The Boston Phoenix
January 13 - 20, 2000


Slick Billy

Bradley has cloaked himself in an aura of authenticity. The reality is that he, like Gore, is just another pol.

by Dan Kennedy

An exchange at Saturday night's debate in Johnston, Iowa, over the decidedly unsexy issue of farm assistance says much about the way Al Gore and Bill Bradley are conducting their presidential campaigns. Gore's method -- to attack his opponent while pandering in the most clunky and obvious ways -- has been much remarked upon. Few observers, though, have caught on to Bradley's game. The conventional wisdom is that Bradley, unlike the heavily programmed Gore, is authentic. The reality is that Bradley has mastered the language and style of authenticity so well that he can simultaneously dodge tough questions and enhance his reputation for candor.

Saturday's back-and-forth began with a question about genetically engineered crops. Gore, who answered first, quickly steered his remarks toward his "friend" Chris Peterson. "Could you stand up? Chris is a farmer," said Gore, as the cameras panned to a man in the audience shuffling to his feet. "Back in 1993, 300 of his 400 acres were flooded out," Gore continued, adding that the Clinton-Gore administration responded by drafting emergency-relief legislation. Then came the kicker: Gore turned to Bradley and asked, "Why did you vote against the disaster relief for Chris Peterson when he and thousands of other farmers here in Iowa needed it after those '93 floods?"

Also, Seth Gitell's New Hampshire diary
and the weird worlds of Forbes, Keyes, Hatch, and Bauer

A cheap political stunt? Of course. And given Gore's pattern of distorting Bradley's record, possibly an unfair one as well. Nevertheless, it was a question that deserved an answer. But Bradley didn't give him one. Instead, he replied, "This is not about the past, this is about the future. This is about what we're going to do to change the agricultural policy we've had the last eight, 10 years, during Republicans and Democrats. The family farmers that I've talked to in this state, who are the backbone of this agricultural economy, have had no real help."

Thus did Bradley manage to avoid the question, cast himself as being above politics because he's about the "future" (whereas Gore, by implication, is about the "past"), and insinuate -- while avoiding a specific accusation -- that the Clinton-Gore White House did nothing to help poor Chris Peterson. All of this was delivered in Bradley's characteristically shlumpy style, an anti-slickness that is, in fact, pretty slick, since it gives Bradley an undeserved aura of being more real than the content of his rhetoric would justify.

Call him Slick Billy.

Any politician will occasionally duck a question he doesn't want to answer, of course, but Bradley's method -- slithering out of a tight spot while appearing to be more of a stand-up guy than his opponent -- is something of an innovation, and one he returns to again and again.

With the New Hampshire primary a little more than two weeks away, polls show that Vice-President Gore and former New Jersey senator Bradley are neck and neck, with Bradley enjoying perhaps a slight edge. There's little doubt that Bradley's unexpected success is the result of his carefully crafted image as a truth-telling outsider taking on the hopelessly compromised scion of the party's establishment -- a man who Bradley claims is "in a Washington bunker," as though he were Richard Nixon. Bradley's trick is a neat one, given that both he and Gore served for nearly two decades on Capitol Hill and come from the party's moderate, pro-business wing.

"How much more establishment can you be than Bill Bradley?" asks Marc Landy, chairman of the political-science department at Boston College and the author of the forthcoming book Presidential Greatness. "Bradley has great virtues -- he clearly is a man of integrity. But he claims to be a candidate of big ideas, and he has almost no big ideas. And he's not terribly articulate. God knows this isn't going to be decided on the issues."

Indeed, on matters from health care to the environment, from campaign-finance reform to gays in the military, Bill Bradley and Al Gore claim to be on the same side. The differences are entirely a matter of atmospherics: Bradley says he favors the sort of big, sweeping changes that only an outsider can accomplish, whereas Gore casts himself as a practical advocate of the possible.

And, over and over again, the Bradley mystique comes down to the matter of authenticity. Take, for instance, a speech Bradley gave in Bedford, New Hampshire, at a January 4 "Politics and Eggs" lunch sponsored by the New England Council, a business group headed by former Boston state representative (and former mayoral candidate) Jim Brett. Following about a half-hour of vague declaiming in favor of that which is good and against that which is bad, leavened with a few jokes about the Celtics-Knicks rivalry he was a part for so many years, Bradley wound it up: "This campaign has the radical premise that you can just go out and tell people what you believe and win." Given the lack of specifics that had preceded it, I almost expected the audience to burst out laughing. Instead, it gave him a round of applause that was somewhere between polite and enthusiastic -- not bad at all, given that most of those on hand would no doubt be voting in the Republican primary.

