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Bradley’s Escape

We can thank Stendhal for introducing us to M. Leuwen, who hated nothing except humidity and bores. Since this is the season when humidity especially soddens and boredom particularly dispirits, mightn’t we impute the same high taste to Bill Bradley’s choice of a day in August for announcing that he cannot endure further service in the Senate?

Bradley is the latest of the six Democratic senators who have so far made public their decision not to run again; and they come in varieties ranging from Louisiana’s Bennett Johnston and Alabama’s Howell Heflin, who are rather conservative, through Arkansas’s David Pryor who is pretty centrist, and out to Illinois’s Paul Simon, who is steadily liberal. This is a disparate enough crew of defectors to suggest that all that could unite them was a shared impulse to escape boredom.

The commanding fact about our politics today is its tedium, which remains so commandingly the unspoken secret of our politicians that not one of these has yet dared to mention it even while taking his leave. To imply that you have been frustrated where you are means at least to preserve the illusion of purposeful intent somewhere else; but to confess that your career has carried you so close to the abyss of terminal boredom is all but to admit that you may have been rendered inert to every future challenge.

Consider how hard it has become to stay awake in an American legislature. Robert Dole can do it because he is running for president; but, Lord, the ennui of the majority leader’s chores if he should lose the great prize and be stuck back hewing such wood and hauling such water.

The life will never pall for Jesse Helms until he wearies of the pleasures of knee-capping. Al D’Amato is the happiest of senators because he is the most coarsely vulgar of them all, while Daniel Patrick Moynihan is perhaps the most civilized and therefore can only fight off boredom by stimulating himself and the rest of us with works of philosophical reflection. House Speaker Newt Gingrich appears to revel in the business, although confidence in any statesman’s staying power cannot be unshakable once he takes a $4 million advance for a book on all the history he has made even before he has made any at all.

But where does that leave Bradley, who is not mean-spirited, not vulgar, and although often attractively brooding, not otherwise inclined to philosophical reflection? The journalists, who are as anxious as the politicians to keep the secret that our politics grows ever more tiresome, have conjured up a lively future for Bradley by clutching at hints that he might be an independent candidate for president.

The prospect is too unpromising to be plausible. Bradley’s singular appeal is to voters intelligent enough to be by now almost desperate for a president worthy of their admiration. That happens to be a commodity unavailable in the current market because there exists no source of capital for it.

Who could conceive of a substantial conglomerate, Michael Jordan aside, that might put aside its greed long enough to indulge the aesthetic satisfaction of buying into Bradley? American enterprise invests in politicians not for looking-up-to but for using, which is why so many senators wind up essentially alone, faithless to their colleagues and their party, and true only to the corporations that pay them.

And so why did Bradley quit if it weren’t for the aches of nostalgia for being on a team? It is odd that America should so incessantly exalt individual initiative when it can show so few solid achievements that were not in essence cooperative. Cathedrals are built by artisans working together; and wars are won by soldiers whose comradeship commits them to dying to rescue their own wounded. Politics once had some of the same spirit; but now it is governed by Kipling’s unhappy dictum that “down to Gehenna or up to the throne/he travels the fastest who travels alone.” And on either road he is apt to end up a bore.

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