So You Want to Buy a President?

Bill Bradley

Bill Bradley is the Democratic US Senator from New
Jersey.  First elected to the Senate in 1978, he has announced that he will not
seek reelection in1996. He is the author of Time Present, Time Past: A

Q: The assumption is that you people are now spending far too much time raising money. Is that true?

Bradley: I think that's generally true. In my case, the most time I spent raising money was when I raised the least money, which was the first race in 1978. By the time I got to my last race, I didn't spend that much time, but I had people who were very good in helping me do it.

Q: But now, in the book, you say you had to raise $20,000 a week for six years.

Bradley: Right, in 1990, that's what I had to raise to raise a good fund to run for reelection in New Jersey.

Q: Now, what does it take to raise 20 grand every week, on average? What do you have to do?

Bradley: Well, different people have to do it in different ways. In my case I had several very big events, so we raised a lot of money in several big events. And that really diminished the amount of time that I had to spend on it.

Q: So for you anyway, it wasn't a tremendous problem?

Bradley: It wasn't a time problem for me at all, because, as I say I didn't have to devote that much time to it. I was under the illusion that people were giving to me because they were monogamous fund-raisers and they liked me. And many of them did, some of them didn't, but it was easy to raise the money. . .

The first time, it was an arduous task, I spent 40 percent of my time raising money. I was on the phone constantly, I made a list of everybody that I knew, I called each of those people who I thought might give me $200, $500. It was asking again and again, being told the check was in the mail, which was a familiar thing, which made me conclude, well, the postal service is really in bad shape, because I wasn't getting a lot of those checks. And it took a lot of time. That's when I raised about $1.5 million. And in order to do that, I had to do it day by day.

Because I was a former professional basketball player running for the US Senate I had a lot of friends, but not a lot of people who drew that direct connection. There weren't a lot of predecessors who took that path to the US Senate.

Q: You described one time where you went, there was a blizzard and there was going to be a reception and you figured, well, this isn't going to happen and the guy says, 'It's happening.'

Bradley: Well, sure, I mean there are always these stories where an event is scheduled and weather intervenes. This was a blizzard in, I think '78, and the event was scheduled so I went. I saw a lot of empty floor space that night, I thought he had a beautiful floor. But those things happen.

Q: But your job is just to remain as pleasant as ever.

Bradley:Right. Basically when you go to these fund-raisers, you go to the living room of somebody who has been successful. It's a nice house, nice apartment, you make a little presentation, putting yourself out there as to who you are, what you believe, why, and then you answer questions. And you answer them for as long as they want to ask them, sometimes an hour. And then it's over. And based upon what people feel about you, they then make contributions. And then you hope that that small fund-raiser leads to a larger fund-raiser, so that you have to do fewer of these house parties and can do more larger events with a larger ticket price. That's the way you try to do this, if you're doing it in a traditional retail way.
There are new ways to do it. Some people do it through direct mail, other people do it through a whole series of other approaches. But to do it the traditional way, which I call three yards and a cloud of dust, you have to go through this grueling process, until you have managed to establish a way to do it, and establish a structure to do it.
So one of the things you have to get used to is you get used to being viewed as kind of a piece of meat by a lot of people who are scrutinizing you. And I found that in that process you ended up occasionally making good friends, and occasionally a lot of these rooms look alike.

Q: And is there a fatigue that sets in after you've hit your thousandth room or your two thousandth room?

Bradley:Well, not really, no. I think there's fatigue in the schedule. I mean, if you hit it late in the day and you've been going since six a.m. in the morning, when you come in what you normally do is you look around and say, "Where's the restroom?" so you can go ahead and get a brief respite before you have to deal with the people in the room that night. So you usually go in, fix your tie, wash your face, use the facilities, and then think about, Well, what are you going to say? And then you come out and do the thing over.

Q: And do they say, What is he doing in there that long?

Bradley: Well, if they do say that they never said that to me.

Q: What is the Ernie?

Bradley:The Ernie is something that I established for the award for the worst fund-raiser. I once did a fund-raiser where we did not raise enough money to pay for the luncheon, and therefore we had a net negative cash flow. So any time I went on a fundraising trip, we always gave the Ernie within the staff and the group to the fund-raiser who was the most disappointing.

Q: So, you mean there was an occasion where the food was served, and you couldn't cover your nut, in effect.

Bradley:That's right, where the amount of money contributed was not sufficient to offset the food for the luncheon. This was a luncheon put on by an old friend of mine who invited a lot of his friends--

Q: -- Everybody ate and ran.

