Editor's note: This story originally appeared on Jan. 1, 1989"
It was less than a week before Election Day. Peter Hoagland, the 2nd District Democratic candidate for Congress, was on hand for a joint appearance at a rally with Senate candidate Bob Kerrey. Kerrey was late.
Hoagland was about to be introduced to the audience at the Millard union hall when a woman in her late 30s or early 40s let out a scream. Kerrey had just arrived.
More than 150 people stood and applauded. Dozens moved toward the candidate to shake his hand or to get his autograph. Women presented babies to be kissed. A few women presented themselves to be kissed. Men shook his hand.
While all this was happening, others in the audience were clapping rhythmically and chanting Kerrey's name.
The distance from the front door to the stage was about the length of a basketball court. It took Kerrey more than 15 minutes to reach the stage to give his speech.
Kerrey, Nebraska's newly elected 45 - year - old Democratic senator, has an almost indefinable magnetism, some observers say. As they put it, what Kerrey has, whatever it is, is distinctive.
His appeal to voters is more easily defined. In Nebraska, 378,717 voters elected Kerrey to the Senate over Republican candidate Dave Karnes, who finished with 278,250.
For his impressive 100,000 - vote victory margin - achieved after being out of office nearly two years and when the top of his party's ticket, Michael Dukakis, was losing Nebraska by 138,721 votes - Kerrey is recognized by The World - Herald as its 1988 Midlands Man of the Year. The honor has been given annually 1965.
Kerrey climbed from political obscurity to governor six years ago and became one of Nebraska's more popular governors despite a sluggish economic climate. He dated actress Debra Winger without apparent harm to his job - approval rating in the polls. He left politics and likely re - election as governor to return to private business in 1987.
Then he won the heated Senate race against Karnes, who had been appointed by Gov. Kay Orr after the death of Sen. Ed Zorinsky. Gov. Orr - in a remark after Karnes' defeat - said Nebraskans have "a love affair" with Kerrey.
Pat McHale is a retired external affairs vice president for AT&T Communications of the Midwest. McHale was a volunteer worker in Kerrey's Senate campaign, serving as his car driver. McHale said Kerrey's magnetism was something to behold.
"The word charisma is overworked, but it was astonishing to me," McHale said. "If he had just attracted young people, I could understand it. But when we were out campaigning, everywhere we went, all ages of people had to be near him, to touch him."
Whatever celebrity quality Kerrey has, it has cast him into something of a national spotlight.
"There is no question that Bob Kerrey has what it takes to draw people to him," said David Broder, a syndicated political columnist for The Washington Post. "It is a gift that a lot of people in politics wished they had. I don't know what it is, either, but Kerrey has it.
"I can remember several years ago, at the National Governors' Conference, the place was packed with a lot of powerful personalities. But when Kerrey was in the room, everybody was well aware of his presence. People seemed drawn to look his way. I believe that Kerrey can have that same kind of impact in the Senate."
In 1985, Kerrey, as governor, received a 74 percent job - performance approval rating in a World - Herald opinion poll. Kerrey never received less than a 55 percent approval rating in The World - Herald Poll during his four years as governor.
"I remember well something that my mother taught me, something that I've always tried to keep in perspective," Kerrey said when asked to analyze his popularity. "When I was a young boy, I enjoyed taking things apart to see what made them work, to find out how it all fit together. I remember one day taking a flower and slowly pulling it apart piece by piece to see how it was put together.
"I carried the parts of the flower into the house and said to my mother something like, 'I don't understand. What is all this?' And I remember she said to me, 'It is dead, you have killed it.'
"So I prefer to have other people examine it, if they want to, but not me. Of course, I know. I see indications, say, in a room full of people. It is the best side of politics, when you can see, when you know, that you have touched even just one person."
The senator-elect was tired, and it showed in his eyes. Kerrey had just returned from Washington where he had sampled the housing market.
"The cost of housing there is just incredible," Kerrey said. "Compared to houses here in Omaha, it's unreal."
The price of housing, though, was not a pressing matter. Kerrey was looking forward to Thanksgiving when he would have time with son Benjamin, 13, and daughter Lindsey, 12.
The Kerrey children live in Dallas with Kerrey's ex - wife, Bev Higby, and her husband. The Kerreys were divorced 10 years ago after four years of marriage.
"Above everything else, I'm totally committed to the children," Kerrey said.
Kerrey said he came from a strong family atmosphere. He said his parents, the late James and Elinor Kerrey, stressed family values and an all - for - one, one - for - all attitude with the seven Kerrey children - boys Jim, John, Bob and Bill, and girls Jessie, Sue and Nancy. James Kerrey had been left an orphan before he was 1, and he made sure that his own family was close - knit, Bob Kerrey said.
Shirley Wenzel, an elementary school teacher in Weeping Water, Neb., was Bob Kerrey's fifth - grade teacher at Bethany Elementary School in northeast Lincoln. Mrs. Wenzel said she also attended the same church as the Kerrey family - Bethany Christian Church.
