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About the Episode

Former New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley joins us to discuss the issues he believes are threatening America's progress. He lays out the arguments in his new book "We Can All Do Better."

Related:
Read SeattlePI column on Bill Bradley

About Bill Bradley

William Warren "Bill" Bradley is an American hall of fame basketball player, Rhodes scholar, and former three-term Democratic U.S. Senator from New Jersey. He ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic Party's nomination for President in the 2000 election.

Enrique Cerna:
Senator Bill Bradley, welcome to Conversations. Good to have you here in Seattle. Appreciate it very much.

Bill Bradley:
Great to be with you.

Enrique:
I was talking to a friend of mine and I said, oh, I'm going to interview Bill Bradley today. And he said, so where's that guy been lately? Where have you been lately?

Bill:
I've been writing a book. But in terms of what I do for a living, I work for a firm in New York called Allen and company, which is a merchant bank. And then I have a program on sirius XM satellite radio called American voices, where I interview people all over the country about their lives. And the premise is to let people hear the kind of stories I heard four years on the road in America as a basketball player and a politician. And then I serve on a couple of boards. And give talks and write books.

Enrique:
Doing the radio show, do you feel like that keeps you connected to people?

Bill:
Yeah. I mean people say to me, what do you miss about being in politics? Well, I miss two things. I miss doing public policy 24 hours a day. And I try to fill that with the book, writing books, and then the second thing I miss are the people, and I fill that void by interviewing people about their lives. And there are usually two kinds of interviews. One is about the work somebody does. Everything from public health nurse in the Aleutian islands to grounds keeper in fenway park. And then the second type of interview is interviewing people who are doing something selfless in the community, like the guy that shines shoes at the Pittsburgh children's hospital for 46 years. And then every tip that he got, he put a portion of that into a fund to pay for poor kids' health care. And the day I interviewed him, he put over $100,000 into that fund. So I do these kind of interviews to try to connect to what I think is the goodness of the American people, and the dignity of work that so many people feel, no matter what they're doing. If they really love what they do, that defines their life. They know that family's most important, but that defines their life in a very fundamental way.

Enrique:
As you have had these conversations, and I know that you have always wanted to stay connected to people, even after you left the political arena, give you fodder for developing this book and others that you've written?

Bill:
It certainly did. As a matter of fact, the way I think about this book is there's a foundation of what I call the goodness of the American people upon which policy proposals can be built. And one of the chapters is called celebrating selflessness. And I talk about five or six of the interviews that I did with people about their lives who were doing something selfless in their community. And to me, it's pretty central. We sometimes forget it because we know that it's true in our own life, we know people who are helping other people. But we can't see this has a national phenomenon. And it is a national phenomenon. I've been doing this show about, oh, I've been doing it about 20 or 30 shows, I'm now over 300, and one of the executives at sirius XM came in and said, what are you going to do when you run out of people like this? And I said, you don't understand, this is America, I'm not going to run out of people like this. That's who we are, that's what we do, that is the foundation. And so people say, how does it relate to government? Well, the ethos of the nonprofit community, or the giving community, is give to someone else without any expectation of return. And the ethos of the private sector is perform or die. And when we combine those two, that's when government's at its best, when it's a caring institution, helping people, but is also accountable for results.

Enrique:
It seems that that's a struggle these days, trying to marry those two together so that they're going to work well.

Bill:
I mean, it always is a challenge. But I think today, politics is a little different than when I was there. But one of the reasons I wrote this book is it was last summer when I started, and the debt limit debacle took place, and I still knew middle income people were having a tough time, and you know, median income in 2010 the same as in 1996. We were fighting two wars on the other side of the globe. And I actually had people come up to me and say, you know, what did they do? Is it hopeless? And one of the reasons I wrote the book is to give people hope about our future and to remind them that we have faced difficult times in the past, depressions and wars, and problems in our democracy. And we overcame them. And that our political institutions are flexible enough to allow us to address these problems. And then I, of course, also, as I've already said, wanted to have whatever we do to solve our problems built on a foundation of selflessness. And actually, if you think of the future, our, in a world that's increasingly competitive, it's not going to be one person working in a hierarchy, but it's going to be teams of teams, of which selflessness is an important part of a team functioning well together. And so there's a really economic reason as well as the deeper spiritual reason.

