Senator Bill Bradley on How We Can All Do Better

Sen. Bill Bradley
I’m Alan Alda and this is Clear and Vivid, conversations about connecting and communicating.
Bill: 24:56 A lot of people, you know if you have a friendship, if you have a marriage, if you have any kind of relationship and you behaved as the current partisan politics goes, it wouldn’t work. And sooner or later the people will say, “Let’s … we can’t tolerate this. We want something different.” It’s okay to question somebody’s judgment, but not their motive.

Bill Bradley has an amazing life. He was a Gold medal Olympian, a Rhodes Scholar, a legendary star with the Knicks for 10 years, a United Sates Senator for 12 years. He ran for the Democratic party’s Presidential nomination, and to top it off, he’s the host of the long-running SiriusXM Satellite Radio program – “American Voices.” He’s had a life of curiosity, learning and service. He would probably tower above a lot of us, even if he weren’t so tall.

Alan: 00:00 This is so good to be able to talk to you today because you can answer a question that I’ve been asking myself for a long time-
Bill: 00:10 How’s the weather up there?
Alan: 00:13 What’s it been like for you to be so tall all your life?
Bill: 00:15 You’re kidding?
Alan: 00:16 No, you made me ask that. Has that … you know, this show’s about communicating and relating. Has that gotten in the way of your relating to people?
Bill: 00:25 Well, yeah, I remember I was in high school. I would ask girls to dance and they’d look up at me and say, “No, you’re too tall.”
Alan: 00:32 No kidding?
Bill: 00:32 Yeah. I went all the way to American Bandstand from Missouri to Philadelphia. And I had all these girls that had been in my imagination. There they were. I was gonna go out Kylie Perry or whatever her name was to dance, and I get up and say, “Would you like to dance?” And she says, “No, you’re too tall.”
Alan: 00:49 I can’t … I thought people who were tall were supposed to have this incredible advantage.
Bill: 00:53 Except in dancing.
Alan: 00:56 Try to put your arm around her waist and you’re choking her.
Bill: 00:59 I didn’t get that far.
Alan: 01:03 What else? People having to look up at you, do they feel they’re at a disadvantage?
Bill: 01:08 No, but … no, only one person felt that.
Alan: 01:08 Who’s that?
Bill: 01:13 President Lyndon Johnson.
Alan: 01:15 Really? How did he let you know that?
Bill: 01:16 Well, in 1964, I was in the Olympics. We won a gold medal. And Johnson, who was president at the time, entertained the Olympic Team at the White House, and this was everybody … all sports. And so, the idea was you’d go through a receiving line, shake hands with the president, have your picture taken. In front of me was a wrestler who was about 5’9″ and a swimmer who was about 5’10”. And they shook hands and turned, had their picture taken. Then came my time. And I was nervous, my palms were cold. This picture’s gonna be on my wall for the rest of my life. And I shook hands with the president, turned and had my picture taken. And here in a Southern drawl, “Move on.”
Alan: 01:59 He didn’t want your picture with him?
Bill: 02:01 He was too … I was taller than he was.
Alan: 02:03 Oh my God. He just said, “Move on.”
Bill: 02:05 “Move on.”
Alan: 02:10 So what’s that done to you over the years? Are you sensitive about being tall? How tall are you?
Bill: 02:15 Well, I’d rather be tall than not.
Alan: 02:17 Yeah.
Bill: 02:17 I know airlines, terrible. Seats, terrible. Cabs sometimes impossible.
Alan: 02:24 Yeah, you can’t get in and out of taxis.
Bill: 02:25 Well, some of them you can, some of them you can’t.
Alan: 02:28 Well, I can get into them sometimes. I just can’t get out.
Bill: 02:30 I have to have my whole legs across the whole backseat because I can’t get them straight.
Alan: 02:35 Wow. How tall are you actually?
Bill: 02:37 6’5″. Probably now about 6’4″. I don’t know.
Alan: 02:37 Yeah-
Bill: 02:41 I haven’t measured.
Alan: 02:43 I’ve lost a couple of inches in length but my feet got longer?
Bill: 02:47 Is that right?