Yet there's an argument to be made that it is Gore, not Bradley, who is the truly authentic candidate in the Democratic race. Gore does not pretend to be anything other than what he is: a professional politician pandering for votes, attacking his opponent, and offering personal tidbits that he hopes will add to his appeal, such as his recent gag-me revelation that, as president, he would ask himself, "What would Jesus do?"

Bradley, by acting as though he's above all that, has made himself immune to the charge of politics-as-usual in a way that is entirely undeserved. He offers the style of genuineness, hoping that his audience will infer the substance. Bradley's postmodern sensibility allows him to comment on the process even as he participates in it ("Al, that's good, I like that hand"; "Let me explain to you how the private sector works"; "I can say it in much shorter words"). This allows Bradley to shift back and forth between passionate (well, semi-passionate) engagement and ironic detachment, depending on the needs of the moment. "Deconstructing the debate" is how CNN's Jeff Greenfield put it on Imus in the Morning last week. Gore has nothing even remotely as potent in his rhetorical arsenal.

Granted, it's easier to imagine a congruence between the private and public Bradley than between the private and public Gore, unless you believe that Gore regularly bellows at Tipper and the kids, stiff arms waving randomly, that he's "fighting for working families." But, ultimately, authenticity is about more than style -- it's about the content of what a person says and believes. Bradley's accomplishment thus far has been to convince the public that his stylistic authenticity is a reflection of his character. The outcome will hinge on whether Gore can puncture that illusion.

In putting himself forth as the candidate of authenticity, Bradley has been aided and abetted by the media, which are eager for battle and always willing to dumb down politics to its most simplistic elements. Gore as status quo versus Bradley as insurgent is an appealing story that's easy to tell. "It's not as though the news media decided on their own, but the media are predisposed to lay that oversimplified template on the race," says Clark Hubbard, a political-science professor at the University of New Hampshire and a keen observer of his state's primary.

Bradley has a vested interest in keeping that simple story going. Nowhere was that clearer than at the New England Council event in Bedford. Bradley's talk, boilerplate aside ("I want to be president of the United States in order to use the power of that office to do good"), revealed a candidate very different from the one we see on television: engaged, funny, warm, and ever-so-slightly inspirational. Firmly removing the microphone from its stand, he quipped, "First decisive action of the day." He spoke eloquently about the positive effects of globalization on poor countries, on "the democratization of knowledge," on the difficulties families have "finding enough time to spend with their children to allow them to shape their values for the future." He unveiled a plan to close corporate tax loopholes that he claimed would save $125 billion over 10 years, and managed to tie that bit of wonkery to the larger theme of the erosion of "trust in government."

Though hardly reminiscent of William Jennings Bryan or even Mario Cuomo, it was, for Bradley, a bravura performance. "If you want the reaction of a Republican, I think he did a spectacular job," Rick Ashbrook, director of public affairs for the Nashua-based defense contractor Sanders, told me after Bradley's speech. Added Susan Fry, who along with her husband, Ghee Fry, runs a small high-tech company in Milford, New Hampshire: "I was impressed. I'm more interested in Bradley than I was before. Bradley strikes me as very intelligent, but also able to relate to people real well." And the Frys are prime targets for Bradley's message: they're political independents, and they haven't yet decided whether to vote in the Democratic or the Republican primary.

Yet in a "media availability" after the speech, Bradley reverted to the diffidence of his TV persona. The questions were substantive, focusing largely on his just-unveiled tax plan. No horse-race questions, no poll questions. In other words, the media wanted to engage in exactly the sort of issues-oriented give-and-take that candidates claim to love. But Bradley clearly didn't want to say anything that would move beyond the gauzy haze of the lunch.

In response to a rather detailed question about his tax plan from Adam Clymer, of the New York Times, Bradley said flatly that he would "enforce the law much better than it's been enforced." When another reporter asked for more details on how he would accomplish that, Bradley replied with near-sarcasm that he hasn't "been running the Treasury." When Slate's Jacob Weisberg asked him how his flip-flop in favor of tax subsidies for ethanol production squares with his opposition to tax loopholes, Bradley responded that ethanol is simply too important to the "bottom line" of Iowa farmers -- but added weasel language that made it sound as if he might revisit the issue in the future, prompting a follow-up from Weisberg and assurance from Bradley that that's not what he meant.

