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Dom Sandbrook © 2000

 

 
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I

It is seven in the morning of Tuesday 1st February and a tall, spare man stands by the door of Merrimack Middle School, surrounded by camera crews and curious onlookers, offering his hand and a wan smile to the shivering citizens who thread past him towards the polling station. "Good to see you", he says, or, "Hi, how are you?" Bill Bradley's final appeal to the voters of New Hampshire is, like the candidate, understated and almost embarrassed, and the voters seldom exchange more than a few passing words with the man who, in a few hours' time, will be appearing on a stage at the University of New Hampshire to bid the state goodbye and rouse his weary troops after his narrow primary defeat by Vice-President Albert Gore. Bradley towers above the yapping cameramen, fringed by sound booms, a thin and thoughtful man wrapped against the cold in a black anorak, ever diffident and self-contained. He is only genuinely roused once: as if by some freak scheduling error, the Republican social conservative Gary Bauer, a man almost impossibly short in stature, is deposited on the tarmac beside Bradley's entourage, and with an amused smile Bradley reaches down to shake the hand of the shy, shrinking Bauer. The diminutive conservative evidently knows the game is up for his spluttering campaign: he is dressed, improbably, in a little brown leather jacket and a middle-aged blue jumper, and comes over to the Bradley supporters to wish them luck and congratulate them on the tone of their campaign. It is a strangely touching moment, and then Bauer is borne off by his own entourage of two, and Bill Bradley is left in front of the school doors, surrounded by the cameramen, stretching out his long arm to the voters, and yet still a lonely and rather sad figure.

II

Regular readers of the Turtle may wonder if this Bradley is the same as that described in my last column. "Boring, self-righteous and insufferably ambitious"? A "pompous old dog"? Well, I did say that John McCain was "unlikely" to win the Republican primary, and such was the gravity of my error that already tickets are being printed for McCain's inauguration balls next January. No less a mistake, it seems to me, was my characterisation of Senator Bradley. Of course, I might just be suffering from an attack of sentimental sympathy brought on by the excitement of observing the New Hampshire primary in the flesh. But there do appear to be genuine differences between Bradley and Al Gore, differences in style, in character and indeed in policy, and even a few days watching Bradley lope through the snows of New Hampshire have convinced me that my earlier attack on him was wrong. In fact, while far from an ideal progressive candidate, he is at least decent, thoughtful and inclined towards a mildly progressive agenda. Now it is true that in contrast to Albert Gore even Frank Dobson might come out pretty well. There is no need to reiterate Gore's faults in great depth: the man is mean-spirited, shallow, over-aggressive, unprincipled, cloying, and altogether a reprehensible human being. But Bradley should not be allowed to make off with our sympathy by default. Indeed, at first I thought he was one of a long tradition of Democratic failures, the Adlai Stevensons and Eugene McCarthys of history: professorial, moralistic, aloof, self-indulgent, unwilling to get their hands dirty in the political arena, and ultimately ineffectual. Hence the somewhat harsh words of my last piece.

There is something of that strain in Bradley too, of course. He can sound like a politics professor, preferring long explanations of motives and causes to cheap soundbites; he admits that his speech delivery is mediocre, and will often allow his voice to tail off into a dry, hoarse monotone. (Although he is far from the worst in this regard: the British reader who has never heard Steve Forbes speak has missed something of a phenomenon.) Bradley has also been accused of pitching his appeal over the heads of the voters, as though he prefers to be misunderstood or to be thought of as too intelligent for modern politics to baring his arms and engaging Al Gore on his own turf. Even worse, it has been suggested that there is little to choose between the two: since their approaches are the same, why not choose the loyal Vice-President? There is a little truth in all of these criticisms, and even in the opprobrium that I hurled at Bradley last month. He can be a little boring; he does sometimes sound a little self-righteous , and what successful politician is not at least a little ambitious? Nonetheless, I now think that there is more to Bradley than these minor faults, and at the risk of sounding like Paul dusting off the dirt of the Damascus highway, would suggest that the progressive observer should look on Bradley's candidacy with sympathy, if not with affection.

III

The most striking single thing about Bradley is his style, a refreshing tonic at a time when the other presidential candidates are, or are pretending to be, the most abject buffoons. His speeches are at least coherent, intelligent discussions of his reasons for running and the priorities he believes his nation must face. To an observer who has witnessed Al Gore in his Alan Partridge-style sports shirts, shouting, ad nauseam, "I will fight for you!" in the Tennessee accent that he lovingly hones in front of the mirrors in the Washington apartment in which he was born and bred, this is a remarkable phenomenon. The most outlandish thing that Bradley has done on the campaign trail is to throw a basketball into a net. Contrast this with George W. Bush, who does not appear to have made a single speech worthy of the name in several months of campaigning, or Alan Keyes, who fell into a "travelling mosh pit" to the sounds of Rage Against the Machine, or, indeed, Gary Bauer, who fell off the stage at a pancake-flipping competition and finally re-emerged brandishing his spatula above his head, crying, "He lives! He lives!". Of course, all this tumbling and clowning is very amusing stuff, but is it really a way to choose a President? Keyes, after all, has a doctorate in government from Harvard, and yet the famous mosh pit immersion was easily his most memorable contribution to the political year. Bradley, a Rhodes scholar, has yet to fall into a mosh pit, or off a pancake-flipping stage, and argues that his appeal must be to those who "regret our failure to use the great opportunities that [our] prosperity has given us" to attack the illnesses that gnaw at American society. He may well sacrifice the pancake vote in the process, but surely he deserves praise for his refusal to pander to the voters, to release the most intimate details about himself and his past, or to tailor his rhetoric to the conservatism or ignorance of his audiences. For example, at his rally following the New Hampshire results, he told a cheering throng of campaign workers that the task was "to heal the conditions of public life which diminish the possibilities of private life", a line which received the weakest cheer of the night. The politician who alludes to Joseph Conrad and Eleanor Roosevelt is a long way from the one who assumes a false accent or falls into a mosh pit.

