Los Angeles

IF THERE WAS EVER A DOUBT THAT BILL BRADLEY is the ultimate anti-pander presidential candidate, it has just disappeared. It's a little before 11:00 on a sunny June morning, and Bradley is sitting with a small group of gay activists at the L.A. Gay and Lesbian Center in Hollywood. Bradley is several days into an extended swing through California. He has come here, he says, not to lecture people on his ideas, but to listen to theirs. He's getting an opportunity to do that right now.

A heavy-set woman in a yarmulke has risen and introduced herself as the center's resident rabbi. Voters in California, she is saying, may soon face a ballot initiative designed to make homosexual marriage illegal in the state. Like many politically active gays, the rabbi is infuriated at the prospect that the initiative will pass. She wants to know how Bradley intends to help. "What I'd like to hear from you, Senator, is how we can build stronger gay and lesbian families."

Bradley pauses thoughtfully. "Just so you know my record," he says, "I voted for the Defense of Marriage Act in the Congress." In other words: I supported a bill almost identical to the one you're so upset about. And without being asked, I'm telling you about it.

Bradley's reply should cause howls of protest, or at least snorts of contempt. But he delivers it in such a flat, no-big-deal tone that nobody in the room seems to notice. The rabbi merely nods understandingly, as if to say: Of course. It's natural for a friend of the gay community to vote with Bob Barr on social policy.

It goes on like this for half an hour, as Bradley fields questions he often can't answer from professional gay activists. Sitting next to Bradley is his wife, Ernestine Schlant, a professor of German literature at Montclair State University in New Jersey. Schlant has her arms folded across her chest and looks unusually severe (perhaps because her husband has neglected to introduce her). Bradley, meanwhile, seems almost ethereal. What can we do to prevent school children from using the word "gay" as a slur? asks one woman with palpable intensity. "That's not an easy issue," Bradley says, shaking his head. "It's really not an easy issue. What are your thoughts?" Before the woman can answer, a man next to her cuts in to propose "a federal task force to deal specifically with teachers and administrators." Bradley doesn't reply. He just nods slowly.

The New York Times described Bradley's campaign style as "a kind of Zen-like calm and self-acceptance." If you didn't know better, you might mistake it for sleeping pills. Whatever it is, it doesn't make for compelling television. Ten minutes into the gay-center event, the four TV crews on the scene decide to leave. Bradley is in mid-sentence when a producer walks to the table in front of him and collects the microphones.

The television reporters only showed up at all because Bradley appears to be pursuing an unexpected campaign strategy. Known as a moderate over his 18 years in the Senate, Bradley recently has shown signs of an ideological edge. He has hired a campaign manager who once worked for Ted Kennedy and NARAL. He has begun criticizing the Democratic party for lacking compassion. And he has taken his message to the party's liberal base. In his ten days in California alone, Bradley gave his pitch to gays, feminists, organized labor, environmentalists, and the homeless. The obvious -- and by now, conventional -- explanation is that Bradley is trying to outflank A1 Gore on the left. As a theory it makes sense. Until you listen to what Bradley actually says.

Consider the speech on child poverty he gave at a Los Angeles day care center called Para los Ninos. Located on skid row, the center is the perfect venue for a candidate running left, and for the first part of his remarks Bradley seemed to be. He bemoaned the lack of health care for the poor, attacked The Powers That Be for ignoring the underclass, and expressed general outrage over the country's unequal distribution of wealth. "The face of children's poverty in America today," Bradley said, "is a mournful mosaic." With a little more alliteration, it could have been Jesse Jackson speaking.

Except that Jesse Jackson would have proceeded to demand new and larger government programs to fight child poverty. Bradley called for campaign-finance reform. "Helping America's children may seem a long way from reforming campaign finance," he admitted, "but, in fact, they're closely intertwined."

Bradley never explained how limiting contributions to political candidates would feed kids in Compton. (Though he did promise it would "allow leaders to listen to their own inner voice.") Instead, he abruptly segued from old-style power-to-the-people liberalism to Clinton-era yuppie whining. These days, Bradley explained, it's not just the poor who are poor. Everyone, welfare mothers and soccer moms, can "suffer from 'time poverty." As an example, Bradley offered the less-than-heart-rending story of "a mother who is a corporate vice president who only sees her child for a rushed bedtime story at night." Still later in the speech, Bradley made distinctly conservative noises, declaring that only parents (not governments or villages) are fit to raise children.

He may be all over the map, but Bradley is no ideologue. This makes him popular with a certain kind of well-educated moderate, but it makes his campaign against A1 Gore -- the solid favorite among middle-of-the-road Democrats -- harder to rationalize. It also makes you wonder what inspired him to run for president.

As the press van pulls away from the Gay and Lesbian Center, the reporters inside mull over what it has been like to follow Bradley through California. The consensus: weird. The day before, for instance, Bradley did an afternoon event at a Planned Parenthood clinic. He arrived an hour behind schedule, an by the time he got there, the reporters facing a 5:00 filing deadline were anxious to finish their stories. A radio reporter asked Bradley if he would mind answering a few quick questions before beginning his colloquy with the audience. Bradley refused. Most reporters are fairly sympathetic to Bradley -- he and John McCain are favored to win the Media Primary -- but the ones in the van aren't sure what to make of behavior like this. "It seems like he doesn't want any more press," says a reporter who has been covering him for weeks.

