WASHINGTON -- More than a month before the Rodney King verdict and the ensuing Los Angeles riots, Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey took to the Senate floor for another in a series of speeches on race he has been making going back more than a year. Deploring the general neglect of the plight of the cities, he said: "We cannot afford to wait longer. It is time for candor, time for truth, and time for action."
As his contribution to candor, Bradley, whose insights on the race question were nurtured by his professional basketball career on a team and in a league populated largely by black players, spoke of how "fear covers the streets like a sheet of ice."
Inner-city blacks have long known this fear, he said, but "what is new is the fear of random violence" by "young black men . . . the appearance of black emboldenment."
This fear, he said, must be addressed directly by whites and blacks alike, in terms of alleviating the desperation that leads to such black violence on the one hand and understanding on the other how the fear undermines white willingness to support efforts to improve the lot of inner-city blacks. Then Bradley added:
"In a kind of ironic flip of fate, the fear of brutal white repression felt for decades in the black community and the seething anger it generated now appear to be mirrored in the fear whites have of random attack from blacks and the growing anger it fuels."
Yet, a month later, it was evidence of that same "brutal white repression" once more, this time excused by an all-white jury in the King case, that set off the nation's most deadly street riots -- and more random black violence. Bradley took to the Senate floor again. In an attempt to drive home the extent of the brutality brushed aside by the jurors, he sounded each one of the 56 blows the four white police officers visited upon King within a space of 81 seconds: "Pow. Pow. Pow. Pow," and so on, 56 times in an otherwise silent Senate chamber.
"I thought," he says now, "this has got to come to life for people. Let them hear something no one has heard" in simply viewing the famous videotape of the incident.
In the same speech, Bradley decried the outbreak of the riots, noting that "racism breeds racism," as in the consequent scene of a black crowd dragging a white driver from a truck and severely beating him. And so he says President Bush, of whom Bradley has been very critical as a player of racial politics in the past, was right to emphasize the need to restore order, and to go to Los Angeles to demonstrate his resolve, and his concern for the plight of urban America.
As for himself, Bradley says the time for partisanship is over. "We ought to take the best of the liberal agenda, the best of the conservative agenda," he says, "and make it an American agenda. We ought to get beyond the politics of greed and the politics of dependence . . . and then seek to empower people and . . . restore meaning in people's lives, or at least implant it where there is now an absence, and confront the violence. Above all, it happens that a president has a unique capacity to do that, if a president chose to."
In his Senate speech in March, Bradley mentioned favorably Housing Secretary Jack Kemp's idea of inner-city enterprise zones rewarded by tax breaks and "empowerment" -- a favorite Kemp word. Now, he says, "I think I could sit down with Jack Kemp and hammer out a bipartisan approach to the problem," and that "maybe" he'll take a stab at it.
But first, Bradley says, he would have to give Kemp "a chance to work the inside game" -- apparently meaning first getting Bush aboard the notion of a true bipartisan approach. Well, is he hopeful? "I believe," he replies, "that in a crisis you have to be guided by conviction."
At the same time, though, Bradley notes that in an election year it is hard to speak one's mind and still address political realities, such as avoiding white suburban disaffection in the process of aiding the inner cities. That is a reason, beyond his pledge to New Jersey voters to serve out his full Senate term through 1996, for him to reject the notion of being Bill Clinton's running mate.
And, he leaves no doubt, he intends to speak his mind on this subject of racial division that has increasingly engaged him over the last few years.