The Magazine

BILL BRADLEY DOES LOS ANGELES

Jul 5, 1999, Vol. 4, No. 40 • By TUCKER CARLSON
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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."