• U.S.

The Branding of Bill Bradley

5 minute read
Margaret Carlson

Bill Bradley is the uncola, the all-natural candidate so pure he would entertain no candidacy before its time. He still drives a battered ’84 Oldsmobile, and a few weeks ago in New Hampshire he bought new dress shoes to replace a pair he’d owned for 25 years. He doesn’t mall-test his ideas. He scolds anyone who presses him on an issue he hasn’t thought through. He won’t go negative; for that matter, he barely goes positive. The Anti-Clinton, he slicks himself up for no man.

Clinton has left us with a political world where any attempts by candidates to be the real thing are suspect. But the authenticity thing has worked well for Bradley. Thanks to his cranky moments and his rumpled suits, Bradley seems unteachable in the tricks of the imagemeisters. Two-thirds of likely Democratic primary voters find Bradley not your typical politician. So imagine how jarring it was to learn that, like a typical politician, Bradley sought help for his campaign from Madison Avenue, and did so secretly. The effort began 16 months ago, according to Adweek, when Bradley sat himself down before a group of outside-the-Beltway advertising executives to seek advice. The host, Mark DiMassimo, said the group took a hard look at how to improve “Bradley the Brand.” Dubbed the Crystal Group, for Bradley’s Missouri boyhood hometown, the ad men pushed the initially taciturn ex-Senator to articulate why he wanted to be President (before a Roger Mudd wannabe could) and to describe what he stood for in ways that wouldn’t make voters’ eyes glaze over. Some of the group’s ideas for jazzing up Senator Sominex were deemed too creative. (That’s always a hazard when you are culling advice from a world where adult diapers are hawked as a fashion statement.) The campaign reportedly rejected doing an aerial shot of a giant pair of shoes to conjure up the former Knick as tall and Lincolnesque. But Bradley and his team took other suggestions. The Crystal Group came up with the slogan IT CAN HAPPEN, which has appeared in print ads in New Hampshire and Iowa and is expected to show up in TV ads soon. And the Crystal Group takes credit for other “soaring riffs” that have turned up in speeches, including the one about “unleash[ing] the enormous potential of the American people.”

Realizing that hiring high-end imagemakers was not the right image for their image-free candidate, the Bradley campaign gagged the Crystal Group last week. While not taking issue with the Adweek piece, campaign spokesman Eric Hauser tried to reclaim pride of authorship for the candidate, saying Bradley’s announcement address was “a stew primarily prepared by Bradley.”

It’s a surprise not that the Crystal Group exists, but that there were such efforts to keep it under wraps. Bradley told TIME recently that he intended to “run a campaign that’s not packaged,” yet he’d already been meeting with his packagers for more than a year by then. “We never met in restaurants,” a participant told Adweek. “Bradley’s kind of tough to hide.” So why all the subterfuge? Is there a candidate in the past 30 years who hasn’t had his outside airbrushed, his long-winded message sharpened, his stump speech spiced up, his policy positions honed, a bit of poetry added to his homily on Medicare reform? And most voters don’t expect or want their candidates to be too unvarnished. It’s not such a bad thing, when these guys are going to be in our living rooms for a year, for someone to suggest wider ties, whiter teeth and a little wit.

Bradley has shown that he does manage his image, if only by omitting parts of his story. He likes reporters to follow him while he does his own grocery shopping, but gets cranky if anyone comes around when he’s taking one of his frequent flights on a corporate jet. He talks about teaching at Stanford University after he left the Senate, but not so much about the hundreds of thousands of dollars he earned as a consultant to J.P. Morgan, or the more than $2.5 million he made giving speeches. Even his family may get marketed. One of the Crystal Group members is reportedly at work on a Bradley-clan bio modeled after the Clinton spectacular A Man from Hope. Could the Anti-Clinton be Clintonized? As they say, it can happen.

Not so long ago, Bradley was reticent about his sports stardom (although he did make discreet use of it in some of his Senate campaign ads), but now his bumper sticker could be a Nike swoosh. He deploys it constantly, as he did for his highly choreographed fund raiser in Madison Square Garden last Sunday, which called on such gods of basketball as Walt Frazier and Willis Reed to relive those wonderful days of yesteryear. Bradley has a right to relive them–his basketball is a big part of who he is–but at a certain point, this basketball business will become a hazard, like John McCain’s 5 1/2 years as a POW: you can’t saturate the country with your past and not look like you’re dwelling on it, at the expense of the here and now. We get what you were; now tell us who you are.

–With reporting by Michael Napolitano

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com