Washington -- One of the more distressing things about modern politicians is that even if you grant that they believe what they say, they do not often say what they believe -- and never say what they feel. Bill Bradley, the senator from New Jersey, seemed as modern as they come. He has always been a cautious, reasonable and calculating man, the kind who can give a bad name to thoughtfulness and fairness.
Until last week, that is. In a time when passion is mocked, at least in public, which is where it counts for a public man, Mr. Bradley rose in the Senate to give a passionate speech on the most dangerous of American subjects: the true relations between the races.
''So, Mr. President, tell us how you have worked through the issue of race in your own life,'' he said, constructing the speech as an ''open letter'' to George Bush. ''I don't mean speechwriter abstractions about equality or liberty, but your own life experiences. When did you realize that there was a difference between the lives of black people and the lives of white people in America? . . . How did you feel? What did you do?''
Mr. Bradley began by talking about the summer of 1964, when he was in Washington as a summer intern, hustling paper and coffee around the Senate between his junior and senior years in college. Mr. Bush was then a candidate to represent Texas in that body. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was being debated.
''Why did you oppose that bill?'' Senator Bradley said. ''Why did you say that the Civil Rights Act of 1964, in your words, 'violates the constitutional rights of all people' . . . Did you ever change your mind and regret your opposition?''
It was a time, he recalled, of separate restrooms and restaurants, when ''Negroes'' were turned away from hotels and movies. ''Whose constitutional rights were being violated there?'' he said.
''I came to Washington that summer as a Republican. I left as a Democrat,'' said Mr. Bradley, whose father was a banker in Missouri. He said that this speech last week was non-partisan, but it was savagely, passionately partisan. He struck deep into the infection of one of the real, felt issues between the Democratic and Republican parties in his lifetime, a defining difference since the day in the 1960 presidential campaign when the Democratic candidate, John F. Kennedy, one of the most dispassionate of modern men, stood with Martin Luther King Jr. when the young black preacher was jailed in the state of Georgia.
That move by Kennedy, just a phone call to King's wife, may have won the 1960 election. ''Negro'' voters in the cities of the North -- there were essentially none then in the segregated South -- voted heavily Democratic from then until now. But by 1963, after Kennedy, who never thought things would go so far, had used the troops and laws of the United States to protect civil rights demonstrators, he had lost 4.5 million white voters. That number comes from Harris polls, which showed his total gain among black voters amounted to 580,000.
Not a good political deal -- for the Democrats. Mr. Bradley calls for ''straight talk about race,'' saying that silence is worse. The political straight talk is this: Being the party of ''blacks'' is to the Democrats what being the party of ''the Great Depression'' used to be to the Republicans.
The majority of white Americans are afraid or contemptuous or disillusioned by black Americans -- and they vote that way, not only against blacks but against their political friends, usually liberal Democrats. That is what George Bush and Willie Horton were about in 1988 -- or Willie Horton and Michael Dukakis -- and that is the kind of racial politics Bill Bradley said George Bush is getting ready to gear up again to distract white voters from economic realities.
''The average middle-income family earned $31,000 in 1977 and $31,000 in 1990,'' said Senator Bradley. ''No improvement. During the same time period, the richest 1 percent of American families went from earning $280,000 in 1977 to $549,000 in 1990. . . . Just as middle-class America began to see their economic interests clearly and come home to the Democratic Party, Republicans 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.''
Why did Mr. Bradley decide to do this? Some are going to say that this was designed to promote his own presidential ambitions. That makes no sense to me because his own straight talk will offend and frighten more than it will please. ''White Americans have to understand that their children's standard of living is inextricably bound to the future of millions of non-white children who will pour into the work force in the next decades,'' he said. And then he added that none of us, white or black, will deal with any of America's deepest problems ''until a white person can point out the epidemic of minority illegitimacy, drug addiction and homicides without being charged a racist.''
This may all be politics, but it is not what most professionals these days would call smart politics. Perhaps it has something to do with how Mr. Bradley himself worked through the issue of race in his own life. He, after all, worked in one of the few businesses where blacks do better than whites. Bill Bradley was no lawyer or banker or oilman. The man made his living as a professional basketball player.
Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.