Bradley declares for White House

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The Independent Online
IF THERE had ever been such a day in Crystal City, no one could remember it. Bill Bradley, basketball star, senator and all-time favourite son was back in his hometown on the Mississippi to launch his bid for the US presidency, and - undeterred by threatening skies - all 4,088 residents, it seemed, were out to greet him.

Every flag in the place must have been dusted off and hung out in welcome - and a good many more besides. Tiny stars and stripes were even wedged into the kerbstones to line his mile-long route from boyhood home to Crystal City High. It was here, at the scene of his first sporting and scholastic triumphs, within sight of the slate-grey river, that this 6ft 6in giant of a man had chosen to announce his run for the White House.

For a formal declaration of presidential intent, it was a curiously low- key speech, dwelling as much on what was wrong with America as with its glories, and with the occasional barb at his opponents, Democrat and Republican. "We need a new kind of leadership in America, a leadership that puts the people front and centre," he said, insisting that he was listening "to America, not to the pundits". Insisting, against the current political tide, that there was a still a role for government, he pledged to husband the country's wealth. "In so many ways," he lamented, "we have failed to use our prosperity to improve the well-being of all our citizens. Shouldn't we be fixing our roof while the sun is shining?"

The sun did not shine on Mr Bradley's big day, but the welcome was ecstatic none the less. Small matter that he had left Crystal City for Princeton University 38 years before; small matter that he had run for the Senate from his adopted state of New Jersey, or that his parents - both now dead - had moved to Florida in their declining years. He had continued to maintain the family home (with its basketball ring still fixed out back), and he had bought a farm overlooking the Mississippi for old times' sake. He was honouring his modest beginnings at this next crucial juncture of his progress, and Crystal City loved him for it.

The bank where his father, Warren Bradley, had risen from coin-polisher to manager was swathed in red, white and blue bunting, as was the elegant stone house that had been his childhood home. Almost every business in town sported a blue "Bill Bradley for President" flyer, and scarcely a lawn or treetrunk along his route was without a handwritten placard, now a little bedraggled from the early morning rain: "Bill Bradley for President"; "Senator Bradley for the White House", "Dollar Bill" (his basketball nickname); and - more poignantly - "America needs you, Bill Bradley"; "It can happen here!"

A small, neat town with white wooden houses set back from the road in tidy alignment, Crystal City has not had it easy in recent years. Eight years ago its single industry, the glass factory, closed, taking with it jobs, money and people. The small town centre on Mississippi Avenue is just hanging on; most of the shopping has decamped to the commercial strip.

In boom times for house sales elsewhere, Crystal City's have "reduced" signs slapped over them. The site of the glass factory is now a bare field; only the clinic and office now remain, converted into dwellings. But the town's dream of producing a president no longer seems quite so remote.

Weekend polls showed Mr Bradley drawing nearly even with his rival for the Democratic Party's nomination, Vice-President Al Gore, in the key state of New Hampshire, and reports from Iowa and elsewhere that he might no longer be the rank outsider he once seemed. While hardly objective, some of yesterday's tributes from Crystal City offered some clues why.

"What the American people are thirsting for is a person with the honesty and integrity of Bill Bradley," said Dick Cook, a long-time friend. "He's different than [sic] a lot of politicians, but he's not different than a lot of us."

This is the idea that his accomplished young PR team was pushing, and why the journey to Crystal City represented not just a personal pilgrimage, but a shrewd political calculation. His campaign biography says: "Taught by his parents and the entire community, Bradley came away from Crystal City with the values of a small mid-western town - integrity, courage, discipline, and hard work. His public career reflects these values."

Mr Cook evinced confidence. "It can happen and it will happen," he said, before almost backtracking, "I bet to my next to last dollar."