We Can All Do Better


By Bill Bradley

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Bill Bradley is arguably one of the most well-versed public figures of our time.

The eighteen-year New Jersey Senator, financial and investment adviser, Olympic and NBA athlete, national radio host, and bestselling author has lived in the United States as both political insider and outsider, national sports celebrity and behind-the-scenes confidante, leader and teammate. His varied experiences help to inform his unique and much-sought-after point of view on Washington and the country at large.

In We Can All Do Better, for the first time since the financial meltdown and since the worst of the intensifying political gridlock, Bradley offers his own concise, powerful, and highly personal review of the state of the nation. Bradley argues that government is not the problem. He criticizes the role of money and politics, explains how continuing on our existing foreign policy, electoral, and economic paths will mean a diminished future, and lays out exactly what needs to be done to reverse course.

Breaking from the intransigent long-held viewpoints of both political parties, and with careful attention to our nation’s history, Bradley passionately lays out his narrative. He offers a no-holds-barred prescription on subjects including job creation, deficit reduction, education, and immigration. While equally critical of the approaches of the Tea Party and Occupy Movements, he champions the power of individual Americans to organize, speak out, bridge divisions, and he calls on the media to assume a more responsible role in our national life.

As this moving call to arms reminds us, we can all-elected officials, private citizens, presidents-do a better job of moving our country forward. Bradley is perhaps the best guide imaginable, with his firsthand knowledge of governments’ inner-workings, the country’s diversity, and the untapped potential of the American people.



For eighteen years, I was a U.S. senator. Then for three years, I ran for president. For the past twelve years, the equivalent of two Senate terms, I’ve worked in finance, including venture capital, investment banking, and money management. People ask me what I miss about being in politics. The answer is twofold: I miss concerning myself with public policy seven days a week and interacting with constituents. For me, American democracy is, as Woodrow Wilson put it, a “sacred mystery.”

I was always moved by the special relationship between a legislator and his constituents. In my Senate days, I would travel around New Jersey, my adopted state, trying to capture in my mind and heart the essence of the New Jerseyness I sought to represent. I believed I had been elected to use my judgment, not to be a weathervane swiveling in whatever direction the popular wind pointed. But that still meant I had an obligation to listen to my constituents before I voted.

Next to a large canvas sign reading “Meet Senator Bradley,” I would stand in the concourse of the Port Authority bus terminal, where ten thousand New Jersey commuters rushed past in an hour, my hand outstretched, my aides ready with pen and paper in case someone’s question required more information than I could convey in a fleeting moment. I would walk the beaches of the Jersey Shore, each summer covering the hundred and twenty-seven miles from Cape May to Sandy Hook, in what I called a walking town meeting; moving along the high-water line, I would answer questions, shake hands, catch Frisbees, pose for photos, and generally enjoy myself. At local Democratic Party events—dances, dinners, cocktail parties—I would heed the advice an old pro once gave me, “Billy, you got to kiss the women,” only to come home at night drenched in the aromas of a hundred different perfumes.

New Jerseyans, like most people, cared about the big issues: jobs, health care, education, the environment, pensions, along with issues of foreign policy that bore on our national security. They were interested, too, in purely local issues: airport noise, commuter trains, road construction, and beach replenishment. I would stand before three hundred people in a town hall, taking their questions and gauging their moods—and I would ask myself, “What made these three hundred people come out on this freezing winter (or rainy spring) night to ask me questions?” Sometimes the answer was simple curiosity, but usually they wanted to find out whether they agreed with my views on the economy, foreign policy, or a hundred other issues. Sometimes they just wanted to have their say. I found the job of being their senator a big, exhausting, and wonderful responsibility.

I was frequently rejuvenated by these interactions with constituents. Occasionally I was their piñata, but most often they shared their concerns and hopes with me. They told me how they were coping and what they thought government should do and not do. They asked me to help them with a mistake made by the federal bureaucracy—a lost Social Security check, an immigration problem. Their very presence at a town meeting or issue forum, their visits to my offices in New Jersey or Washington, DC, was testimony to their faith in our system of governance. They saw that the system was theirs.