Alan: 02:48 Yeah. I’m about two inches longer in the feet, two inches shorter in the head.
Bill: 02:52 I don’t think that happened to me.
Alan: 02:56 Well, it’s just one of the interesting facts of life…


Bill: 03:00 Oh, is that a genetic thing? Okay.
Alan: 03:04 You know, one of the things that we teach when we teach communication … teach scientists to communicate better at Stony Brook Center for Communicating Science, and one of the things we do is we start with improvising exercises. And the early improvising exercises are like games. They’re little … they’re experiences that get you to observe the other person really carefully so that you get in contact with the person you’re trying to communicate with. It has a really transformative effect on people. And it occurred to me yesterday while I was thinking about talking with you that you’re … a major part of your life was playing those games where you have to be totally attentive on the basketball court. My guess is you have to know what’s happening to your whole team, and at the same time the guy who’s guarding you or you’re guarding.
Bill: 04:07 Yeah, I mean, that’s what’s called seeing the whole court. You can’t just see your guy and yourself, but you gotta see movement of other people elsewhere on the court. And then you have to anticipate, and you know. It’s always the pass that leads to the pass that leads to the basket and being able to see that, and then when it happens, it’s a great rush. And one of the great moments is that on the court.
Alan: 04:33 So, it struck me how similar those experiences were, the experiences we put the people through to be really tuned into the person at the other end of the communication, to kind of read their mind and know how they’re accepting or rejecting what they’re saying … how they feel about it-
Bill: 04:53 Well you know in basketball, that wasn’t so much the case because you had your performance and then you left. But in politics, it is very much a matter of reading the person you’re talking to or the audience that you’re speaking to. And so, it was in those years that I probably had the most exposure and experience to that kind of listening and paying attention to what people say.
Alan: 05:26 Well, I was … you made-
Bill: 05:27 And how their body is … what their body language is.
Alan: 05:29 It might not have actually happened or maybe it wasn’t something that you were aware of that you might have been prepared for reading the other politicians by the reading the body language of the people that you had played with and against all those years-
Bill: 05:46 I think it was a different thing. It was a different thing. I don’t-
Alan: 05:48 So, tell me about that. How did you … was it a learning process that you were aware of, of getting [crosstalk 00:05:55][inaudible 00:05:55]-
Bill: 05:55 I think it’s a matter of paying attention. You know, so often when you have a conversation with somebody, they’re not listening because they wanna tell you something, right?
Alan: 06:05 Right.
Bill: 06:07 And you miss out on so much because it’s always the spontaneous moment that allows you to take a turn that you wouldn’t have taken otherwise. And so, it was in politics that that was what I felt to be important. And it also happened to be something that I liked the most because if all that matters is you giving a speech and the audience listening to a speech, that doesn’t tell you. So, I would ask people, “Tell me your story.” And they would tell me their life story or this thing that was on their mind at the moment. I used to do these walks every summer along the Jersey Shore, which is 127 miles. It’d take a week. I would walk in every township. I wouldn’t walk 127 miles, but I would walk in every township. And there’d be a sign in front of me that said, “Meet Senator Bill Bradley.” And people would run up to me and I had to keep moving. And they’d tell me their story, or they’d tell me what happened to them.
One guy comes up to me and says, “You know, I had a good job as a trucker and then you guys deregulated trucking, you jerk.” Or a woman comes up to me and says, very sad, her daughter died from a over … a misdose of anesthesiologist. So, people tell you the darnedest things, and when they tell you those things they have a real impact on your life if you listen. And that was what I always felt made politics what it was. The stories of people. Matter of fact, the reason … one of the reasons … that I like doing this radio show on Sirius XM, which I’ve done for 15 years-
Alan: 07:50 You’ve done it for 15 years now? Wow.
Bill: 07:51 15 years, yeah. Over 1000 interviews-
Alan: 07:54 And these are stories from people around America, and even Afghanistan.
Bill: 07:59 Well, basically they boil down to two kinds of stories. One is the story of somebody has an unusual job, right, like a public health nurse in the Aleutian Islands; groundskeeper at Fenway Park; farmer in Nebraska; guy that washes New York City skyscrapers. And those stories were always about the dignity of work and the self fulfillment that comes from doing anything well.
