Senator Bill Bradley ’65.
Princeton Alumni Weekly. March 11, 1987.

In his book Life on the Run, Bill Bradley ’65 wrote, “The point of the game is not how well the individual does, but whether the team wins. That is the beautiful heart of the game, the blending of personalities, the mutual sacrifices for group success.” In presenting New Jersey’s senior senator with the Woodrow Wilson Award, Princeton’s highest tribute to an alumnus who has distinguished himself “in the nation’s service,” trusted chairman James Henderson ’56 observed that those words “could have formed the intellectual blueprint for his campaign for tax reform.” In that effort, as he throughout his career, Bradley has excelled, Henderson said, “by combining a taste for ideas, a devotion to hard work, and the ability to translate convictions into achievements.”

Earlier in the day, when Wilson School Dean Donald Stokes ’51 introduced Bradley to an Alexander Hall audience—a task he likened to “telling returning alumni which building is Nassau Hall”—he recalled the “astonishing peripheral vision” for which Bradley was famed in his basketball days. This skill, too, he brought to the political arena. “Out of the corner of his eye,” Stokes said, “he caught sight not only of the fact that our tax system needed basic reform, but an opening that made it possible, something for which this country might summon the political will. He saw that as early and as clearly as anyone, and there is no doubt at all that the Bradley-Gephardt bill gave the debate a great forward thrust. There is also no doubt that the intellectual quality of the final product is largely a Bradley affair.”

At a Reunions forum nearly two years ago, when it was by no means clear that tax reform would ultimately succeed, another key figure, Assistant Treasury Secretary Roger Mentz ’63, retraced the early history of that effort: “The first player in the game was Bill Bradley; there’s just no question about it. Back in 1980 and ’81, he was the voice in the wilderness. Nobody was talking about tax reform, and he had the guts to look at the present system and see it for what it really is—a mass of exemptions and credit, each of which maybe at one time made sense for a particular industry or social policy, but which taken as a whole became a monster of complication and administrability. Bill came up with the concept of a revenue-neutral change, wholesale change, that would simplify the tax law, rationalize it, and reduce rates for all income brackets. It wasn’t a bill to soak the rich or to redistribute wealth. Had it not been for that concept, I don’t think we’d be anywhere near where we are today, and I think Bill deserves the credit.”

Expanding on that theme, Henderson said, “Bill has demonstrated how much can be accomplished by a thoughtful individual with boundless energy, unrelenting determination, and good ideas. His pioneering effort for a fairer tax code was a remarkable accomplishment. Many in fact say it was miraculous. Lacking the seniority that traditionally guarantees the power to legislate, Bill Bradley set out to win over the country. He laundered a grass roots campaign to reach the general public. He lobbied his colleagues in the Senate, and never one to leave any opportunity untried, he did the unheard of, and lobbied members of the House as well.”

Besides being the driving force behind tax reform, Bradley has sponsored legislation to streamline and improve enforcement of laws governing international trade and to provide for the retraining of workers who have lost their jobs due to foreign competition. He has been active in efforts to stop reductions in federal aid to education, and led initiative to expand the federal Superfund for the cleanup of toxic waste sites. More recently, he has become concerned about Third World debt and the problems it poses not only for underdeveloped nations but the developed countries as well.

His performance has met enough approval in New Jersey that in 1984, while Ronald Reagan was winning two votes out of three in the State, Bradley took two votes out of three representing the other party. He also gave us what Stokes described as “the most charming 60- second radio spot ever recorded: It was styled as a mock recording session. It begins with Bill talking about what he’s done in Washington for the State of New Jersey, and then the mock director of the session breaks in and says, ‘Senator, you’ll have to talk faster.’ Finally Bill is talking very fast about a great many things that he has done in Washington for the State of New Jersey, but the mock director breaks in once more and says, ‘Senator, we have a problem— you’ve done too much for the State of New Jersey.’”

Bradley began winning the admiration of New Jersey, and the nation, soon after his arrival at Princeton in 1961. He was, in Henderson’s words, “the outstanding college basketball player of his generation. In the summer before his senior year, he captained the U.S. Olympic team that brought home the gold medal. Even then, however, his love of athletic competition did not detract from his academic pursuits. He graduated with honors in history, was the recipient of numerous university awards, and achieved national recognition as a Rhodes Scholar.”