"I remember the Kerreys more as a family, rather than as individuals," Mrs. Wenzel said. "Those Kerrey kids went to church every single Sunday. They were made to go, there was no choice. I can still see those seven Kerrey kids at church on Sunday morning, standing there all lined up in a row."
Still, young Bob managed to leave an individual impression on his fifth - grade teacher.
"First, he was a really inquisitive boy," Mrs. Wenzel said. "And I recall that Bob never seemed to want to take 'no' for an answer."
People who have known him in his childhood, college days, time in the Navy, private business and in politics say Kerrey has displayed a strain of stubbornness. Those who know him best say Kerrey is immovable once he has made up his mind.
"Is Bob stubborn? He is so damn stubborn sometimes, you can't believe it," said older brother John Kerrey, a real estate agent in Delmar, Calif. "I mean, there is no way he should ever have been playing high school football there at Northeast. He had asthma so bad, and he was kind of frail. But all Bob needed was somebody to tell him he couldn't do something and he would be out there.
"I remember a football game where Bob was the center across from this huge guy from Omaha Central. The guy must have weighed at least 300 pounds. That was the Central team that had a guy named Gale Sayers playing. Anyway, Bob had no business out there against that guy, and yet he shoved him all over the field the whole game. Central won by a touchdown, I think, but Bob played great.
"On the other hand, in business or in politics or as a person, Bob isn't afraid to change his mind. He is stubborn, yes, but he's never stupid."
Larry Price, a service buddy of Kerrey's father, lived across the street. One day when Price was on his roof putting up new shingles, he became the target for Bob Kerrey's air rifle.
"I think he shot only one BB at me and it missed," Price said, laughing. "That is why when I hear all this talk about what Bob did in Vietnam, I think back to what a lousy shot he was with that BB gun."
Price owned the then - popular King's Food Host Restaurants, and most of the Kerrey kids worked there part - time when they were growing up. Price saw first - hand the results of father James Kerrey's insistence that his children understood work ethic and integrity.
"They all were darn good workers for me," Price said.
Kerrey graduated from Lincoln Northeast High School in 1961. He enrolled at the University of Nebraska where he earned a bachelor of science degree in pharmacy. A graduate degree was not required to practice pharmacy at that time.
He was turned down by one fraternity for being "wimpy," said long - time friend Jim Nelson, now a dentist in Brookings, Ore. Kerrey eventually pledged Phi Gamma Delta. Before he graduated in 1966, Kerrey was elected to the Innocents Society, which chooses 13 male students each year on the basis of leadership, service and academic achievement. He also served on the student council and was president of his fraternity.
Kerrey worked for a while in an Onawa, Iowa, pharmacy, but said that he quickly became restless. In 1966, he joined the Navy, entered officer's candidate school where he earned a commission one year later and then joined the Navy SEAL (Sea, Air and Land) unit, the Navy's elite commando outfit. In 1969, Kerrey's unit was sent to South Vietnam.
On March 19, 1969, Kerrey's unit - a seven - man SEAL team - set out to attack a Viet Cong terrorist group on an island in the Bay of Nha Trang. Instead, the SEAL team ran into a Viet Cong ambush. An enemy grenade landed at Kerrey's feet and the explosion severely injured his lower right leg. Kerrey continued to lead the assault, despite his wounds, and finally passed out from the loss the blood .
Kerrey wound up at a Navy hospital in Philadelphia where part of his right leg was amputated.
A year later, Kerrey was awarded the country's highest military citation - the Medal of Honor - for his combat heroism.
When he returned to Nebraska, he worked as a pharmacist for a short time at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, but then decided to enter the restaurant business with Dean Rasmussen, his brother - in - law. Their first Grandmother's Restaurant in Omaha opened in 1973 at 82nd and L Streets. A year later, he married Beverly Defnall, a school teacher in Louisville, Neb. Kerrey threw himself into the fledgling restaurant business, sometimes working 20 - hour days. He also managed the successful campaign of Ralston City Councilman Jerry Koch when Koch was elected to the Legislature.
In 1975, a tornado leveled the restaurant and Kerrey worked even harder to get it reopened. In 1978, Kerrey's four - year marriage dissolved in divorce. During the next four years, Kerrey and Rasmussen opened three more restaurants in Omaha and Lincoln, a sports and fitness facility and later a bowling center.
In 1982, during a visit with Koch, Kerrey told Koch that he intended to run for governor. And, Kerrey said, he intended to win.
"I thought he was joking," Koch said. "Bob told me then that he wanted to run for governor or else the Senate. People thought his chances were really very slim. I personally didn't think that he knew greater Nebraska well enough.
"I'll tell you something else: I didn't even realize then that Kerrey was a Democrat. I thought he was talking about running for (Charles) Thone's spot."
A few political insiders tried to talk sense to the idealistic young businessman. Set your sights a bit lower, they said. Learn the ropes, they counseled. Don't rush into things, they advised.
"I think that a lot of other people felt, too, that Kerrey was taking on too big a job," Koch said.
To that, Kerrey said he politely listened and then went ahead with his plans.