Second kind of story is people who are doing something selfless in their communities. Like the guy that shines shoes at the Pittsburgh Children’s Hospital for 46 years.
Alan: 08:32 And how much would he put aside every day?
Bill: 08:35 Well, he’d take a portion of every tip and put it into a fund to pay for poor kids’ healthcare-
Alan: 08:40 And the day you interviewed-
Bill: 08:41 He’d put over $100,000 into that fund-
Alan: 08:44 A shoeshine person-
Bill: 08:45 Yeah.
Alan: 08:45 And the impulse to do that. Boy, these are interesting. I read some place or heard you say that the executives at Sirius XM said to you, when you were proposing the show, “What will you do when you run out of these interesting people?”
Bill: 08:59 Yeah right.
Alan: 09:00 And you’ve been doing it for 15 years.
Bill: 09:02 15 years, and that was in the third or fourth year. And I said, “Look, this is America. I’m never gonna run out of these people.” The key is curiosity. Curiosity about life. Curiosity about the person you’re interacting with. Curiosity about the meaning of life. And to me, if you have that trifecta, you can be alive as a human being a long time, not physically but spiritually-
Alan: 09:02 Yeah, while you’re alive, you’re meant to be alive-
Bill: 09:29 Emotionally. Yeah right.
Alan: 09:30 But you have had some really far out people, like the guy that wrestles alligators and trains people to wrestle them.
Bill: 09:38 Yeah, that’s true.
Alan: 09:38 I loved it-
Bill: 09:40 I remember that interview.
Alan: 09:42 When you said to him, “What’s the first thing I do before I wrestle an alligator?” And he said, “Sign a waiver.”
Bill: 09:48 Yeah right, sign a waiver. Then I say, “How do you know if you’ve made a mistake?” And he said, “When the alligator turns with his jaws open.” Because you gotta sneak up behind the alligator according to him and then jump on it.
Alan: 10:03 But these are just … they’re not used to being wrestled. You gotta wrestle a naïve alligator. It’s not like he’s been trained to wrestle.
Bill: 10:08 Yeah, but that interview was 10 years ago. I remember it today.
Alan: 10:11 Wow, well how do you find people like that?
Bill: 10:14 I got a great producer, like you. You got Sarah, I got Devora-
Alan: 10:17 I have Sarah and Graham-
Bill: 10:20 And Graham. Yeah, well you got two. And, I run into people. I run into things. I’ll be … somebody’ll talk to me on a bus or somewhere, and I’ll say, “Hey, that’d be a good interview. You wanna go on Sirius XM?” Or occasionally I do a segment called Famous American Voices Quiz, where people come on and I play a voice, and they gotta guess who it is. Like the old 20 questions.
Alan: 10:48 Yes, yeah.
Bill: 10:49 And I’ll find people and say, “You wanna play this?” And some of the courageous ones say yes.


Alan: 10:56 Is this something that worked when you were in the Senate? Were you able to get people to … other politicians … to tell you their story? Or exchange things that had something to do with life other than policy?
Bill: 11:18 I think that’s the absolute key to legislation. You gotta get to know the human being. Can’t be just a policy position, or it can’t be just a party identification. It’s gotta be the human being. And I would do that often. In Washington, it’d be bipartisan groups of Senators who would have dinners at each other’s house with wives. I remember one summer, Al Simpson who was a Republican from Wyoming came to the Jersey Shore with my wife and his wife, and the following summer, we went to Cody, Wyoming for the July 4th rodeo and parade. You get to know people, and it’s that which allows you to develop the essential thing to legislating, which is trust. You have to trust. The old saying is your word’s your bond, but in the Senate that I served in, that was absolutely the case.
Now, you could find creative Senators. Like, “Could I get your vote, Al, for this vote?” “Oh look, you’re gonna do great.” “No, but do I have your vote?” “You gave an incredible speech last week.” ” How bout, can I get your vote?” You know, you gotta say, “Yes, you get my vote.”
