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Too Nice to Win?

Time Present, Time Past: A Memoir

by Bill Bradley
Knopf, 442 pp., $26.00

1.

Senator Bradley’s reflections on his life in politics inspire the same exasperated affection as the Senator himself—ungrudging affection for the man and exasperation with the politician. The book exudes decency, honesty, and a deep love of his country, but liberals longing to be led into battle will not find their general in these pages. They will hear no battle cries and will have their blood stirred by no trumpets. Whatever else it may be, Time Present, Time Past is neither the centrist Democrat’s counter to Colin Powell’s autobiography, nor an ideological riposte to Newt Gingrich and To Renew America. It is a wholly admirable book, and a pretty depressing one.

The Senator’s reflections on politics are subtle and complex; his view of himself is wry and self-deprecating. It is impossible not to like him, and hard not to admire most of what he has struggled to achieve in the Senate.1 But it is awfully easy to wish he had more of the passionate intensity that the worst are notoriously full of. He takes too little pleasure in demolishing his opponents, and has too good a memory for defeats, whether in basketball or in politics—his little Crystal City high school didn’t quite make it to the state finals; his Princeton team lost to Michigan after he fouled out; he is leaving the Senate without having got 1.3 million acres of the Black Hills of South Dakota back into the hands of the Sioux who used to own them.

The habit of self-deprecation has some payoffs. Anyone who watched Bradley’s desperate attempts at levity in his speech at the 1992 Democratic Convention that denounced the way George Bush had “waffled, wiggled and wavered” will have longed to know what its author was up to. Now we know. He has never been able to speak in public. “My ability as a public speaker was comparable to the rhetorical skills of an inmate of Madame Tussaud’s wax museum,” he says. As a famous basketball player he was much in demand on the lunch circuits, and performed happily enough; though even then, he recalls, “My college-basketball coach would say to me when we left an engagement that the audience had laughed at my jokes because of who I was, not because the jokes were any good.” Even when promoting his book on the talk-show circuit, spontaneity does not come easily; he tells the same stories every time, and they are the ones he has written out in Time Present, Time Past. Political speech-making has always been a particular agony. In his first years in the Senate he read all his speeches—including one “real snoozer” of forty-seven pages.

For his Madison Square Garden speech in 1992, he took advice from voice coaches; he rehearsed for hours, and then found himself on the platform facing a noisy demonstration from supporters of Jerry Brown chanting “Let Jerry speak” all the way through his speech. He gave his usual wooden performance. Kindly commentators said it would read better than it sounded—and they were right. It read well, and it still does; it was a decent, humane, and touching appeal to the American people to grow up, to stop whining, and to start caring for one another. Indeed, the speech contained essentially the same message as Time Present, Time Past. The only thing wrong was that its author couldn’t move his audience in the way Jesse Jackson or Bill Clinton could.

Writing his book is evidently part of a process of deciding whether to make a run for the White House. Although Senator Bradley rules out nothing, the odds must be heavily against it. He seems to have concluded not only that he is too boring a speaker, too private a person, and too unambitious a politician to have a real chance at the nomination, but that politics as currently conducted is no occupation for a decent person. The public is irritable and irrational, the constant chasing after campaign contributions is corrupting, the press and television reporting is intrusive and cynical, the political parties have been hijacked by special interests and ideological extremists, and are incapable of pursuing genuinely national goals. The Democrats were once the party of the underdog, and had a vision of a better society; now, they are the slaves of the assorted interest groups spawned by forty years of a Democratic Congress.

Bradley doesn’t ask whether things are worse than they were in the Gilded Age or in the 1920s or 30s. Nor, less forgivably, does he stop to wonder whether the evils he complains of have been made worse by the effort to run a modern, industrialized society covering most of a continent on the basis of political institutions designed for a tiny, agrarian society on the eastern seaboard. He has many virtues, but political imagination is not one of them. Some exasperated readers will think that a bit of historical perspective would have stopped Bradley—as it might have stopped Senators Nunn, Kassebaum, and Cohen—from so precipitately heading for the exit this year. Whether or not that might be so, someone who emphasizes the attractions of “the big picture” in the way Bradley does could have paid attention to the ways in which the American Constitution tempts legislators to prefer sectional interests to the national interest, and makes the rehabilitation of the inner city harder than in most comparable nations. A system that makes the proposition that “all politics is local” something of a truism is not one in which it is easy to get everyone lined up behind an agreed view of the national interest.

