FEW AMERICAN LIVES over the past century have been as decorated, varied, and fascinating as that of NBA Hall Of Famer and former US Senator Bill Bradley. At 72 years of age, Bradley has spent more than five decades in the public eye, first coming to prominence as the leader of an upstart Princeton basketball team (which he led to a Final Four appearance in 1965) and stretching through a ten year career with the New York Knicks of the 1970s—great teams filled with characters like Willis Reed, Earl Monroe and Dave DeBusschere, which won two NBA championships and captured the imaginations of millions in the process.
Shortly after his retirement in 1977, Bradley ran for Senate in New Jersey and was elected to the first of his three terms. During his time in the legislature, Bradley gained a reputation as an effective, policy intensive bi-partisan dealmaker. He played a crucial role in the critical 1986 tax reform compromise, which helped set the stage for the economic boom of the 1990s, and was (and continues to be) a vocal proponent of campaign finance reform, raising the minimum wage, and other economic justice initiatives.
A restless, crackling intellect, Bradley has published a several highly entertaining books detailing both his own personal story and his vision for responsive politics in a progressive America. Here he opens on his views of contemporary politics, the shape of his own legacy, and the music he’s loved best over time.
When you announced your retirement from the Senate in 1996, you said, “Politics is broken.” Coming from an individual of your stature and track record for bi-partisan compromise this really sounded like a chilling note for the electorate. What did you perceive then and what do you see now?
(Senator Bill Bradley): Well, what I perceived was money was playing a larger role in politics. For example, when I ran for the Senate for the first time in New Jersey, my primary and general election combined cost $1.6 million. In 2000, when Jon Corzine won the Senate seat in New Jersey, he spent $63 million.
And that was even before the Citizens United ruling, which allows corporations to contribute as if they were individuals. So, I perceived that money was playing a larger and larger destructive role to American politics. I also perceived that it was just the beginning of the kind of hyper-partisanship we see now. It used to be Jessie Helms would go to the floor and he’d have an amendment and they would put it up and his Congressional Club would then use it in an election. But there was always cooperation and there were only a few people who were like that. But I sensed, beginning with Bork in 1987 [1. In that year Senate Democrats led a charged fight to defeat the nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court on partisan grounds], and with Gingrich’s decimation of Jim Wright, that partisanship was becoming excessive.
I also realized that the way we draw Congressional district lines in America rewards the extremes. You know, we allow partisan State legislatures to draw the lines so that districts are split 60/40 for one party or another, and candidates don’t need to bother to appeal to anyone outside of their party. They simply have to avoid a primary which pushes them to the extremes. So all those things I saw emerging when I said, “politics is broken.”
The result of this has been a tremendous legislative stalemate; one of the results. Do you see any hope of breaking out of that?
(BB): Mancur Olson, who was an economist at the University of Maryland I liked a lot, wrote a book called The Rise and Decline of Nations. And in it he said there are times in a democracy when the narrow interests can paralyze action in the general interests. And I think that’s happened. That’s partly money, that’s partly the drawing of the congressional district lines, and the only thing that will overcome that is either one party wiping the floor with the other one like Johnson 1964, or having it the way it was when I was in the Senate, which is, you begin to talk to people across the aisle and get a compromise. Or there is an emergence of a third force that begins to address the real issues that are on people’s minds as opposed to those that are on the pollsters and campaign managers’ minds.
Do you see a third force in presidential politics as a near-term possibility?
(BB): No, I think that presidential politics is not the place that I would see a third force. Although it is possible given what’s been going on with the Presidential Debate Commission that you could have a third candidate in the debate and maybe there would be an independent person on the stage, and who knows whether that person would get votes sufficient to win.
But I see a third force really coming out in the Congress. I think if you had 50 people who ran for seats in the Congress and they were dedicated to three of four very clear things that were reduced to bill language, they could be elected to do three or four things and they would have the exact language of their mission in hand. And they would come into Congress and they basically would operate—let’s say 30 of them won—they would have a 30 person rump group which could basically trade all votes and everything else to get their agenda enacted. And if you had 30 congressional seats won and you had one or two Senate seats I think you could totally transform our politics.
You have written seven books ranging from your recollections of your days in the NBA as a Hall-of-Famer, to accounts of your time in the Senate, to reflections on contemporary American life and industry. Which book gave you the greatest pleasure to write and which will have the biggest long-term impact?
(BB): Well, I think if you like to write, any book you write gives you pleasure. Of course the first one I wrote was the memoir about my times with the Knicks, which was my way of celebrating those years and giving people a sense of what it was like to travel through America with a diverse group of people who were dedicated to a common objective. That was a lot of fun to write. I also liked writing Values of the Game, which again was a book rooted in basketball. That’s one that teaches the ten values that I learned playing basketball. Things you can learn playing the trumpet or the drums, but I learned playing basketball.
I also enjoyed writing my Senate memoir, which was Time Present, Time Past: A Memoir, because that was a way of me closing a chapter. My former wife used to say that whenever I would start to write a book I was about to change my career. Ironically, the book I thought contained my best work was We Can All Do Better, which never found resonance with the public.
A final personal question: you have a real passion for music and you have an almost encyclopedic knowledge of it. Can you talk a little about the role that music has played in your career and what impact, if anything, it has had on your life?
(BB): I believe that music is an art and that art touches the human spirit and the music has touched my spirit. I like Mozart and Bach, but I also like contemporary music. So I find that what happens with music is it allows me to experience things that I either experienced before and forgot, or that tells me life is very special, and both of those are important things for me. At one point time basketball and music were connected because before every game I would play a song to get me ready. In college it was “Climb Every Mountain,” but in the pros it was “Sympathy for the Devil” by the Rolling Stones!