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Former Senator Bradley tries rewriting the 'American narrative"

Former Sen. Bill Bradley called for a "new American narrative" focused on "civil society" and team leadership on Dec. 6 during the first of five lectures he is scheduled to give at Stanford this academic year while serving as the Payne Visiting Professor at the Institute for International Studies.

The popular New Jersey politician, former Rhodes scholar and Olympic and pro basketball player spoke to a standing-room-only crowd. People who got caught in rush-hour traffic for the 5 p.m. lecture had to be turned away from the 600-seat Kresge Auditorium. Bradley, who resigned from the Senate last year, is frequently mentioned as a potential Democratic presidential contender. He has not said what his future plans are, but the title of his lecture series ­ "In search of a new American narrative" ­ hardly discouraged those who hope he is spending this year developing a campaign platform.

Dressed in a dark sport coat and tie, Bradley compared the current American climate to other periods in history when political leaders searched for new language to re-envision what it means to be an American. He referred particularly to Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War, Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt during industrialization and Franklin Roosevelt during the Great Depression. He then proposed that the time was ripe for both government and the private sector to yield some of center stage to "civil society."

"Civil society," he said, is "the place where we live our lives, educate our kids, find God and associate with our neighbors." It includes community institutions, families, foundations and religious institutions that share "an ethos of giving something to someone else with no expectation of a return." Unlike government, civil society "does not shy away from values as a basis of action. Unlike business, it is not focused on maximizing material wealth."

Bradley said he sensed that church-going Americans and the church-less alike, regardless of their particular form of religious beliefs, have a "great unfulfilled yearning for solidarity, love, belonging, in short, for meaning in life that can't be provided by material advancement. It is the contemporary equivalent of the great religious revivals that periodically welled up in American history. . . . While only 42 percent of Americans report going to church in the last seven days, 94 percent say they believe in God."

He also listed five other "new" aspects of the American scene: greater integration into the world economy; wider belief that world peace is possible; expanding use of information technology; and on the negative side, deteriorating circumstances for America's children and a "dangerous" lack of interest among adults in the political processes of democracy.

He tried to blur the distinction that Americans usually make between international and domestic issues. Greater world economic integration means expanding opportunities for well-managed American businesses to sell to huge new consumer markets and to receive a disproportionate amount of world capital flows, he said, but also added vulnerability to "mismanagement" elsewhere. "Witness the recent 500-point one-day drop in the U.S. stock market that was caused by Thailand's lax banking supervision. That day stands as a stark reminder that the global economy . . . still retains the capacity to self-destruct. . . . We have to lead, even if we can't dictate."

Peaceful resolution to conflict seems more possible at the end of the century than at the beginning, he said. "The examples of Mikhail Gorbachev and F.W. de Klerk seem contagious," he said, citing the "Oslo process in the Arab-Israeli conflict, peace talks in Northern Ireland, the end of the civil war in El Salvador, the cessation of the Cambodian civil war, the birth of Chilean democracy, the initiation of Mexican political reforms, a dialog between India and Pakistani leaders, the beginning of a genuine engagement between China and the United States and the first talks in history between North and South Korea."

Helping parents raise children

Most of his lecture and the questions from the audience afterwards, however, were directed toward domestic issues. Bradley stressed the need for community institutions that match those who want to help with those in need. "Current volunteerism is insufficient," he said, and government bureaucracies and businesses both have shown they are not good at solving social problems.

Volunteerism can be expanded but "for those who want to give but cannot afford to do so for free, there must be some compensation," he said. "Using the resources controlled by the government, perhaps cutting corporate subsidies to pay for employee subsidies, and in the private sector encouraging social entrepreneurship to create paid jobs in civil society, we would make progress in dealing with the social issues of our time, such as the need to help parents help their children."

Bradley returned repeatedly to the plight of children. He noted that "the average amount of time working parents spend with their children is 50 minutes per day for working mothers and 17 minutes a day for working fathers." Family income has expanded in recent years, he said, only by more people in the family working more jobs, which has meant children left either to television at home or at malls and street corners. Yet when Americans are asked about youth problems such as suicide, crime, pregnancy, poor academic performance or drug abuse, he said he found in research with the Advertising Council that "they pull back in anger, they blame the parents."

"If we are really going to deal with the problems of children in America today, we have to have a more realistic portrayal of who the parents are. The parents are, by and large, not drug-abusing, irresponsible incompetents. They are people like a lot of people in America who are working hard, a couple of jobs. They are very stretched and they need a little help."

Liberals "have a government program for every problem," and conservatives "preach self-help and leave the safety net up to private charities, but noble individual actions, both in terms of available resources and in coordination of their impact, are clearly inadequate," Bradley said. A third way would emphasize "governance" as "something we do for ourselves by participating in our community, taking charge of our lives, not in the context of without government but with a government that supports our efforts."

Jettison the hero myth

To get a new kind of governance will require jettisoning the "hero myth" of leadership for a new team approach, he said. Presidential candidates should name their proposed Cabinet during the campaign, he said, and then "make Cabinet meetings more than a photo op. You are only as good as the people you reach out to."

A problem, he conceded, is that the entertainment and news media are "hopelessly caught up in the hero myth themselves. Even in team sports, their focus is always on the individual, never on the mystery of the chemistry of the team. . . . If a president uses team leadership, the press won't allow it."

Asked by a freelance journalist in the audience what might be done to change that, Bradley responded that "there is a subversive potential of the Internet that is not appreciated. . . . All you've got to do is figure out how to make your website the most attended website in the world."

Asked by a student what individuals could do to bring in a team approach, Bradley suggested "engaging your friends in some act of community service, and in your interactions avoid the dominance of hierarchy in all decisions. You are never going to escape it totally, but try to be more open to listen to people and ask questions as much as give your opinion."

Asked what he would do to narrow the substantial income gap between high- and low-wage Americans, Bradley said that his answer is "incomplete" and that he came to Stanford partly to look for better answers to that question. "My own sense is that we don't know why this is happening," he said. Possible solutions include a more "enlightened" management or more unionization of low-paid service workers such as day care workers and nurse's aides.

In response to a question from Henry Miller of the Hoover Institution, Bradley defended affirmative action, but not all policies that have been labeled affirmative action. "Discrimination continues to exist in America and a remedy is needed. Now affirmative action to me simply means reaching out to the broadest possible community with talent."

Bradley also blamed some of today's discrimination problems on Republicans and southern Democrats, who, he claimed, forced Lyndon Johnson to gut the 1964 Civil Rights Act of the teeth it needed to deal with alleged cases of individual discrimination. "If we had an adequate remedy to individual discrimination, we would have less need for affirmative action. A simple way to get at individual discrimination would be to give the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission the same thing that the National Labor Relations Board has, which is the cease-and-desist authority," he said, so it could "throw out the frivolous cases and remedy the ones of serious discrimination."


By Kathleen O'Toole

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