While Bradley's sober style, oddly enough, makes him something of a curiosity in modern American politics, his stated priorities must have been an alarming shock to those who believe that the Democratic Party's place is on the centre ground of nullity and mediocrity. For Gore, all the party needs to do is to defend the great material prosperity that the middle class has amassed over the last decade: to defend, not invest or distribute. Clearly Bradley is a long way from being an advocate of wholesale redistribution. Nonetheless, it was refreshing and surprising to hear him blast the Democratic hierarchy as "the caretaker of established interests", and to criticise the current administration for its failure "to extend abundance to all of our people". Indeed, it is a sign of the depths to which British politics have sunk that his rhetoric would probably bar him from a place in Tony Blair's Cabinet. His final speech in New Hampshire, for instance, hammered away at the themes of expanded health care, gun control and measures to fight child poverty, and the hoarse voice repeatedly pronouncing the word "poverty" seemed a long way from the "prudence" of the Third Way. Indeed, Bradley is clearly basing his appeal on what he hopes will be a renewed thirst for progressivism within the Democratic party and among independent voters, and insists: "A political party without a grand purpose will lose its ability to command the allegiance of the people." It is sometimes hard to define exactly what Bradley's grand purpose is, and it is perhaps more accurate to say that he has two or three aims, rather than a single all-embracing ideology. Yet even those aims -- health care reform, gun control, and the renewal of the 1960s' War on Poverty --are grand enough when compared with the utter, shameless paucity of ideas offered up by Gore and his patronage-bloated cronies within the Democratic establishment. The Democratic Party has lacked a genuine spokesman for broad-based left-liberalism since the early 1970s and in this context even Bradley, with his liberal Wall Street backers, can seem like a dangerous radical. Since the New Deal left-liberalism in the Democratic Party has usually suffered for being led by over-educated, white, middle-class professor types more worried about their own integrity than winning tangible political gains for the constituencies they aspire to represent. The difference is Bradley has a record of hard work and accomplishment during eighteen years in the Senate, whereas his predecessors were often more interested in reciting poetry or delivering finely-wrought witticisms at cocktail parties. His memoir of the Senate, Time Present, Time Past, suggests that he understands the nature of the political process, the need for coalition-building, and the inevitability of long hours and hard-won deals as a means of advancing his priorities. In other words, his manner is deceptive: this is not another pseudo-intellectual dilettante, playing at clean politics to impress his friends in the literary salons, but an experienced and successful politician, no doubt inspired by ambition as well as conviction, who has chosen to throw his authority behind an agenda more progressive than that currently embraced by his party.

IV

My previous characterisation of Bradley placed him, inappropriately I now think, at the centre of a cast of characters apparently drawn from a pantomime performed inside a mental home. Watching him closely, however, suggests that he is too serious a politician, has too strong a grasp of the issues he wants to present, and is fundamentally too thoughtful a man to be lumped in with men who flip pancakes, or urge withdrawal from the United Nations, or advocate flat taxes, or govern Texas. Most mistaken of all is the belief that he offers no alternative to the charmless Gore. Bradley's integrity and decency have never been questioned; Gore is the man who, illegally, begged for campaign funds inside a Buddhist temple in 1996 and then came out with some meaningless gibberish that he "did not know where [he] was" and that there existed "no controlling legal authority". Of course, it would be foolish to suggest that Bradley is a politician without weaknesses, that he never made errors in the past, or that he alone represents a rosy progressive future for the United States, and equally even this most cynical of observers could not but be impressed by the excitement of the campaign, the apparent sincerity of the candidate and the exuberance of his army of teenage volunteers. I do not think, however, that Bradley's appeal was dependent merely on the charms of his "teens". In truth, I did not recognise in New Hampshire the candidate portrayed in my own article -- pompous, boring and the rest. Bradley may well lose the race for the Democratic nomination, but in doing so he will have rekindled a torch that has been cold for far too long. He will have reminded Americans that there used to be within the Democratic party a tradition of genuine left-liberalism fuelled by moral indignation and led by men and women of courage and talent, and that his party once represented something more than the protection of patronage, the succour of the pampered middle class and the pursuit of a furtive blow job.

   
   
   

 

 
   
         

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