Sunday, May 5, 1996

Q&A Bill Bradley: “a small forward, a senator”


Originally appeared in The Boston Book Review

Q&A Bill Bradley: “a small forward, a senator”

How can a people that wages war on nature reflect God? How can a society with grating poverty amidst great wealth remain just? What is it that guides one through life. What is it that one yearns and strives for? Politics shrinks from even acknowledging these basic questions. It is easier to give a response based on a poll than one that flows from your heart.
          Time Present, Time Past


HB: The title of your book comes from T.S. Eliot’s “Burnt Norton”:

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.

Why did you pick this phrase from the Four Quartets?

BB: I thought it captured what I was trying to create in the book. It’s a memoir on the one hand; it’s also about the moment; it’s also about the future. Will we be able to preserve the American dream? What is our relationship to the land? Will we be able to deal with ethnicity and diversity as we move into the twenty-first century?

HB: Do you read poetry?

BB: My wife is a literature professor. She reads poetry from the standpoint of the skill of poets. I read poetry like you read a novel, like you read lyrics to a song, like you feel in a day. I’m always struck by how words well done can have a real impact. My wife and I went to the National Poetry Reading down in Washington to hear poets from all over the country. Rita Dove was there. The economy of their language as compared to the power of what they were saying was just mind-boggling to me. Poetry is a form that at age 52 I’m just beginning to understand.

HB: There are moments in the book when the prose is piquant. One of my favorite sentences occurs when you are writing about genealogy and say: “If you look, you never know what you will find in the past — a scoundrel, a thief, a murderer, a religious fanatic, a bore, a small forward, a senator.”

BB: I’m so glad you saw that.

HB: What other kinds of writing do you like?

BB: I like history. That’s probably what I read more than anything else. If I were going to pick the writers that have meant something to me in terms of literary work, I’d pick Tolstoy. I’d pick Conrad. I’d pick Mark Twain.

HB: Anything recent?

BB: The Louise Erdrich novels, Love Medicine and the others.

HB: Are there books by politicians?

BB: No. This book is not modeled on another politicians book. What I’m trying to do is create for the reader what it’s like to be a public figure in the current circumstance but do it in a way that is not simply brittle. I want to mix autobiography, personal reflection, history, political analysis and profiles of other people, because as you go through life that’s how you experience it.

HB: You wrote, “There is a group of Americans between thirty and sixty to whom I will always be Dollar Bill.” I’m definitely one of them. I remember you as a Knick, and the style of Time Present, Time Past strikes me as similar to your style on the court. You pass a lot; you don’t hog the ball.

BB: If you’re a careful reader, I don’t have to announce, “this is my view.” I select people saying certain things and let them speak for themselves. By allowing them to speak, I have my say.

HB: You conclude the book by saying: “My life as US. Senator is almost over, but then again, I’ve always preferred moving to sitting still.” It’s a reference with basketball overtones and a nice way to end. And I know you’ve been trying to give retiring from the Senate a positive spin. But people see politics as broken. It’s hard to take your leaving the Senate as a good sign.

BB: I’m not leaving the Senate because I’m frustrated or fed up with the Senate; the institution of the Senate is not the problem. The problem is the politics of our time. Where can you best fix the politics of our time? Can you do it best in the Senate where being a conscientious Senator is a twelve-hour, fourteen-hour a day job, where committees, subcommittees, caucuses, back and forth discussions with constituents, meetings every fifteen or thirty minutes, necessarily occupy your time? Or can you best fix it by moving outside and spending time on what needs to be fixed?

What is the next phase of the American narrative, the story line that allows people to locate themselves, to know where they are in all this? There are so many people out there who are losing their jobs: “I thought I played by the rules, now I’m losing everything.” And people are yearning for something more than the material. What’s the story here? Being able to figure that out requires you to listen to people and, through their stories, begin to fuse the national story. That takes time, and I don’t think you can do that in the Senate.