The mystery for me was the connection I felt to them. I had always been curious about other people and enriched by their stories. But there had to be more to it than that. No one in my family had ever held elective office. My father, the local banker, was treasurer of the school board in our hometown of Crystal City, Missouri, for over twenty years, and my mother was a fourth-grade teacher and later a volunteer in church and civic groups. Both parents drilled into me, by word and example, the value of altruism, of giving a part of yourself to another human being. In a family like mine, idealism came naturally, but politics was another matter. My father wanted me to be a gentleman, my mother wanted me to be a success, but neither wanted me to be a politician.

But there was something moving and powerful to me even then about a group of citizens interacting in the knowledge that their collective opinion could have an impact. Democracy, I came to realize, worked only if people assumed their responsibility as citizens. If they didn’t act, the monied interests controlled the process. If they took the initiative, our history showed that they could change the country’s direction.

Whenever I go back to that small town that sits on the west bank of the Mississippi, I go down to the river and stand for a while, watching it flow. It scours half a continent on its way to the Gulf of Mexico, and I imagine it all starting with one drop of water that with other drops forms a trickle that becomes a branch that flows into a creek that feeds into a river that flows into another, larger river, and another, and another, until there it is before me—the mighty Mississippi. In those moments, the river is, for me, a metaphor for our democracy. Both start with a single, small, seemingly insignificant thing—one drop of water and one citizen—that comes together with others and still others until you have a powerful current that sweeps away anything in its path. That river best expresses the mystery of democracy for me. “Out of many—one,” it says on the dollar bill. That’s true of a river and a democracy.

I look at our world as it is today and wonder how our American story will evolve. There are so many uncertainties, so much division, so much pain, yet I also see unlimited potential. The question is, Can we make the decisions now that will secure us a better tomorrow?

Sometimes in a democracy there is a standoff between two irreconcilable points of view. This was the case in the years leading up to the Civil War. Short of resorting to violence, you resolve such conflicts with political combat that, though vicious, is bloodless—until one side wins. Even given our current political paralysis, I don’t believe that America is fundamentally different today than from years past. But our specific circumstances are indeed different, and our margin for error is much less. Will one party crush the other, or will we get together across party lines? Or will the emergence of a new party be the catalyst that allows us to act decisively before our economic crisis reaches the tipping point, destroying our common welfare and diminishing our power in the world?

We are confronted with many pressing social issues, but the issues critical to our nation’s future relate to our economy, our foreign policy, and our political system. What follows is my attempt as a citizen to grapple with those challenges. By focusing on them, I necessarily leave out other important areas—pensions, health care, and the environment among them. Our economic challenges are complex, so when I write about the economy there will be a lot of numbers. I don’t want to oversimplify. People must understand the totality of what we face so that they can make their choice about what kind of country we will become. I hope to lay out what we must do in the short, medium, and long term to raise the standard of living for all our citizens. I intend to suggest an approach to foreign policy that, while it might seem new, is really as old as the country. Neither of these programs is likely to be achieved without changing our politics, with its corrosive influence of money and ideology. All of this is offered from the perspective of one whose active political life is over but whose love of country will never die.

These pages were largely inspired by a passage in Lincoln’s second State of the Union address, in which he said, “We can succeed only by concert. It is not ‘Can any of us imagine better?’ but ‘Can we all do better?’” That is a question for us as a nation and for each of us individually. Can we all do better? The relevance of Lincoln’s question to the fragility and inequality of our economy, the direction of our foreign policy, and the paralysis that afflicts our national dialogue is indisputable. The challenges we face require all of us to be at our best. Yet our fate as individuals, even at our best, is tied to the success of our national community. No one of us is an island, even in a country as big as America. Larger forces—a flood, a hurricane, a financial crash—can overwhelm us as individuals, but together we can prevail. We learned that early, as Americans: The pioneers were courageous individuals who acted in concert to raise their neighbors’ barns and bring in the harvest. Only by banding together did we secure our independence, settle a continent, win our wars. The challenges before us in our nation’s third century are no less stark.

“Can we all do better?”


abroad and decay at home cause us to falter, the world will be a place with considerably less hope.

