Bill Bradley was not known for staying on the sidelines during his professional basketball career with the New York Knicks. But Sen. Bill Bradley did just that for the June 8th Democratic primary in New Jersey for the nomination to the U.S. Senate.
He declined to endorse any candidate, although it is known that his former colleague, ex-Congressman Andy Maguire, easily outdistanced the other entrants in meeting Bradley’s criteria for being an outstanding senator.
Two weeks before the primary, it became increasingly clear that the race was between Maguire and a wealthy industrialist, Frank Lautenberg. The businessman was spending nearly $2 million, mostly from his personal fortune, in heavy television advertisements and other media. Maguire, a man of modest means who started running for the seat in 1981, raised only $400,000. He concentrated his efforts in north New Jersey, particularly Bergen County, which he represented in Congress between 1974 and 1980.
When asked whether Bradley’s endorsement would make the difference for him, Maguire said: “Definitely,” a tribute to the former basketball star’s current political status in the Garden State that other Jersey political observers readily confirmed. But Bradley has adopted a political style of avoiding controversy. Rising above the fray, he can keep all parties to the fray from being antagonized. By all accounts, Bradley is “playing for bigger stakes,” as one person asserted. “He wants to live in the White House,” said another, adding wryly, “The place has high ceilings.”
A Bradley spokeswoman explained that his non-endorsement position was due, in part, to the closeness of the various candidates on the issues. They were running mostly on a so why not let the Democratic liberal Democratic platform, voters choose between them before Bradley goes public?
This official explanation was much too cosmetic. Unlike the other candidates, Andy Maguire had a solid record of achievement and leadership in Congress. Hid voting record was based on thought, not on a series of kneejerks. (He has a Ph.D. in government from Harvard University.) Articulate in the defense of the consumer, the environment, worker safety, tax equity and civil rights-civil liberties, Maguire was a hardworking, imaginative congressman. He was a student of the determinants of economic development and productivity. Unlike most of his peers, he understood the need for legislators to find new ways to empower the folks back home as voters and consumers and taxpayers.
In matters of character, Maguire also excelled. The phrase most associated with those who praise him is “nobody owns him.” He is personable, compassionate, knows his facts and inspires others to do better.
But when it came down to the primary vote, Maguire’s grass-roots effort and his endorsement by labor and women’s, elderly and consumer groups, including the New Jersey Tenants Organization, were no match for a slick, massive television campaign by Lautenberg. Maguire lost by 10,000 votes out of a little more than 300,000 votes cast in the primary.
The day after his narrow defeat, Maguire, troubled over a $50,000 personal debt and the end of his 15-year political career, quietly wondered “whether there is any room in politics at this level except for a celebrity or a multimillionaire.”
Bill Bradley could have answered Maguire’s question a few days earlier. He could have used some of his political capital to help a first-rate colleague move toward becoming the junior senator from. New Jersey. Storing political capital without using some of it once in a while for major and decisive effects is not a sign of political leadership. It is an indication of personal ambition that sacrifices friends and the public good due to an overdose of political caution.
In future years, as Sen. Bradley bemoans the lack of quality in the U.S. Senate and the absence of progressive associates, he should remember his sideline role in the June 8, 1982, Democratic primary. Andy Maguire won’t forget it.