Bradley's charismatic wife gives insight into often distant presidential hopeful

February 13, 2000|By MICHAEL OLESKER

IN THE WINTER of a presidential campaign trying to rub two sticks together to generate a little spark, Bill Bradley sent in his wife, Ernestine, last week. She is his designated charisma, his bench strength, the personal pizazz he left behind on the basketball court.

Naturally, this being Baltimore, Ernestine Bradley went to Jimmy's Restaurant in Fells Point, where the former governor named Schaefer waited for her, and the councilman named Curran, and the county executive named Ruppersberger was surely there in political spirit.

"They told me that you were the most charming lady and I was gonna like you," William Donald Schaefer declared grandly as Bradley arrived on Broadway Thursday afternoon.

"I hope you do," she said.

Seeking political certainty

She glanced up and down the partly plowed streets outside Jimmy's. The photographers outnumbered the civilians, a letdown for anyone in a political scramble, but Bradley seemed delighted to be there.

"This is a famous restaurant," Schaefer told her.

"So you picked the right place," said Bradley.

As Schaefer guided her inside, Bob Curran, the city councilman and uncle-in-law of Mayor Martin O'Malley, whispered to Schaefer, "It's not over, right? Last summer, people said the mayor's race was over, right?"

"That's right," Schaefer replied.

In a presidential race where most voters are only now beginning to focus on the issues, even the supporting political pros are still choosing up sides.

Four weeks before Maryland's little piece of the Super Tuesday primaries, Schaefer, for example, finds himself in a minority among state Democrats, who are mostly lining up behind Vice President Al Gore.

Schaefer cannot. He famously separated himself from Bill Clinton nearly eight years ago, and threw his support behind Republican George Bush. Al Gore is not Bill Clinton, but the memory lingers.

"Dignity," Schaefer said last week at Jimmy's. "We need a change. We need trust. We need a man who won't lie. Gore is like a Clinton hangover."

Then there is Baltimore County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger. He backs Bradley, but the reasons are a little personal. Al Gore has ties to Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, the lieutenant governor likely to run for governor in three years -- against Ruppersberger. Gore would throw his weight behind Townsend; Ruppersberger can't support a potential president who would back his potential gubernatorial opponent.

The right fit

Rupperbersberger wasn't there Thursday. He was attending funeral services for slain Baltimore County police Sgt. Bruce A. Prothero, which consumed an entire community's emotions.

This is the great fiction of national politics, where those such as the wives of presidential candidates show up for marketing purposes and hope to establish some feel for local concerns about which they know little.

"I'm not a politician," Ernestine Bradley said. She is a college professor and a writer. She grew up in wartime Germany and later wrote a book, "The Language of Silence," about German inability to face up to the horrors of the Holocaust.

"I have to learn campaign politics on the spot," she said. "The details, my goodness. I'm the average voter, standing in the supermarket line. I'm not an expert."

Such talk is true, yet also a little disingenuous. On Marc Steiner's WJHU-FM talk show a few hours earlier, she'd gone on lengthily, and impressively, about the details of federal employee health care provisions, about Medicaid, about financial distinctions between states' insurance coverage.

Thus, the modern dilemma: What is the role of the modern prospective first lady? Hillary Clinton has caught flak for eight years after saying she was not going to stay home and bake cookies -- and didn't. But what do Americans imagine is the proper role -- policy wonk or Mamie Eisenhower makeover?

Dispelling mystery

Ernestine Bradley was utterly charming, as advertised. She has a husband who has attempted to give himself a zone of privacy, and is therefore seen by some as standoffish.

"It's not that he's withdrawing," his wife said Thursday. "But he thinks there's too much pandering to voters, and that's not right. Religious beliefs, for example. He feels you shouldn't pander by revealing your most private matters of faith. They deserve more respect than that."

That's the kind of language her husband seems to have trouble expressing. A few months back, Bill Bradley was here to speak to the NAACP convention. A small group of local politicians gathered before the speech to say hello to him -- Schaefer, Ruppersberger, House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., Del. Howard P. Rawlings.

But Bradley seemed distracted, seemed to float in some separate atmosphere. Partly, he refuses to market himself in the juvenile style of some candidates; but, partly, he also seems distant by nature.

This is where Ernestine Bradley complements him. She is his designated charisma. She can explain policy details, but her real strength is translating the hidden recesses of her husband.

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