Bill Bradley is a legend twice over, as a basketball hall-of-famer and as a progressive crusader in the U.S. Senate. Since retiring from Congress in 1997, he has run for president (in 2000), helmed a weekly talk show on satellite radio, and published four books (bringing his total to six). His newest, We Can All Do Better (Vanguard), is a new prescription for the country’s ails, including a return to “horse-trading for a noble purpose” and the creation of a strong, locally-based third party to challenge the Republican-Democrat monopoly from the bottom up. Bradley will be kicking off his book tour at his alma mater, Princeton University.
PW: Your last book, The New American Story, came out in 2007. How long before you started work on the next one?
BB: What happens is that life experiences accumulate, insights occur, they reach critical mass and I think I’ve got to try and share them. I actually started writing this book last July. The catalyst was a combination of the debt limit debacle, where the country almost went bankrupt, the continuation of the two wars, and what’s happened over the last three years to middle class America. Those three things combined to convince a lot of people I know that the situation is hopeless. The reality I know is that it isn’t hopeless, that we can overcome again, and I try to remind them that Americans have a streak of goodness in them, that American institutions are flexible enough to allow change, that we just have to push forward.
What do you want readers to take from this book as we head into election season proper?
I want them to realize they can hope again, that they are in control of their own destiny. In 2008, on that night in Chicago, I think many people dreamed that a leader could renew the country all by himself. But even with someone like Obama, it takes citizens and sergeants and people—a leader can provide clarity but people must give commitment. Democracy is not a vicarious experience, you have to get hands-on, and in the internet age, the age of the Arab Spring, apathy should not be an option.
What has to happen before we see real change in Washington?
The absolute central thing is to eliminate or reduce the role of money in politics. It distorts everything. If you take a look at the political contributions from the financial, health care and oil industries it’s no wonder that he had a watered-down financial reform bill, no public option in health care reform, and no energy bill at all. But because of the wrong-headed decisions of the Supreme Court, you can only reduce the role of money in politics through a constitutional amendment.
So does that make the barrier too high for citizen action to have an effect?
I gave a talk the other night where I discussed those things I describe in the book, and the first question I got was, “How do you get any of this done in a culture as trivial as ours?” And it’s true: if all we’re interest in is entertainment, then the moneyed interests control the process.
But the key point is how quickly things can change. The Tea Party had a very specific agenda—to roll back government—and they chose to get involved in electoral politics. The result, in 2010, was that 43 Tea Party candidates were elected. In the summer of 2011, when Speaker Boehner and President Obama achieved an agreement in principle on the debt ceiling, the Speaker took it back to the caucus where the 43 Tea Party candidates blocked it, which almost put the country at the point of bankruptcy. That’s how quickly things can change.
And that’s the great difference between the Tea Party and the Occupy movement: Occupy has a lot of passion, but no specific objective, and has chosen not to get into electoral politics. Therefore, it’s not as determinative of the future. The lesson is that you need to have passion but you also need to have a strategy and a specific objective. It took Martin Luther King, Jr.’s passion and President Johnson’s knowledge of the congress to get civil rights laws passed, which changed the face of our country.
At a time when faith in government is so low, who do you turn to—pundit or politico—to restore your own faith?
As a matter of fact, I have a reading list in the back of the book and I hope people will take a look at that and see how my thoughts were shaped. They can learn a lot of about the country from the books on that list, there’s everything from novels to social commentary to history and economics. But my favorite senator is Dick Lugar.