Bradley's shining moment


Washington -- THE RAP against Bill Bradley, the Democratic senator from New Jersey, was that his speaking style was dull as elevator Muzak.

Oh, sure, brilliant guy, if you could stay awake during an analysis of Third World debt. They said a Bradley presidential campaign would sink the nation into a coma. Listening to Bradley drone was as thrilling as watching a plant light glow.

Mysteriously, for an ex-jock who made arenas rock with excitement, Bradley ranked high on anybody's Top 10 of Most Soporific Senators.

But in 30 electric, emotional minutes on the Senate floor Wednesday morning, Bradley blew away the stereotype of Boring Bill.

He talked directly to George Bush -- unusual for the decorum-dripping Senate -- in what he called "An Open Letter to the President."

"Mr. President, this is a cry from my heart," said Bradley, "so don't charge me with playing politics."

Then Jersey Bill spoke from his heart in a way, as we'll see, that certainly grabbed Bush's attention.

Bill Bradley was provocative, thoughtful and gutsy. He unleashed 4,000 words of pent-up steam. Because he's never been a demagogue, Bradley could say boldly what other Democrats mutter privately.

Bluntly, he accused Bush of playing a double-talking con game on race to win re-election.

Bradley began with a caveat: He wasn't talking about the flap over Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. And yes, he knew it was "awkward" for a white man to discuss race. "But silence is worse."

His voice rising, Bradley asked Bush not to regurgitate the Willie Horton TV ads of 1988 by campaigning against the civil rights bill and racial quotas in 1992.

"Racial tension is too dangerous to exploit," Bradley said. "America yearns for straight talk on race. But instead we get code words and a grasping after an early 1992 advantage."

It's my guess that Bradley's politics were influenced by the years he spent, as a rich white kid from Princeton, traveling the black-dominated basketball league. Now he asked the improbable from buttoned-up Bush: Come clean, talk from the heart about your racial experiences.

Why, he asked, had Bush as a Texas candidate for the Senate opposed the 1964 Civil Rights bill?

"I was in the Senate chamber (as a college intern) that hot summer night in 1964," said Bradley. "I remember that roll call. I remember thinking, 'America is a better place because of this bill.' I came to Washington a Republican and left a Democrat."

Bradley wondered why Bush said that momentous 1964 bill "violates the constitutional rights of all people." He asked: "Were you just using race to get votes? Did you ever change your mind? Express regrets?"

He asked why Bush sat silent during the Reagan years when black America fell into a deeper abyss. ("Where were you? What do you stand for?") Bradley accused Reagan/Bush Inc. of cynically manipulating racial fears of the white middle class to win elections and reward the rich (whose wealth doubled in the 1980s) with tax gimmicks.

"The irony is that most people who voted for George Wallace or David Duke or George Bush because of race haven't benefited in the last decade," said Bradley.

You, Mr. President, said Bradley with cold anger, are again playing a shell game on race. "You're trying to have it both ways -- lip service to equality but maneuvering against it. You're trying to turn the Willie Horton code of 1988 into the quota code of 1992."

Bradley insisted his targets were bigger than the White House's sham nitpicking over the civil rights bill or the Clarence Thomas debate. How could America compete globally with a huge unskilled population? And with "black reservations" in big cities -- "factories closed, housing filled with rats, schools pockmarked with bullets, middle class moved away." Said Bradley: "We need massive intervention."

"Maybe you don't understand, Mr. President," said Bradley. "We never hear your voice."

Bush, a couple of hours later, did find his voice, sort of. Bradley's tell-it-like-it-is tirade zinged the kinder, gentler president.

"That's just grossly unfair. I don't like that," said Bush. "I didn't use a Willie Horton ad of that nature. Sure, I'm concerned, but I know what's in my heart, what I think is right. I say to blacks, 'Hey, we've got a good record on civil rights . . .'"

No wonder Bush was stung. For once, a national Democrat wasn't mushmouthing like an imitation Republican. Bradley's j'accuse speech was the most incendiary 30 minutes in Washington this year.

He might have shown wimpy Democrats a way out of their 1992 trap: Battle racism head on as a national plight.

Sure, cynics will shrug off Bradley's assault as a way to revive himself as a 1992 Democratic hopeful. I doubt if the cerebral Bradley has such a short-range political lust. Ironically, his advice would only make Bush a stronger '92 candidate.

"I call on you to forswear character assassination, Mr. President," Bradley said. "Take race out of politics. Put it on the moral plane where healing can take place. . . .

"Tell us what we must do, Mr. President. Lead us, put yourself on the line."

Well, he wasn't Boring Bill. Nobody who heard Bill Bradley's passionate plea could doubt he spoke from the gut.

Or that he was challenging George Bush: Now you try it.

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