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Sensing His Moment

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Bill Bradley is famous for his focus, his uncanny ability to make a task his obsession. As a kid growing up in Crystal City, Mo., he would shoot baskets for 3½ hours every day after school, his sneakers weighted with 10 lbs. of lead, and cardboard taped to his glasses to keep him from looking down while he dribbled. Whether or not he was the most talented player on the court, he was far and away the most disciplined.

When his wife, Ernestine, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1992, it was entirely characteristic that Bradley took charge with unwavering rigor. Though decidedly independent, Ernestine, a professor of German and comparative literature at New Jersey’s Montclair State University, was too overwhelmed to deal with the crisis. Bradley was the one who listened to doctors; researched the surgeon, hospitals and course of treatment; and drove her to her chemotherapy. “Bill was the rock,” says Ernestine, 64. “You could absolutely trust him. When I asked him, ‘How bad is it?’ he would be honest, but in a very loving way.”

For Bradley, his wife’s disease (Ernestine is now cancer-free) was a transforming experience. Once considered cautious to a fault, he has loosened up, as if unburdened of his lifelong perfectionism—enabling him, at age 56, to finally run for President. The former Rhodes Scholar, U.S. senator and Hall of Fame basketball star had pondered White House bids in 1988 and ’92 but decided against them. Then both his parents died, two friends committed suicide, and Ernestine became seriously ill. “It made me realize that nothing was forever,” he says. “I always felt I was holding back, waiting for the right moment. Then I realized the right moment was every day.”

As Bradley says this, he is in Iowa, competing against Al Gore in the state’s Jan. 24 Democratic caucuses for delegates to next summer’s national convention. It has to date been a strangely uninvolving election year, with no burning issue. Bradley, though, has his themes and positions, which emerge during debates with the Vice President. “I’m for a woman’s right to choose,” he says. “I’m for affordable health care accessible to all Americans. I’m for education improvement in this country. I’m for trying to make sure campaign finance reform is a reality, that working families have a better chance to advance and that we eliminate child poverty…. How’s that?”

Not bad at all. But what’s striking about this litany are the language and attitude he uses while presenting it. Often perceived as remote, even boring, Bradley has, during this campaign, given hints of positive liveliness. A notoriously dozy speaker (he once studied Elvis Presley movies at the Library of Congress to get a clue to the King’s charisma), Bradley could always be warm and funny in private, but now his dry wit is surfacing publicly. “My belief is that way over 50 percent of the white people in America want to have a deeper level of racial harmony in this country,” he told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “If I’m wrong, I’m toast.” Another time, capitalizing on unseasonably balmy weather, he cried exuberantly, “If elected, there will never be another winter in Iowa! Let the word go forth!”

Still, Bradley trails Gore in the polls in most of the country, except for New Hampshire. In fact the onetime Golden Boy—called “Mr. President” by friends since adolescence—is a long shot at best, though he has never lost an election. It is a liberating sensation. “For the first time in his frigging career, he’s like an underdog,” former aide Michael Kaye told The Washington Post. “Do you realize how that frees him in every way?”

Not that William Warren Bradley ever had it easy. He was born on July 28,1943, in Crystal City, a small town on the Mississippi River. His father, Warren, president of the local bank, had painful arthritis and could not tie his own shoes, much less throw a ball to his only child. An ex-teacher and full-time firecracker, his mother, Susie, was the force in Bill’s life, even if she wasn’t thrilled to see him arrive. “His mother was upset when Bill was born,” says Hardeman Bond, 77, Susie’s sister. “She wanted a girl. When she saw him, she thought he was so skinny. I think she pushed him so much because that’s how she felt boys should be raised.”

Bradley later called himself his mother’s “greatest project.” According to Bond, Susie was determined that her son would grow up to be “the perfect gentleman. She made him share his things. He always had to give up his seat. He had to ask fat girls to dance.” Susie saw to it that Bill had every lesson in creation—boxing and golf and tennis, French and dancing and trumpet—on top of his full plate of sports and schoolwork. When he was 12, Susie gave Bill a surprise gift, an envelope. He opened it in front of the family and broke into a huge grin. “We all said, ‘Read it!’ ” remembers Bond. “It said, ‘There are only 24 hours in a day. You no longer have to take piano lessons. Merry Christmas!’ ”

Bradley got straight A’s and became both an Eagle Scout and head of the student council. He also carried his high school basketball team to the state finals. His mother was his fiercest supporter, but she could also be Bill’s harshest critic. “Even if he had a good game, she sometimes would tell him he played badly,” says high school teammate Tom Haley. “His face would go blank. He would tune her out.”