Bradley:--and unfortunately, there was a little thing neglected, which was, this is a fund-raiser.

Q: Is it good or bad that after Watergate they put in this rule to eliminate the notion that somebody would come in and hand you a piece of luggage with a million bucks in it?

Bradley:I think it was an improvement. I think it was very much of an improvement that we got rid of essentially the bags of cash that Maurice Stans had stashed in his desk in the time of Watergate. I think it was an improvement.

Q: Wait, let me stop you. Because, is it an improvement? You're going to need, still, real money to do this job. So, does it help you if all you can get is a thou from each individual? I mean, in order to raise, say $5 million, you could go to fifty Maurice Stans, or you go to 5,000 little guys.

Bradley: No, no, there are two points there. One is, yeah, Pat Moynihan said that it used to be that you'd get $100,000 from ten people, and you'd feel a certain obligation to them. But now you have to raise money from a whole class, and therefore it's a hopeless thing in terms of the kind of demands, etc. So, that is the difference between raising it from a few people versus a whole class of people. . . . There are 270 million people in America, roughly, and 900,000 of them have contributed $200 or more to political campaigns.

Q: But you've got to find them all, that's the problem.

Bradley: So, it's like four-tenths of one percent of the population. So, I mean, that's when you say that's the political giving class, versus three or four people that you know. I think, however, the point about Maurice Stans was, this was totally unaccountable. All of these thousand dollar contributions, they might be onerous to raise, and it might be a class that gives them, but they're all disclosed, and everybody knows who gave to you. In the old days something was passed with cash in it, nobody knew except the guy who had it in his desk. In this case it was the President's financial director in the Nixon Administration, Maurice Stans, who had a stash in his desk of over a million dollars.

Q: But have you never once closed your eyes in that bathroom and thought, 'If I could only just do ten people at $100,000 per person, then I would not have to meet 5,000 people and beg and beg?'

Bradley: There are certain things in life that you want to exert a lot of energy to figure out, if life only wasn't this way. There are other things that you kind of take life as it is and deal with it. This is one of those things where you kind of take life as it is and deal with it. Until you can get real fundamental campaign finance reform . . . . You see, one of the problems with fundamental campaign finance reform, or with campaign finance reform as we know it, is that it becomes so complicated that those who oppose it have no political liability, because those who support it can't explain it convincingly enough to develop the issue. And I think that campaign finance reform money and politics is a little bit like ants in your kitchen. Either you've got to block all the holes so none of them can get in, or some of them are going to get in. So you simply have to take the money out of politics and have fundamental, bold campaign finance reform.

And I think if you kind of nibble around the edges you're not going to succeed in your objective, which is to restore the democratic process to the people, and have politicians that are sensitive to the demands of their constituents, who see their needs in terms of the crying economic insecurity that people are experiencing every day: lost jobs, lost health care, lost pensions. And I think that that possibility is enhanced if you take money out of politics.

Q: Under this present system, in order to touch so many wallets, I assume you need somebody to help you, right? You have somebody who's a specialist in doing this.

Bradley: I have someone that I've known about 25 or 30 years who started in my first campaign kind of organizing teenagers, and gradually moved up and is somebody I trust and someone who's totally honest and someone who does a good job of organizing events.

Q: Now, does she have to know a thousand people who will give you a thousand dollars, or does she have to know a hundred people who know a hundred people who know a hundred people?

Bradley: No. . . . She just makes it happen. I think that essentially it is a matter of the politician either being known by someone or the politician themselves knowing. When you start, you start with a list of your friends, of people you know, people you've met, and then you branch out from there, people they know that they've met. And that's how you begin to build a fundraising network. And people give for a lot of different reasons. I always thought people gave because they were interested in what I'd done, because they were interested in some speeches I'd made, positions I'd taken, because they believed that my service was important to the country. I also think that sometimes people gave, in my case, because of Presidential speculation. I always believed that the best contributor was what I called the monogamous fund-raiser, which was somebody that gave to me --

Q: Who loved just you.

Bradley: Yeah, that didn't give to anybody else. And of course, that was an illusion, when I discovered in 1992 that most of the Democratic givers who had given to me in the period prior to 1990, who I thought were monogamous fund-raisers, had given to candidates in the presidential race in one way or another -- not all, but many of them.

Q: Which told you what, other than the fact that they weren't in love with you in particular?