Also, if you want to eliminate money in politics, that’s not going to happen inside the Beltway. That’s going to happen when you manage to help catalyze a movement to demand change. So I’m leaving for very specific purposes that are related to helping us understand where we are, and to taking money out of politics.

Is there another factor here that is more personal? I believe there is. A reporter who covered me for seventeen years asked me about the moment when I decided I was going to leave the Senate. I said, truthfully, it really evolved over the course of writing this book. When I wrote Life on the Run, I could have played a year, maybe two more with the Knicks, but finishing that book ended it for me. Time Present, Time Past has had the same kind of effect. Words on paper have a way of doing that.

HB: You say “A senator can call virtually any American for advice and get it. In that sense, serving can be a constant learning experience.” There’s a sense, then, that for you, being a Senator was a kind of post-doctoral appointment.

BB: It was.

HB: The book is a very nuanced take on the major issues of our time. Can that much appreciation of complexity be translated into political life in America at this time?

BB: That’s a very good point. One doesn’t know. I’m not going to narrow myself to become a bumper sticker or a sound bite.

HB: What I find impressive is that in issue after issue you manage not to simplify; you really do see both sides and at the same time aim at some sense of social coherence. For example, you write, “A worker who doesn’t give an honest day’s work for a day’s wage forfeits the moral claim he has on the company’s management to treat him with respect. A manager who fires workers at the first hint of recession can’t expect loyalty from those who remain.”

You’re saying that there is a responsibility we share towards creating a single society, that we are one country, and ultimately one community. That very admirable vision holds the book together. But I don’t see that sense of mutuality in America. I see the urge for short-term gain, for immediate advantage, and for victory over one’s opponents.

BB: That is why it needs to be said. The fact that it doesn’t exist today is a long lament in this book countered by a basic optimism that it needn’t be this way.

HB: You place a lot of emphasis on what you call civil society. Would you define that?

BB: Civil society is where most of us live our lives. It’s in our communities; it’s our churches and synagogues, our local organizations — the PTA, Sierra Club, Mothers Against Drunk Driving. It is what de Toqueville referred to as that unique aspect of America, the voluntary associations, which make us different than virtually any other country in the world. We have whole industries in the United States going to China and Russia to tell them how to build a civil society. They are so far behind because they have no tradition; it’s always been either the state or private life. There have never been the kind of mediating institutions I mean by civil society.

HB: Isn’t the emphasis on civil society a form of giving up on government, yet another expression of anti-government feeling? Isn’t it a rephrasing of Bush’s “thousand points of light”?

BB: No, I don’t think so. The thousand points of light dealt only with the charitable impulse. As for your first point, it certainly is not a replacement for government.

Let me put it this way. The Gingrich idea is cut government and hope the institutions of civil society take care of the poor, the lame, the disabled. I say, government resources have simply got to be provided in sufficient quantity to deal with the problems that confront the country today. The question I have is, where is the best place to deliver that money? Is it through a bureaucracy or is it through institutions of civil society? I think that it is through the institutions of civil society.

There is increasing, not decreasing need, for national government. The Republican notion that we can devolve everything assumes local government is better. Well, local government is more corrupt; local government is more short-sighted. I put it this way: If you don’t like Washington, do you think you’re going to love Trenton? You think you’re going you love Albany?

What the Democrats need to do is combine a 1930s sense of urgency with a 1960s moral conviction, and apply this to the issues of the day. That means being creative; that means not saying less national government but finding a better way for the resources of the national government to make an impact.

HB: Doesn’t the call for states’ rights go back to Secessionism? Are we living in a time when every sort of reactionary monster can come out of the closet and pose as respectable?

BB: What we confront today is a conflict between the two founding documents. Democrats are tentative about defending the Declaration of Independence. which I think is the primary document: People are imbued with certain inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. National government is established to assure those rights. That is juxtaposed to a narrow constitutionalism that emphasizes states — not people. What Republicans say echoes or derives from the constitutionalism of the 1830s that said nullification of tariffs rests with the states. It’s the John Calhoun argument, and it’s Secessionism: We are a nation of states; as such, states can leave the democratic Union.