Alan: 12:34 When I was campaigning for the Equal Rights Amendment, I was in Florida, and the head of Senate at the time said that I am definitely voting for this, “You have my vote.” And he cooked dinner for a whole bunch of us, and I thought, “Well this guy’s some kind of feminist. This is great.” When the vote came, he read from the Bible against the Equal Rights Amendment, and voted no. So, talk about tricky-
Bill: 13:03 But you weren’t a Senator.
Alan: 13:05 No.
Bill: 13:05 If he did that to another Senator-
Alan: 13:07 Then he’d have to pay for it.
Bill: 13:08 Yeah. Then he didn’t keep his word.
Alan: 13:12 But, you talking in a way about a time that sounds like Eden compared to what we got now, has it completely disappeared? Or is it possible that … the idea of two people from opposite parties vacationing together, it sounds outlandish today.
Bill: 13:34 Well, I don’t really know what it is like. I know … because I’m not there. I’m not in the human element. I know that there are people who have personal relationships. For example, the current Senator from New Jersey is Cory Booker, one of them, and he asked me when he went to the Senate what do I think he should do? And I said become the friend of 10, 15 Republicans. Be their friends. Gotta work at it. And so, he built relationships with people. Not about policy, but as human beings. And came time for an issue that’s critical to the New York area, which is a third tunnel from New Jersey to New York that the previous governor had vetoed, previous New Jersey governor, Chris Christie. And so, you know, Cory went to work and got that done and the key vote on that, the key person was the chairman of the subcommittee and the appropriations committee who happened to be a Republican from Mississippi.
Alan: 14:49 So, tell me a little bit about the nuts and bolts because that sounds like something that could save the country. What you’re talking about right now, in a way by extension, save the world. When you say that trust is established, I don’t-
Bill: 15:07 What does that mean?
Alan: 15:08 Yeah, I don’t get the impression that I’ll vote your way because I like you-
Bill: 15:10 No, but let me give you another example. My last year in the Senate, there was a big gas explosion in New Jersey, pipeline, so I had what I thought needed to be done. So I did an amendment and I went out and put it on an appropriations bill on the floor of the Senate. And the majority leader at that time was Trent Lott, a Republican from Mississippi, ironically. And so, he came out and said, you know, it’s not germane, meaning it’s not … shouldn’t be put on this bill, different kind of subject. I said, “Yeah, but it means a lot to my state.” And he said, “No, take it …” And I said, “No, I got the votes. I’m gonna push forward.” So I spoke another hour, and he came out, “How bout taking it …” No, I’m gonna call for the vote. And he says, “Look, if you take the amendment down, I promise you that I will see that it passes the Senate.” I said, “Do you give me your word?” And he said, “Yes.” I took the amendment down.
I left the Senate. I was not any longer a Senator. I was a professor at Stanford. And one day I get a call from somebody from Trent Lott’s office who was his chief of staff, and he said, “Senator Bradley, Senator Lott just wanted me to you know that that amendment that you pulled back? He just passed it through the US Senate.”
Alan: 16:33 What a story. So there’s trust in action.
Bill: 16:37 Yeah.
So, that was a time when you felt you could actually trust someone from the other party. I’d even heard that in the old days, they would get together after work and socialize. Given the mood today, I wondered if that was true or just a nostalgic myth. His answer when we come back from this break.
Alan: 16:37 You could trust him and he carried through. And even though you couldn’t hurt him anymore because you weren’t in the Senate.
Bill: 16:43 Right. But he kept his word. Now, you can be cynical and say, “It died there because there wasn’t anybody in the House doing it.” But that’s really irrelevant to him keeping his word.
Alan: 20:49 You really covered so many interesting things that I thought I was gonna have to pull out of you about the way you connect in politics. Is it your impression, is it a myth that in the old days they used to go out for a beer afterwards and socialize, and now they don’t?
Bill: 21:13 No, I don’t think it’s a myth. When I got there, for example, right off the Senate floor, and the Sergeant at Arms office was a room where you go in, and Republicans and Democrats have a drink in the late afternoon if you want one. And there was a Senators dining room, one table Republican, one table Democrat but the same Senators dining room. I think the dining room is still there. I don’t think the Sergeant at Arms afternoon highball room is there. But-
Alan: 21:46 Tell me that again. That sounds interesting. I wouldn’t expect that. On government property, the Sergeant at Arms serves highballs at 5 o’clock?
