at the 75th anniversary dinner for Time magazine, calling him a childhood hero and declaring that "whenever I am channel-surfing and hit one of his televised crusades, I stop and listen and think how much he is the same."
Now, even the topic of religion is verboten--a stance that could disturb some voters, since 88 percent of Americans polled by the Gallup Organization last month said faith was important in their lives.
"I've decided that personal faith is private, and I will not discuss it with the public," Bradley said during a debate in New Hampshire last month. "I think it's every candidate's personal choice. I respect anyone that handles it any way they choose to handle it, but that's how I choose to handle it."
On CBS's "60 Minutes" in October, he declined to discuss the role religion plays in his life by saying, "I think people have a right to know if I'm a crook, but not a sinner, since we all are."
Iowa Democratic Chairman Robert G. Tully said Bradley can expect to be challenged on this approach in coming weeks. "Iowans are very probing, and are pretty intense about asking who you are and what makes you tick," said Tully, who is neutral in the race.
Michael Nelson, a political scientist at Rhodes College in Memphis who has written a dozen books about the presidency, said voters must know the foundation for a presidential candidate's moral and ethical beliefs, because those steer his decisions in office.
"Bradley is asking voters to assume that his religious beliefs won't affect the way he leads as president," Nelson said. "Whether he's a man of faith or not, that's an implausible claim."
Nelson has the same view of Bradley's refusal to name his favorite books. "Voters are entitled to know how a presidential candidate thinks," he said. "That's just not private information for someone who wants to be president."
Responding to a questionnaire from the Wall Street Journal, which the newspaper posted on its Web site last month, Bradley declined to answer eight of the 20 questions, including the person who has had the greatest influence on his political thinking, his foremost economic policy adviser, his top foreign policy adviser, the contemporary conservative he most admires, his favorite television program, the most important book he has read this year and ever, the best movie he has seen this year and ever, and his two closest personal friends besides his spouse.
Bradley also refused to name his favorite book when he was asked in New Hampshire last spring, telling baffled reporters, "I'd rather not go down that road." When the New York Daily News asked him this fall if he has ever undergone psychotherapy, he said, "I'm drawing the line some places."
And it is not just the candidate. Last month, when a reporter asked Ernestine, his wife of 26 years, the date of their wedding anniversary (Jan. 14), she snapped, "Please let us have some privacy."
Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., the historian and former aide to President John F. Kennedy, said that "the electorate is entitled to hear" who is giving a potential president advice, and he said he cannot understand why Bradley would want to conceal his "kitchen cabinet."
But Schlesinger said he views the idea that candidates should discuss religion as "a new school of thought."
"I can't remember anybody asking Harding or Coolidge what their religion was, for God's sake," Schlesinger said.
Bradley is an anomaly in an era when President Clinton blurted out his underwear preference and Gore's wife, Tipper, told a television interviewer that her husband sleeps in the buff.
On the Republican side, Texas Gov. George W. Bush readily discussed his Christian conversion with a debate audience, and Arizona Sen. John McCain recently told reporters that he enjoys venison, or, as he put it, "a slice of Bambi's mother."
Bradley, on the other hand, has a solemn, even sterile, manner. When he slipped and called his wife by her pet name, Wuschel, during a recent made-for-television shopping spree at a New Hampshire mall, he became flustered and she explained, "He forgot himself."
Bradley's every public move has been chronicled since he became a college basketball phenom back in 1962. Yet he has always seemed to resist the attention, which has only added to the public fascination. A chapter in his memoir, "Time Present, Time Past," published in 1996, is called "Media Burn."
"Elected officials have to be able to preserve an area in which to regenerate, away from the glare," he wrote. "They have to be able to wall off some things from public view--to protect a part of their lives while at the same time giving their lives to public service."
Bradley's effort to remain aloof extends to the campaign trail, where reporters find him to be by far the least accessible of the major candidates. When Bradley visited Harlem, Gabe Pressman, the legendary reporter for WNBC-TV, was left cursing after campaign staffers physically blocked him from asking Bradley if New York is an important state for him.
One New Hampshire reporter followed Bradley around the state for an entire day hoping to ask him one question, but was never allowed to get close enough.
Bush, by contrast, usually has a news conference in each major city he visits, and reporters run out of questions for the garrulous McCain and are reduced to chatting about the sprinkles on the doughnuts aboard his motor home, the "Straight Talk Express." A reporter can walk up and greet Gore, which would be a faux pas with Bradley.
Bradley's aides said that he admires the perseverance of individual reporters, and that his instinct is to be friendly, but that years of brief and repetitive encounters have soured him on the news industry.
Bradley may be loosening up a bit, though, as he continues to hammer Gore in polls and fund-raising. Last week, he authorized his staff to reveal, in response to inquiries about his personal side, that his childhood nickname was "Brad" or "Monster," his first car was a Plymouth Fury, his favorite comic strip is "Dilbert," his favorite dessert is pecan pie and his favorite junk food is cashews.
But he still will not divulge his education advisers.
"We don't even have a list," said his press secretary, Eric Hauser. "Not that we're handing out, at least."
CAPTION: Democratic presidential candidate Bill Bradley continually suggests that if he were elected, the presidency would be dramatically depersonalized. He is attempting to draw the widest zone of privacy of any recent candidate.