AMERICAN POLITICS TIME PRESENT, TIME PAST:
By Bill Bradley
Alfred A. Knopf, 442 pp., $26
JOURNEY OF PURPOSE: REFLECTIONS ON THE PRESIDENCY, MULTICULTURALISM, AND THIRD PARTIES
By Paul Tsongas
Yale University Press
114 pp., $16
BILL BRADLEY is one of those unique individuals who make America what it is.
As told in ''Time Present, Time Past,'' his is not a rags-to-riches tale: Raised the banker's son in a small Missouri town on the banks of the Mississippi River, he became a high school and college basketball star; went to Princeton and became a Rhodes scholar at Oxford; played professional basketball for 10 years for the New York Knicks; then got himself elected as a United States senator from New Jersey.
For years, his name has figured high on lists of possible Democratic presidential candidates.
Bradley uses this intriguing volume - part memoir, part political manifesto - as the launching point for his next role: that of a reformer of the US political system. He began writing it after going through some tough times:
In 1990, he was almost defeated for reelection as New Jersey voters vented their anger with Gov. James Florio's tax increase. Two years later, his parents became seriously ill, his wife underwent surgery, and tragedy struck other friends.
During his travels in the 1992 election campaign, he began writing down his thoughts on various issues; that process turned into this book.
While writing it, he decided not to run for re-election to the Senate.
A mixture of autobiography, political philosophy, and political anecdotes, this book reveals a good deal about the last 30 years.
Bradley is a typical child of the early 1960s: Growing up in a comfortable Republican family, he went to college, where his professors apparently told him Republicans were bad and Democrats were good. So he became a Democrat.
Well, to be fair, it's more complicated than that. Bradley was very much affected by the struggle for racial equality. A congressional intern in the summer of 1964, he watched Barry Goldwater and a host of other Republicans vote against the Civil Rights Act. That helped clinch his decision.
Bradley is proudest of three main achievements as a senator: the 1986 tax-reform bill; his role in persuading then-Treasury Secretary Nicholas Brady to reschedule third-world debt - the ''Brady Plan;'' and a 1992 bill to reform Western water projects, especially California's Central Valley Project.
Bradley sees himself as a centrist, but he's clearly a Democratic centrist.
His interesting anecdotes often concern good, well-meaning people - Democrats - defeated by mean-spirited, closed-minded opponents - Republicans.
If he's looking to build a moderate constituency for political reform, a new political party, or a future presidential bid, he's already offended a big chunk of potential supporters.
He talks passionately and often persuasively about the economic woes of the middle class, but his economic analysis is flawed. For one thing, he makes things seem worse than they really are - a common problem these days, since the middle class seems convinced it is doing very badly.
Bradley, like many observers, links this concern (most dramatically illustrated by Pat Buchanan's vote totals in New Hampshire) to folks' uneasiness about losing their jobs in the future. This while statistics show job creation zooming along - unemployment in New Hampshire is currently only 3.6 percent.
And Bradley doesn't address the question of whether some of the middle class's problems are self-inflicted: people buying too many things they don't really need, leading to too much consumer debt; failing to save and invest; and throwing money away on gambling, alcohol, and cigarettes.
In addition, many of Bradley's prescriptions involve the federal government, with little recognition of the role state governments can play in attacking the nation's economic and social ills.
For all that, this is a serious and valuable book from a fascinating public figure who will undoubtedly continue to speak out.
Close to Bradley, but with some interesting differences, is Paul Tsongas, former US senator from Massachusetts and a 1992 Democratic presidential candidate. The slim volume ''Journey of Purpose'' is the outgrowth of Tsongas's 1994 and 1995 Castle Lectures at Yale Law School.
That doesn't mean they are dry reading.
Tsongas gives a pithy analysis of the 1992 presidential campaign (Bush lost because he failed to use the political capital gained from the Gulf war to attack the nation's economic malaise).
He discusses affirmative action and the need for white males to accept that this is a multicultural society. Tsongas seriously muses on the possibility of forming a centrist third party, or at least a new moderate coalition, complete with a platform.
Like Bradley, Tsongas basically writes off Republicans but sees possibilities in the Democratic Party.
Both men have been involved in discussions and meetings on political reform and the need to build a centrist consensus, and both are extremely critical of the inability of liberals in their own party to understand the need to balance the budget and grow the economy.
Each emphatically points out the continuing need to deal with the problem of racial tension.
In these two volumes are the intellectual capital that may in the future fuel a powerful force in American politics, and possibly a third party.