Enrique:
How can we?

Bill:
Well, I think that clearly, when you look out at the fragility and inequality in our economy, or you look at the direction of our foreign policy, or you look at the structure of our democracy, we can do better. I mean, you know, ask any middle income person who's been stuck for a long time, and who grew up in a country where you always knew your children would have a higher standard of living than you did, and you always knew that if you worked hard, there would be upward mobility for you. That's called into question for a lot of people. And so as a country organizing our economy, we can do better. We can do better in politics. Here we are, major problems confronting the country, and the politics is torn in polarized opposites shouting at each other. So we can do better. But it also means not only our politicians and our public life, but also individually, we can do better. Do you take care of your health by what you eat? And do you save for your retirement? Do you invest in education yourself by just setting aside time to read? We can all do better. So it's meant to try to say that if we're going to deal with our challenges as a country, then it's going to take each of us at our best, and so we have to be at our best. And each of us at our best is not going to be enough unless we have the success of our national community. Because that's where our fate as individuals rests.

Enrique:
I think most people today feel the average American, they have no voice, they don't have a voice in government. They have no voice when it comes to dealing with banks and financial institutions. They have no voice in trying to really make a difference in the direction of a country.

Bill:
Well, one of the reasons I wrote "we can all do better" is to try to get people to buck themselves up and resist that. I mean I paraphrase FDR's the only thing you have to fear is fear by saying that the only thing that will make things hopeless is if you think they're hopeless. We all live in the story that we tell about our lives, about our country. And I would argue that it never has been easier to have an impact than today. And when you think about major shifts in American history, you know, in the 1830s, took a small group of people to say slavery's immoral, we're going to change it, abolitionists. In the 1880s, small group of people that said women ought to have a right to vote. Suffragists. Few people in the 1950s that said, you know, we have to perfect this union for African/American citizens. Civil rights movement. And a few people in the 1960s and '70s that said we no longer want polluted rivers and dirty air. We want to clean it up. Environmentalists. And each one of those cases, this was not people who thought that it was hopeless. It was people who said, look, I care deeply about something, I want to change it, and I want to make America better in the process. And they tied it into who we are as a people, what our founding documents say about who we are. And in that sense, it's the same way today, you know, in democracy is not a vicarious experience. And in the Internet age, you know, apathy really isn't an option. And so I would argue, I understand how people feel now when they're confronted with these giant bureaucracies. I mean who the heck knows what derivatives are, right? I try to explain them in here. But most people, they don't know. Many bankers don't know. But they're at the root of the problem in our financial sector. Along with leverage and giant, gigantic size of financial institutions. So I could understand how people say, gee, I don't understand all that. But you certainly understand we got to live within our means. You certainly understand incomes have to go up and more people have to work. You certainly understand that democracy doesn't work right now, we got to reduce the role of money in our politics because it's distorting everything. And so I appreciate what people say, but I also think that there are opportunities now that have never existed before, the abolitionists, suffragists, civil rights workers, and the environmentalists didn't have the Internet. Certainly, we can get activated citizens to deliver to the people what they need.

Enrique:
This title actually came from Abraham Lincoln.

Bill:
It did. Yeah. Abraham Lincoln's message, the civil war has been going on for about a year, the north is not doing well. And it's about six, eight months from the emancipation proclamation. And he sends this incredible address to congress. And he says we can only succeed by concert, which means working together. It's not can any of us imagine better, but can all of us do better? And I think that that's the challenge for each of us. And that's why I said it. You can only succeed by concert, which means, you know, the tea party, let's take the guy that beat senator Luger, from Indiana, a really fine United States senator, really fine when I served there. He said when he won, the air of collegiality is over. I know I will succeed when I get democrats to agree to my positions. Well, it's not America, we wouldn't have a constitution without compromise. So we live in a time when our politics takes people further away, precisely when our opportunities should be bringing us together.

Enrique:
Let's talk more about that. Because obviously, the polarization has reached this all time high. And as we're in election season, we're going to have more of it, particularly when the political ads hit. And we also have this with the ruling of citizens united from the supreme court, money that is going to be flowing in at just tremendous amounts. And again, it comes back to how can the average American feel like they're a part of the process when they can't afford to have that voice as others have?