Bill: 21:56 Well, he doesn’t serve them-
Alan: 21:59 There’s bottles laying around-
Bill: 21:59 But sometimes the rules are-
Alan: 22:01 The bottle under the couch? What?
Bill: 22:03 No, not really. This is where you sit down with somebody who happened to be Republican. “How’s your wife? Your daughter’s in college. What is she doing? What’s she studying?” Or, “I saw that your aunt said something that moved me.” Or whatever.
Alan: 22:23 What? So, if we don’t have that-
Bill: 22:23 If you don’t have that, you don’t have the lubrication and the trust necessary for doing big things.
Alan: 22:30 And we’re not doing big things. We’re hardly doing small things. How do we get back to that? What do you think is the answer?
Bill: 22:36 I think it takes 25 Senators who wanna do it. And if you’re isolated, if you’re isolated, for example Joe Biden tells a story about John McCain. They knew each other for a long time. They were good friends. So, Biden is on the floor talking with McCain. And they’re sitting, talking, and they do that on a regular basis on the floor of the Senate, and I think somebody in the Democratic leadership said, “You know, you really shouldn’t be sitting with McCain.” And Republican leadership did the same thing with McCain.
Alan: 23:11 That’s unbelievable.
Bill: 23:12 Which is just not … that doesn’t produce anything. The experience is sterile then it’s not human-
Alan: 23:21 Don’t they understand what you were talking about before? About the importance of this-
Bill: 23:25 I think so but I think sometimes the combination of fundraising demands, meaning, you know, when I was there, you were in Washington pretty much all the time. You went out and campaigned. But now, people come in on Monday night and they leave on Thursday night. And on Tuesday and Wednesday, are fundraisers.
Alan: 23:46 And a friend who has been a lobbyist for a lot of years told me that there’s breakfast, lunch, and dinner devoted to calling people up raising money during the day.
Bill: 24:01 Yeah, you gotta go off government property, sit in a room, somebody gives you a list of 100 people you don’t know. You call them and say, “I’m Alan Alda. I’m running for the Senate in Wyoming” …
Alan: 24:11 You’ll never hear me say that.
Bill: 24:12 Well, whatever.
Alan: 24:13 Yeah.
Bill: 24:13 “Running for the Senate in Wyoming, and I was wondering could you help me out? Could you send a contribution? This is what I believe.” You answer questions. You don’t take too long on each call or you won’t get through your hundred calls, and you make thousands of calls.
Alan: 24:26 And that apparently-
Bill: 24:27 That’s not what … to me, if people gave you money, they had the potential also of becoming friends. Just like constituents had the potential of becoming friends. But, you never make a friend soliciting somebody on the phone for 30 seconds.
Alan: 24:46 And the time you spend soliciting on the phone-
Bill: 24:48 You don’t spend with your constituents, and you don’t spend on policy. Absolutely. It’s a gigantic waste.
Alan: 24:54 Or gaining the trust of your colleagues.
Bill: 24:56 Right. But you know, I always say that the recipe for the partisanship of our country today is the decency of the American people who will say, “Enough is enough.” I mean, the people that I interview on Sirius XM who are doing something selfless in their community, thousands … hundreds of thousands of people in this country, and a lot of people, you know if you have a friendship, if you have a marriage, if you have any kind of relationship and you behaved as the current partisan politics goes, it wouldn’t work. And sooner or later the people will say, “Let’s … we can’t tolerate this. We want something different.” It’s okay to question somebody’s judgment, but not their motive.
Alan: 25:43 Yeah. Right. And you wrote about this, I think, in your book, We Can Do Better?
Bill: 25:54 Yeah, We Can All Do Better.
Alan: 25:55 We Can All Do Better. And I was surprised to see that that came from a quote of Lincoln’s.
Bill: 26:01 Yeah.
