Bill Bradley came home last week. The Missouri native announced his candidacy for president in Crystal City, Mo., south of St. Louis, and took a bus trip along the Mississippi River to Keokuk, Ia., before heading to Des Moines.
Bradley, known best as a Rhodes Scholar, a basketball star with the New York Knicks and a former new Jersey Senator, has a reputation for being stiff and aloof. That wasn't the Bill Bradley who spoke to several hundred Iowa supporters, the press and some hometown friends he brought with to a small downtown Keokuk park. Bradley was relaxed and folksy, more Missouri than New Jersey.
He gave a short talk, autographed books and basketballs, and answered questions from all comers. ''This is my third trip to Keokuk and my 16th trip to Iowa since January. Folks, I've been doing this about nine months and I'm having the time of my life. Sometimes I feel I should be paying people to do this. We're out respecting voters; we're out practicing democracy. Iowa is a great place for this. You look people in the eye and from that initial contact they decide if they want you to be president of the United States.''
Asked if he had ever heard of Galesburg, Bradley remembered the Silver Streaks. ''As I was growing up, I used to clip out stories about the Galesburg basketball team. I remember reading about them in a state championship game.''
Bradley, considered a longshot by most, has an incredible optimism. He knows the history of Iowa caucuses-- that underdogs often surpass expectations-- and he's running his campaign his way. He doesn't take hard or soft PAC money. ''We're doing this campaign differently. I want people to experience that being a public citizen can be exciting. I've been in public life for 30 years and there's been one continuum-- talking to strangers, to new people, and hearing their stories. We're a good people. If we could see the goodness in our neighbors, we'd be a better country. It's that connection that could make us better.''
He also knows he has to defeat vice president Al Gore if he is to realize his dream. Upon request, he's quick to point out the differences between them. ''We'd be different presidents. We have a different perspective of America. We have different life experiences. I grew up in a small town; he's lived in D.C. his whole life. I've done many things. I never worked on the public payroll before I was a Senator; he's been a politician his whole life.''
''I support campaign finance reform and eliminating soft money. That means there would probably need to be some public financing of campaigns on the federal level. He's been silent on that issue and his campaign even attacked me after I urged eliminating soft money.''
''I want to make it clear, unlike the vice-president, that evolution should be taught in our schools. I support the registration of handguns. There are plenty of differences between us and the voters can make their choice after we've both presented our case.''
''I know my primary job is to give people a story they can locate themselves in. Once I do that, I need to convey my deep respect for every American and an abiding confidence in our innate goodness. The untapped potential for the president of the United States is to elicit from the people their ability to shape their own future.''
And Bradley has his concept of what that future should be. ''There is no reason why every person in America cannot have access to health care.'' He will be announcing details of his plan September 28th. He also sees racial unity as critical to America's future. ''It's a measure not only of who we are but who we can become.''
Economic opportunity for everyone is also important to him: ''The people at the bottom must change the people at the top. The American dream is not just for the lucky few. It should be available to everybody.''
Bradley isn't the candidate of easy solutions. ''The answers are different every time we turn around. You can't be a politician without a website. There are changes in immigration patterns, in family structures, here and around the world. All of these things are occurring simultaneously. We need to get everyone a piece of prosperity of their own but people have to see that the meaning of life is much deeper that the perpetual pursuit of material things.''
With an easy-to-sell philosophy like that, his unabashed optimism, and the massive financial support he's received from sports and entertainment figures, Bradley might be a tougher opponent than Al Gore anticipates.