America’s idealism, optimism, and spirit of self-reliance, its celebration of concerted action, its suspicion of the abstract, its hands-on practicality, its recognition that in hard times people need one another—all these have created the unique American character, a character that has inspired people around the globe. But the America of today is in a state of confusion. We don’t see our problems clearly; or if we do, we often—out of inertia, fear, or greed—fail to deal with them. We too frequently live in the past or revel in the present instead of adopting the actions that would secure the future. The federal government has amassed an enormous debt in just the last ten years. Many of our state and local governments, far from being laboratories of democracy, have pursued the “free lunch,” spending lavishly on pensions and health care and then handing on the bill to future state administrations. Much of the financial sector seems unable to decide whether it wants to help build a new world or suck the life out of the declining one. The corporate sector is consumed with the short term, trapped in a financial prison of stock buybacks and quarterly earnings reports, unable to invest or hire in its own long-term interest. Ten years ago, sixty-one U.S. companies had triple-A bond ratings; today there are four. Our culture also seems excessively coarse, marked by gratuitous violence and sex without meaning. Everywhere people are making excuses for their failures, from the athletic field to the corporate boardroom, and then salving their mistakes in the warm balm of public relations. As long as you act a hair’s width within your lawyer’s definitions of the law, you get a pass that exempts you from doing what is not just legal but also right.

I had a friend who worked at the highest levels in three major investment banks over twenty-five years. He told me that once when he refused to work on a deal because he didn’t think it was right, the head of the firm came to him and said, “I know what we’re doing is unethical, even immoral, but I can assure you it’s not illegal.” The travails of our major religious institutions—the Catholic Church with its pedophilia scandals and cover-ups; the gay-bashing fundamentalist preachers arrested on morals charges; the four rabbis in New Jersey convicted in 2010 of money laundering—serve to remind us that while no one is free from sin, the land is engulfed by arrogance, hypocrisy, and self-righteousness. Meanwhile, secularists indiscriminately deplore the spiritual bedrock of every society since the time of the ancients.

Exacerbating these failings is a mass media that champions the superficial, sensational, and extreme view. Style, social trends, sports, and popular culture are often covered in greater detail than foreign and economic policy. Only a few major newspapers, all of them under relentless financial pressure and apparently unable to reinvent themselves in order to attain a level of profitability, still attempt to ferret out the truth, but reporting, the craft of going out to discover what isn’t known, too often gives way to opinion pieces. Paying serious television journalists good salaries costs more than putting two guests on the air with a celebrity host to bat around some issue without reference to the facts. The guests spin the issue to suit their interest, and the host, given the pressure of time, often doesn’t follow up. These exercises rarely educate or even try to persuade the audience with facts and analysis; rather, they tend simply to confirm knee-jerk opinions. Thanks to demographic targeting, a TV network knows what the viewers of particular programs care about—what appeals to their tastes and moves them to action—and playing to these preconceived ideas ensures a high Nielsen rating and consequent healthy advertising revenues. Fox News Channel is one of the most profitable news organizations in the world.

The losers here are the people, who would like to know: What happened in the city council meeting? Or in the congressional committee room? How was the money for schools spent? How did that special-interest tax break make it into the tax code? Who agreed to the pensions that bankrupted our town? What did corporation X do for the ten thousand workers it just fired? How will the latest technological innovation affect jobs? These are the kinds of questions that rarely get answered, at least on television. If people in power are not held responsible for what they do, it will be easier for them to abuse that power. Without facts to challenge a government official or a CEO, the people’s questions and accusations are parried by elementary public-relations tactics.

It’s a sad comment on the media that it is rewarded more for invading the privacy of celebrities—even, as we saw in England last summer, hacking their cell phones—than for uncovering fraud in the defense sector or revealing the misuse of union members’ dues. Instead of investigating a politician’s private life, the media should be investigating his or her public actions. There’s a Pulitzer Prize embedded in nearly every tax or appropriation bill if a journalist simply digs for it. Would the pure food and drug laws have passed, or even have been proposed, in the early twentieth century without the muckrakers? Would Watergate have led to Nixon’s resignation without the Washington Post? Would the Vietnam War have become as controversial without TV network reporting in the war zone?