Upon returning from Oxford in 1967, Bradley signed up with the New York Knicks, who won the NBC championship twice during his 10 years with them. He was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1983. “Throughout his years in professional sports,” Henderson said, “he studied public issues, met with people from all walks of life, and gained new kinds of experiences by teaching in urban street schools, serving in the Office of Economic Opportunity, and working behind the scenes in politics. Those years of quiet study and preparation were immensely productive. Michael Horowitz, a senior Reagan appointee, told the Wall Street Journal last year, ‘The only Democratic think tank in this town is in Bill Bradley’s head.’”

At a press conference in Alexander Hall, Bradley was asked if he would be a candidate in the next presidential race. “I like what I’m doing now in the Senate,” he replied. “I would love New Jersey, the diversity of the state. I love my committee assignments—Finance, Energy, Intelligence, and the Aging. I think the Senate is a serious institution, where serious work is done, and that’s where I expect to make my contribution.”


The following is adapted from Senator Bradley’s remarks at the Alumni Day Luncheon in Jadwin Gym:

A Saturday, two days before the Princeton Class of 1965 had its freshman meeting, I was enrolled in another university. But, due to a late-night rethinking and with help from St. Louis alumni firm of Leland, Allen and Van Cleve, I arrived on the Princeton campus Sunday at 10 p.m. I spent the night in an empty room in Blair Hall, alone, on a sheetless bed—the first of many nights at Princeton I would spend alone on a sheetless bed.

The next morning, after a brief visit with the admissions director and the first meeting of my class, I bumped into the basketball coach, Cappy Capon, who seemed astounded, as if he’d seen a Tyrannosaurus Rex, not just a 6’5” forward who could pass. It was by no means sure in my own mind that I should be at Princeton—I came from a small high school, you know. But there I was with jump shot, religious conviction, and a 7 a.m. beginning French class that terrorized me with two words: “Le Dictee.”

Within a month, Princeton had delivered the unexpected. One afternoon in Dillon Gym during a pre-season pickup game, a mustached man wearing cutoff shorts and carrying a squash racquet walked onto the court. Old Englishman, I thought, as I glanced at him out of the corner of my eye. He wanted to join our workout, and he asked with a New Jersey accent that I mistook for Scottish. Remember, I came from the land of flat or’s, as in “table fark” or “barn again”— what did I know about “bawl” and “chawcolate”?

The pickup game developed. The tall stranger got an elbow, returned one; then he took a pass, swept across the lane, and hit a 15-foot hook shot; took another pass and hit another 15-foot hook shot. “Belz the name, basketball the game, and Jersey is my home.” Later he trumped my expectation again when he asked if I liked Manet’s The Fifer, and why didn’t I take Art 101? “Art,” I said, “you mean drawing?” “No, art history,” he said, “learning to see with a new set of eyes, just like you see the court.” So it happened, at first an introduction, then a coexistence, and finally a union of art and basketball in my own mind—a union that was to be decisive in the years ahead as I learned to trust that part of me determined to perform, wearing short pants, in drafty arenas around America.

Then there were the other revelations of my freshman year: No one said anything no matter how high I piled my dirty clothes. The high school of one of my seatmates in biology was Choate, not choke, as I thought for the entire fall semester. Women, while arriving en masse, for weekends, seemed remote and unnatural to the rhythm of the limited all-male atmosphere. Classmates smoking Gaulois on the lawn late at night in spring listening to three-hour harangues from Fidel Castro via radio probably did not go to Choate. Finally, a religion professor did not reward or embarrass you when you tried to convert him by way of personal testimony, offered as a response to an unrelated exam question.

Time passed; I made it to sophomore year; and the Princeton experience deepened. The day I listened to H.H. Wilson’s first lecture on American government, I was stunned. The day Alan Downer lectured on Death of a Salesman, I cried. The semester I read and reread Civil War history, I shook my head in sorrow. Each week, as Joseph Strayer’s lectures on the Middle Ages moved to their conclusion, I felt somehow as if I were a knight.

Then I went for a summer with Princeton in Washington. I worked for Governor William Scranton, trained for the Tokyo Olympics, and researched for Arthur Link a senior thesis on Harry Truman. That was 1964, the summer of the first $100 billion federal budget, the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, and the Civil Rights Act. Returning to New Jersey that fall after a post- Olympic speaking tour for Princeton-in-Asia, I knew my life’s direction had changed.

