Q&A: Bill Bradley '65, former U.S. senator and basketball star
Former U.S. Senator from New Jersey and New York Knicks basketball star Bill Bradley '65 visited his alma mater Wednesday to promote his new book, "We Can All Do Better." Before the talk, Bradley talked to the 'Prince' about his college days, his new book and the future of American politics.
Q: Why did you decide to go to Princeton?
A: Well, I turned down an athletic scholarship to go to Duke. Duke’s freshman class began to convene on a Wednesday, and Princeton’s on a Monday. I changed my mind over the weekend and ended up getting to Princeton Sunday night at midnight. I went to Princeton because I thought it was the best university for me.
Q: Why did you choose to study American history?
A: I’ve always been interested in it — I had a great high school teacher who got me interested in history, and it was a great course. I ended up with [the late professor of American history] Arthur Link as my thesis adviser, Arthur Link being the foremost historian on Woodrow Wilson. I wrote my senior thesis on Harry Truman’s reelection to the Senate in 1940, and it was a wonderful experience. Initially I came to Princeton because I wanted to be a diplomat at the Wilson School, but I had a bad first year so that knocked out my chances of being in the Wilson School. That actually, it turns out, was the best thing that ever happened to me — because history was such a rewarding course of study.
Q: Did you join an eating club?
A: Yes, I was in Cottage [Club].
Q: Why did you bicker there?
A: I thought it was fine, although my primary loyalty was to the University, not the club. There were some good people in there.
Q: You played basketball for Princeton. What was that experience like?
A: It was a great experience. I mean, in college basketball, you actually compete against the best. It demonstrated that we could when we got into the Final Four in 1965.
Q: Were there any experiences in those games that stood out?
A: I ended up playing high school, college and 10 years of professional basketball, and one of four or five high points in all those days was the win over Providence in the NCAA Eastern Regionals in 1965.
Q: What was your craziest “college moment?”
A: My silliest college moment was probably eating too many grinders. They were always outside the library, when the library closed; and I was always there, so I would always have two grinders. I was a growing boy.
Q: Why did you choose the title "We Can Do Better" for your new book?
A: The title came from Lincoln’s second State of the Union address, in 1862, when the country had been at war for about a year. Things weren’t going well for the North, and it was months before the Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln sent this incredible address to Congress, and in it he says, “We can only succeed by concert” — which means working together — “it is not ‘Can any of us imagine better?’ but ‘Can we all do better?’ ” I thought that was a pretty relevant question today: Can we all do better? It’s relevant for our government, and each of us individually. I’ve started an open dialogue with people on Twitter, which you can get at @BillBradley #DoBetter, and the idea is to try to make people realize that if we’re going to meet the challenges of our time today, each of us needs to be at our best, including our government, and that also recognizes that even if each of us is at our best, our future as individuals is determined by the national community.
Q: Do you see the gap between the right and the left in this country as irreconcilable, or do you think that we can still reach some kind of “concert”?
A: The big test will be this December when we have the big deficit-reduction package that’s supposed to pass. In the event that there is paralysis and nothing happens, then I think that there could be the emergence of a third congressional party that would be dedicated to putting country ahead of party and telling people the truth.
Q: What do you hope the book will achieve?
A: My dream is that the book will give people hope about our country. Last year, for example, amidst the debt-limit debacle, with middle-class Americans having had stagnant income for decades, being involved in two wars for no apparent purpose, not doing what we needed to do with the economy, growing Chinese strength — I wrote it to give people hope that they could address those issues. I wanted to remind people that we’ve had difficult times in our past — depression, wars, flaws in our democracy — but we overcame them, and we’ll be able to overcome what we’re facing now.