Bradley seems press-averse even when he holds press conferences. The next stop is a "media availability" at the California Hospital Medical Center downtown, where Bradley plans to unveil his position on gun control. The room is set up for an ordinary press conference -- folding chairs, television cameras, a podium placed in front of a campaign banner -- but Bradley doesn't behave like an ordinary candidate. For one thing, he does absolutely nothing to call attention to himself (or to his poor wife, whom, again, he neglects to introduce). He simply shows up, walks to the front of the room, and begins speaking. Everything about Bradley's demeanor -- the heavy-lidded eyes, the sleepy voice, the wading-through-molasses hand movements -- promises a uniquely soporific 30 minutes. He doesn't disappoint.

Bradley begins by explaining that nothing he says about gun control should be construed as an attack on "the rights of sportsmen and sportswomen." To this day, he says, he fondly remembers accompanying his grandfather "along the banks of the Mississippi River in Missouri with a .22 and shooting things in the river."

Shooting things in the river? What kinds of things? No one stops him to ask, and he's off into boilerplate: "I believe a national discussion and dialogue must begin on guns," "I think it's time to stand up to the National Rifle Association," etc., etc., blah, blah, blah. Anybody with cable television can listen to Dick Gephardt say stuff like this all day long on C-SPAN. The reporters are beginning to look as bored as the candidate does. Then, without warning, Bradley pulls out a gun.

It's a Lorcin .380, a small, semi-automatic pistol that Bradley claims sells for virtually nothing in the inner city. He slowly waves it around the room. Cheap, shoddily constructed "junk guns" like this, he says, are used in the "vast majority" of crimes. Eliminate junk guns, and America will be a much safer country.

As it turns out, Bradley has no idea what he's talking about. According to ATF statistics, two out of the three guns most frequently used in crimes -- the Smith & Wesson .38 and the Ruger 9 mm -- are expensive and well-made. But no one in the room seems to care enough to make him explain himself. Even armed, Bradley has a narcotic effect on audiences.

A television reporter tries to change the subject. What do you think, he asks, of the House vote to allow the Ten Commandments to be posted in classrooms? It's a question any normal presidential candidate would be prepared for -- the vote is less than a day old; it's on the front page of today's Washington Post. Bradley treats it like an outrageous non sequitur, like he's just been asked the price of yak butter in Bhutan. He's bugged. "Well, I'm glad this is a conference on guns," he says. Until this moment it would have seemed impossible that a man as tall as Bradley could come off as bitchy.

Bradley seems to be in a better mood several hours later at the day's last event, a fund-raiser at the Beverly Hilton hosted by TV baron Barry Diller. Bradley's staff seems cheery, too. Bradley's old roommate from his years on the Knicks, Phil Jackson, has just signed a $ 30 million contract to coach the Lakers. By happy coincidence, Jackson and Bradley had been scheduled to meet the same day the deal was settled, and Bradley was swept up in the surrounding hype. Pictures of Jackson and Bradley led the local news.

As the dinner begins, Bradley's wife gets up (confirming publicly for the first time all day that she is in fact his wife) and introduces the candidate. She describes her husband as strong but gentle, someone who "sits there so demurely, so sweetly." It's meant as a compliment, but Bradley seems to bristle. "I have difficulty seeing myself as demure," he says as he takes the microphone.

Bradley quickly recovers and gives what for him is a pretty good speech. It's a mixture of left, right, and center -- he quotes Paul Well stone one minute, calls for "the lowest possible tax rate" the next -- but it's intelligent and easier to listen to than his earlier efforts. At one point, he talks about the importance in politics of being "true to who you are." It's obvious he means it. Unfortunately, Bradley has decided to be so true to who he is that he has neglected to put on stage makeup. In the glare of the spotlight, his enormous forehead has become a mirror, reflecting a beam across the ballroom. He looks like a lighthouse.

For Bradley, it's a point of pride not to worry about details like shiny foreheads. And he may be a better, deeper person for it. On the other hand, this is politics. I can't help thinking of a conversation I had at the beginning of the day. At the Gay and Lesbian Center, I wound up sitting next to a middle-aged man with thick glasses and an English accent. He introduced himself as Anthony Dent, a financial analyst in Los Angeles who had gone to Oxford with Bradley in the mid 1960s. Dent explained that he had followed Bradley's carrer over the years and was thrilled to learn that his old friend was running for president. "I always knew he was destined for greatness," Dent said.

A lot of people who knew Bradley when he was young say things like this, and for the most part they've been proved right. Rhodes Scholar, Hall of Fame basketball player, three-term U.S. senator -- by any measure, Bradley has a dazzling resume. It seems a shame he'll have to add Hack Presidential Candidate to his list of occupations.

Dent didn't come out and say so, but he seemed to agree. Bradley was explaining to the audience how he wants "to get people to appreciate the unique contributions of the gay and lesbian community to America." He didn't sound very convincing. He certainly didn't seem destined for greatness. Dent watched for a moment, then whispered a reluctant assessment: "He is a bit like a warmed-over Paul Tsongas."

Tucker Carlson is a staff writer at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.

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