If the Democratic presidential nomination were a basketball game, we would be going into the second half with the Gore team, led by the former bench-warmer from the Harvard freshman team, holding a slight lead. The Bradley squad, led by the former All-American from Princeton, hasn't quite caught up, and the captain is complaining that opponent Gore isn't playing fair.
"I think we've reached the sad day when a sitting vice president distorts a fellow Democrat's record because he thinks he can score a cheap political point," Bradley said recently.
This isn't just a runaway sport metaphor. Bradley's whining about Gore's tactics is, in fact, an essential aspect of his political style and is surely derived from his style as a basketball player.
Not that Bradley's complaints aren't sometimes justified. Gore's tiresome accusation that Bradley favors Medicaid "vouchers" seeks to link his foe subliminally, if irrationally, to Republican plans for school vouchers. The vice president's effort to portray Bradley as a latter-day Newt Gingrich is unconvincing considering that Bradley is frank about his desire to spend a lot of tax dollars expanding the availability of federal health insurance.
But if anybody should recognize why Gore is dishing out cheap shots, it is Bradley. As a player, Bradley was a gifted shooter with remarkable stamina, but he lacked the foot speed and upper-body strength of many NBA athletes. He compensated for his liabilities with tactics, which, while not exactly cheating, were not quite within the rules either.
One of Bradley's former opponents, Baltimore Bullet forward Jack Marin, spent every game "trying to escape Bradley's vise-like hold on his shorts," the Washington Post recently reported.
"He was one of the dirtiest players I ever played against," Marin told the Post. "He held and pushed and tugged. It was irritating."
A former Princeton teammate was quoted as describing Bradley's style as "Darwinistic." "Basketball is a contact sport," Gary Walters said. "He was never a goody-two-shoes. If Bill had been a pitcher, he would have thrown brushback pitches. That's the game within the game."
Now this competitive style seems to be a point of pride. According to the Post, Bradley's wife, Ernestine, likes to tell supporters about her first Knicks game, where she was amazed to discover that her "gentle, totally open, inquisitive" boyfriend threw elbows like a street fighter. "Watch the elbows!" she warns to applause.
But now that Gore is throwing elbows back in an effort to stave off Bradley's gains, the gentleman-scholar-statesman is quick to take offense.
H ere's Bradley complaining to Meet the Press moderator Tim Russert about Gore's insinuation that he might raise the eligibility age for Social Security.
Bradley: "The reality is that the only way this is going to be solved is if you can prevent it from being a political football, like Al's criticism of me for voting to continue discussion on a variety of options at the same time; the administration was considering the same discussion."
Bradley: "I mean, you know, if it's OK for the administration to discuss--"
Gore: "No. Not raising the retirement age."
Bradley: [getting sarcastic] "Oh, you didn't discuss it in all of your Social Security forums out there?"
Gore: "Well, I certainly didn't."
Bradley: "No one ever did, right? No one ever did. Give me a break."
For sports fans, Bradley's bitching and moaning is less than surprising. The competitor who takes liberties when the refs aren't looking is often the same one who wants special attention when they are.
Sportswriters call it "working the refs," and it is a subtle art. While a mediocre athlete (such as Gore) often regards the referees as impartial arbiters to be respected, a superior athlete (such as Bradley) will treat them as fallible foes who can be manipulated into rendering favorable decisions. In the political arena, of course, reporters are analogous to refs. Electoral competitors, as well as athletic competitors, seek to appear aggrieved rather than antagonistic. This appeals to the crowd (whose roar may provoke a favorable call) without calling into question the judgment of the media referees.
The trick, as Bradley demonstrated on Meet the Press, is to bring the opponent's dirty deeds into plain view.
Bradley: "Whether it's my health-care plan or whatever, then you only have a negative message."
Gore: "Well, hold on a second here."
Bradley: "I'm talking about positive messages."
Bradley: "To talk to people about where the country should go."
Gore: "Well, you know, I haven't had to apologize yet."
Bradley: "I know you haven't. …"
Gore: "Nor have you called upon me to--"
Bradley: "I call upon you now to apologize."
Gore: "--because I haven't given you to cause to. But at the beginning of the show--"
Bradley: "Do you apologize?"
Gore: "No, I don't--"
Bradley: "OK. Well, there it is. There it is."
This is the political version of the basketball moment when an exasperated player turns to the ref and points out his opponent's alleged foul. In sports the putative victim almost always shouts something like, "There it is!" In this case, Russert didn't blow his whistle and the game went on.
The fact is that in politics, as in sports, bending the rules isn't cheating if you get away with it. Pitchers scuff the ball. Defensive ends deliver late hits. Other athletes-turned-politicians seem to have absorbed this point better than Bradley. Jack Kemp, the former Buffalo Bills quarterback who ran for vice president on Bob Dole's ticket, has always been too much of a rah-rah type to complain about political cheap shots. Jim Bunning, the junior senator from Kentucky, was known during his major league baseball career for throwing hard inside fastballs to keep batters off the plate. But he hasn't complained about the tactics of his political rivals.
The Bradley reflex to call foul is probably too ingrained for Bradley to completely abandon it. But somebody needs to remind him that you don't win the game by working the refs. You gotta score points on your own. Bill, quit whining and play.