Former senator Bill Bradley, Al Gore’s sole challenger for the Democratic presidential nomination, has a message for you pale types out there: He knows better about race; he has infinitely more compassion and sensitivity than you; and if you only cared about your fellow man as much as he, we could live in a decent country. Chances are, you haven’t “struggled with race” all of your life, as he has. You haven’t been able to see the awful fact of your “skin privilege.” And you certainly didn’t play for the New York Knicks, which would have afforded you a chance to “live in a black world.”
If you think Bill Clinton and his vice president are self-righteous and sanctimonious about race-wait’ll you get a load of Bradley.
Bill Bradley remains an enigma.
One thing Bradley says is absolutely true: He has talked about race from the beginning of his career, never stopping. He is forever saying that he “speaks from the heart”-this statement is a “cry from the heart”; that one is “straight from the heart”; why can’t the rest of us summon the “courage” to speak from our own “hearts”? His admirers say that his passion on the issue is genuine, and this is no doubt true. But he has the tendency, in the words of one close observer, to imagine that he is “the only truth-teller in all the world.” A former colleague notes that Bradley is “obsessed” with race, but almost “frozen in time,” as if he had fallen asleep in 1968. For him, there has never been any neoconservative critique: no Charles Murray, no Thernstroms- not even the early Daniel Patrick Moynihan. In Bradley’s mind, it often seems, drinking fountains are still separate, little girls in pretty dresses are being blown up in churches, and Bull Connor’s dogs continue to bark.
Facts, says one who has attempted to engage him, scarcely matter to him. “He is all sentimentality and emotion. If you argue to him, for example, the effects of illegitimacy on black poverty, he will look at you blankly or mock-sadly and come back with . . . what else? White racism. He has the reputation of a great and probing thinker, probably because he always looks serious, deep in thought, as though he had the weight of the world on his shoulders. But when it comes to actually contributing something useful, he offers nothing but banalities and his own, unyielding sense of moral superiority.”
One veteran congressional analyst, not at all unsympathetic to Bradley, sums it up this way: “If it’s possible to be a demagogue yet utterly sincere, Bradley is.”
That special brand of sincere demagoguery is on ample display as Bradley campaigns throughout the country. On April 20, he gave a widely applauded speech at New York’s Cooper Union, where Lincoln delivered a famous anti-slavery address. It was a typical Bradley race speech, long on the personal, the trite, and the unspecific. He talked about his “Aunt Bub,” a Missouri racist who often embarrassed her illustrious nephew-employing the worst epithets, for example-but who, it was discovered at her funeral, had a friendship with a black woman. (Let it not be said that Al Gore is the only candidate who makes public examples of dead relations.) Bradley announced that “I care about vanquishing racial discord from our hearts and spirit” and railed, as usual, against “white skin privilege,” a “great blind spot” that, among other things, renders white Americans unreasonably hostile to affirmative action.
Bradley’s rhetoric tends to go by in a haze of piety and pomposity. In New York, he urged a glorious racial reaching out, saying, “Start with your life and the life of a friend. Go from there to your parents, your dorm, your club, your team, and more friends. [No, this is not Amway.] Make racial unity a part of your being.” He included one of his stock paragraphs, which goes, “When Ronald Reagan was president, everyone knew that if you wanted to please the boss, you cut taxes, increased military spending, and fought Communism.” In the Age of Bradley, however, “if you want to please the boss, you’ll have to show how, in your department or agency, you’ve furthered tolerance and understanding.” What does he have in mind, apart from Clintonian quota- filling? He won’t say. He intends to keep mum about his policy positions until fall.
After his New York performance, Bradley traveled to Los Angeles, to speak on the seventh anniversary of the first Rodney King verdict, which sparked that city’s riots. He condemned Proposition 209-the ballot initiative that banned preferences in public institutions-as an example of “wedge politics used to fan the flames of suspicion.” In South Carolina, he called for the removal of the Confederate flag from the state capitol, which many in the media hailed as “bold.” Yet a conservative Republican governor had backed that action three years before. “When I was in the Senate,” Bradley bragged, “I would take . . . volatile issues like race and play to our greater interest”; but Gore, that model of temperateness, had been “more cautious.”
