Profile: Bill Bradley: Democrats' best shot

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The Independent Culture
The crimson ellipse of the sun had just slipped behind the far bank of the Mississippi and the river shimmered in rippling greys and pinks. A blue heron perched at the water's edge, still as a statue; the only sound was the distant buzzing of late summer cicadas. Bill Bradley, former US Senator, sporting hero, Missouri home boy and, now, presidential candidate, had come to revisit the beloved vista of his childhood along with Ernestine, the light of his life and wife of 25 years.

The idyllic setting notwithstanding, this was no romantic tryst. It was part of the price even a man as renowned as Bill Bradley must pay for a shot at the top job in the United States. Pursued by 30 or so reporters, TV cameras and the like, he loped down the steep boat ramp and on to the jetty, where he turned and placed one arm, ever so slightly awkwardly, around his wife's shoulders and waited for the inevitable volley of clicks.

The Bradleys, dressed now in khaki casuals, their third change in eight hours, were rounding off a day that had marked the formal start to the his run for the Oval Office. And this was the final leg of a tour of his home town, Crystal City, Missouri, which was conducted by the candidate himself. His aides had made a deft political calculation: to set a man who can seem self-contained and aloof in a familiar and telegenic context in the hope that he will warm up a bit and reveal something of his inner self.

In this, they both succeeded and failed. The candidate was laconic, mixing wry anecdote with elegy for what was lost. He shook hands, patted children and chatted amiably. But he never truly bared his soul. Nor is he likely to. For Bradley is a peculiar contradiction: he is a celebrity who eschews that status; he is a three-term US Senator who can yet be described by new supporters as a "non-politician's politician". He is that rare creature in the post-Clinton politics of "I feel your pain" who instinctively keeps his pain to himself. Which is one reason why, in a country part appalled and part exhausted by Bill Clinton and his antics, he may just have a chance of snatching the prize.

If ever anyone had a curriculum vitae fit for a President it would be Bill Bradley. It is, as numerous admirers aver, as though his whole life has been a staged preparation for that one job. Born in the small town of Crystal City during the Second World War, as the late single child of Warren and Susie Bradley, he was cherished and nurtured through sports and studies. His athletic prowess, according to family friends, was inherited from his mother's side: she was an energetic schoolteacher, an outgoing organising character, perpetually on the go.

She kept his timetable filled with activities - French and music lessons, Little League baseball, and his consuming passion, basketball. "I was their only child," says Bradley now. "I was also her greatest project."

School contemporaries say that Susie was also severe with young Bill, watching to make sure that he did not use his already towering height to intimidate other children. She was even prepared to make him "lose" at competitions he had fairly won so he should learn dignity in disappointment.

He took at once to basketball as "my first great love". "It was - the feel of the leather ball in your hands, the squeak of your sneakers on the floor, the swish of the net." The 10ft tall basketball hoop, with a few yards of tarmac in front, still stands in the garden of his late parents' house as testimony to that passion.

His father, by all accounts a quiet and courtly man, had left school at 16 to work on the railway to support his widowed mother and his two sisters. He moved to the local bank, and, in the words of his son, started out "shining pennies". But when he retired more than 30 years later, he was the vice-president and majority shareholder. He had a severe form of arthritis and could hardly walk the one block from his house to the bank. A neighbour described how slowly and painfully he would climb the two shallow steps in front of his stone-clad house on Taylor Avenue.

Although he left Missouri for the kinder climes of Florida when he retired, Warren Bradley is remembered in Crystal City to this day as a thoroughly decent man, whose personal point of pride was never to have foreclosed on a house during the years of the Depression. He was known to lend to white and black alike, acknowledging that skin colour was no prediction of who would repay their debts.

Friends and family characterise Bill Bradley as the "perfect blend" of his two parents, combining the busy discipline and generosity of his mother, the calm and caution of his father, and the rectitude of both. They occasionally add that the impression of dourness and a tendency to put off decisions can be traced to his father also.

By High School, Bradley was already a budding hero, captain of the basketball team, which twice made the finals of the state championship, and president of the school council. In the tradition of American high-school yearbooks, he was voted by the graduating class of 1961, "most popular" and "best sportsman", but not "most intelligent" or "most likely to succeed". That last may have been an oversight.

Those were not rebellious times, and Bradley did not rebel against his upbringing except in one, crucial decision. His departure at the age of 18 for Princeton University was a wrench for his parents, especially his mother, who believed - correctly - that he would not return. But his departure was also the prelude to a chain of successes: a degree with honours in American history, an Olympic gold medal as a member of the 1964 US national basketball team, a Rhodes scholarship and a degree from Oxford University (which he tends to glide over, perhaps to avoid comparisons with Bill Clinton).

He rebelled in another way, too. At school, he had been a Republican, a political stance inherited from his parents. He distributed Eisenhower "I like Ike" badges and worked in the offices of local Republican congressman during vacations. By 1964, however, he switched to the Democrats after watching the Congressional debates on the Civil Rights Bill.

On his return from Britain, Bradley signed up with the New York Knicks professional basketball team on an initial contract of $500,000: a huge sum for the times, which helped earn him his team nickname, "Dollar Bill". For 10 years he insists that he did not just travel the country, but observed America, storing up what he learned for the future. Living and playing alongside black teammates also gave him an unusual perspective (for a white man) on the predicament of American blacks, and fostered a concern for race relations that endures to this day.

