West on Bradley's gravitas

Doug Henwood dhenwood at panix.com
Sat Jan 15 13:33:01 PST 2000

[Was West ever not a self-parodic joke?]

New York Times - January 15, 2000

Bradley and Gore Campaigns Split Harvard's Top Black Scholars By CAREY GOLDBERG

BOSTON, Jan. 13 -- Coatless in air so frigid that each warm word condensed into a white cloudlet as it left his mouth, Cornel West preached before a Faneuil Hall Marketplace crowd of several hundred, pounding on syncopated syllables:

"Let the word go forth from this historic place here and now that Bill Bradley is on the move, he is on the move! And that we are there with him, beside him, around him, because we are fundamentally dedicated to keeping alive the best of the democratic tradition and Bill Bradley is the president who best embodies that, he enacts that, he in fact provides the presidential gravitas necessary to take this nation into the 21st century! Let me say that again: presidential gravitas!"

Dr. West's usual gig is more veritas than gravitas. He is a professor in the Afro-American studies department at Harvard, considered by many to be the most prodigious brain trust of black intellectuals in the country, home to Henry Louis Gates Jr., its chairman, and William Julius Wilson, a leading sociologist, among others.

But in this campaign season of two wonky and highly race-conscious Democrats, such desirable African-American scholars get quickly booked up. Dr. Gates, a literary and cultural critic, has agreed to help Vice President Al Gore on issues of race and education. Dr. Wilson, an expert on poverty, has just signed on to advise the Bradley campaign. And Dr. West, in a more active campaign role than those of his colleagues, is traveling the trail off and on at his own expense, to shout from the rooftops that he loves Bill Bradley.

Those differing allegiances stem in large part from long friendships, Dr. West's with the Bradleys and Dr. Gates's with the Gores. But both professors say they also mirror a central difference in approach between the candidates: Mr. Gore's emphasis on the pragmatic versus Mr. Bradley's on the ideal. The candidates themselves have been hammering each other on that very difference in recent days, with Mr. Gore chiding Mr. Bradley that the presidency is no mere academic exercise, and Mr. Bradley chiding Mr. Gore that real leaders must be bold and not just "nibble around the edges."

In the Harvard ebony tower, it is Dr. West, a self-described "democratic socialist" and "radical democrat" who champions social justice in his work, who emphasizes the public policy ideal, while Dr. Gates -- who describes himself as well left of center, just not as far left as Dr. West -- is the pragmatist.

Dr. West, said Dr. Gates, "articulates ideals to which every society should aspire, and I admire that; I, on the other hand, am much more pragmatic. I see my job as trying to implement what is practical in that idealistic program, and in a way, that's one of the differences between Bradley and Gore."

For example, Dr. Gates said, he loves the idea of universal health care coverage, but deems it unlikely that Mr. Bradley's proposal for universal care could be implemented now. So the question becomes, "in the meantime, how do we begin to move toward that, and I see Gore's program as more pragmatic."

Dr. West, when he discusses his support for Mr. Bradley, mentions the candidate's positions on poverty and race and health care. But -- staying unusually on message for an eclectic thinker who slides easily from Chekhov to Coltrane to Nietzsche -- he almost always focuses on Mr. Bradley's personal qualities, and on describing a friendship that transcends politics.

"He really is my brother," Dr. West said. "And this is hard to convey to the public because they think it's about public policy, they think it's about our concerns about race and racism, but most fundamentally, he's my brother and I'm his brother and we relate to each other soul to soul, and it has to do with the kind of person he is."

"So it's true," Dr. West said, "that I support his efforts to talk about child poverty, I support his efforts to come to terms with health care. But it's much more the kind of person he is in terms of integrity, in terms of his dignity, in terms of his mind and soul, and that's what friendship is. In that regard, it cuts so much deeper than is often conveyed."

What has sometimes been conveyed in campaign commentaries is that Dr. West is an odd, unusually radical, unusually ideological bedfellow for a mainstream candidate. Shelby Steele, a scholar of race relations at the Hoover Institution, predicts that Dr. West's visibility could alienate some centrist voters, as could his association with the Rev. Al Sharpton.

"These are not figures that are attractive to the political center," Dr. Steele said.

