Bradley's super Sunday

November 17, 1999|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- Although Bill Bradley served in the U.S. Senate for 18 years before seeking the presidency, he has deftly managed to convey the sense that he's a non-politician. If you believe that, we have a Madison Square Garden we'd like to sell you.

The presidential calendar has a Super Tuesday of 11 primaries in March, but Mr. Bradley just had his own super Sunday, netting $1.5 million at a Garden fund raiser, where he starred with the Knicks. Also, talk of his campaign dominated that day's network talk shows.

When a candidate buys up time at the same hour on all networks, it's called a "roadblock," meaning viewers can't avoid the message by turning the dial. This in effect is what the Bradley campaign pulled off in the hours before the Garden fund raiser.

Stars on parade

Some 30 of professional sports' brightest former stars, most of them basketball greats, were in New York for the event celebrating Mr. Bradley's feats over his 10-year pro career. Before it started, nine of them appeared on the three major networks' talk shows and Mr. Bradley himself made a CNN appearance.

While their appearances did not constitute a pure "roadblock," it was not possible to tune in to the three networks from 10: 30 a.m. to 12: 30 p.m. without getting a heavy dose of starry-eyed praise of Mr. Bradley.

CBS News' "Face the Nation" had Julius Erving, Oscar Robertson and Mr. Bradley's old roommate, Dave DeBusschere. NBC News' "Meet the Press" had Mr. DeBusschere, Bob Cousy, Jerry Lucas and Bill Russell; ABC News' "This Week" had Phil Jackson, Willis Reed and Earl Monroe.

On each of these shows, typically the venue for hard-hitting questions from aggressive reporters and columnists, the hosts tossed up air balls to their sports-celebrity guests.

On "Meet the Press," Tim Russert started by asking old Boston Celtic great Russell: "Why do you believe Bill Bradley would be a good president?"

Mr. Russell replied: "Well, first, he's a good person. He's intelligent. He's compassionate. And, you know, he's had some experience in national politics. And then he got away for a while to take a real good look at it, which is sometimes very helpful. But mostly, he's a bright, intelligent, strong person."

Mr. Russert then played straight man, asking Mr. Russell, who is black, whether he had ever discussed race relations with Mr. Bradley. Mr. Russell allowed that he had -- in "our very first conversation when he'd just come back from Cambridge as a Rhodes scholar." The love-athon continued, with Mr. DeBusschere calling Mr. Bradley "a wonderful roommate . . . a lot of fun to sit with and discuss different things with."

Next, Mr. Russert asked another old Celtic, Mr. Cousy, why voters should listen to him on a matter of politics. The old passing wizard known as "The Cooz" said it depended on whether the sports celebrity "has used his celebrity in a positive way . . .to help others basically. . . If we're all pretty good guys and we've lived our lives properly then, hey, why don't you listen to us in this case and vote for Bill Bradley?"

Gore's shot

It went on like that with old teammate Lucas, and Mr. Russert concluded the segment by reporting that Vice President Al Gore's campaign had declined an opportunity to provide celebrities of its own. As a final shot at the buzzer, Mr. Russert quoted Mr. Gore's freshman basketball coach at Harvard, describing him as a poor shooter and a teammate at St. Alban's School saying Mr. Gore would rather shoot than pass.

It was much more of the same on the other shows. In sum, the Bradley campaign took the networks to the showers as a prelude to its extravaganza at the Garden. It was quite a political coup for a non-politician.

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

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