One has certain expectations for a book written by an ex-politician: sentimental, self-serving anecdotes about inspiring constituents; vague appeals to cooperation and bi-partisanship, none of which matters as the author is out of office; nauseating metaphors illustrating the greatness of America. Former Sen. Bill Bradley’s (D-NJ) new book, We Can All Do Better, meets all of these expectations, though it isn’t all bad.
Bradley’s book echoes some of the hackneyed style of the worst political memoirs in the business. Recalling his childhood in a small town on the banks of the Mississippi, Bradley sees the river as “a metaphor for our democracy. Both start with a single, small, seemingly insignificant thing—one drop of water and one citizen—that comes together with others and still others until you have a powerful current that sweeps away anything in its path.”
This sounds like the tiresome and inexperienced imagery of a sixth-grade composition, not the prose of a Rhodes Scholar and former US senator. When Bradley asks, as he does at the end of several of his chapters, “Can we all do better?” you wonder if he intended that as a note for his editor.
The book is bursting with anecdotes about both the author’s experiences in Congress and his current career as host of the radio show American Voices. The first part is a useful history. The second part is just self-important blather.
For example, Bradley discusses his aversion to the politically incorrect views of Sen. Jesse Helms, whose opposition to the creation of the Martin Luther King, Jr. federal holiday was “the final straw,” for Bradley. Indignant, Bradley accused Helms of representing “a kind of evil that still lingered in the American shadows.”
Following a game of basketball with Helms’s daughter, Bradley came to have a “more nuanced and less self-righteous” view of Helms, after seeing him as “a doting grandfather…watching his extraordinary granddaughter make shots from all over the court.”
Bradley’s revelation about Helms is surely meant to show his readers how “open-minded” and “bi-partisan” he is. But while Helms is more humanized in this anecdote, it doesn’t change how Bradley disagreed with him. All it does is inform us that Bradley thinks the worst of his opponents up until the moment he has a chance to get to know them.
Bradley’s radio show, American Voices, features average Americans who have unusual jobs, whose “stories convey the dignity of work, the insights people gain from what they do, and the satisfaction of a job well done.” These livelihoods include “a cab driver, a garbage collector, a shoeshine man in Pittsburgh, a welcome lady in Phoenix, a Walgreens executive in South Carolina, a public-health nurse in the Aleutian Islands, [and] a professor at the University of Oklahoma.” It’s hard to see how a collection of “heart-warming” anecdotes about random Americans helps us to understand the nature and future of the country’s problems.
Bradley names the Tea Party and the Occupy movement as examples of dissatisfaction with government and anxiety over the future of the country. But he definitely plays favorites. The book is peppered with denunciations of the Tea Party, which should be no surprise given that one chapter is titled, “Government Is Not the Problem.”
The Tea Party, opines Bradley, is “unforgiving, uncompromising, and relentless” in its “radicalism”; its aims are “nihilistic” and obstructionist. The Occupy movement, on the other hand, is totally uncontroversial, as people living in tents on public property “struck a chord with most Americans.” “Pathetic,” is how Bradley describes an old Tea Partier’s demand that government keep its hands off his Medicare. This doesn’t represent “radicalism,” but a desire for government to keep its commitments.
One of the upsides of Bradley’s book is his endorsement of a foreign policy based on the thought of George Kennan, widely credited as the author of the Cold War “containment” policy and a leading foreign policy realist. “I would go back,” writes Bradley, “to George Kennan and re-read his opposition to messianism in our foreign policy.”
Acknowledging the virtues of the American system of government, Bradley argues that the imposition of Americanism on other countries is “called imperialism, and it requires occupation for decades and trillions of dollars to finance.” He gives equal time to hitting Obama and Bush alike, writing “Who, after all,” writes Bradley in one of the best lines of the book, “would want to emulate a country whose only contact with you is the humming of a drone?”
Another virtue of Bradley’s book is his criticism of the Democrat-Republican duopoly. He rightly observes that today’s politics are “rigid,” and that “everyone [is] a mouthpiece instead of an independent thinker.” As a counterweight to the inertia of the two major parties, Bradley expresses enthusiasm for the now-defunct Americans Elect, an organization which attempted to field an independent candidate for the 2012 elections. The failure of the two major parties to produce favorable results for the country is apparent. As Kara Hopkins once summarized the “choice” between Republicans and Democrats, “Smash offending countries alone or invite friends along for the invasion? Tax-and-spend or tax-cut-and-spend? Open borders or open borders?”
Despite Bradley’s commendable suspicion of the duopoly, he occasionally takes a detour into fantasy-land. “Republicans,” he says, “use a moral language [when promoting their ideas], whereas Democrats use policy language.” On the contrary, the reverse is true. Republicans more often use the cold language of economic efficiency to justify themselves, while Democrats are more apt to use the moralistic language of “fairness,” “tolerance,” and “equality,” for their own social and economic policies. Bradley’s analysis of the weaknesses of the two major parties falls flat as he misrepresents their tactics.
The question that Bradley poses throughout his book, “Can we all do better?,” is certainly timely and relevant. However, after reading this book of worn-out metaphors, clichés, and partisan misrepresentations, one may plausibly question whether the people who need to “do better” are “we all,” or just our elected officials.
Sullivan Maciag is a writer for Doublethink Magazine.
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Kathlyn Ehl
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Jacob Hayutin