Too Nice to Win?

Time Present, Time Past: A Memoir

by Bill Bradley
Knopf, 442 pp., $26.00
Bill Bradley
Bill Bradley; drawing by David Levine


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…

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