• U.S.

Campaign 2000: Bradley’s Twilight Cruise

5 minute read
Eric Pooley/Crystal City


Bill Bradley has lost his wife. He calls her name while charging toward the church across the street from his childhood home in Crystal City, Mo., but Ernestine Schlant has vanished. She is trapped somewhere behind the electronic thicket–a mad bristling of boom mikes and long lenses, tape recorders and power packs, TV cameras shouldered by guys who look like defensive linemen gone to seed, all of them barreling hell-bent for Bradley.

Welcome to the official walking tour of Bradley’s old hometown, where this morning he announced (again) what everyone already knew: that he is trying to snatch the Democratic nomination from Al Gore. Bradley should have called this the speed-walking tour. The lapsed Senator is really working those long, NBA-tested legs, partly because he feels good–his kickoff speech went well, close to 100 media types are covering him, and the latest polls put him just a few points behind Gore in New Hampshire–and partly because he has only half an hour before sunset, and he wants to lead us to the banks of the Mississippi before then. “I want you all to see the riv-er the way I see the riv-er,” he says, letting the word roll out slowly, a promise of ineffable revelations to come. Events such as this, designed to show off a candidate’s small-town heart, tend to feel like Hollywood location shoots–superimposed on a place. Bradley wants to prove he has a real connection to this one. But first he has to find his wife. “Ernestine!”

With her pixieish smile intact, Ernestine manages to dart out of the thicket and rejoin her husband. Now he can play tour guide–a mordant commentator who wants us to know he finds this ritual, like so many other campaign rituals, faintly ridiculous. “All right, well, this is the church,” he says. “These trees are tulip trees. And as you can see, it’s one of those great stone churches.” He tells us how his father, a bank president who suffered from calcified arthritis of the spine, used to “sit and look out at this churchyard, and it gave him a sense of peace, because it was always green, and it was always peaceful, and it was, um, a wonderful place.” He pauses for a beat. “O.K., that’s the church. Now we’ll see the bank.”

And he’s off, power walking across the churchyard with the cameramen jousting and stumbling behind. After a brief stop at the bank, he leads us to the edge of a vast, weed-choked parcel that for 100 years was home to a plate glass factory, Crystal City’s economic raison d’etre. The plant’s 1990 closing sapped the town’s strength, so another politician might use the moment to rail against Corporations That Turn Their Backs on Our Communities. Bradley looks for poetry instead. The missing landmark “tells me life has unknown terms and change is all around us,” he says, “and some things are not retrievable. They become memories.”

With shadows deepening, we pile into tour buses and drive to the Little League field, where Bradley again breaks the rules of presidential horn blowing. Eddie Evans, a black player from his childhood team, is by his side, but Bradley doesn’t talk about the times the team traveled to play-off games and he fought to get Evans served in segregated restaurants and hotels. Instead he tells about getting picked off first base during a play-off in Ottumwa, Iowa. His team was eliminated, “and ever since then,” he says with a smirk, “I’ve dreamed of going back to Iowa and winning one.”

The buses cruise past a field of beans–Bradley’s farm–and pull into a lot beside the Mississippi. With the sun setting, the sky is etched with a calligraphy of pink clouds, their reflection a soft wash on the river surface. “Well, here it is,” Bradley says with satisfaction. He describes boyhood rituals, times when he would “be still and listen to the wind in the cottonwood trees and watch the current carry what it had scoured from half a continent.” He calls the river “a metaphor for democracy” and talks about the peace he finds here. We do our best to look meditative. “If you’re quiet,” he says, “even with this crowd, you can get a sense of the solitude.” For Bradley, a reluctant celebrity since the age of 16, the river can be about connection one minute, blessed aloneness the next. He marches onto a floating dock and we follow, threatening to swamp the old planks. Ernestine panics: “Bill! I’ll go with you! If we drown, we drown together!” To avert disaster, Bradley’s people tell the media to go out in mini packs. An aide complains, “It’s just a bunch of pencils”–reporters, not the cameras they want. This is, after all, about pretty pictures.

And pretty it is. Out on the dock, Ernestine shucks off her heels and dangles her feet in the water. Cameras click and whir; Bradley’s people smile and nod. “It’s just one of those places that touch me deeply,” Bradley says. When the last mini-pack clambers off the dock, he turns to an aide and asks, “Is that it?”

That’s it–we’ve seen everything except the shrine: the basketball hoop in Bradley’s backyard, where young Bill worked on his shots until all hours. At the beginning of the tour, he mentioned it and said, “I’m sure you don’t need to see that.” He wouldn’t want to be accused of exploiting his myth. Besides, in the morning he’ll be holding a press conference underneath the basket.

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