Alan: 26:04 We need … we succeed only by concert. It’s not can any of us imagine better, but can any of us do better? So, the any of us imagine better I guess is the idea of let’s put up a grand goal and applaud it, like motherhood or apple pie, but doing something about the problem is different.
Bill: 26:27 Well, I think that both are necessary. If you know you’re not gonna even try to do something about it, but what’s the grand idea?
Alan: 26:34 Yeah.
Bill: 26:35 So, you have to believe … they’re related. You need to grand idea, or I used to say, be able to paint what paradise is that people wanna get to, right?
Alan: 26:45 Yeah.
Bill: 26:45 And then, you have to have the means in order to get there in terms of the legislative process, and leadership generally.
Alan: 26:53 How would you define leadership? That really has a lot to do with what we’re talking about.
Bill: 26:58 Well, I mean, I think leadership is getting people to do something that they would not have done without you being the person who’s telling them what they have to do or where they have to go-
Alan: 26:58 So, why do you do it?
Bill: 26:58 To me, that’s leadership-
Alan: 26:58 What’s the way to get them to do-
Bill: 27:10 Oh, I think there’s a lot of buttons that you press. Number one is your own sincerity and your own belief in what you’re saying. That is the most important thing. I mean, you know, if you don’t believe what you’re saying and you’re just doing what pollsters say, that’s never gonna work. You have to have a reason for being, and that reason for being is reflected in your advocacy for a particular thing about the country or whatever. And, then it’s a matter of technique, of what’d you do? Do you tell stories? Do you use statistics? How often do you repeat it? Do you try to get people to understand a deeper level, what does this mean for us as human beings, not just for us as senior citizens or African-Americans or farmers?
And that’s the key to always bring any particular policy back to the general to something that involves all of us. And the good politician’s able to do that.
Alan: 28:22 Do you have a plan for how you … or a strategy for how you get from the grand idea to actually doing it? How do you them rolling-
Bill: 28:30 No, it ranges from careful plan to serendipity. And all the in between.
Alan: 28:39 That’s so good that you include serendipity in strategy-
Bill: 28:44 Yeah, I mean, you know, one of the reasons I went to the Senate, or ran for the Senate in the first place is I wanted to change the income tax system.
Alan: 28:52 What did you want it to be?
Bill: 28:55 I wanted it to have fewer loopholes so that equal incomes would pay equal tax. And I wanted it to have lower rates so you could keep more of each dollar you earned. And, ultimately, we managed to do that. On a bipartisan basis, it passed the Senate 97 to three. Unheard of today. But partly, that was a function of repetition, repetition, repetition. I mean, I probably every speech I gave for three years had to do with tax reform. Somebody wanted me to talk about senior citizens. Yeah, yeah, yeah, that’s senior citizens. Now, let me talk about tax reform. Somebody wanted you to talk about crime. Yeah, but now let me tell you about tax reform.
Alan: 29:43 They got sick of it. They got 97 to three.
Bill: 29:47 Right, and it got so bad. I remember I was on a TV program that was recorded on a Thursday before the Sunday, and my then 10 year old daughter was in the room. And, so I said, “Hey, stick around. Dad’s gonna be on TV.” And she elbowed her little friend with her, and said, “Come on, let’s go. He’s gonna talk about our loopholes.”


Alan: 30:11 There’s nothing like your family to make you human again. Well this has been really fun for me and to hear you tell me what I think I’ve found so many times over in what’s the essence of communicating and relating, to hear how it’s applied to you in your life.
Bill: 30:33 I mean, Lincoln … we never heard Lincoln speak.
Alan: 30:37 Yeah.
Bill: 30:39 Evidently, he had a high pitched voice.
Alan: 30:40 Right.
Bill: 30:41 But, he basically had the Bible as his learning tool. And the Bible’s just a lot of stories. And so the most powerful way to communicate is through stories.
