CHICAGO -- It took former Sen. Bill Bradley a few months longer to formally endorse the man who beat him for the Democratic presidential nomination, Vice President Al Gore, than it took the Republican loser, Sen. John McCain, to bury the hatchet with the man who bested him, Texas Gov. George W. Bush.
But, like Mr. McCain with Mr. Bush, Mr. Bradley did so in much the same fashion -- with restrained enthusiasm and without departing from his own political agenda.
The difference was that while Mr. McCain got nothing from Mr. Bush on the key issue that he shared with Mr. Bradley across party lines in the primaries -- campaign finance reform -- Mr. Bradley at his joint appearance with Mr. Gore in Green Bay, Wis., at least heard his old foe embrace strong campaign finance reform with vigor.
The unity scene in Green Bay, like the earlier one between Mr. McCain and Mr. Bush in Pittsburgh, papered over the deep acrimony that broke out in the primaries, but that doesn't mean it has been forgotten by the losers in either case. Both Mr. McCain and Mr. Bradley are good party soldiers, and they fell in line -- Mr. Bradley later than Mr. McCain.
Mr. Bradley, you may recall, said in pulling out of the Democratic race in March that he would "support" Mr. Gore, not using the word "endorse." Just as Mr. McCain had said first he was only "suspending" his own campaign and merely wished Mr. Bush good luck, the imperatives of politics brushed aside the silly distinctions in the end.
Mr. Bradley, in his remarks in Green Bay and in an interview here a few hours before that appearance, however, made it fairly clear that the principal reason he preferred Al Gore was that he was not George W., and that he was a fellow Democrat. He did allow in both places, though, that Mr. Gore's understanding of the technological changes taking place in America qualifies him to lead the country in the years ahead.
In his Green Bay speech, Mr. Bradley waxed nostalgic about his 15 months on the campaign trail around the country, making no mention of the ill will that was generated in the course of it, and especially during the primaries, by what he charged were Mr. Gore's distortions and misrepresentations of his record and proposals.
In the interview in Chicago, he pointedly declined to, as he put it, "rehash the primary campaign" or discuss his questioning then of Mr. Gore's honesty. He had no comment when asked about the Republicans' use of his question to Mr. Gore in a debate: "If you can't trust people to tell them the truth in a campaign, how are they going to trust you as president?" The Republicans had embarrassingly plastered it on a billboard outside Mr. Gore's Nashville headquarters.
What matters now is whether Mr. Bradley can and will help shore up Mr. Gore's support among party liberals somewhat miffed at his sometimes efforts to cast himself as a "New Democrat" in the Bill Clinton mode. In the interview, Mr. Bradley said there could be other appearances with Mr. Gore in the fall, but he sounded as if he was more enthusiastic to campaign for congressional Democrats.
He remained resolute in his faith that a presidential candidate could stay on the high road, without resorting to negative campaigning, as he sought to do until the late stages against Mr. Gore. He said that if he were to decide not to make another presidential bid in the future, it would not be because of the way the campaign went for him this year.
In looking toward a post-election career in the private sector, and saying it was "highly unlikely" he would try for the Oval Office again, his unqualified endorsement of Mr. Gore at least helps preserve the option. And he did it in a way that his most fervent loyalists, still bitter at Mr. Gore, can probably swallow.
Mr. Gore wisely has started talking about other Bradley issues, and rather than ridiculing Mr. Bradley's call for "big ideas" to govern the campaign and the presidency, Mr. Gore lately has been doing the same. Still ahead is Mr. Bradley's speech at the Democratic convention, but having joined the team, he isn't likely to do more than chide the party not to forget its liberal traditions.
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's Washington Bureau. Mr. Germond's latest book is "Fat Man in a Middle Seat -- 40 Years of Covering Politics" (Random House, 1999). Mr. Witcover's latest book is "No Way to Pick a President" (Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1999).