Former Senator Bill Bradley (D-NJ) sat down with Staff Writer Liz Stark to discuss his career legacy in both athletics and politics, how he “trained” for Washington, and his ideas for getting money out of politics.
The Gate: Tell us a little bit about your career transitions from Olympic athlete to NBA basketball player and then to politician.
Bill Bradley: Basketball was my passion since I was about fourteen years old, and I believed in following that passion. I had no thought of playing professionally until I was at Oxford, where I realized that not to play would be to deny a part of me more fundamental than anything else. I played for a wonderful ten years, and then I began to become more interested in politics than I was in basketball. So I thought of running for Congress in 1974, while I was in the middle of writing a book called Life on the Run, describing what it is like to be a professional athlete on the road in America in the 1960s and 1970s. I believed I was going to offer insights that probably were not going to be offered by anyone else. I still loved to play basketball, though, so I decided not to run for Congress.
But four years later, the interest in politics was much greater, and the interest in basketball was much less. So I decided to run for the Senate and that was my first office. When I was elected, I was the youngest Senator at thirty-five years old. It was a wonderful experience—I spent eighteen years in the Senate and got great committee assignments from the beginning. My first assignment was Finance, which essentially raises all of the money that government spends and then spends over half of it. It has trade and taxes and Medicare/Medicaid, etc. Then, there was the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which has jurisdiction over roughly thirty percent of America’s public lands. And then I was on the Intelligence Committee, which gave me a good insight into foreign policy and security policy. I loved being in the Senate; I realized that if you did your work and mastered your subject, whether that was taxes or water policy, you can have an impact.
Gate: You are no stranger to the rigorous training that athletes endure to prepare for games. How did you “train” for Washington?
Bradley: I have always been interested in politics. In terms of the Senate, I simply gave it my best when I got there. I did not try to be a show-horse. I wanted to be a work-horse, mastering the subjects and doing good committee work. Over time, I had some success.
Gate: What was the deciding factor for you that made you want to run for Congress?
Bradley: From an early age, I wanted to make the world a better place. I thought I could do that in the Senate. It gave me an opportunity to do things that I could not do if I were in another place.
Gate: Tom McMillen famously referred to the “Jock Caucus” in Congress in the late 1980s. What do you think attracts professional athletes to Washington?
Bradley: I think that there are similarities between basketball and politics. On a practical level, you meet the press every day. There are ups and downs, wins and losses, and you find ways to move on. Unselfishness in basketball is also a key to success. So I think to some extent, that is also a key to working in the Senate. There are four kinds of leaders: leaders who people do not know, leaders who people hate, leaders who people fear, and leaders who people do not know are leaders. In the Senate, the last one is key—you have be focused on getting things done, not taking credit for it.
Gate: How has Congress changed since when you were in office?
Bradley: I think people are not having as much fun. When you are a legislator, you want to write laws. But if the leadership of both parties essentially freezes you from doing what you should be doing, well then I would assume it is rather boring and frustrating.
Gate: Your book, We Can All Do Better, discusses the cynicism associated with politics and partisan gridlock. What advice do you have for our current elected officials?
Bradley: Someone has to break the mold. I think there are two things that prevent us from doing that. One is the polarization, which is a function of the way that we draw congressional district lines. For example, if you have a state legislature maximizing Democratic or Republican seats, sometimes district lines are drawn that end up looking like spaghetti, as opposed to contiguous. If you pass a law offering incentives to states to draw lines that are as contiguous and even as possible, there would be much closer elections, and you would have candidates who would have to listen to the other side in order to get votes. Another thing is money. Money started the whole process, to the extent that it is obscene.
Gate: How do we get money out of politics?
Bradley: First, we need a constitutional amendment, so you do not have the Supreme Court blocking it, that says state and local governments may limit the amount of money spent in politics and elections. Another thing is public financing of Congressional and Senatorial election races. Lobbyists can sometimes be very helpful and give you information. But we need to break the connection between lobbyists and money. You do that with public financing.
I believe that if you talk to a lot of Congressmen and Senators, they would agree. They are tired of spending all of their time raising money. It used to be that you were a Senator for four years and then you ran for reelection for two years. Now, you are full-time campaigning for reelection for six years. Instead of spending time with constituents or mastering subjects in your committees, you are out raising money or associating with people who give you money. You gotta do your job first.
Gate: Why did you decide to run for the Senate seat in New Jersey, instead of your home state of Missouri?
Bradley: I was in the Air Force in New Jersey and my then-wife was a professor at a New Jersey state college. I had a lot of friends in New Jersey. When I was at Princeton, I spoke a lot all over the state. New Jersey was a place where I felt most comfortable at that time in my life. But that being said, you can take the boy out of Crystal City (Missouri), but you can never take Crystal City out of the boy. Where you spend your formative years is still pretty influential.
Gate: Looking to the future, what does your playbook say?
Bradley: I work for a firm in New York called Allen and Company, which is a merchant bank. I like looking for and finding young companies that think they can change the world. That is why I first got interested in politics—because I wanted to change the world and make America a better place.
Now I am doing the same thing, but through the private sector. I look for people who have ideas about new ways to treat disease or communicate across boundaries, or a variety of other things. I like being around young people who are excited about changing the world through their ideas. I also have a radio show called “American Voices” on Sirius/XM Radio. I write books, including We Can All Do Better, and different articles. I do not know what retiring is—I have four or five other things that I am looking forward to doing, especially writing more books!
Gate: If you could choose one person currently working in Washington to add to an all-star basketball team, who would you choose?
Bradley: The President. I am sure he is a great basketball player.
Gate: Do you think U.S. Secretary of Education (and former professional basketball player) Arne Duncan could challenge him?
Bradley: Oh Arne! (Laughs) Yes, it would be very close between Arne and the President. They know each other’s moves, so it would be a close matchup.