When Bradley served in the Senate, he had the deserved reputation of being one of its most studious, issues-oriented members. Obviously, though, he's decided that the road to the White House is paved with broad, bland themes, not issues. The one detailed proposal he's made, on health care, has been picked apart by Gore, and Bradley apparently wants to keep such minutiae to a minimum. Indeed, the one time Bradley warmed to the task during the news conference was when he was asked about Senator Ted Kennedy's endorsement of Gore. Bradley responded that Kennedy's announcement was merely a sign of Gore's "establishment support" from "entrenched power," adding: "All I have are the people."

You can argue over whether Kennedy speaks for entrenched power or, rather, for those who are the victims of entrenched power. But what was striking was how much more comfortable Bradley was mouthing political bromides than he was discussing complex issues.

Bradley may be awkward and stilted, but he makes it work for him. It's part of the postmodern thing, part of what makes him seem authentic. By contrast, Gore is running the sort of traditional, old-fashioned campaign in which stiffness is a serious liability.

Consider a Gore campaign event that took place at Manchester City Hall on the morning of January 6. The purpose was to announce that the city's new mayor, a former high-school principal named Bob Baines, had endorsed the vice-president. An hour before Gore's arrival, I watched as a backdrop of several dozen local folks assembled, standing self-consciously behind and around the podium, right down to a little girl with a Franklin the Turtle doll. It was never announced who they were or why they were there, and the media couldn't get close enough to them to ask. Bored reporters crowded the balcony; Newsday's Bill Douglas and the New Republic's Michelle Cottle whined about the cold weather in Iowa, their next stop, and traded tips for where to buy the best winter clothing. Following speeches by Alderman Bill Cashin and Mayor Baines, Gore grabbed the microphone. Dressed in power blue with a red tie (earth tones be damned!), Gore shared with the audience gems such as "I want to be your partner" (clap, clap, clap) and something about "beginning a new day for Manchester" (clap, clap, clap).

As Gore went on, it became unclear whether he was running for president or for what is apparently the higher honor of representing Bob Baines's interests in Washington. He talked about being "personally committed to realizing all your brightest dreams for Manchester," adding, "Tipper and I recognize what Bob and Maureen mean to this community," Maureen being Baines's wife. Gore then mentioned all three of the Baines children by name, and repeated, "We can bring about the kind of bright new day that Mayor Bob Baines and his team on the council, led by Bill Cashin, have been offering to you." It was, unfortunately, vintage Gore: Bill Clinton-style pandering delivered with none of Clinton's charm or sense of the moment. Lacking Clinton's perfect pitch, Gore doesn't know when to stop, so he keeps enthusing way past the point of common sense. As I listened to Gore's abject appeal, I couldn't help but think that Baines and Cashin should have held out for Cabinet posts at the very least.

At a post-speech news conference, Gore did manage to make what struck me as an eminently reasonable point regarding his challenge to Bradley that they eschew all TV advertising in favor of regular debates. Bradley is fond of saying that "if you know what you believe," you can communicate your ideas in 30 seconds -- the implication being that Gore doesn't like the 30-second form since it doesn't give him enough time to lie and obfuscate. Now, I see nothing wrong with TV ads, provided that the candidate himself actually appears in them. Still, Bradley's insinuation against Gore is cynicism masked as idealism. The reality is that the 30-second ad provides only enough time to talk about a few broad themes, which is fine for Bradley but not for Gore, who's put forth a number of detailed policy proposals. "What you're going to have is a fuzzy image and a poll-tested slogan masquerading as substantive dialogue," Gore complained.

From City Hall it was off to the Puritan restaurant, where Gore attempted a brief meal in peace while his staff and the Secret Service tried to keep reporters at bay. Following a few gulps, he began working the room, just out of my earshot. Several TV crews clattered behind Gore, bumping into patrons and sticking sound equipment in their soup. But I did get a chance to talk with a retired couple whose table was next to Gore's. The husband was wearing a Gore sticker, which he said he put on strictly as a "courtesy." Republican candidate Gary Bauer was leaving just as Gore was arriving, and my prize "get" told me he would have been happy to wear a Bauer sticker if he'd been asked, too. Mrs. Retiree's assessment of the vice-president: "He's a much better-looking man in person than he is on television." Honey, get me rewrite!

