Look out Gore, Bradley says the time is now

December 14, 1998|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- Just 11 years ago, Bill Bradley, then a senator from New Jersey, ran into a national political reporter on a flight from Miami to Washington. Tell me what's going on in the presidential campaign, he asked.

As it turned out, it took the entire flight. For more 2 1/2 hours, Mr. Bradley grilled the reporter on every facet of the competition for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1988. Finally, the reporter asked Mr. Bradley why, since he was so interested, he didn't run himself.

"The timing doesn't feel right," he replied.

That has been the story of Mr. Bradley's entire career as an overachieving college student, All-American athlete, professional basketball player and politician. He has always marched to his own drummer.

More to the point, however, is ahat he usually has been right about when to make his move. When he finished his career as an All-American at Princeton, he was advised to forgo postgraduate study or risk losing big money from pro basketball. But he took a Rhodes Scholarship, went abroad for a year and found the New York Knicks still ready to pay big money when he got back.

When he decided to enter politics, he was advised by fellow Democrats in New Jersey to start by running for a seat in the House of Representatives. But he decided to wait a couple of years and run for the Senate instead, winning the first of his three terms in 1978. That history of picking his own spots means Mr. Bradley should be taken seriously now that he has signaled his intention to run for the Democratic nomination in 2000. It may very well be that at 55 he is, as he put it to reporters in Newark the other day, "at the top of my game" two years after retiring from the Senate.

ZTC In the Senate, Mr. Bradley had to overcome some initial resentment among his colleagues about all the attention he earned from the press as a top-ranked sports celebrity. But he did this with most, although not all, of his colleagues by ducking the national press and plunging deeply into the substance of his job. Over his three terms in the Congress, he became a leading expert on a wide range of issues from international economics to domestic tax policy and civil rights.

He has made himself a particular favorite among liberals and in the black community because of his willingness to be conspicuously out front in championing the disadvantaged at a time when many white Democrats have kept a careful distance. Among older African-Americans who followed basketball, Mr. Bradley will be remembered as a play-making teammate of Willis Reed and Walt Frazier.

Mr. Bradley's prime asset, however, may be the fact that he walked away from Washington two years ago. Many Americans share his view that the game of politics played here lacks civility and accomplishes little. There are some Democrats who were angry at Mr. Bradley's complaint that the system was "broken" and consider him holier-than-thou. But there are not enough of them to be a serious obstacle to his candidacy.

The conventional wisdom on Mr. Bradley always has been that he is too dull as a speaker to be a successful national candidate. In fact, although his speeches may be less than scintillating, he is quick-witted and capable of the droll humor that succeeds in politics. In any case, the value of giving a strong red-faced speech is probably overrated in the field in which Mr. Bradley will be competing.

None of the other likely candidates -- Vice President Al Gore, House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, Sens. John Kerry and Paul Wellstone -- has ever been mistaken for William Jennings Bryan.

Mr. Gore is, of course, the strong favorite for the nomination. The vice president has built a strong rapport with Democratic leaders all over the country, and his office is an obvious asset in seeking the nomination. The polls suggest most Americans believe he has performed well.

But if Mr. Bradley says his time has arrived, he cannot be ignored.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from the Washington Bureau.

Pub Date: 12/14/98

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