HB: Didn’t we fight a Civil War over this?

BB: We did, and the belief that power should devolve to the states is an echo of that. And why should power devolve to the states? Are the states going to ensure eveyone’s life, liberty and pursuit of happiness? Where does it say that? Which has dominance, the Declaration or the Constitution? The Constitution is the implementing instrument for the ideals of the Declaration.

HB: Something odd has happened. People perceive government as their enemy, and people who don’t feel that way have not been able to articulate a convincing vision of government.

BB: We need to use government power to balance private power, because private power is adversely affecting the lives of millions of Americans. Timidity about arguing for government power — not for this or that government program but for government power — gives us nothing to say to people who are in the midst of the turmoil.

HB: I think the United States lost two wars in the 1960s and 70s. We lost the War in Vietnam, and we lost the war on poverty. And we’re still reeling from those defeats.

BB: I meet with religious leaders in every town I go to. Yesterday, at the meeting here, one guy said, well, we won the Cold War but we lost an enemy, and therefore, how do we define ourselves? I think what we’ve done is make the poor the enemy. We’ve stigmatized the poor in this country. And when you’re talking about the poor you ultimately are led to race; racial blinders prevent us from addressing poverty. You have 36 million people in poverty, 26 million white, 10 million black but most people think poverty is a black problem. And, because they think that anything that helps poverty is essentially helping those quote unwilling to work blacks unquote, no matter how wrong that is, they don’t take the actions that would help both the black and white poor.

HB: Your book focuses on that moment in the sixties when the Civil Rights Movement brought people together across the racial divide. As a young man, seeing the Civil Rights bill pass the Senate, you came to believe government could do something profoundly important for people.

BB: The promise of that movement was of a spiritually transformed society. By making sure all Americans had their right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, we would be fulfilling our own sense of destiny. That was lost. It was lost in part because of pressure of resources. It was lost also because people lost the courage to be candid with each other in search of a deeper unity and community. We each retreated to our respective sides of the racial divide. Because we were unwilling to make somebody uneasy with candor, we have made the distance grow between the races in a context that includes not only black and white but Latinos and Asians as well.

HB: You write that white racism lives, but you also address black denial, and the rush to claim victim status.

BB: Most people speak to only one side, and I believe you can’t do that. In a recent speech I said that there is such a thing as white skin privilege, and there is such a thing as black attitude. And that both of those things have to change.

Just think of the last year in terms of black/white Where has the focus been on race? It’s been on three black males, O.J. Simpson, Louis Farrakhan, and Colin Powell. And what have we done? One, we ridiculed, the other we demonized, the third we idealized. And all three were excuses for not dealing with race in your own life.

In the speech I just referred to I said that if Louis Farrakhan succeeded in countering black self-destructiveness, but did so in a way that divided white and black into separate communities, he would reestablish the status quo ante, in other words, reestablish what it was like before the Civil Rights revolution ever occurred, when you had black communities that were stable but totally separate. But the basic question now is how do we actually live together.

HB: In a time of tremendous enthusiasm about the Internet and new media, you express deep reservations about information technology.

BB: I say the finest achievement of the last hundred years has been the establishment of a stable middle class. If there are 130 million jobs and 90 million do repetitive tasks and each of those are vulnerable to replacement by information technology, then we really have to ask how we manage this. Maybe a computer economy won’t generate enough jobs. What do we do then?

There’s been a stagnation of wages since 1973. If people are losing their jobs and taking jobs for less pay, you have a major question about the long-term future of the middle class. So I don’t think we can blindly move into this period. That’s where I think you have to juxtapose public power to private power, and say to companies, you have a responsibility to your workers, and if you’re going to let them go because of new technology, then you really have to give them a year’s health coverage and have pension portability.

HB: Some of the things you say are very simple and commonsensical. In this political climate they sound radical.

BB: That’s one of the reasons I’ll be attacked.

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