The cliché about New Hampshire is that voters make up their minds through repeated, direct contact with the candidates. Certainly that's true among the most politically active, like Deborah "Arnie" Arnesen, a Democratic activist and talk-show host on WSMN Radio, in Nashua. Arnesen hasn't made up her mind yet, but she's leaning toward Bradley, because "he's much more accessible. To those of us who feel we need to make an informed decision, access is very important."

Yet a recent study at Dartmouth College showed that the vast majority of New Hampshire residents make up their minds the way people in the rest of the country do: by watching television. (No doubt that's why Bradley won't give up the 30-second ads. Gore's a more aggressive debater, but Bradley is better at one-on-one communication.) "I've been here since 1981, and of the people in my social circle, very few of them have ever met a presidential candidate," says Jeff Feingold, an editor at the New Hampshire Business Review. "Regular run-of-the-mill people, their worlds just don't revolve around it." Thus, Bradley will attempt to cement his image as the candidate of authenticity through the most artificial of media.

With Gore having sewn up organized party support months ago (sorry, Mayor Baines, but Governor Jeanne Shaheen probably can have a Cabinet job in a Gore administration), the great imponderable is the role of "unenrolled" -- that is, independent -- voters. Independents can vote in either primary. Thus, some observers believe that Bradley must worry at least as much about John McCain as he does about Gore: McCain and Bradley are thought to be the candidates most appealing to independents. Every independent who picks up a Republican ballot to vote for McCain is a vote lost for Bradley. "I see a lot of the same people at McCain and Bradley events," says Arnie Arnesen. "You don't see a Republican at a Gore event, and you don't see a Democrat at a Bush event."

Yet the matter of which primary the independents will gravitate to is probably exaggerated, says Andrew Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center. Though independents make up 37 percent of the electorate (Republicans claim 36 percent and Democrats 27 percent), some 90 to 95 percent of independents strongly identify with one party or the other, Smith says; only about five percent of the independent vote is "truly up for grabs." The Gore-Bradley race, in other words, will be decided by those who always vote Democratic, whether they're registered members of the party or not.

Not since 1984, when Gary Hart upset Walter Mondale, has there been a Democratic primary in New Hampshire that's been so closely fought. Both Bill Bradley and Al Gore have been the subject of presidential talk for many years. They were both important senators. They are both prodigious fundraisers. They are such fiercely competitive people, according to recent profiles in the Washington Post, that Bradley -- already a world-class basketball player -- developed a vicious tennis serve when he was at Princeton for the sole purpose of humiliating a friend; and Gore, weirdly enough, insisted on getting into a beer-chugging contest with one of Harvard's most accomplished guzzlers.

Both were considered brilliant by the standards of the Senate. Yet that brilliance was not readily in evidence during their college years, when they were considered solid and studious but hardly academic superstars. Still, Bradley was named a Rhodes Scholar after graduating from Princeton; and Gore, post-Harvard, attended Vanderbilt University's divinity and law schools (the latter was his mother's alma mater), though he took a degree from neither. Despite their different backgrounds -- Bradley is the product of small-town Missouri, Gore grew up as a privileged senator's son -- they are remarkably alike, from their strengths and weaknesses to their centrist New Democrat leanings. Yet Bradley has managed, so far, to establish himself as the new new thing. Gore has been stuck as the Clintonite foil, poor bastard, even though he never had sex with that woman.

"I think you have to be who you are," Bradley said at the University of New Hampshire debate on January 5. The question was whether he and Gore are (shudder) liberals. Surprisingly, neither shunned the label. Bradley's statement, though, served as more than an assertion of his political philosophy -- it's the theme of his candidacy.

"The reality of what these guys are is obviously not as important as how the public perceives them," says Boston University communications professor Tobe Berkovitz, a part-time political consultant. Bill Bradley, no less than Al Gore, is a professional politician. But Bradley's hopes lie in convincing disaffected voters that he's something else: an outsider, a truth-teller, a crusader come to rescue the American people from a corrupt and malignant political establishment.

For a man who's built his entire campaign on the cult of authenticity, that may, in the end, turn out to be more artifice than voters will stand for.

Dan Kennedy can be reached at dkennedy[a]