Bill:
Well, there's no question that money is crippling our politics today. For example, in 2009 and 10, the financial industry contributed $318 million to politicians in Washington. The health care industry $145. Energy industry $75 million. So it's no wonder that the financial reform we got was watered down, just look at the news on J.P. Morgan today, doing things that a stronger rule would prevent them from doing. Or that the health care bill didn't have a public option as competition for private health insurance. Or that we didn't even get around to doing the energy bill. Even at a time when we're sending billions of dollars abroad every day to feed our oil habit, and we're sending them to autocrats. So you say, this is the problem. And yet the supreme court is a part of that problem. Because it says you can't limit money. And citizens united even said since a corporation under the law is a person, you can't limit what a corporation spends, repealing a law passed by Teddy Roosevelt in 1907 that's been there for over 100 years, right? So what can you do if you're a citizen? Well, back in the 19th century when corrupt state legislatures were sending corrupt U.S. senators to Washington, the people rose up and said enough. And when they rose up, they passed a constitutional amendment for direct election of senators. And today, the people are involved, they rise up. And they pass a constitutional amendment that says simply federal, state, and local government may limit the amount of money spent in a political campaign. It starts with us. You know, there's plenty of blame to go to politicians. But I think it's not a question of blame. Right now, it's a question of the imperative for us to do certain things so that we can have a better country and a better life for our children.

Enrique:
Part of what you're righting here really aimed at prodding people to get them...

Bill:
Well, I like, it's interesting, I hope I'm a catalyst to get people to realize the power that they have.

Enrique:
And? I mean, is the reaction you're getting that people are interested in doing that or are they feeling so overwhelmed that they can't imagine doing it?

Bill:
Well, you never know where a seed sprouts, what terrain it falls on. I think that, I think there are plenty of people who feel energized and activated. Younger people who know how to use the Internet and social networking. See what happened in Egypt, for example. And they begin to see, how can I do that here? How can I do something like that? A lot of Americans have been beaten down for so long, I mean middle income has been stagnant for so long, you know, even in the studio, the cameramen, the producers, the assistants, the stars, right? You've seen what's happened to your income over the last 25 years. Unions represent fewer people. Income is stagnant. Your wife or your husband went into the work force so you'd have two earners, so you could make ends meet. And the only investment you had was your house, so you borrowed on your house because two earners weren't enough, and then the crisis came, and the house value plummeted. And people, you can understand how they feel dispirited now. But I'm just saying, you know, within each of us, there is that capacity to rise up. And in a democracy, citizens make that happen. And particularly when this is such, everyone's self interest. There are specific things we can do to make sure we have higher incomes. There are specific things we can do to make sure we get our debt problem under control. And as I said, there are specific things we can do to reduce the role of money in politics.

Enrique:
Do you miss politics, being in the political process?

Bill:
Well, I miss people. I try to fill that void with the radio shows, I said. And I miss doing public policy. I also, quite frankly, I miss being in the room sometimes when the deal is cut at the end. So I miss certain aspects of it, no question about it. But this book is written not as a former politician because, you know, the way it happened was I looked out at this debt limit debacle and I said, I don't have my hand on the levers of power. So what can I do? Well, I have certain experiences, and maybe I can use those experiences to write what I think we could do. And what is within each of us if we honor that selflessness part of ourselves. And build from there. And if we understand history and where we've been and how we can move forward from what seems to be a difficult jam that we're in now, and how that's related to international policy and how we can, we spend money on all these wars. For what purpose? Let me ask you, what was the Iraq war for? 10 years, trillion dollars plus, lost lives, what was it for? It wasn't Al Qaeda. I mean what was it for? And the point is the world never stays static. And as we move around the world like a general on a white horse looking for applause from the crowd, the Chinese are laying the groundwork for economic domination in the 21st century.

Enrique:
And we owe them a lot of money.

Bill:
And well, levy lent us $1.4 trillion.

Enrique:
Yep.