Bradley: Which told me that I was a little idealistic, maybe a little romantic as I approached this process. And also that I unnecessarily personalized it. Many of them are still good friends. But it's a, let's say it's a maturity.

Q: How much money do you need to run for President of the United States?

Bradley: Well, the nominee of each party at the time they are selected as the nominee, you have about $12 million to run a convention and you have about $60 million given to you shortly after the convention to run your general election campaign. On top of that, you had to raise money for a primary election. The most money ever raised in $1,000 contributions was George Bush in 1992, when he raised about $20 million in $1000 contributions, some of which was matched. And then of course, you have the phenomenon in a Presidential election year, of large contributions going through state parties, so-called "sewer money", that allows somebody to contribute a couple of hundred thousand dollars to essentially further the interests of the Presidential candidate. I think all of that should go. I think we have to take money out of politics. I mean, I think that the presidential check-off system, that works, but I think other than that we've got to move down to the Congressional and Senate elections, and we need to take money out of politics.

Q: Let me ask you another thing. What happened to you? In '78, your first election, you raised $1.5 million. Then the next time you raised $4.5 million. And then the next time you got close to $13 million. What was the demon driving you to these higher and higher numbers?

Bradley: Well, I think there were several things. I think that, first of all, I was competing against the unknown, I didn't know who my opponent was going to be. I thought I could scare off a strong opponent by raising a lot of money. That worked to a certain extent in 1984, I thought it might work again in 1990. And it did, essentially. I thought that if I was able to raise a lot of money that maybe I wouldn't spend all of it, which I could have some of it left over if I wanted to ever do something national.

Q: "Something national" meaning?

Bradley: President. I was competing against the unknown, which means a very wealthy person who could come in in October and write a check for $4 million and blow me out of the water, blow any candidate out of the water with that big individual check, because I didn't have an opponent. And if I was going to compete with that, I would have to start raising money long in advance, and the more money I had in the bank the less likely it would be. In addition, I got kind of into competing with myself. I'm a competitor, and therefore the idea was to raise money. Well, if we raised $100,000, why can't we raise $150,000? We raised more and each event had to be better and bigger. And the result was that we raised a lot of money. We also had a very high what I call burn rate, which means you spend a lot of money on pollsters, computers, all these things. So at the end of the day you were probably not ending spending more money on the campaign in September, October, November, than you would have if you'd started much later and raised much less. And so, it was a moment of realization to me that, look, you know, the only way to counter this was fundamental campaign finance reform.

Q: Was it a sense that the sum was indecently large that was bothering you?

Bradley: What was bothering me was that I didn't really need that much money to run a Senate race in New Jersey in September, October of an election year, and that I had started raising money five years out, and therefore I had to keep an office, I had to keep a staff . . . . Then I ended up doing computers and pollsters, and it became a high burn rate, so you were behind, not ahead. And so when the press reported, well, he raised $12 million, we didn't have that much in the bank at all, because over the last four or five years we'd spent it all. It was keeping the operation going.

Q: It feels like you actually were embarrassed to have raised a total of that size.

Bradley: Well, part of me in retrospect believes it was not necessary, and that if I had it to do over again, I probably would not have done it. I think that in some senses it probably brought me face-to-face with the fact that even the best people with the best intentions, with the purest of motives, with the most stringent internal checks and requirements, with the most separated fundraising effort from anything that occurs in your legislative life, it's still, there's something that -- it took me in a direction that I didn't want to go in, ultimately. Meaning I became concerned -- I was thinking about raising campaign money.

Q: Too much of the time?

Bradley: Well, I was thinking about it, maybe too much of the time, in retrospect. But the good thing about it is, having gone through that experience I realized that, given all those things, that only fundamental campaign finance reform was going to really change the system.

Q: Did you worry that someone looking at the total and believe -- I remember the paper saying, he's got all this money -- that you would look a little bit like a tool of Wall Street or a tool of the banking industry or a tool of somebody?

Bradley: No, I never worried about that.

Q: Did anyone ever ask you, "Here's a sum of money and now would you do me a favor?" Was it ever that gross?

Bradley: No.

Q: Never?

Bradley: No. It's a little bit like, when I was a senior in high-school I had seventy-five basketball scholarship offers to go to college, and reporters used to ask me, "You mean, nobody ever offered you and your parents money for you to go to basketball school?" The answer is no, because they knew if they offered anything they'd be shown the door and kicked out. So it's applicable here: If anybody offered anything like that, they'd be kicked out. And so that was generally known.