Now the military has learned how to handle the media, too, by confining the information flow to the briefing room, so that what’s seen on TV is not the war itself but what some general wants us to know about the war. Corporations have departments devoted to crisis management, so that when an embarrassing story breaks, the danger can be contained by admitting wrongdoing to some lesser offense and promising quick action to punish a few low-level perpetrators. If the story is about an investigation, the suggestion for the accused is always to settle as quickly as possible. When the press charges you with a cover-up, you just release mountains of information, which gives the appearance of transparency and guarantees that the press will generally fail to uncover the buried incriminating information.

Occupants of the White House in recent administrations have played the game of manipulation as well as any CEO, and often more ruthlessly. If you become a relentless questioner, you’ll be estranged from the White House. What journalist would want to be cut out of the flow of leaked information? Your editors will wonder why you aren’t getting the good stories. Your family needs your paycheck, so you tone down your intensity and settle for covering the dueling press releases of two candidates, or two legislative parties, with the full knowledge that objective truth is the casualty. Moreover, the twenty-four-hour news cycle is relentless. With two to three stories breaking every day, often planted by campaign consultants, reporting in depth on the country’s real problems becomes difficult. With this kind of media culture, is it any wonder that we know less and less about what’s going on around the globe?

The current American condition exists in a world where other nations are on the rise: China, with 1.3 billion people, a relentless work ethic, strong families, economic farsightedness, and a thirst for higher living standards; India, with nearly 1.2 billion people, a burgeoning entrepreneurial drive, deep spiritual traditions, and a functioning democracy; Brazil, with plentiful water, rich forests, farmlands, mineral wealth, and a developing sense of democratic nationhood; Indonesia, with abundant natural resources, a presence on both sides of the Malacca Straits, and a unique cultural mix of animism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam; Turkey, with a history of empire, a unique position between Europe and Asia, and relative stability in a volatile part of the world. And as America confronts new ambitious national actors, it must still cope with such mature powers as Japan, with its democratic rule of law, technological prowess, and highly educated population; Russia, with its massive mineral and energy reserves and renewed strategic assertiveness; Europe, with its euro zone market (bigger than our own), its diverse talents, and lessons learned from a bloody history; and finally our neighbors to the north and south, Canada and Mexico—one remarkably stable, the other threatened by the flow of drugs north and guns south—without whose friendship our world would be a much more dangerous place.

This is not 1945, when the United States bestrode the world like a Colossus. Today our circumstances are more perilous than in the past. The full-time job of leadership requires more subtlety. Listening carefully to partners and opponents alike is as important as impassioned oratory. Persuasion is the leader’s most effective tool and national example his best weapon. We need to foster a new spirit of partnership among all countries, in which we learn from what other societies have to teach us as diligently as we promote our home grown solutions.

Our international standing will diminish unless we get into shape—not just in the next administration or the next decade or the next big crisis, but now. In fact, the crisis is here today; it is a slow-motion crisis. Our predicament is like that of the frog in the pot of water on the stove, who doesn’t notice the temperature is rising until it’s too late. You see denial of reality in everything from our eroding infrastructure to our declining dollar. Timidity and self-interest have produced the bad public policy that has gotten us to this point. And time is running out. We’re lucky that the financial crash of 2008–2009 woke us up to an aspect of our situation and offered us a window into what has gone wrong. Can we marshal the willpower, discipline, candor, imagination, and resilience to bounce back from where the last several decades have put us? Can we regain our championship form?

America starts with many strengths. We are endowed with vast natural resources. Our economy is still the largest and most dynamic in the world by a wide margin, with the most sophisticated capital markets and the most mobile population. Our people are resourceful. Our graduate schools and many of our universities are among the best in the world. Our political institutions remain flexible enough to accommodate bad news and then allow us to regroup. We have a legal system that functions with relative impartiality (unless you’re poor and black) and a judiciary that for the most part is above politics. Americans remain deeply patriotic, willing to heed the nation’s call in times of danger. An appealing tolerance allows most of us to live side by side with people from different backgrounds in such a way that we often learn from them. Creativity abounds—from scientific research to the arts, from entrepreneurship to the innovative cultures of many large business organizations.

