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October 24, 2007:

Bradley ’65 reflects on Princeton and politics

In the four decades since he was a Princeton student, Bill Bradley ’65 has been a Rhodes Scholar, N.B.A. star, U.S. senator, and onetime presidential hopeful. His new book, The New American Story, critiques Republican ideology and advocates a program for change for the Democratic Party, starting from the grass roots. Still, Bradley says his memories of campus haven’t dimmed. Responding to questions culled from Princeton students, Bradley spoke in May about both national politics and his University experience at Princeton with PAW correspondent Laura Fitzpatrick ’08.

What do you remember best about Princeton?

I remember the people I met, the professors and the classmates who have remained friends for life. I remember a couple of courses in particular. I remember a course on the American theater. I remember a course on American politics. And all my independent work is very vivid. My senior thesis was on Harry Truman’s re-election campaign to the Senate in 1940.

What kind of advice would you give if you could talk to yourself at age 22, knowing what you know now?

Relax. It’s all going to turn out all right.

Do you still play basketball?

[Laughs] No, I don’t. I have a bad hip; I’m going to have to get my hip replaced. So right now my big effort is walking. Maybe after I have that operation I might go out and shoot. I used to shoot occasionally, just myself. I haven’t done that for probably 15 years. Although in politics, you know, when you get on a campaign, you go into the gym and somebody throws you the ball. So you always have to shoot. But you’re under no pretense of being sharp.

Do you follow Princeton basketball these days?

I haven’t followed it recently. I followed it when Pete Carril was here because he was someone that I knew and respected. And I followed it when John Thompson was the coach, because I had helped to recruit him. But I haven’t really followed it that closely since. … [But] I know about the new coach [Sidney Johnson ’97]. He sounds good – he sounds very good.

In high school, you practiced more than 25 hours a week and wore lead weights in your shoes. How do you apply that kind of work ethic to today?

I believe that the work habits I established in basketball apply to academics and to work generally and to pretty much all of my life. I was on Tavis Smiley’s show the other night. And he always asks people at the end, what is the best advice you’ve ever gotten? And I said, well, the first advice was from my father, which was, put your money in the bank; it works while you sleep. And the second was from a basketball coach when I was 14 years old, who told me, remember, if you’re not practicing and somebody else is practicing, given roughly equal ability, if you two meet, he will win. And I wanted to make sure I never lost because I hadn’t put in the effort. So that’s why I practiced so much. In high school I would do three hours a day; on Saturday or Sunday probably five or six hours. In college I would do two, two-and-a-half hours a day during the week, and then I didn’t do anything on weekends.

Did you think about getting involved in politics while you were on campus?

When I was at Princeton what I wanted to do was to go into the State Department. I wanted to be a diplomat. … I thought I would go into Woodrow Wilson School. But my freshman year was a disaster academically. And that washed out any chance I had to get into the Woodrow Wilson School. So I instead majored in history. In retrospect, it was a great gift to have history as a major and Arthur Link as a senior thesis adviser. So it turned out fine. My academic work was political. I wasn’t active in politics, per se.

What would you say to students who are active in politics now?

Well, I think it’s great. In my presidential campaign, one of the better things about it was the young people who volunteered, took a semester off. I think that they got a sense that you can make the world a better place – that there’s something larger than themselves that they can be committed to. So I think it’s a great thing for college students to do something politically.

What would you say to people who don’t vote?

Well, I used to say, if you don’t vote, you can’t criticize. We’re 139th in the world in terms of eligible voters who participate. So if you’re one of the causes of that, that’s not something to be particularly proud of. … If you ask the 50 percent [of Americans] who don’t vote why they don’t vote, the number one reason they give is they have to work. So there’s an easy answer: move elections from Tuesday to Saturday and Sunday. And have 48 hours of voting, no work conflict. And the individual, the voter, can take his or her child to the polls and teach them the sacred duty of citizenship.

What would be different about the country if we were entering the seventh year of a Bradley presidency?

Well, we would not be in Iraq, first thing. We wouldn’t have gone in. And second, we probably would have tried to enact the New American Story. Health care for everyone. Dramatic increase in teacher salaries with accountability and public education. And more important than that, even, national standards. We would have tried to give every child who was born in America a birthright account of $5,000. We would have attempted to solve the Social Security crisis, and we would have passed a law requiring automobile companies to produce cars that get 45 miles to the gallon. … Also, we would have taken the lead on solving global warming, as opposed to denying it.

What do you think of the candidates in the ’08 race?

I think that a number of Democrats are good. I like John Edwards; I think he’s been very specific on domestic policy. I like Barack Obama; I think he has touched a chord of idealism that I tried to touch in 2000, that gets people to dream of a better day. I think Hillary Clinton is enormously competent and intelligent and would be a good president. I think that Bill Richardson is enormously qualified. I think that Joe Biden is the one who’s given specifics on foreign policy. So I think there are a lot of good Democrats. On the Republican side, I think that [Mitt] Romney is the one that I would watch, the one I’d be most concerned about if I were running.

Do you have any advice for Princetonians interested in running for office? 

I would tell them, learn how to write an English sentence and paragraph. Learn a little bit about the history of the country. Understand some of the imaginative literature of the country. And get to know themselves. END