Ironists Can’t Bear Bradley’s Truth-Telling

The contempt heaped upon Bill Bradley in recent weeks is a sure sign that he is a decent human being who shares the public’s alienation from the Beltway hacks, pundits and lobbyists who talk to each other on political television shows. Those professional ironists who find Mr. Bradley’s sincerity off-putting seem relieved that the once-formidable Bradley candidacy seems to have lost its way. The press has crowned John McCain as this campaign’s last insurgent of the moment. Mr. Bradley’s time, it seems, has come and gone.

Several media smirkers have declared that they simply aren’t worthy of living in a nation governed by the likes of the former Senator from New Jersey. They’re probably right, but unless Mr. Bradley can break through on March 7, they won’t have to make sure their passports are up to date.

One of the knocks on Mr. Bradley echoes a complaint occasionally heard about Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Senator Bob Kerrey of Nebraska: that he acts as if he is above the nitty-gritty of professional politics, that he doesn’t wish to soil himself by slapping the backs of the small-time officeholders and oily hangers-on who make local politics-and the occasional minimum-security prison-so colorful. There is another way to phrase this criticism: Mr. Bradley (like Mr. Moynihan and Mr. Kerrey) spends too much time, you know, thinking. Imagine that! Good God, he probably reads books, too!

Senators are elected to six-year terms to protect them from the political currents of the moment. They are supposed to deliberate while their colleagues in the House of Representatives, answerable to the people every two years, try to make political hay out of the day’s headlines and crises. Of course, in an age of telepolitics, this notion seems impossibly quaint. Cable television slots are not open to those who deliberate, and if you’re not on television, pal, you’re not part of the national political conversation. What’s the matter, are you too high and mighty for Chris Matthews?

During his three terms in the Senate, Mr. Bradley played the role of Senator in the exact way the Founders intended. He separated himself from the howling wolves of public opinion and actually thought about what was best for the country. His vote against authorizing the Gulf War was characteristic of a man who consulted his conscience rather than public opinion polls. And when Vice President Al Gore challenged him on that vote, saying with practiced certainty that he was sure Mr. Bradley would not vote that way today, Mr. Bradley acted in a fashion so unprecedented few knew what to make of it. In the face of Mr. Gore’s sarcasm, he stood his ground, saying he certainly would vote today as he did at the time. Given the success and popularity of the Gulf War, it was an extraordinarily brave position. (“What were his alternatives?” you ask. Well, in this confessional age, he surely could have admitted to error and segued into a tribute to the troops, etc.)

It’s true that Mr. Bradley is something of a political misfit, that his distance from the political culture represented on the nightly cable shows rendered him suspect among the chattering classes. And perhaps these traits will prove to be fatal flaws for a would-be Presidential nominee.

But any observer can’t help but notice the number of young people who have made the Bradley campaign slightly reminiscent of Eugene McCarthy’s campaign in 1968. No doubt they see in Mr. Bradley what others, unafraid to express a little unfashionable sincerity, also see: a good man with a retro-belief in the importance of politics, society and social and economic justice, unafraid to tell us the secrets of the club to which he once belonged. In a speech to the National Press Club last year, Mr. Bradley confirmed our worst suspicions about the way the Beltway crowd operates:

“I served on the Finance Committee for 18 years,” he said. “Whenever we considered a big tax bill, the room would be full-standing room only-and the hall outside would be lined with lobbyists … There were billions of dollars at stake, and cell phones were buzzing. The next day the Finance Committee would consider measures to reduce child poverty. Millions of dollars would be at stake. The lobbyists would be gone. The room mostly empty.”

You won’t hear this kind of talk from the Beltway blowhards. They’re more concerned with the key issues of the moment-who won the week, who won the news cycle, who read a speech writer’s words with the most conviction. They take for granted that a tax bill will have well-heeled advocates while a child poverty bill will not. That’s the way of the world, you see.

Does Mr. Bradley really hold himself above such business?

One can only hope.