Bill Bradley's spiritual guru

November 28, 1999|By Jacob Weisberg

RECENTLY, the Washington Post published an editorial about the Naomi Wolf business that drew a contrast between Vice President Al Gore's and Bill Bradley's uses of advisers. The editors noted that while Mr. Gore is a sucker for trendy gurus peddling magical elixirs, Mr. Bradley relies only on trusted long-term advisers ("who think nothing of sharing hotel rooms in order to save money").

But as Ms. Wolf quite reasonably pointed out in recent TV appearances, Mr. Bradley has a guru, too, a Harvard professor by the name of Cornel West. While Mr. West is not being paid by the Bradley campaign, as Ms. Wolf is by Mr. Gore's campaign, he plays an analogous role as affiliated intellectual.

Where Ms. Wolf advises Mr. Gore about how to score with women voters, Mr. West is helping Mr. Bradley appeal to blacks. And as in the Gore-Wolf case, the benefits of the Bradley-West relationship are clearly reciprocal.

As a result of his association with a leading presidential candidate, Mr. West can expect to see his fame and his already formidable lecture fees rise. I don't think he shares hotel rooms.

Devestating profile

I must admit to being poorly disposed toward Mr. West, mainly on the basis of a devastating critique in the New Republic by Leon Wieseltier that appeared in 1995. In a long review-essay, Mr. Wieseltier demolished Mr. West's stature as a "public intellectual," portraying him as a pretentious egomaniac, a mass of contradictions, and a superficial thinker who dresses up diluted Marxism in incomprehensible phraseology.

An obvious column idea suggested itself: Mr. Bradley's guru is much wackier than Mr. Gore's. Then I read some of Mr. West's writings. While he certainly can be eccentric, solipsistic and turgid, at his best moments Mr. West is shrewd, courageous and inspirational. I remain ambivalent about his work, but it is certainly not, as Mr. Wieseltier asserts "almost completely worthless."

It doesn't trouble me at all that Mr. West is advising Mr. Bradley. In fact, it makes me respect Mr. Bradley for openly engaging a self-described socialist who may prove a big political liability to his campaign, mainly because he finds him insightful and stimulating.

Let's get some of Mr. West's obvious faults out of the way. His vanity is indeed considerable. Mr. West's picture invariably appears on the cover of his books, and their interiors contain nearly as many self-references as those of that other Bradley mentor, New York Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

Mr. West goes on tremendous name-dropping riffs. The just-published "Cornel West Reader" is dedicated to John Coltrane, Frederico Garcia Lorca, Franz Kafka, Paul Celan, Tennessee Williams, Giacomo Leopardi, Samuel Beckett, Sarah Vaughn, Muriel Rukeyser, Thomas Hardy, Nikos Kazantzakis, Toni Morrison, "and above all," Anton Chekhov. It's that "above all" that really cinches it.

Mr. West has an unfortunate tendency to refer to his utterances as "prophetic" -- a judgment best left to others. But like Mr. West's taste for three-piece suits, (like his role model W.E.B. DuBois) this is more a matter of style than of substance.

Mr. West cultivates a distinctively black mode of academic discourse, improvisational in tone and containing a stronger element of showmanship and braggadocio than most of his white colleagues are comfortable with.

Another annoyance is Mr. West's love affair with labels. In the early pages of "The Cornel West Reader," he describes himself as "a Chekhovian Christian with deep democratic commitments," "a Gramscian democratic socialist," a "non-Marxist socialist" and a "prophetic, Christian pragmatist freedom fighter."

These stickers accumulate, as on a steamer trunk, without pointing to any definitive destination. This habit, too, makes Mr. West easy to mock, but I think it serves a purpose. Mr. West wants to communicate the intensity of his effort to reconcile his various influences: religious, political, philosophic and artistic. Mr. Wieseltier may be right that Mr. West's efforts at synthesis lack rigor. But I don't think Mr. West's intention is so much to work out a system as it is to put his own personal journey forward as an example.

Mr. West is a self-made intellectual who found Kierkegaard in a bookmobile, was influenced by the Black Panthers as a teen-ager and found his way to Karl Barth and John Dewey. His promiscuous use of slogans is a way of personalizing the philosophical, of telling you where he's been.

Thoughts on race

So what is it that I find appealing about Mr. West? I think his main strengths are his thoughtfulness about America's racial divide and his charismatic enthusiasm about bridging it. Mr. West has a reputation as something of an angry revolutionary. I would describe him as a blunt-spoken moderate with a radical self-image slightly at odds with the substance of his views.

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