But no one demanded more of Bradley than he did himself. His basketball training regimen is the stuff of legend. Starting at age 9, he would shoot thousands of shots a week, moving from place to place on the court, never leaving a spot until he had made 10 of 13 tries with a range of shots. “I don’t think people have understood the brother,” says Harvard professor Cornel West, a friend. “He’s an only child who saw his father in a wheelchair for 50 years. People focus on the successes. But go back and look at the little boy in Crystal City, and you see all the time he spent shaping himself. That’s not a Golden Boy. That’s hard work.”

Though his parents would have liked him to stay home and attend the University of Missouri, Bradley at 17 was ready to move on. He decided on Princeton because it had produced a stream of Rhodes Scholars, and young Bill hoped to be one of them. But the Ivy League academics proved challenging. “I almost flunked out my first year,” he says. “But I worked hard, and it turned out all right.”

A two-time Ail-American, Bradley led the U.S. basketball team to a gold medal in the 1964 Olympics, then spent two years at Oxford with his Rhodes scholarship. In 1967 he signed a then-princely $500,000 deal with the New York Knickerbockers, earning the nickname Dollar Bill. Again he struggled. The Knicks put the 6’5″ Bradley at shooting guard, but he was too slow for the position. Finally, in 1969, they tried him at small forward. “That’s when he blossomed,” says teammate Dave DeBusschere. Bradley helped the Knicks to two NBA championships and won a place in the Hall of Fame for his collegiate career.

It was in 1970 that he met German-born Ernestine Schlant, who was working in New York City as an assistant film producer. “He was very sweet and very tall, and you had to look up,” says Ernestine, who was divorced with a daughter-and had no idea who Bill Bradley was. Princeton classmate Dan Okimoto sensed right away that his old roomie was a goner. “Bill said he had met this remarkable woman who was driven by her curiosity and who had an almost childlike engagement with the world,” he says. “I knew this was someone different.”

The couple married in Palm Beach, Fla., in January 1974 and later moved to New Jersey, where their daughter Theresa Anne, now 23 and an English major at New York University, mostly grew up. Long interested in politics, Bradley ran for the Senate in ’78, a year after hanging up his sneakers. He won in a landslide.

Bradley served 18 years in Washington, D.C., where his chief accomplishment was passage of the 1986 Tax Reform Act. “He’s the most incorruptible politician I’ve ever met,” says Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, a fellow Democrat. Yet Bradley was never really a member of the Senate club. “Was he the kind of guy who would slap you on the back and say, ‘How are you doin’, pal?’—that’s not the kind of guy he was,” says former Sen. Bob Packwood, the Oregon Republican. But Bradley sometimes shed his reserve. In 1992, when the Los Angeles cops who beat Rodney King were acquitted at their first trial, he took to the Senate floor for an impassioned speech, tapping his pencil against the mike 56 times for the 56 blows King was struck.

In 1990, Bradley narrowly defeated Christie Whitman, now New Jersey’s governor, to win a third term. The surprisingly close shave inspired some soul-searching and influenced his decision not to run for President in ’92. “Ambition had fueled a desire to please,” he wrote, “and choked my leadership impulses.” Since leaving the Senate at the end of ’96, he has made more than $2 million in speaking and consulting fees. Now he is ready to invest himself in public life once again. “The flow from my parents’ deaths and Ernestine’s cancer didn’t go directly into my running,” he says. “You go through the ebb and flow of life. I felt a sense of where the country was at and also could see that my abilities fit the moment.”

Dan Okimoto believes Bradley is different today from even five years ago. “As long as I’ve known him, because of the enormous expectations, he went through moments of great anxiety and introspection and was moody in private,” he says. “Now there is a lightness of being.”

Certainly on one recent day, Bradley seemed to be enjoying himself in Iowa, strolling through a smoky Des Moines American Legion hall, shaking hands and chatting people up. Grabbing a pitcher of beer, he took a swig as the place erupted in laughter. Then, while gaping reporters stood by, he grabbed a woman and danced her around the room to the strains of “Unchained Melody.” “Bill is just a regular guy,” says Cornel West. “He likes to have a good time, just like anybody else.”

Written by: William Plummer

Reported by: Elizabeth McNeil in New Hampshire, Bob Meadows in Iowa and Linda Killian in Washington, D.C.