A Vote for the Bill Bradley of 1971

By Michael Kaufman

The other day I found a yellowed copy of a piece I wrote in 1971 about a passionate speech given by Bill Bradley at an event honoring collegiate scholar-athletes. Bradley was 27 then and a star player for the New York Knickerbockers. Before becoming a pro basketball player he was Phi Beta Kappa at Princeton and a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford. Sports announcers and writers called him “Dollar Bill” but his Knicks teammates often referred to him as “President of the United States.”

Ironically, by the time Bradley made his unsuccessful bid for the Democratic nomination for president in 1992, the passion in his speeches, like his basketball skills, was long gone.  But what he told the scholar-athletes makes as much sense today as it did in 1971. All you have to do is adjust the geography occasionally to reflect present-day conditions. “We live in a world where survival becomes more precious every day,” said Bradley. “The basic racial antagonism of our American history remains festering without sufficient attention. Eighteen-year-old Americans are sent—unconstitutionally—to die in a civil war of an underdeveloped country on the other side of the world for the espoused purpose of protecting us.

“Political fugitives compose one half the FBI’s most wanted list. Hollow men in skyscrapers make private investment decisions without concern for man or nature. Mass education programs students to fit in categories of mediocrity, where imagination falls before the sword of efficiency.” I told you he was passionate. And he was just getting started.

“We learn our myths early, and we see the world prove it. The myth of America’s moral superiority….of manifest destiny….of the melting pot and the deceptive belief in progress. And hovering behind the myths lie the frightful possibilities of nuclear war where man can turn himself to ashes.” He implored the young scholar-athletes not to turn their backs on the problems but to “deal with the social environment of America which is disintegrating before our eyes.

He scoffed at those who respond that the United States is the “best country in the world” and that anyone who criticizes it is a traitor. “Is a man un-American to suggest and explain the dimensions of our social and economic problems?” He urged the scholar-athletes not to get “disillusioned” but cautioned them against relying on “textbook answers” or to become “unquestioning cogs in a bureaucratic machine.”
He spoke of the relationship of sports to society and his discomfort with the vicarious way in which people identify with athletes. “Thousands of people who don’t know me use my participation on a Sunday afternoon as an excuse for non-action, as a fix to help them escape their everyday problems and our society’s problems.” He urged his listeners not to sit back and allow others to fight for change without them.

“Only you as an individual who makes a seemingly meaningless commitment of himself can change things,” said Bradley. “No one else can do it for you. Only millions of ones can succeed in demanding that 18-year-olds no longer be sent to die in the quagmires of Southeast Asia….that private investment decisions will no longer be made without concern for man or nature, and that men no longer treat their fellow men as objects of senseless hatred.”

If Bradley had made speeches like that during the 1992 Democratic candidates’ debates, he might even have become president. I  know he’d have gotten my vote.

Michael can be reached at michael@zestoforange.com

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