So no, I never did receive any kind of quid pro quo contribution at all. But what bothered me was just that there was, it was unnecessary. I didn't need that to do what I wanted to do in an election. It's a little bit like, in basketball running a pattern that's much more flamboyant than you need to. In other words, making five steps when two would work. And in this case, I didn't need as much money as I raised to run a Senate campaign in New Jersey. That was a thought realization. But it had long-term impact that was positive.

Q: I'm just wondering, what do I get from giving money to you? If I give you $10,000 over a number of years, would you know my name?

Bradley: I may or I may not.

Q: $50,000, including my wife, my three children and our first cousin?

Bradley: If you were a major fund-raiser, I probably would. If you raised a sizable amount of money, I probably would.

Q: So, it's Tuesday at ten o'clock in the morning and I call you because I'm very concerned about something, do you take my call?

Bradley: You know what? The best people never make that call.

Q: I'm not the best people, I'm kind of a mediocre person. But I've called you. Do you take the call?

Bradley: I may or may not, it depends on how I'm feeling that day, depends on what the issue was.

Q: If you don't take the call, I could be mad at you. No more $30,000.

Bradley: Well, those are the breaks.

Q: Really?


Q: Well, I'm just trying to wonder what this must feel like to be assumed to be a whore part of the time.

Bradley: Well, you know, there are always wrong assumptions in life, not only about politics.

Q: All right, let me ask it a different way. There was a case, which we've covered, in which this guy goes running around desperately trying to get his bananas into Germany. So he spends a great deal of money on politicians. And lo and behold the majority leader of the Senate puts in a bill to help this guy. This is in the middle of the budget debate. Now, when you saw this banana item coming up, you didn't like it. Were you surprised to see bananas in the middle of the budget debate?

Bradley: I serve on the Finance Committee. You're never surprised by anything.

Q: But doesn't it suggest that this businessman was able to get to the President of the United States and the majority leader and the speaker of the House, he got to somebody? He didn't maybe get his banana break, but he got attention and he at least got a bill that went into the committee. So it's worth something, arguably, to put money into a politician's pocket.

Bradley: You'd have to ask the politicians who were involved in that. As a Senator, I was called upon to vote on it. I voted against it, because it didn't make any sense to me. I mean, my staff and I look at it as an amendment, does it make any sense? No, this does not make any sense in a budget bill.

Q: But then doesn't Senator Dole lean across the table and say, "Look, we've got to do this for a friend of mine," and then lean back without anyone ever overhearing?

Bradley: No, never.

Q: And you wrote a letter to the Ambassador of Colombia saying that you thought that this legislation was inappropriate. I assume he wrote you a letter saying that he thought it was inappropriate. Was that because you were ticked off by this, or because you were just answering your mail?

Bradley: I think it was because I was answering my mail, wanted to be very direct with the person who asked. I mean, I thought that it was a stupid amendment and voted against it and answered the guy's letter and told him I thought it was a stupid amendment. Why not? You only come this way once, you might as well be direct.

Q: When you ran first, you had a little money from the basketball years, and in fact it was your $250,000 that represented 19 percent of your first campaign money. So, you were able basically by your own bootstraps to get people's attention and begin a political career.

Bradley: Right.

Q: What's wrong with that?

Bradley: I happen to think that it's been taken to excess. I mean, I think that a rich man's wallet should not be superior to a poor man's soapbox. And I believe that money by individuals in support of their candidacy has distorted the process. When you have one person running for the Senate in California spending $28 million of his own money, when you have somebody running for President spending $68 million of their own money. And then you have arguments saying, Well, they made it, they ought to be able to spend it, that shows how much people distrust the process, if we have enshrined self-interest to such a high point in the process.

Q: I'm owned by no one, says Ross Perot. That sounds like he thinks that you guys are all owned by someone.

Bradley: Right. But the point is, that it's like trying to debate in a noisy hall and that person's got a big microphone and you've got a megaphone. That's what money allows somebody to have, is a big microphone.

Q: So, who should pay the bill?

Bradley: Well, from my perspective, what I think should happen is that in a general election, that people of a particular state would contribute up to $5,000 to that campaign for the US Senate in that state. And that on Labor Day, or right after the primary, that pot of money would be divided between Republican, Democrat, and/or qualified independent equally. And that would be all the money that would be available.

Q: This would be public financing, in effect.

Bradley: No, it would not be public financing, no tax dollars.

Q: Why not just say, you can give as much money as you want, but someone will write it down. Do whatever you please, but there will be full disclosure. So if you do something extraordinary, like give me $2 million, that's going to be in The Bergen Record of New Jersey.

