By the end of today, presidential candidate Bill Bradley–you know, the tallish one who played professional basketball–will almost certainly have to go home and beg for his old job as an assistant manager of a North Jersey McDonald's, or whatever he did to pass the years between quitting the Senate and throwing his hat back into the political ring.
Given his sanctimonious posturing and less-than-compelling policy proposals, I'm hardly sorry to see him vacate the public stage for what I hope is the last time. Indeed, I'm saddened only by the candidates he leaves behind. But I do owe Bradley, a former senator from my home state of New Jersey, a huge debt: He personally taught me everything I know about politics.
In 1980-81, as a high school senior, my principal urged me to attend a "Young Leaders of Tomorrow Today" sort of confab that Bradley was sponsoring at a nearby college. As I was something of a troublemaker, she was always looking for ways to get me off the school premises. She assumed that I would jump at the chance to meet the great man himself and was surprised when I initially passed on the offer (not only was I generally anti-authority but I preferred soccer to b-ball). She sweetened the pot by reminding me that not only would I get out of school for the day but that there would be a free lunch served at the event. "A good one," she told me. "With salad and everything. Even dessert."
Properly motivated, I showed up for the event, which largely consisted of Bradley hectoring a crowd of young adults about what was then his pet issue: the desperate need for a comprehensive national service program staffed precisely by the likes of us. The only thing that was more of a turn-off than involuntary servitude in the Army or some far-flung Department of Motor Vehicles office was Bradley's sad attempt to connect with us through knowing references to youth culture. This being New Jersey in the early '80s, that meant citing Bruce Springsteen as often as possible, as when the senator introduced lunch via a tortured invocation of The Boss's tribute to absent fathers, "Hungry Heart."
As lunch was being served, Bradley worked the room, eventually coming to stand directly behind me. He engaged my table in conversation, even fraternally squeezing my shoulder as he spoke. A few of the kids–truly, they were leaders of tomorrow!–challenged his national service plan as socialistic, misguided, and just plain asinine. Common courtesy dictated that none of us eat while the discussion was going on and so I put my knife and fork down. Unfortunately, by the time the mini-debate was over, we were hustled back into the lecture hall for the rest of the program, our plates virtually untouched.
As I slouched lower in my seat and listened to my stomach growl the afternoon away, I realized then and there that when it came to politics, there literally was no such thing as a free lunch. True, there were plenty of promises–and plenty of demands made on people's time and money. But somehow that free lunch always managed to escape actually being eaten. I'll always be grateful to Bradley for teaching me that fundamental truth, even if it wasn't the lesson he was hoping to impart that day some 20 years ago.