Bradley's memoir: at the top of his game

January 21, 1996|By David Kusnet | David Kusnet,special to the sun

"Time Present, Time Past: A Memoir," by Bill Bradley. Knopf. 442 pages. $25

Bill Bradley's new memoir may be the first example of a new genre: the non-campaign book. He is retiring after three terms as U.S. senator from New Jersey and, despite earlier reports, seems unlikely to seek the presidency this year. So, unlike political leaders' books that are little more than expanded stump speeches, this is a summing-up of Mr. Bradley's 18 years as a well-respected figure in Washington, D.C., and a well-traveled campaigner for Democratic candidates.

Unlike most books by political leaders, Mr. Bradley's bears no signs of the ministrations of a ghostwriter. In rambling displays of erudition on subjects ranging from the history of Mr. Bradley's own ethnic group, the Scotch-Irish, to the nation's treatment of Native Americans, the failures of the Central Intelligence Agency, the receding frontier and the growing power of big money in politics, "Time Present, Time Past" reveals a restless intellect with a rare sense of history.

Mr. Bradley is often linked with other members of the "sensible center," including former senators Paul Tsongas (D.-Mass.) and Warren Rudman (R-N.H.). Yet, unlike these fiscal conservatives, Mr. Bradley seems much more concerned about raising people's living standards and restoring their sense of community than cutting entitlement programs and balancing the federal budget.

Mr. Bradley's greatest talent is a remarkable gift for empathy. From his childhood as a banker's son in a small factory town to his young manhood in predominantly black professional basketball, Mr. Bradley has learned to live and work with people less privileged than himself. Discussing race, class and immigration, he is neither arrogant nor patronizing but genuinely curious about how others earn their livings and face the future.

Most of all, this product of a Missouri company town whose major factory recently closed displays a passionate concern for the plight of workers "downsized" out of their jobs. "I saw the VTC fear of the future in the faces of middle-aged men who had lost their jobs," he writes. "What they thought would never change had disappeared, and they had nowhere to go."

The most spirited and substantive sections of this book are his calls for corporations to show more responsibility to their communities and for unions to reach out to workers in the new economy. Indeed, he addresses these issues in more detail in this memoir than in his distinguished Senate career.

Mr. Bradley presents this book as a counterpart to "Life on the Run," his 1976 memoir at the conclusion of his basketball career. Professional sports are his metaphor for politics - the nomadic life, the importance of discipline and teamwork, and, ultimately, the need to hang it all up and "move on."

Yet one wonders what Mr. Bradley will do next that could be as important as staying in the Senate and finding ways for Americans to adapt to economic change. Certainly, his constituents who are losing their jobs at AT&T need a leader who's giving more thought to their jobs than his own poll numbers or even the bottom line in the federal budget.

This book delights and disappoints in some of the same ways as Mr. Bradley's political career, for it is the story of a decent and reflective man who walked away from the game before he took his best shots.

David Kusnet, author of "Speaking American: How th Democrats Can Win in The Nineties," was chief speechwriter for President Clinton. He is a visiting fellow at the Economic Policy Institute and has been a staffer and consultant for labor unions.

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