I had the good fortune to meet Bill Bradley 20 years ago when I was just trying to establish myself as a journalist in the fields that consumed me: media, technology and culture. The former basketball star was about a year into his first term in the U.S. Senate. Based on his campaign, I assumed he was a "liberal Democrat." Yet through months of conversation, Bradley forced me to question my assumptions about what that term meant.
In a recession-wracked America, he chose to tell me about the opportunities of a globalizing economy. To help the poor, he dared posit that market mechanisms -- including a tax code stripped of legislated social engineering -- might be more effective than many government programs.
Although Bradley once famously insisted to me "there is no new club," my reporting showed he was a leader among a group of officials, scholars and journalists rethinking the appropriate relationships among governments, people and markets in a world transformed by unifying technologies.
While his opponent for the Democratic presidential nomination has deployed a phalanx of consultants to paint Bradley as an unaccomplished loner during three Senate terms, those of us who covered him know he translated his erudition into action.
More than any other, Bradley was responsible for reconciling hostile forces in the Congress and the Reagan White House to produce momentous reforms of the U.S. tax code and our position on Third World debt, both central to our continued prosperity.
Throughout his tenure, Bradley consistently challenged political orthodoxy. His support of aid to the Nicaraguan contras infuriated the Hollywood left -- even though some of his biggest financial backers included L.A.'s elite. When many in his party -- not to mention the reigning right -- recoiled from any association with civil rights, Bradley took to the Senate floor to state what we all know in our hearts, that slavery is this nation's "original sin."
So too today, when government action on health care seems dead thanks to the Clintons' mismanagement, Bradley calmly proposes to guarantee medical coverage to every child in the U.S.
But leadership is not defined by mere verbal challenges to the reigning conventions, nor even in the occasional legislative victory. It is evident in how an official reaches these conclusions and organizes his subsequent actions to achieve his considered goals.
Richard Neustadt, in his book "Presidential Leadership," says this century's great presidents are distinguished from average presidents by two qualities: a hunger for information so deep they will excavate their administrations to shake out the necessary data; and such a profound knowledge of people that they can staff an administration with the most able managers down to the subcabinet level.
This formula -- the best people plus the best information equals the best decisions -- is a commonplace to CEOs but has been sadly lacking in the White House in recent presidencies. Yet it is the definitive measure of Bill Bradley.
Years ago, Felix Rohatyn, now U.S. ambassador to France, told me of the time he called Bradley for advice about a trip to the Soviet Union; the Senator reeled off the names of 10 international economists there that the then-banker needed to call on. "Bill collects people and ideas," Rohatyn told me. Unlike our current piecemeal president, though, he did so in order to craft great change -- change for the better.
I'd prefer not to attack other candidates. But a few comparisons are telling. In a globalizing economy, the leading Republican has no international experience whatsoever, and barely any life experience. His opponents include a bona fide hero with little record of accomplishment in the Congress and a magazine publisher who gives new meaning to the word "pander." On the Democratic side is a vice president with such an unsure sense of self that he must call upon a shifting set of advisors to remake him.
A complex world requires a more rigorous understanding of where and how to lead. History shows Bill Bradley can provide it.
Mr. Rothenberg can be reached at email@example.com.