Americans, although we differ on the best way to respond to it, are uncomfortable with the poverty in our midst. It offends our sense of America’s promise. Most families teach their children to be diligent and abide by the rules, because they believe that with honesty, hard work, and a little luck you can accomplish anything in America. The nonprofit sector has given the charitable impulse a way to improve society and has provided individuals with the means to serve their neighbors. History itself gives us reason to hope—from the revolution led by George Washington to the efforts in nation building by Jefferson, Adams, and Hamilton to the leveling instincts of Andrew Jackson, the almost mystical sense of destiny expressed by Abraham Lincoln, the tough progressivism of Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, the ebullient canniness and resolute courage of FDR, the plainspoken decisiveness of Harry Truman, the battle-tested wisdom of Eisenhower, the expansive inclusiveness of LBJ, the unflagging determination of Ronald Reagan. The outcome of upheavals in each of these presidents’ times was uncertain. Settling a continent, fighting a civil war, overcoming the violence and inequality of industrialization, persevering through world wars and ideological confrontation, rebounding from economic depression after economic depression, overcoming the legacy of slavery, and remaking our democracy at regular intervals: America has been tested. Each time the challenge seemed formidable. Each time we made it through. The assumption is that we will make it through our current crisis, too, but nothing is guaranteed. In a democracy, it depends on what the people want and how their leaders lead.

In times of great stress, inaction is not an option. You have to act, because if you don’t change the downward trajectory of a bad situation it will only get worse. Wishing it weren’t so doesn’t make it better. Ignoring it perpetuates it. Only well-considered action will allow us to move beyond our current situation.

Can we all do better?


the nomination. It was about a new generation of Americans discovering their inspiration in the words of a political leader, and an older generation finding those words more deeply imbedded in their souls than they would ever have thought possible. Barack Obama convinced us that we could change our country, that one person could make a difference, that a new set of possibilities for ourselves, the country, the world was emerging.

One month earlier, in the midst of the presidential campaign, the stock market had cratered and the financial system had almost collapsed. Pension funds plummeted overnight, and job loss soon followed. Americans were afraid—aware that we were reaping the consequences of years of economic mismanagement. The country needed to believe in itself again. And the world needed to believe that the United States hadn’t forgotten its historic role as an engine of hope and example of justice.

With his family at his side, Barack Obama took the stage. The applause was thunderous. Grown white men cried openly. Jesse Jackson stood on the lawn, wiping tears from his eyes. Young Americans screamed their lungs out. People around the world were watching, rapt at what was happening in America that night. TV commentators let the moment speak for itself. Oprah Winfrey put her head on the shoulder of a stranger in the Grant Park crowd and sobbed, overcome by the moment. The president-elect kissed his wife and his two girls, stepped forward, and said,

If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible; who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time; who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.

It’s the answer told by lines that stretched around schools and churches in numbers this nation has never seen; by people who waited three hours and four hours, many for the very first time in their lives, because they believed that this time must be different; that their voice could be that difference. . . .

It’s the answer that led those who have been told for so long by so many to be cynical, and fearful, and doubtful of what we can achieve to put their hands on the arc of history and bend it once more toward the hope of a better day. . . . Tonight we proved once more that the true strength of our nation comes not from the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth but from the enduring power of our ideals: democracy, liberty, opportunity, and unyielding hope.

For that is the true genius of America—that America can change. Our union can be perfected. And what we have already achieved gives us hope for what we can and must achieve tomorrow.

In the next day’s New York Times


On Sale
May 8, 2012
Hachette Books

Bill Bradley

About the Author

Bill Bradley served in the U.S. Senate from 1979-1997 representing the state of New Jersey. In 2000, he was a candidate for the Democratic nomination for President of the United States. Before serving in the Senate, he was an Olympic gold medalist in 1964 and a professional basketball player with the New York Knicks from 1967-1977 during which time they won two NBA championships.

Bradley is 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.

Currently, Senator Bradley is a Managing Director of Allen & Company LLC and the host of American Voices, a weekly show on Sirius/XM Satellite Radio that highlights the remarkable accomplishments of Americans both famous and unknown.

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