Bradley's idealism about politics offers inspiration
PRINCETON — Bill Bradley returned on Wednesday to the bucolic college campus where he became a national figure almost half a century ago. Only this time he wasn't dribbling a basketball. He was passing along an idea.
Bradley is 68 now. He wears a hearing aid, his hair is thinner and his midsection is a bicycle-tire thicker than when he was the lean basketball star for Princeton University and later for the New York Knicks. But he still carries the one trait that makes him at once endearing and infuriating.
He is an idealist in a sea of cynicism and invective. He actually believes that American politics can be saved, that liberals and conservatives might someday learn to work together again, that America can actually eliminate the role of money in elections.
He says all this with a straight face.
Bradley, who gave up his New Jersey residence and now lives in New York City, came to Princeton University to kick off a series of appearances to promote a new book with an ambitious title: "We Can All Do Better."
But he also came to pass along a set of ideas that he hopes someone in America's toxic political world will listen to.
It needs to be said that almost 200 people turned up Wednesday at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School to hear Bradley deliver a sobering 48-minute lecture about economics, foreign policy and political reform. Most, however, had gray hair. They seemed to be a constituency that came of age when another idealist, John F. Kennedy, spoke of big ideas. Many seem to be still searching for a way to make those ideals real.
These are Bradley's people – overwhelmingly white, well-educated, settled in professional careers and living in affluent suburban comfort. Even Bradley's former wife, Ernestine, showed up.
They voted Bradley into the U.S. Senate for three terms beginning in 1978, then supported his failed presidential run in 2000 when his progressive proposals for universal health care, tighter gun control laws and campaign reform seemed badly timed for the conservative American political scene.
This is the constituency that admires Bradley's combination of intellect and practicality, his way with words, his courtly demeanor, his aw-shucks humor. And yet, for many, he will always be a great mystery.