Two thirds of the way through his Knicks career - which brought him not only insights into the life of his own country, but two national championships and an abiding reputation as a generous and gracious player - he married Ernestine. She was a German emigree and divorcee seven years older than himself, with a daughter from her first marriage. When, three years later, they had a daughter of their own - Theresa Ann - Bradley looked after her during term times in Washington so that his wife could pursue her academic career in New Jersey. Such personal details could count for the women's vote, if he chose to trade on them, but there is no sign yet that he will do so.

Bradley retired from the Knicks after 10 years, a sporting hero, and chose politics for his next conquest. Ignoring the advice of those who said he should start at the local level and work his way up, he stood for the Senate from New Jersey, and won. At 36, he was the youngest Senator this century. Determined to cast off any suggestion that he was just a "sports jock", he immersed himself in the minutiae of constitutional history, Senate procedure and the finer points of legislation. He was architect of the 1986 tax bill - one of the most comprehensive overhauls of the US tax structure ever passed by Congress and probably the highlight of his Senate career.

Four years later, however, Bradley was confronted with his first setback, when he failed to anticipate the damage that a state tax increase could do to him as a national politician. He retained his seat by only the slimmest of margins. In 1996, he decided to call it a day, announcing with a tinge of regret that he was leaving not just the US Senate, but politics, because he felt that the whole system, distorted by money and special interests, was "broken". Amid rumours that he might join, or even found, a third political party, he retreated into academic life and contemplated his chances for the White House.

What emerges from these years of school, sport and politics is a remarkable consistency of attitude and purpose, and an overriding seriousness. Former teammates and colleagues all note his equable temperament, his hard work, persistence, team spirit and, especially, his generosity. On the basketball court, this could be a liability. Both at school and with the Knicks, he had a habit of passing the ball to a better-placed player, who then missed a shot that he himself might have landed.

Crystal City High lost the schools' state championship this way, to the eternal chagrin of the player who remembers, to this day, how he missed the shot. A schoolfriend recalls in awe that the very next day, Bradley - as captain of the losing side - addressed the celebration dinner of the new champions to congratulate them on a game well played. A former coach says: "He played the game the right way, and he will govern the country the right way."

In the Senate, he was known similarly for exemplary preparation and for his readiness to "deal" with the other side to get things done. Less enthusiastically, he is remembered for his distaste for special interest groups. Where his votes diverge from those of Al Gore - a Senate contemporary as well as his rival for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination - it is often on matters pertaining to these special interests: Gore votes in favour; Bradley voters against.

Bradley's background, manner and reputation, speak to Americans about an earlier, more innocent age - before media "spin", before "big money" dominated politics, above all, before Monica. It is a message which jaded voters could well embrace: if, that is, his team - small compared with that of the Vice-President; poor compared with that of the Republican favourite, George W. Bush - can project it forcefully and broadly enough. Bradley's bedrock support comes from better-off North-Eastern males between the ages of 30 and 60. This places him alongside such previously fancied Democratic challengers who never quite made it: Adlai Stevenson, with whom Bradley is often compared by older voters; Gary Hart, and Paul Tsongas.

Already, however, he appears stronger than they were. Hart, quite apart from his womanising, lacked funding; Bradley's fund raising has been unexpectedly strong. Tsongas was ill. The times are different, too. If Minnesota, largely thanks to new voters, could reject two establishment candidates for state governor in favour of an independent straight-talker-cum-showman - the former wrestler, Jesse "The Body" Venura - maybe Bradley's cause is not so hopeless after all.

In the dewy cool of Thursday morning, as Bradley's caravan of buses waited outside the family house to depart for Iowa - including a planned stop at Mark Twain's birthplace - the candidate suddenly emerged, carrying two glass jars. He rushed next door and thrust them at the lady of the house, before returning to collect his overnight bag. One jar was the coffee he had borrowed the day before; the other held honey from his aunt's bees as a "thank-you". It was a meticulous, gentlemanly and small-town gesture. It said much about Bradley. And a Bradley victory, farfetched though it seems, would say much about America and what sort of a country it wants to be.

Life Story

Born: William Bradley, July 28, 1943, Crystal City, Missouri.

Family: Only child of William Warren Bradley; mother: Susie (nee Crowe), schoolteacher.

Education: 1949-61: Crystal City elementary school, then Crystal City High School.Graduated from Princeton University 1965-7: Rhodes scholar at Oxford, studied Politics, Philosophy and Economics.

Sporting career: 1964: was in the US Olympic basketball team which won the gold medal.

1967-77: member of New York Knicks professional basketball team (NBA champions 1970, 73).

Academic career: 1997-98 at Stanford, Maryland and Notre Dame.

Political career: 1979-96: Senator for New Jersey. 1999: formal announcement of bid for the Presidency.

Marriage: 1974: Ernestine Schlant, German emigree and divorcee, now professor of German literature, Montclair State University, New Jersey. One daughter, Theresa Ann (22) a student at New York University, also a step-daughter, Stephanie (40), from Ernestine's first marriage.

Books: Life on the Run and Values of the Game, both on basketball, and a political memoir of his years in the US Senate, Time Present, Time Past.

He says: "I'm doing it out of a deep respect for the American people and a profound belief in their goodness."

They say: : "It is never completely clear whether he is incredibly deep, or just a shade dotty." The New York Times magazine.