Conversely, had he been looking for reasons not to despair, he could also have noticed how American politics enforces compromise. Even with the White House occupied by a president whose instinct is to surrender at the first shot, the Republican revolution is getting nowhere. This is not an accident. The American political system was created to be as unlike the British political system as possible; power was intended to be dispersed. In 1787, George III loomed large in the founders’ minds. Today, we can contrast the ease with which Mrs. Thatcher sustained her autocratic rule and the very partial successes of Speaker Gingrich. Until the cabinet, the electorate, the Conservative Party, and the much put-upon Sir Geoffrey Howe all rebelled simultaneously, Mrs. Thatcher could ram whatever she chose through the British parliament. The slow, clogged, veto-infested American system extinguishes firebrands and smoothes the abrasive. The features that enrage reformers on the left also frustrate self-proclaimed revolutionaries on the right. Bradley has drawn criticism from people who thought he should have dug in for a long fight against the Republican counterrevolution, and he says little here to suggest they are wrong.

It would be ungracious not to enjoy what we do get from Senator Bradley, and worse than ungracious not to praise the intelligence and humanity of his views, especially on race relations on the one hand and the anxieties of the hard-pressed middle class on the other. Introspective as the book is, it is also wonderfully informative about the everyday life of the Senate, and equally, if more depressingly, informative about the everyday ups and downs of the politician’s life. If you want to know how to get a bill passed, you will find out here; if you want to know what senators really mind about—office space and precedence mostly—Bradley is your man. Nor is he sentimental about the senatorial life. The introspective air that pervades the book doesn’t come from Bradley wondering whether he has done the right thing in quitting: he seems to have no regrets about getting out. He seems more puzzled by having got in and stayed in so long.

He began, after all, in a small town in Missouri. His parents were deeply, if unaggressively, conservative and Republican. Though his father was the president of a small bank and a local civic figure of some substance, there was little about Crystal City to suggest that young Bill would someday become a Democratic senator from the bustling, overcrowded, chaotically multi-ethnic and multi-racial state of New Jersey. Still, the town’s Democratic book took an interest in young Bradley. Ed Eversole was a caricature of a stereotype: “a capacious face with a large nose, reddened cheeks, and eyes that were often bloodshot. He gave the profession of politics an air of intrigue and corruption.” But Bradley had no need to follow his advice to start at the bottom with a run for the Crystal City town council. After his years with the Knicks, he had the money and the name recognition to start at the top with a run for the Senate in 1978. With his campaign in the capable hands of Susan Thomases, he won easily.

In 1984, he won reelection even more easily, but in 1990 he was the target of the New Jersey voters’ fury at the tax increase of the Democratic governor Jim Florio, and barely squeaked home against the previously unknown Christie Whitman. It was that rather than the arrival of the fire-eating Republican freshmen that decided him against running this November. But his account of the causes of his troubles will fuel the doubts of his critics. First, he says that Florio had been “cynical” in denying while he was running for governor that any tax increase was necessary and then pushing the largest increase in state history through the legislature upon arrival. A page later, he suggests that the real cynic in the case was the previous governor, “the popular Tom Kean,” whose wild over-optimism about the state’s economic prospects had left a “grossly unbalanced” budget for his successor to clear up. Does that mean Bradley thought Florio was right after all? Well, not exactly. “At the same time, to support the tax increase would have been not just highly unpopular but contrary to the tax principles (lower rates and fewer loopholes) I had espoused over twelve years.” Even Bradley must surely have wondered whether “tax principles” would have filled the sort of deficit that Florio found waiting for him. Florio’s vice was rashness, just as Bradley’s is caution.

About his Senate career, Bradley has mixed sensations. He prides himself less than one might expect on the tax reform of 1986. That it was a good thing, he has no doubt. Both fairness and efficiency demand a system that ensures that people with the same incomes pay much the same taxes, and the bill eliminated some of the most flagrant tax loopholes. Still, it wasn’t like winning the World Championship with the Knicks; once they’d won that it stayed won. The tax act was a momentary triumph that has been repealed in slow motion ever since.

But here, too, Bradley is somewhat at odds with himself. He complains at length that the Democrats had no idea how to cope with Reagan. For twenty years, Democrats haven’t known how to say that for many purposes, action by the federal government is essential, and for others quite unnecessary, and that where it is essential, it should be efficient. They have trailed along in the Republicans’ wake, agreeing, as President Clinton did in his recent State of the Union address, that “big government” is a bad thing, and giving the impression that they differ from the Republicans only in favoring a different set of interest groups. But if that is Bradley’s complaint, “low tax rates and fewer loopholes” misses the point. Americans already pay low taxes; they also get very poor value for them. It’s the second point that reformers should keep their minds on. Whether the public can be persuaded to think sensibly about what it pays in total for all the services it asks for is anybody’s guess, but the time has surely come to try. To complain about low tax rates plays into the hands of people like Gramm and Forbes.

  1. 1

    Many of the Senator’s admirers cite his decision to vote with the Republicans and in favor of aid to the contras as a piece of nonpartisan courage. I wouldn’t.

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