Alan: 16:54 Yeah. The … there’s a story I heard you tell that reminded me of Sarah Silverman’s story. You … I don’t know if you know, we interviewed Sarah as the first conversation we had in this series. And in that conversation Sarah told us about a troll on the internet who had insulted her really badly. And instead of fighting him, she befriended him. You had an interaction with a troll, and it was hilarious to me. The guy said I’m gonna … what’d he say … “If you can’t-
Bill: 17:39 Oh, yeah. Okay. This is a story that I’ve told for many years, and talking about communication, which is where we were in the beginning. I can tell this story, and I can tell exactly what kind of audience I have by how they respond to the story. Briefly, the story is about my third or fourth year with the Knicks, we were playing the Boston Celtics back to back, Saturday night, Sunday afternoon. We lost both games and the following week, I get a letter from the fan. And the letter says, “Bradley, if you lose one more game to the Boston Celtics, I’m gonna come to your house and kill your dog.” And he signed his name. Joe Pell.
And because he signed his name, I wrote back to him. I said, “Dear Joe Pell, look we don’t like to lose anymore than you do. We’re doing the best we can. And by the way, I don’t own a dog.” About three weeks later, a UPS truck pulls up in front of our house, and the guy gets out and puts a big box on our front steps and my wife looks outside and says, “Bill, what is this box out there with a dog in it?” And I look out, and there’s the box. Inside the box is a dog. Outside the box is an envelope. On the outside of the envelope, it says, “From Joe Pell.” And I opened the envelope. There’s a note inside, and the note says, “Bradley, don’t get too attached to this dog.”
So, that’s one of these things where people say I’ve told that story for 40 years. People come up to me now and say, “Hey tell the dog story.” The only way I can analogize it … of course, slight difference in talent and impact is to say, “How many times have you heard Frank Sinatra sing My Way? Probably a lot. Do you wanna not hear him? Only once you wanna hear him? No, you wanna hear it again.” So if some story makes you laugh, you wanna hear it again.
Alan: 19:37 And you probably tell it even though you may even use the same words every time you tell it, you probably tell it a little differently because you’re alive to the audience and to the story.
Bill: 19:48 Absolutely. Absolutely. I think I mentioned to you, I once spoke to a convention in Las Vegas, and I was the 8 AM speaker. That’s not what I call a keynote address, right? So, I walk into this hall, and it seats about 1000 people. There’s like 100 people there. And I think, “Oh, this looks bad.” So, I do this joke, and nobody laughs until the punchline right at the end. Well, this is gonna be a long morning.
Alan: 20:22 We had a … I was in Broadway in a play once … it was a comedy I think by Neil Simon, where there’s a laugh every 10 seconds. We got through the whole first act, nobody had laughed once. And we found out that the theater was populated by busloads of Polish tourists.
Bill: 20:42 That’s pretty good.
I’ve told some here today.
Alan: 30:59 Yeah.
Bill: 31:00 The more personal they are, the deeper the impression is left. I mean, you can do a joke, you can tell a moving story, you can do a lot. But, I can’t tell you how many hundreds and hundreds of times I tell the dog story, right, and I’d talk about trade or I’d talk about education or I’d talk about taxes or I’d talk about Russia, or whatever. And afterwards, inevitably, somebody’d come up and say, “You still have that dog?”
Alan: 31:31 That’s what they remember. But you make a contact when you’re personal like that. And what … is there anything … and this is a little technical … but is there anything about a story that you think is essential to capture the attention of the audience to engage them?
Bill: 31:52 I remember I was flying in a plane. I think it was 1988 when I first got interested in stories as communication. And I was sitting across the aisle from a CBS correspondent, and we started talking. And I said, “My goal literally is to tell stories and so forth. My problem is to get the story it takes too long for TV.” He said, “There’s not a story that can be told that can’t be told in a minute or 30 seconds. It’s a different kind of story. It’s the same story but you get it down to the pith, and that’s the challenge of communicating.” Get it down to the pith. Not you clearing your throat with this paragraph or that sentence, but what … you gotta go one, two, three.
Alan: 32:39 You don’t have to say, “I was flying from Saint Louis to Duluth, and I happened to be in an airport. And I bumped into this guy.” Go right to, “I bumped into this guy” …
Bill: 32:47 Yeah, exactly. Exactly. Nobody wants to know the other stuff, and you think it’s essential because it lays the context-
Alan: 32:57 And it happened to you so-
Bill: 32:58 Yeah, but people don’t have the patience to listen to all of your stuff. They wanna get to what you wanna say to them. And that doesn’t mean that you don’t set the context sometime.
