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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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]phx.com.