Bill:
And that's a lot of money. But there's no reason they have to, they are an economic competitor, but they can also be a partner. And there's no reason for them to be a military adversary if we understand china, its history, its culture, what their aspirations are, and where we have common ground. And now in the book, I tell the story, front page of the New York Times, October of last year, two stories side by side. One story was about Europeans go to china to ask for investment in Euro rescue fund. The other story had a headline that said western business looks for investment in Libya. One is the story of a growing economic super power throwing its weight around the world. Being solicited to throw its weight around the world. The other is a story of a country picking over the bones of the latest mid east venture. What has that gotten us, you know. And I think we have to realize the 21st century is about the economy and not about military. And Lee Quan Yu, a former prime minister of Singapore, a wise man, once said the 21st century will be determined by intelligence, so the size of your talent pool is important. And he said, in China, the talent pool is 1.3 billion. In the United States, the talent pool is 7 billion, meaning every country in the world is potentially, can be tapped by the United States, because anybody can come to the United States. So as long as we have this influx of talented immigrants, as well as people who just want to have a better life, we're going to have a competitive advantage that no other country can have because they're too Ethno centric. Whatever country, Japanese, they're Ethnocentric. The Chinese? No. Russia, they have a lot of nationalities, but... So I think that we have a tremendous advantage if we can remain that example of a pluralistic democracy that takes more and more people to higher economic ground. That should be the example that we seek to lead from.

Enrique:
One of the things you suggest here is the possibility of a third party. I mean not everybody's happy. You were a democrat.

Bill:
I am a democrat.

Enrique:
Okay. You are a democrat. But you worked with republicans.

Bill:
Sure, I worked with republicans.

Enrique:
You worked with Ronald Reagan.

Bill:
I worked with Ronald Reagan.

Enrique:
On the tax code.

Bill:
Absolutely. The 1986 tax reform. Ronald Reagan was a conservative, but he wasn't tea party, I guarantee you that. Ronald Reagan was conservative, we disagreed frequently, but at the end of the day, he cut a deal, he got a compromise, because he wanted to do something rather than nothing. And that's the way it was when I was there. There are times in American history when political points of view are irreconcilable.

Enrique:
Do you think a political party...

Bill:
Right before the civil war comes to mind there. But third party, it's that, you know, as I said, there are times when points of view are irreconcilable and usually things are decided in political combat, vicious often, but bloodless. And one of three things happen. One party whacks the floor with the other. There are narrow majorities like where I was in the Senate where you have to have a bipartisanship if you're going to get anything done. Or there's the emergence of a third party. And if there is not progress on the things that are critical to the people let's say in November, if there's not progress on deficit reduction, or if there's not further stimulus so that we can get people working in America at reasonable wages and salaries, there could be the emergence of a third congressional party. And people think third party, they think of Perot or Nader. That's presidential. That's kind of a nonstarter. But you know, in running candidates in 50 congressional districts with a very clear platform of what you want to do, with the ideas that you'll serve your country for six years, and if you can't get the change in six years, that will be it. But you think you will be able to. And you get 20 seats, and you're at the fulcrum of power in the Senate and the house, and you trade votes to get your program enacted, it just might be the thing that shakes up this rigidified partisanship. And I blame the republicans more than the democrats, obviously. Not only because I'm a democrat, but because I think objectively, that's true. President Obama stuck his hand out any number of times and had it bitten. And so I think the republicans have been taken over by the far right. It's not the party of Lincoln or Theodore Roosevelt or Dwight Eisenhower or even George bush 1. It's not the party. It's a radical party that wants to roll back government, roll back the new deal, and has decided to go into electoral politics, and they elected 43 people in 2010. And when there was a deal in principle between Boehner, the speaker, and Obama, the president, they rejected it when Boehner brought it back and almost bankrupted the country. That's how quickly things can change. Nobody heard of the tea party three years ago. So people are out there, you say dispirited and they don't believe it. And you say, why don't we have something that's more moderate and reasonable with the same kind of enthusiasm. And occupy, great passion, no program. Needs a program. And otherwise, you won't get, and you need the strategy to get people elected to congress.

Enrique:
So back to that title, "we can all do better." Bill Bradley, former senator from the state of New Jersey. They called you Dollar Bill?

Bill:
Dollar Bill. You know why?

Enrique:
Why?

Bill:
Well, there were three possible reasons. One is I hit the last second shot when the money was on the line. The other was that it was an incentive for me to buy some new clothes. And the other was that I had the first dollar I ever earned because I was tight with a buck. Pick your choice.

Enrique:
Okay. I'll just say "Bill." How's that?

Bill:
Good, that's better.

Enrique:
Thank you so much for your time, Senator. We can all do better. I hope so. Thank you for your time.

Bill Bradley

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