"And then, the summer before my senior year I came to Washington to work for Richard Schweiker [then a congressman, later a senator from Pennsylvania]. I was in the Senate the night the Civil Rights bill passed. That was a special moment. You could sense that, from that time on, America was going to be different...and better. And, for me personally, there was a moment of awareness that the Senate might be a place to make a real contribution."
Senator Bradley (D., N.J.) was sitting in his office in the Hart Building. For a time after he left basketball he put on so much weight that his wife, Ernestine Schlant, a college professor, called up Dave DeBusschere and importuned him to urge his ex-roommate to get back in shape, and the senator has done that. Still, Bradley has lost some hair, and his neck threatens to obscure his chin, in the manner of amendments that swallow up a bill. As a consequence, despite his grand bearing and his most distinguished characteristic, his arched, Mephistophelian eyebrows, Bradley doesn't quite appear altogether senatorial. Bradley never looked much like a basketball player, either. He didn't have the rear end for it.
I wrote the first article of any consequence on him when he played his third college game, as a sophomore. I was ahead of the flow; I already knew that Bradley was going to make President, for despite the senator's own fuzzy recollection, the subject had been discussed at Princeton, where I had been a senior the year previous.
And soon the idea of the best college basketball player attending an Ivy League school intrigued everybody. Reverse anti-intellectualism. Back door, like Bradley's whole résumé. "In high school, everybody told me I had to go to a basketball school," he says. "Then at Princeton, everybody said to go into the pros. Then, when I became a Rhodes Scholar instead, they all said, well, when you leave Oxford go to law school. So when I went into the pros, they all said, now, when you first run for elective office, start off as a state legislator or something like that. Then, when I did make the Senate in 1978, and Dick Gephardt and I first proposed our tax reform bill, people literally laughed at me. And now we have a popular President tying his second term to just such a measure."
The bell for a vote over at the Capitol rang, and Bradley slipped into his jacket and headed for the door. There is, to say the least, an eclectic assortment of wall hangings in his office, including two photos of Old No. 24 at the moment of victory, when the Knicks won the NBA in 1970 and '73. Also, on his office door are hand-drawn cards from his only child, Therese Ann, who is eight.
Bradley strides to the elevator and goes down to pick up the Senate subway. He explains the upcoming vote as he moves along. It is on an amendment that Jesse Helms has offered, and will, it seems, take milk money away from undernourished poor children. Bradley thinks it will be a close vote.
On the underground train, he meets two Republican senators, Warren Rudman (N. Hamp.) and James Abdnor (S. Dak.), both of whom are voting against Bradley and with Helms. But the Senate remains a bastion of civility, and all they want to hear about is Bradley's speech the night before.
Now, the one thing Bill Bradley has never been able to teach himself to do is to spellbind the public. Wooden is the word he wears at such moments, and he admits he prefers more private discourse. He likes to position himself on the boardwalks, at shopping malls or bus terminals. "When people come upon you in a situation like that, they're not prepared, and they just blurt out whatever's on their mind," he says. "I like that." The Senator paused for a moment before delivering what amounts to a case statement on his profession. "You've got to be able to explain yourself," he said. "That's what politics is all about."
Senator Rudman leaned forward on the train. "Come on, Bill. I heard about it. Wha'dja say?"
Bradley smiled broadly. The night before he had been one of the featured speakers at a roast for New York Governor Mario Cuomo. Cuomo is widely assumed to be a leading contender for the 1988 Democratic presidential nomination, and a large part of his charm derives from his brilliance as an orator. Cuomo could become Bradley's political Cazzie Russell.