Bradley was born in 1943 and came to political awareness as the American racial cauldron was at a boil. Robert Kennedy made a profound impression on him-”He asked us to excel at being human”-as did Martin Luther King. His professional-basketball experience, too, had an undeniable effect. In this, he is similar to Jack Kemp, the old quarterback, of whom Newt Gingrich once admiringly quipped, “He has showered with more black people than most Republicans have ever even met.” Both Bradley and Kemp seem to treat their former careers as a special ticket to higher understanding. A couple of years ago, they delivered a joint lecture in Houston, which must have been one of the most self-congratulatory events in history. They denounced the Hopwood decision-which undermined preferences in Texas-as “tragic.”
Over the years, Bradley gained a reputation for being “thoughtful,” the word most frequently applied to him. After the L.A. riots, for instance, Time magazine went to him-he rained abuse on President Bush- and, in a photo caption, labeled him “a foot wiser than most pols.” Yet Bradley seldom serves up more than left-liberal pap. On affirmative action, he will brook no dissent whatsoever, nor even grant the humanity of the dissenter. He wrote three years ago, “The word ‘racist’ is overused. Most people aren’t brimming over with hatred. [So far, so calm.] To say that someone who opposes affirmative action is racist denies the possibility that the person may just be ignorant”! That’s about as generous as Bradley can get-and this was in the context of urging an open and brotherly discussion.
He then sketched out his view of recent history. Reagan, he claimed, “denied that there was any discrimination in America, much less racism.” Then came Bush, who was “a little better,” but who botched it with Clarence Thomas, “who, in an odd twist, turned the clock back.” As for efforts against affirmative action, “it is important to see how similar they are to the legal justification for segregation in the 19th century.” In this he cited the “brilliant” Kimberle Crenshaw of Columbia Law School, a pioneer in “critical race theory” who aided Anita Hill in her assault on Thomas. Crenshaw is one of Bradley’s preferred race experts, as is Derrick Bell, the professor who quit Harvard in a huff nine years ago over insufficient “diversity.” Even as Bradley has zero patience for right-of-center arguments-at a time when no less than Andrew Young has embraced school vouchers-he aligns himself with the most extreme thinkers on such matters.
Of course, he opposed the nomination of Robert Bork to the Court, questioning-no surprise here-the contents of the judge’s “heart”: “Is he sensitive to human and racial problems?” Bradley answered no and voted against Bork because, as he explained with characteristic humility, “I doubt that he has the commitment to civil rights and individual liberties on which the decency and well-being of our American community depends.”
Nor is Bradley averse to a little public melodrama. After the Rodney King verdict, he took to the Senate floor to bang his pencil on his desk 56 times-once for each of the blows struck against King by the Los Angeles police-while intoning, “Pow, pow, pow . . .” Bradley, who often decries “stereotyping,” “scapegoating,” and “fingerpointing,” simply assumed that it was “easier for an all-white jury to put themselves in the shoes of a white police officer than in the position of Rodney King.”
His crowning moment, however-a moment of which he remains manifestly proud-had occurred on July 10, 1991, when he delivered another speech on the Senate floor, this one billed as an “open letter” to President Bush. He ripped into Bush as though he were not a gracious, if awkward, Eastern patrician, but a hate-spewing, schoolhouse-door-blocking George C. Wallace. Bush had expressed reservations about the 1991 Civil Rights Act (which he eventually signed), causing Bradley to fear that the president would use race as a club in the following year’s campaign. As Bradley would later record, “something in me snapped.” He knew that “most independent voters and liberal Republicans did not consider themselves racist.” As for conservatives-well, that was a closed question.
Bradley’s speech is one of the nastiest, most arrogant, most absurd public utterances in memory. “Racial tension,” he began, without irony, “is too dangerous to exploit.” He demanded of Bush that he “tell us how you have worked through the issue of race in your own life”-without benefit of “speechwriter abstractions.” (This from a man who would go on to speak such sentences as, “Do you believe silence will muffle the gunshots of rising racial violence in our cities?”) His analysis of Republican political success is shocking to read even today. The Republicans, Bradley explained, are the party of the rich, the Democrats the party of the middle class and poor. Everyone knows that. So “how could the majority of voters have supported governments whose primary achievement was to make the rich richer?” Exactly: “The answer lies in the strategy and tactics” of the Republicans. They “interjected race into campaigns, to play on new fears and old prejudices, to drive a wedge through the middle class, to pry off a large enough portion to win.” That’s it: Republicans had induced ordinary Americans to subvert their own economic interests through race hatred.