But the prevailing view among several political scientists interviewed was that such alienation was highly unlikely because most people were not familiar enough with Dr. West's views on, say, redistribution of wealth, to take umbrage. The bigger question, they said, was whether Dr. West's support could make a difference for Mr. Bradley, particularly with a black population that generally leans toward Mr. Gore.

"People take their cues essentially from political leaders and not from academics," said John Walters, a University of Maryland political scientist. In the critical campaign territory of the South in particular, where Dr. West has offered to tour with Mr. Bradley, "what moves that vote is the political infrastructure," and the Gore campaign has a solid grip on it, Mr. Walters said.

Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian at the University of New Orleans, disagreed, saying that he thought Dr. West could help by drawing large crowds in cities like Atlanta, New Orleans and Memphis. "He's very, very popular as a public intellectual," Mr. Brinkley said.

Representative Charles B. Rangel, Democrat of Manhattan, when asked today how Dr. West and Dr. Gates might affect the Democratic race, said he had not even been aware of their endorsements, "so I think that's a statement by itself."

"Whatever talents they have," he said, "would be best realized in terms of the advice they give rather than the fact they are well known."

If Dr. West does fail to influence the vote, it will not be for lack of dedication. Fresh out of the hospital after being treated for kidney stones, and still using a cane, he appeared at a New Hampshire debate last month, relegated to the press room, where he stood out for his finely tailored suit, the trademark Afro that seems like just about the last in America, and his failure to snatch at the food set out for the reporters. He was not spinning, merely watching, and had come to show Mr. Bradley his support through his presence, he said.

Last week, he was at another New Hampshire debate, escorting Mr. Bradley's wife, Ernestine. On the way back to Boston in a limousine, he said that Mr. Bradley had just taken him up on his offer to accompany him to Iowa, then he fell silent as he computed complex logistics. Like Dr. Gates, Dr. West is something of a one-man academic industry, constantly on the move from speech to project to class to book.

Mr. Bradley calls Dr. West his campaign friend rather than adviser, one who "is supportive in any way he can possibly be supportive. Sometimes that's being supportive of me personally, sometimes that's going out with me speaking."

They may disagree on some issues and Dr. West may be more radical, Mr. Bradley said, but "friendship is much deeper than any position on any issue."

The friendship has had a decade to deepen. It began, Dr. West said, when Mr. Bradley recruited a small, informal circle of professors to gather every few months at one of their homes and hash out aspects of American history, politics and society, reading everything from Langston Hughes to William Jennings Bryant.

"It had to do with, how do we ensure a high-quality democracy in the 21st century," Dr. West said. "We were dealing with the prospects of the American republic in light of past and present."

Dr. Gates said he could see the effects of Dr. West's influence every time Mr. Bradley talked about race.

"In fact," Dr. Gates said, "I cannot think of a presidential candidate whose policies have been more directly influenced by a black philosophical thinker than Bill Bradley."

For all those signs of influence, however, Dr. West took pains to emphasize that Mr. Bradley listens, but then decides for himself.

"Bradley is like a jazz musician who knows who he is and can therefore put forward his distinctive visionary voice," Dr. West said. "Whereas Gore, in a way, is like a pop star in search of who he is, and so he's got to go to pollsters and spinsters to find out what his voice is."

Dr. West said he and Mr. Bradley often discussed "working with yourself, criticizing yourself so that you have a stronger self against all the forces of conformity and seduction."

The split between Dr. Gates, whose nickname is Skip, and Dr. West does not mar their own close friendship, both men said. Dr. West, however, did not hide his glee that Dr. Wilson's support for Mr. Bradley made the department count "two-to-one against brother Skip!"

One thing Dr. Gates and Dr. West say they share this campaign season: lack of interest in cabinet jobs. Dr. Gates said that while he would be happy to help Mr. Gore on speeches or policies in the campaign, and he has recused himself from writing about the Democratic candidates for The New Yorker, where he is a staff writer, in order to help, he wants to remain at Harvard. "Why leave heaven?" he asked.

As for Dr. West, if Mr. Bradley wins, he said, "I will be his loving and friendly critic."

"The love will still be there no matter what," he said, "but then I'll just make sure that my brother remains true to his issues."

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