FIRST ON the basketball court and then in the Senate, Bill Bradley of Princeton, the New York Knicks and the state of New Jersey, has built a reputation as a cool performer. With flamboyance all around him in all these settings, he has been known as both athlete and politician as a guy who gets the job done with a minimum of theatrics.
That's why the highly emotional assault he has launched and intends to sustain against President Bush on his civil rights record has commanded widespread attention. And it's why Bradley's attack could become the cornerstone of his Democratic Party's fight against Bush on key civil rights issues over the summer.
Bradley jolted listeners in the Senate gallery a week ago by sharply personalizing his criticism of the president, accusing him of trying "to turn the Willie Horton code of 1988 into the quotas code of 1992." The references were to Bush's use in 1988 of the furloughed murderer who raped a woman to charge his opponent with being soft on crime, and his current opposition to pending civil rights legislation as requiring racial quotas, although the bill explicitly prohibits them.
Bradley, noting that Bush had voted against the landmark civil rights act of 1964 that desegregated public accommodations, called on him to "tell us how you have worked through the issue of race in your own life." Bush responded by dismissing Bradley's charges as "part of the liberal litany" and insisting he has a strong civil rights record.
Continuing the exchange at the National Press Club on Tuesday, Bradley said "the president's silence . . . will not muffle the gunshots of rising racial violence in our cities" or "provide the candor necessary to overcome the obstacles to brotherhood." He poignantly recounted his own experiences as a pro basketball player on a team made up predominantly of blacks, of "the loneliness of being white in a black world," and of learning how to treat his teammates as individuals, black or white.
Although Bradley did not say so in so many words, he left the clear implication that he suspects that the aristocratic Bush has had no such life experience with which to "work through the issue of race" in his own life.
Bradley's anger had been building for more than a month, when he took to the Senate floor and deplored "how bankrupt this administration's moral leadership is on the issue of race relations in our country." He recalled sitting in the gallery as an intern in 1964 as the Senate overwhelmingly passed Lyndon Johnson's civil rights bill. All voters hear from Republicans on civil rights now, he said, "is Willie Horton, Willie Horton, Willie Horton, or quotas, quotas, quotas."
Nine days later, Bradley charged that Bush, in rejecting a compromise on the pending civil rights bill worked out by Republican Sen. John Danforth, "is being successful in the attempt to make 'quotas' the Willie Horton poster child of the 1992 election cycle."
Bradley cited a poll indicating strong public belief that the Democrats do advocate racial quotas in job hiring. Then came the uncharacteristically emotional Senate speech really blasting Bush, which Bradley himself called "a cry from the heart," and the equally emotional Press Club follow-up.
The suspicion in some quarters is that Bradley, who after a narrow escape in his 1990 re-election acknowledged that any presidential ambitions would have to be put on the back burner, is thinking about running in 1992 after all. He categorically disavows that notion, observing that "to a certain extent that [not being a candidate] is liberating, and I'm not the prisoner of other people's expectations."
What he is really about, Bradley says, is demanding that Bush put aside the racial code words and defend his record on civil rights. With not only the jobs anti-discrimination bill before the Senate but also the Supreme Court nomination of Clarence Thomas, a foe of affirmative action in the workplace, Bradley hopes to smoke Bush out on his personal views on race relations.
"I wanted to put up a big red flag and give him a chance not to down that road (of racial division) in 1992," he says. "To do that, I felt I had to lay out the record with all the passion I felt about it and at the same time provide him the option to be able to explain himself and lead the country on this issue, and let the healing process take place as opposed to constantly exacerbating it."