SOLOMON: Bill Bradley, News Media and "The Politics of Ambiguity"

Andrew Jackson won the White House in 1828 with a fresh approach to oratory. "Jackson was the first president to master the liberal rhetoric," wrote historian Howard Zinn, who called it "the new politics of ambiguity -- speaking for the lower and middle classes to get their support in times of rapid growth and potential turmoil." Today, Al Gore and Bill Bradley are running down a similar kind of rhetorical trail.Major presidential candidates -- especially Democrats -- are fond of claiming to represent the interests of Americans far from the top of the economic ladder. But a new book compiled by the Center for Public Integrity, "The Buying of the President 2000," sheds bright light on the big money sources that have propelled the political careers of high-profile contenders -- two Democrats, eight Republicans and Reform Party hopeful Patrick Buchanan.None of those candidates is closer to Wall Street, or more indebted to it, than Bill Bradley. And yet, "the politics of ambiguity" generates so much fog on the media landscape that quite a few people view him as a progressive alternative.Four months ago, he appeared on the cover of Time. "The Man Who Could Beat Gore," the headline declared. "Bill Bradley has the brains, the bio and the bucks. But what's really behind his hot streak?" The question never got answered inside the magazine, which devoted several thousand words to Bradley -- while telling readers almost nothing about the monied special interests behind him. The cover story began by lauding his "high-mindedness" and "dogged integrity."Some normally sensible commentators have bought into such hype. Soon after the new year began, the wonderful Molly Ivins put out a ridiculous column boosting Bradley. "It's always been clear that the man is a class act, without a phony bone in his body," she wrote -- about a man who has excelled at scooping up many millions of corporate dollars while proclaiming devotion to the common people.In the Senate, according to Ivins, "his most notable contribution was the Tax Reform Act of 1986, simplifying the code and lowering the top brackets." For a reality check, consider what the Center for Public Integrity says about the fact that Bradley now presents himself as a foe of corporate tax shelters and special-interest legislation: "Bradley is certainly an expert on the subject. In 1986, he was the driving force behind the biggest tax giveaway to special interests ever."The center reported that Sen. Bradley "was part of the greatest giveaway to special interests in the history of the Internal Revenue Code. Buried in obscure passages of the Tax Reform Act of 1986, of which Bradley indeed was the architect, were hundreds of special breaks for well-connected individuals and corporations." Back then, Bradley tried to justify those breaks -- which added up to at least $10.6 billion -- calling them "a very small speck on the larger map of what the bill means to the middle-income taxpayers and low-income taxpayers across this country."Andrew Jackson would have appreciated the rhetoric.In Jackson's time, historian Douglas Miller has pointed out, "both parties aimed their rhetoric at the people and mouthed the sacred shibboleths of democracy." But elites ruled. "Both major parties were controlled largely by men of wealth and ambition. Lawyers, newspaper editors, merchants, industrialists, large landowners, and speculators dominated the Democrats as well as the Whigs."In terms of candor about economic leverage over the political process, how far have we progressed?Like their potential GOP rivals, both Bradley and Gore are marching to the beat of corporate drummers. What's remarkable about Bradley is the extent to which many progressive-minded Americans have clung to illusions about him -- illusions that could be dispelled by reading a chapter in "The Buying of the President 2000."A month after he retired from the Senate at the end of 1996, the book explains, Bradley "was pulling in hundreds of thousands of dollars in consulting fees from the same Wall Street brokerages whose practices he defended in the Senate." In short, Bradley "was doing what he's done best for more than 20 years: chasing down cash."Overall, "during his brief retirement before he ran for president, Bradley raked in millions in speaking and consulting fees." And despite his current lofty verbiage, the book documents that Bradley is running his campaign with pivotal involvement from the usual backers: "He's surrounded himself with Wall Street insiders, corporate raiders, and high-powered attorneys."Meanwhile, Bradley's ethical posturing has gone a long way in the media game.Score another point for the politics of ambiguity.Norman Solomon is a syndicated columnist. His latest book is "The Habits of Highly Deceptive Media."

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