Commentary: Put country ahead of party

Bill Bradley should have been president.

I thought it in 2000, and I still think it. And he did nothing to dissuade that notion during a lively back-and-forth with a member of the Bush clan Tuesday night at Texas Christian University.

Granted, Bradley's been out of office since 1997, when he retired from the U.S. Senate after representing New Jersey for 18 years, so he doesn't have to worry so much about being politic — or politically correct.

But his candor and lack of rancor were such a refreshing antidote to the intense and distressing nastiness that has infected the last weeks of the current presidential campaign.

"The biggest lie perpetrated on the American public the last 40 years has been this red-blue divide," Bradley told a full-house audience at Ed Landreth Auditorium.

In reality, he said, Americans have a common interest in well-paying jobs, good schools, an opportunity to send our children to college, health care if someone in the family gets sick and an adequate retirement package after working 40 years. And people from both red and blue political persuasions are realizing "that it's time to break our addiction to oil" from foreign sources.

"We are connected to each other in very fundamental ways," he said.

But instead of crafting solutions, Washington has operated with "a can't-do attitude," under both Republican and Democratic administrations, he said.

"But that's not who we are as a people."

Bradley called for our leaders to "put country ahead of party and tell us the truth about our circumstances."

The economic truth? We don't save enough, which means "we end up borrowing money from the Chinese to buy their products."

The solution? Reduce what the federal government takes out of the economy, which will require tax increases and spending cuts.

The truth about public education? We aren't adequately preparing students to be competitive in the world, not when high school students in China all are taking advanced biology and calculus but fewer than 20 percent of U.S. high schoolers are.

The solution? National educational standards and teacher pay that's "based on merit and accomplishment" and not controlled by teacher unions.

The truth about energy? We're too dependent on insecure sources of foreign oil.

The solution? Reduced dependence through more drilling but also greater fuel efficiency, such as adopting the European standard of 46-miles-a-gallon vehicles instead of our 24-miles-a-gallon average. And, yes, he would tax gas guzzlers to fund rebates for people opting for more fuel-efficient cars, if that's what it takes to break the oil addiction.

"When we face the truth, there are answers," Bradley said.

Sure, it's easier to tell the truth when you aren't courting votes. During an election campaign, people don't really want to hear the truth — remember how Walter Mondale got pummeled in 1984 after being frank about raising taxes?

At the same time, who really believes the unrealistic promises that the candidates feel compelled to make for fear of tanking in the polls and then at the voting polls?

Bradley said that solving the nation's problems will require Democratic collective caring and Republican personal responsibility.

The event was billed as "Red State + Blue State = Purple Politics."

And former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush also talked about finding common ground. "I don't believe in partisanship anymore," he claimed.

But it was Bradley who offered thoughtful, well-developed proposals. He's had plenty of time to devise them. And he's spent several years promoting the theme of national unity over party-driven divisiveness.

In 2000, columnist Molly Ivins called Bradley — former Olympic gold medalist, NBA star, author of tax-reform legislation — "a class act, without a phony bone in his body."

Conservatives shouldn't hold that against him.

But Democrats needn't worry about his creds.

When Bush praised Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin as a maverick, Bradley quickly pointed out that the term originated with a Texas family, and "the Mavericks were liberal Democrats for a long time."

Yes, indeed, lawyer/land baron Samuel Maverick served in the Texas Legislature as a Democrat in 1851-63, according to the Handbook of Texas Online.

I just hope the next president — and those tugging on the edges of both parties — will heed what Bradley said, that "we as Americans share a lot more in common than we have dividing us." It's the vast majority in the middle who'll move us forward.


Linda P. Campbell is a columnist and editorial writer for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Readers may write to her at 400 W. 7th Street, Fort Worth, Texas 76102, or via e-mail at lcampbell@star-telegram.com.