Bradley:But it will be in The Bergen Record of New Jersey one day, in a campaign. And it will depend on having some enterprising reporter who's going to be able to discern a thousand names or ten thousand names.

Q: So, you don't think disclosure's good enough?

Bradley: I certainly don't think disclosure's good enough. I mean, disclosure was the innovation to the mid-1970s. Taking the money out of politics should be the innovation of the mid-1990s. After twenty years of this experiment, it doesn't work. Money is enshrined at the center of the process, creating potential conflicts, and should be eliminated so that people will be in control, people in a particular state. What's amazing is, what will be the result? Let's assume there are less contributions. Well, that means there maybe less attack ads . . . . I also think that you would require television stations and radio stations to give up time to candidates in an election, so that they can get their point. It is the public airways, and the public owns them. So if you had an hour for a candidate in an election in one-minute slots or more, each candidate would have a chance to make their case.

It would be a battle of ideas. It wouldn't be the subterranean warfare that goes on to develop war chests that are unrelated to the policy questions, that have to be decided by an individual who is successful at becoming a US Senator.

Q: Are you sure you're living in the country that the rest of us are living in? Because in the America I find most familiar, campaigns are big.

Bradley: Campaigns are big war, aggressive.

Q: So, what is wrong with aggressive? Because a lot of people are watching them now on TV and listening to them on the radio, they're going to be simple, they're going to be loud, they're going to be vulgar to get above the clutter, and they're going to be expensive. Are you pretending that they can be none of those things and still be the United States of America?

Bradley: Yeah. I'm pretending that all of those things discourage the individual from becoming a participant in the democratic process. The individual sits at home being entertained by the latest ads, thumbs up, thumbs down, and a person, except when he votes -- and in 1994 only 38 percent of the eligible voters actually voted -- the thumbs up, the thumbs down at the election is the only time they participated. And that is not going to be the answer to the problems of democracy in this country . . . .

And so the question is, are all of us, not just elected leaders, but are all of us up to this? Because all of us have some responsibilities here. If all you do is sit at home and respond to the negative ads up or down, who had the most creative negative ad? And at the end of the day you decide which of these two people do you like least, and then you vote for the other person, then where are we? And in that process there's been no mandate achieved by the candidates, because no substantive issues have been discovered.

So then the person is elected, and then the person goes to serve and proposes something bold, and they're then shocked, because they didn't propose something bold in the election, and the reason they didn't propose something bold in the election was because nobody would have covered it to give people the chance to understand it. I mean, that is the democratic predicament that we're in today. And money's at the core of the problem. And until we address the money problem, we're just kidding ourselves.

Q: Did you know that the Gallos gave you money?

Bradley: Since I was asked to be interviewed on this subject, I discovered, yes, they did, they gave me a couple of thousand over eighteen years.

Q: Did you know it before you went and researched it?

Bradley: No.

Q: Is a thousand during the primaries and a thousand in the general election negligible?

Bradley: It doesn't rise above the horizon.

Q: When a family like the Gallos tries to ask for a favor how do they do it?

Bradley: They've never approached me, so I don't know what their style is, I don't know what their strategy is. Most people who want to effect legislation work through high-priced Washington lobbyists, who insulate them from direct involvement.

Q: And the thousand dollars that you got from them --

Bradley: The basic rule of thumb with me, it's kind of generally known, is, if you've given money, don't ask, because if you do ask you're less likely. So just take your chances that he'll use good judgment, and maybe he'll be with you and maybe he won't. But he's going to make that decision based on the facts as he sees them, and what he thinks is right for the country.

Q: Aren't you impressed at how unwilling people are to check off that box on their income tax for Presidential elections?

Bradley: Well, I think the decline in the Presidential check-off has paralleled the increase in distrust on the part of people, which has paralleled their rising economic insecurity, loss of jobs, lower wages, working harder for less, lost health care, lost pensions, fear for the future, worrying about their kids' standard of living, and having the political process not speak to that at all, having the political process not say anything that they think might improve their family's standard of living. This is not the time when F.D.R. spoke and people in row houses in Philadelphia all had their station tuned to the channel, to the radio station, you could walk along and you could hear it through the whole street by having it come out of the windows of each house, because they believed that what he was going to say would be directly relevant to their family's chances of having a better future. Those are not the times we're living in. And in part, it's because of money and politics, and because that has eroded, I think, people's trust in elected officials.

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