Alan: 33:11 I know you have to go. There’s something we do at the end of these shows. I hope you don’t mind. The seven quick questions that you have heard before, and they’re generally about communicating.
Bill: 33:25 Sure.
Alan: 33:26 So, number one, what do you wish you really understood?
Bill: 33:32 I wish I really understood the meaning of life.
Alan: 33:39 Well, first time I heard that.
Bill: 33:43 Hey, stick around.
Alan: 33:46 What do you-
Bill: 33:47 It’s also short, you know. Seven questions.
Alan: 33:48 What do you wish people understood about you?
Bill: 33:55 That I, like every human being, have depths that the public can’t see. And that those depths need to be respected. And sometimes engaged.
Alan: 34:11 What’s the strangest question someone’s ever asked you?
Bill: 34:14 A kid at Evergreen State College in the state of Washington during the presidential campaign … and Evergreen’s a super liberal place where kids had earrings and green hair. You know, that’s the kind of place it was. It was a balcony above me. I guess it was in the cafeteria, and some kid says, “Okay Senator, what is your position on sexually transmitted diseases?” And I said, “I’m against them.”
Alan: 34:46 Okay. All right, here’s a good one. How do you stop an impulsive talker?
Bill: 34:53 I would simply say, stop nodding your head, and look down.
Alan: 35:01 That you would stop the talker by your stopping the nodding and looking down?
Bill: 35:06 Yeah.
Alan: 35:06 Like I’m shutting down now.
Bill: 35:08 Yeah, I don’t wanna hear anymore.
Alan: 35:09 That’s a good technique. Is there anyone you just can’t feel empathy for?
Bill: 35:15 Yeah. Somebody once asked me, “Is there anything you hate?” And I said, “Yeah.” “Well, what is it?” “Phonies, bullies, and bigots.” I can’t tolerate that, either one of them, any one of them.
Alan: 35:30 Okay. How do you like to deliver bad news: in person, on the phone or by carrier pigeon?
Bill: 35:38 Depends on to whom I’m delivering it. If I’m delivering bad news to somebody that I don’t like, “Hey George, you hear? You lost.”
Alan: 35:48 What if you wanna hear it?
Bill: 35:49 But if I’m delivering it to anybody I care about, it’s essential it be done in person.
Alan: 35:56 Okay, last one. What if anything would make you end a friendship?
Bill: 36:02 I think people who are not trustworthy, and somebody who had done something violent. Somebody who was cruel. Somebody who had lied to me three times. Not once. Three times.
Alan: 36:22 How did you pick three?
Bill: 36:24 Oh, it’s just the way I’ve always been. Lie to me once, okay I understand. Okay, I’ll make an exception. Lie to me twice? Now I really notice that you’ve lied twice. Lie to me three times? Sayonara.
Alan: 36:37 Well, it’s no lie that I’ve loved having this talk with you. Thank you-
Bill: 36:40 Great, thank you, Alan. Thanks for doing this podcast.
Alan: 36:43 Oh, thank you. And thanks for your … congratulations on your show. It’s a terrific show.
Bill: 36:47 Thanks. I enjoy it.
This has been Clear + Vivid, at least I hope so.

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Senator Bill Bradley is the host of “American Voices,” a program on SiriusXM Satellite Radio. On his show Senator Bradley highlights the accomplishments of great Americans, both known and unknown. So, it’s been my pleasure to highlight Senator Bradley on my own show – not only for his accomplishments, but also for his dedication to communication and understanding. He’s as authentic as they come and someone who’s genuine and warm style we can all learn something from.

Senator Bradley is also the author of six books on American politics, culture, and economy, including Time Present, Time Past, The New American Story, and Values of the Game—all New York Times bestsellers.

You can learn more about his SiriusXM program, American Voices, and his bestselling books at:

This episode was produced by Graham Chedd with help from our associate producer, Sarah Chase. Our sound engineer is Dan Dzula, our Tech Guru is Allison Coston, our publicist is Sarah Hill.

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