Bradley promises answers later to voters' questions

Bill Bradley is not accepting political action committee money or engaging in other money practices that have led to voter mistrust.

June 21, 1999|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

SAN FRANCISCO -- Welcome to the itinerant seminar of Bill Bradley, like unsyrupy 7-Up, the uncola of presidential candidates.

The former New Jersey senator sits one recent morning in a circle with about 20 experts on water problems who represent such groups as Friends of the River and Save the Bay. For about 90 minutes, he engages them in a low-key, not to say esoteric, conversation about ways to conserve California's most precious natural commodity.

Mr. Bradley starts out with a rather contrived recitation of why water means so much to him, a native Missourian who grew up on the banks of the mighty Mississippi, "in the presence of something bigger than myself." Then he tells of his 18 years representing a state bordered on the west by the once-polluted Delaware River and on the east by the Atlantic Ocean, notoriously trashed by medical waste, until efforts by him and others cleaned them up.

He tells of walking much of the 127 miles of ocean shoreline each summer as a senator, talking to folks on the beach, observing that "water flows through my life," most recently in spending a year in water-conscious California, in a program at Stanford University.

Mum is the word

But after that Mr. Bradley does more listening than talking, as the local conservationists and environmentalists eagerly pour out their concerns. As an author of the Central Valley (Calif.) Project Improvement Act of 1992, designed to reallocate water use for environmental as well as agricultural demands, he is at ease trading the jargon of the issue with what one participant called the "water wonks" sitting around the circle.

The event is distinctly devoid of partisan politics. The closest Mr. Bradley comes to criticism of the man he is contesting for the Democratic presidential nomination, Vice President Al Gore, is his expressed wish that the administration in which Mr. Gore serves would fully implement the Central Valley Act, which calls for 800,000 acre-feet of water to be taken out of agricultural use. "It will be interesting to see what the vice president does on this," is all he will say.

He presents himself more as opinion-seeker than office-seeker. When one local environmentalist asks him about how state legislatures can help, he replies: "I want you to tell me. I want to learn something." The questioner smiles and answers that "it's hard to tell you. You've been around so long." But the response does not shake Mr. Bradley out of his listening mode.

Only when he is asked directly what other issues he will emphasize as a presidential candidate does he offer anything resembling even a benign campaign pitch. "For me there is only one reason to run -- to improve the quality of life for all Americans," he says. He will advocate change that can bring about "fulfillment as they define it" for themselves, he says, and see to it that "every child in America has the chance to achieve his or her potential."

Connecting with voters

These generalities, he indicates, will have to do for now because he is intent on using the summer to "connect with people where they live their lives." But he promises he will spell out his proposals starting in the fall.

Mr. Bradley says he is campaigning mostly as listener because he is aware that Americans have soured on the political process as routinely practiced and thus has set out to "doing politics in a different way . . . doing it in a way to try to restore people's confidence." In the process, he notes, he is not accepting political action committee money or engaging in other money practices that have led to voter mistrust.

Later the same day, when Mr. Bradley meets with a smaller group of abortion rights activists at the local Planned Parenthood center, not a single word is said about presidential politics. Instead, he listens intently to horror stories about desperate pregnant women who don't have access to safe abortion procedures. He asks: "Does anyone have a personal story to share?"

One activist tells of a woman, back when abortion was illegal, whose only "anesthesia" during a hack procedure "was a loaded gun to her head so she wouldn't scream." Later, Mr. Bradley asks for more details, and it's a good bet that the story will be recycled by him in future days as he defends his support of legal abortion rights.

For now, though, his concentration is on being on the receiving end as he conducts his floating seminar on America's ills around the country.

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

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