Once a contender, ex-Sen. Bradley offers roadmap for a divided nation

Reading former Sen. Bill Bradley’s The New American Story calls to mind the famous scene from the 1954 movie “On the Waterfront” where Marlon Brando, playing a down-and-out boxer, plaintively tells his brother, who fixed his fights, “I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum.”

Many people, myself included, thought Bradley could have “been a contender” for the presidency, and maybe even won it when he challenged Vice President Al Gore in 2000. But the three-term New Jersey Democrat and Rhodes scholar who led the New York Knicks to two NBA championships dropped out after spending $30 million and failing to win a single primary.

Clearly, Bradley was no bum, but one of the more productive and thoughtful politicians of his time. And since leaving the Senate in 1996, he has been a successful investment banker with the New York firm of Allen & Co.

It’s ironic that Bradley’s book, published in March, has been overshadowed by Gore’s new book, and by the possibility that Gore may run for president again. Unlike Gore, Bradley has shown no interest in returning to political office. Like Gore, he was more a policy wonk than a populist as a candidate. But he has a message worth listening to: America is at a crossroads, a “teachable moment” that calls for a hard look at our political system and its leaders, our national agenda and our responsibilities as citizens.

Declaring that “politics is stuck,” he states, “I wrote this book in the hope that it would help break up this logjam, so that the many people of great talent and high values who serve in office today would be encouraged to do what must be done for the country’s long-term future.”

Bradley’s book is equally critical of the Democratic and Republican parties. He compares the former to an inverted pyramid captive to special interests that needs a charismatic leader (perhaps Bill Clinton?) to hold it up, while the Republican Party is a pyramid supported by money, ideology and right-wing media.

He writes that his book “confronts the special interests of each party,” whether they are recalcitrant public teachers’ unions or corporate lobbyists who “gut environmental laws.” He calls for “a higher ground of patriotism, where we can see a time horizon further than the next election.”

Bradley’s “new agenda” echoes the idealism of Woodrow Wilson or Hubert Humphrey, but from a post-Sept. 11 perspective. He challenges the conventional wisdom on the war on terrorism, Iraq, globalization, education, social justice, tax reform, the environment, Social Security, healthcare — indeed, just about everything except the three-point rule in basketball.

In each case, he counters the conventional wisdom with “the new story,” offering his analysis of the failure of both parties to address the problems, and his prescription to cure them. On healthcare, for instance, he proposes to “enact Medicare for all or make health insurance mandatory for all Americans with tax credit or voucher subsidies based on income.”

To diminish our dependence on oil imports and lessen its impact on the environment, he calls for increasing mileage standards for vehicles to 40 miles per gallon, imposing a $1-a-gallon tax on gasoline to be redistributed to working-class Americans, and committing to safe nuclear power.

By changing the tax system, he writes, “we can do what we want to do on education, health and pensions, as well as reduce our dependence on foreign oil, clean up the environment, increase national savings, encourage employment, and allow Americans to keep more of each additional dollar they earn.”

Bradley also looks at the obstacles preventing “large-scale change” in the political system. He claims that the Republican Party, “as now constituted, can’t realize the New American Story,” while the Democratic Party has “not chosen to take it up.”

Hmmm … Is he hinting that he might be available as a running mate if New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg decides to run as an independent for president in 2008?

As for looking back, Bradley writes fondly of his failed presidential campaign. He describes how “people’s eyes filled with hope when they looked at you and saw a potential president,” and admits he identifies with George McGovern’s comment to another unsuccessful Democratic presidential aspirant, Walter Mondale, that you never get over losing a bid for the presidency.

Not surprisingly, Bradley resorts to a basketball metaphor to sum up his book. “The ethics of connectedness is at the core of The New American Story, which celebrates our individual potential but also recognizes that it can be realized only in the context of our relatedness to others,” he concludes.

“Solutions for many of our problems will come only if Americans act not in their own self-interest but also in the interest of the whole,” he writes. “It’s not unlike the ethic that governs a winning basketball team — you can’t serve only yourself and win the championship. You have to serve your teammates … to win.”

That’s asking a lot, perhaps too much, of a political system that’s been riven by bitter partisan strife in the decade since Bradley left the Senate. But the ideas he puts forth in this book are definitely worth considering. The late David Halberstam perhaps summed up the book best, when he called it “a chilling portrait of a nation that has lost its way politically, economically and socially — and a road map to help us find our way back.”

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