The place in which I spent the most total hours at Princeton was Dillon Gym or even my sheetless bed. No, it was Firestone Library, where I would go in search of a pleasant afternoon or the answer to a riddle. With its three million volumes and open stacks, the library symbolized the possibilities of Princeton. Often I would start out looking for a particular book and end up sprawled on the B-floor, reading a quite different one. It wasn’t the smell of old paper that drew me back night after night. The library offered a peaceful contrast to the roar in Dillon Gym. It was also where exam panic set in and where the real work of Princeton was done.

During my senior year, I became the subject of much public attention, not unlike Dick Kazmaier of yesteryear or Brooke Shields of today. Every day stacks of letters from strangers arrived at my suite in Dodge-Osborne. They bore offers, advice, admiration, criticism, and questions about everything from what I ate to “what is beauty.” If the library exposed me to the knowledge that comes from books, the experience of being well-known at Princeton developed the other ways one learns—direct observation and self-scrutiny.

One day there came an offer to appear on the cover of a new magazine called Gentlemen’s Quarterly. I was asked to pose for a picture wearing my favorite attire—a problematic request because my clothes could never be mistaken for attire. But I said yes, admitting to youthful self-satisfaction and the twitter of celebrity. In the picture, with my hair slicked down, a yellow V-neck sweater and Cottage Club tie, one could have mistaken me for a graduate of Choate. Years later, one Knick teammate—who believed my chanced of being mugged in New York were small because I dressed as if I’d already been mugged—called that picture in that magazine in my senior year at Princeton, “the most counterfeit image in the history of journalism.”


“The President’s been shot. The president’s been shot,” shouted the student running past my carrel on the library’s C-floor back in 1963. The President? My first thought went to Bob Goheen, but by the time I reached the Student Center, I knew it was President John F. Kennedy. The eating room was filled wall to wall with professors, students, kitchen workers, secretaries. All were listening to the PA system—to the radio announcers describing the scene at the hospital and the tragic events earlier in the day. The levels and hierarchies of Princeton disappeared. We were all citizens—bewildered, shocked, fearful for the worst. No one spoke. The announcer closed his report confirming that President Kennedy had just died. People looked down, glanced at each other, tears in eyes. The national anthem followed. At first, a few stood. Then others. Soon the whole room was standing in the silence of sadness, in outreach to each other, and with concern for the larger national community that a part of Princeton had always served.

I expect more of someone who has shared Princeton. The bond rests on the acceptance of a standard. I expect an adversary who attended Princeton to be honorable. Wishful thinking? Maybe. But just as likely not. Remember the Honor Code: Better to fail with dignity than to win unfairly. And all of believe we’ll win, until we lose.

Princeton has its little rituals—such as Alumni Day and Reunions or Annual Giving— which, like all rituals, give a community common experience and exist in the first place because people care about the community.

Nothing that has happened to me has meant more than this award. The reason lies in the fact that the ultimate challenge posed to a citizen of democracy is to ask yourself what you owe another human being. By this, I don’t mean what you owe yourself, or your family, or your friends, but rather, what you owe a stranger simply because he is a part of the human community. Princeton at its best asks you—alone with your conscience and intellect—to determine what owe to starving Ethiopians, to refugees from tyranny, to concentration camp victims, or to the deinstitutionalized homeless who sleep on the street corners of our major cities.

My Princeton experience said that you do owe to another human being. And you owe him because he is a human being. You owe him more than charity or taxes. You owe him a life or a part thereof. You treat the responsibility of governing with utmost seriousness and yet with humility. Elective office is one of democracy’s marvelous abstractions—you exercise power but you must not claim it. You work, you create, you affect people’s lives, but you do so with a sense of your own frailty and your own place in time, which always passes. Not everyone looks at government service that way, but I believe Princeton does. So when I accept the Woodrow Wilson Award, I am moved not because it is a recognition of a tangible accomplishment, but because it conjectures up the experiences that sharpened my eye and excited my dreams, and it reminds me of the obligation we have to each other, and the view we share about the role of a public person in our democracy.

This was originally published in the March 11, 1987 issue of PAW.