Al Gore’s got corruption and Tony Coelho, Gee Dubbya’s got
cocaine, Hillary’s got those padded legal bills and her soap opera family life,
but Bill Bradley hasn’t got any vices worthy of the name. And as for past
history, his is to be found in back issues of the sports section. If he’s going
to stay the course of this Presidential cycle, he’d better get lurid. It was in
an attempt to get a little scandalous buzz humming that Mr. Bradley went to pay
a visit to the Rev. Al Sharpton.
By all accounts it was an affecting event, a landmark on the
long road to racial harmony and the universal siblinghood of male, female and
significant other, when Mr. Bradley and Mr. Sharpton embraced each other. Mr.
Sharpton’s porcine silhouette was ingrafted into American letters by Tom Wolfe
as Rev. Bacon in Bonfire of the Vanities .
By contrast, Mr. Bradley is about as tall as one of your shorter sequoias, so
the act of union may have been less of an embrace than a kind of political
snuggle, with Mr. Sharpton grasping the candidate around the knees and Mr.
Bradley reaching down to pat Mr. Sharpton’s flowing ministerial locks.
Before these two locked arms, students of politics would
have said that Mr. Bradley, who has displayed about as much hip action as a
sequoia on a windless day, would never hook up with Mr. Sharpton. At a distance
they couldn’t be more dissimilar. Mr. Bradley never played plumed knight to a
female teenager of color found smeared with fecal matter, wrapped in a garbage
bag and hidden under a zucchini vine. If he had, he’d be three points higher in
the polls. Count on it.
Mr. Sharpton’s public history has been a little on the loud
and lippy side. To white people of a certain cast of mind, Mr. Sharpton is the
personification of raucous, unpleasant, reckless, vulgar impudence, although
once the camera is turned off and the red eye on top of it has been
extinguished, other white people who’ve spent time with this preacher will tell
you he’s a funny, non-hate-filled chap with a quick wit and a fast wisecrack.
Quite likable, really, but that has done little to diminish his reputation as a
However, in these days of plentiful jobs and lush
prosperity, rabble is one of the few commodities in short supply. The
multitudes are off earning and spending, not parading and protesting.
Nevertheless, white people’s apoplectic antipathy to him has won Mr. Sharpton
about 130,000 votes in New York City, votes which he can count on, come rain or
shine, to throw this way or that any time he wants to.
If Mr. Bradley’s principles weren’t as high as a virgin
first-growth forest, he might be suspected of sucking up to Mr. Sharpton for
those 130,000 votes. But no, anyone harboring such suspicions is mistaken. His
motives are plain enough if you listen to him. “What I am saying is that racial
unity is not a political position,” the tallest Presidential aspirant since Abe
Lincoln has been explaining to audiences on the campaign tour. “It’s what I am.
It’s what I believe. It’s what I care most about. It’s one of my main
motivations for being in politics in the first place.”
We’ve always known that, or have we? No, this is a new,
reworked Bill Bradley. The pre-presidential candidate Bill Bradley was best
known for cluck-clucking about acts of fiscal madness and cautioning against
budgetary bingeing. To guess what Basketball Bill is up to now, pretend you’re
in the locker room where coach is diagramming at the blackboard. On top of the
Xs and Os there’d be one big arrow running up the right side labeled “fiscal
policies,” another up the middle called “general stuff” and one on the left
named “race,” with Honest Abe playing point guard. You can’t get the Democratic
nomination by promising not to spend money.
Recently, at Cooper Union Institute, at the very rostrum
where the Great Emancipator discussed these themes in the trouble-fraught times
leading up to the Civil War, the would-be Great Unifier returned to the topic.
“For me it remains the defining moral issue of our times,” but hold up a
second. Now it was no longer one of his reasons for going into politics, but
“it’s the reason I ran for public
office.” Dilating further on his vocation, he told the audience something that
had remained hidden from the New Jersey electorate for nigh on to 20 years,
namely: “This ‘commitment’ and this ‘conviction’ filled my Senate years with
purpose.” Next came a snatch of self-glorification.
“I can still remember walking into the Senate chambers the
day of the Rodney King verdict, and in a silent chamber taking pencils and
hitting my lectern 56 times in two minutes to symbolize the blows King received
at the hands of the Los Angeles Police Department. Afterward the hate mail
flowed but … a man in Philadelphia … in honor of my speech wrote a symphony
called ’56 Blows.'”
He would have gotten more hate mail if he had asked the
world not to jump to conclusions but to withhold judgment about that late-night
traffic stop that led to a large chunk of Los Angeles being burnt down.
Latter-day information about the King beating has cast no small doubt on the
culpability of the police officers now languishing in the penitentiary, but
political careers are not made by swimming against the stream of opinion;
otherwise candidates would not spend money on public opinion polling. So
sharpen your pencils, lift up your hearts and look forward to hearing “56
Blows” on Inauguration Day a year from January.
Mr. Bradley’s auditors at Cooper Union were told about his
Uncle Cecil, who “worked in the lead factory … next to African-Americans.” Even
in the information age, it still pays to let the people know that you are a
child of the horny hands of toil. Uncle Cecil was married to “my beloved Aunt
Bub,” who “didn’t talk about African-Americans with respect. She’d say, ‘I just
come from another time, I guess, but …’ and then she’d go off on some tirade
that would appall me. She didn’t hate, but her language was abusive.”
Uncle Cecil, well, he was down at the lead factory with the
African-Americans who “made the same wage and took the same risks,” so he
wasn’t around to set Auntie Bub straight. It fell to the abusive Auntie Bub’s
precocious little nephew who “often wondered how I could love someone who was
so flagrantly wrong on the fundamental moral issue our nation confronted. I’d
get angry with her. I’d argue with her. She’d be reduced to tears.”
A sad little scene would then ensue. She didn’t know her
disconcertingly tall little nephew was going to grow up to be the Great
Unifier, so Auntie Bub would take umbrage when he told her to leave off dissing
African-Americans. And Auntie Bub would go to dabbing at her eyes with the
corner of her apron as the mascara ran down her dear old cheeks. “You little
wonk, you, don’t you be tellin’ your dear ole Auntie Bub about the fundamental
issues confronting our nation, or I’ll whup you up the side of your head with
this here coal scuttle. Now go out and chop me some kindling afore Uncle Cecil
gets back from the lead factory and all them African-Americans.”
Why are stories politicians tell about their childhoods
inherently unbelievable? Nonetheless, one has to sympathize with Mr. Bradley.
The first primary isn’t for months and months, during which he has to be
traipsing around somewhere talking about something, so it might as well be with
Mr. Sharpton spinning yarns about Auntie Bub, but surely there are days when
the old basketballer wishes the reporters would give him a break and ask him if
he ever took a snootful of cocaine. Why should that other fella be the
perpetual center of excitement?