"I just sort of thought that I could do a better job than was being done," Kerrey said.
Kerrey won the Democratic nomination, defeating State Sen. George "Bill" Burrows of Adams by 52,487 votes. He then defeated Thone, the incumbent Republican governor. The margin was 7,685 votes, the closest election for the office since 1958.
"Was it an upset? Well, I was confident of victory, but I don't know why," Kerrey said.
The governor, age 39 when he took office, faced a state in economic decline. Kerrey felt he was forced to trim spending growth, in some cases in opposition to friends as well as foes. He appointed Republican Robert Spire as attorney general, confounding Democratic Party loyalists.
He dated actress Debra Winger. He made a major speech during the 1984 Democratic Convention. He halted a train carrying nuclear waste at Nebraska's border until he was confident safety precautions had been taken. He tried unsuccessfully to hammer out a way to repay depositors who were victims of the $68.5 million collapse of Commonweath Savings Co. in Lincoln.
Re-election in 1986 seemed likely.
On Oct. 15, 1985, Kerrey surprised many people. He said he would not seek re - election as governor. He was tired of politics and planned a return to private business.
"That decision in 1985 was made intuitively," Kerrey said recently. "I felt it was time for me to get back to private life, back to business, back to what I had done before."
He spent the next 16 months working in several areas. He periodically lectured a class at Omaha Central High School one semester. Kerrey also was a guest lecturer at a class on the Vietnam War at the University of California - Santa Barbara. Kerrey worked at his business interests, too.
Kerrey said that his sabbatical from politics made him more aware of problems to be solved, of tasks to be undertaken.
"I've found that I have a more powerful sense of urgency now to act in a whole range of things that are important . . . than if I simply had continued on as governor and ran for re - election," he said. "There was something very positive about getting on the outside, getting a bit away from it."
Kerrey said that at the time he stepped down as governor, he didn't intend to run for the Senate.
Zorinsky, a Democrat, died of a heart attack in March 1987. Gov. Orr appointed a political newcomer, Omaha businessman Dave Karnes, a Republican, to the office. Some political observers said it seemed that Karnes, 38 years old at the time of his appointment, was chosen at least partially to offset Kerrey's advantages should Kerrey decide to run for the Senate.
Columnist Broder was among the people who were confused by Kerrey.
"The last time I spoke personally with Kerrey was at his press conference in 1985 when he was explaining to me why he was getting out of politics," Broder said. "Next, he runs for the Senate and wins. Politically, Bob Kerrey is very much a puzzle to me. Absolutely."
Kerrey said that until Zorinsky died, he had not planned to seek the office. But once he decided, Kerrey said, he used the same campaign tactics that had made him governor of Nebraska. He stressed love of family, country and state. He talked of tradition and values. He spoke of a better way and of higher goals.
Kerrey can sometimes be abstract, philosophical or allegorical.
"A lot of it is true about perception," Kerrey said. "But the people can get to know who you are. Perception is everything, but it particularly is true when there is a conflict. It is easier to understand on a personal level than it is on a public or political level.
"There is a thread that I see as trust. It is very strong when it is in place. There is 5,000 pounds of test to that thread, but it can be broken by a very small act, a small gesture. When that happens, it is hard to put back together. It is hard to rebuild it. It almost has to grow again.
"In my instance, there were 1,600,000 threads - 800,000 voters - and you can be broken for all kinds of things. It can be what I say, what I wear, some specific action relating to an issue, the fact that I'm a Democrat. It can be shattered for whatever the reason."
Kerrey said he recalls visiting a senior center in Grand Island, Neb., during his campaign for governor. He asked an elderly woman to dance.
"She looked up at me, squinted one eye and said, 'I ain't dancin' with no damn Democrat.' And she meant it," Kerrey said, laughing. "She had a perception of me based on party affiliation that was unshakable. Yet I did dance with her. I can't dance with everybody - some of them might not like the way I dance - but it is true that perception in a democracy is everything."
Former Rep. John Cavanaugh of Omaha, a Democrat and Kerrey's friend, said Kerrey's private person is no different from the one in public. Because Kerrey is at ease with himself, he is a natural for today's political atmosphere, Cavanaugh said.
"William Jennings Bryan was a master of oratory in an age of oratory," Cavanaugh said. "Bob Kerrey is a master of television in an age of television communication. There is nobody in the country better at it. Kerrey certainly can rival Ronald Reagan in that department.
"He is a natural personality and I think that comes across on television and in person. Kerrey has the unique ability to be himself on TV and not many people can do that. The Bob Kerrey that you see and hear on television, at least in my experience, is the same Bob Kerrey you see in private life."
Spire said that Kerrey can't be categorized in political terms.
"I don't think that Bob Kerrey fits any pre - conceived mold," Spire said. "I think he is a person of genuine individualism in political thinking. I believe that is a real virtue. The state and nation need people who are independent thinkers. With Bob Kerrey, what you see is what you get.
"Kerrey is a very caring, compassionate person. What I respect in him is the fact that he always looks at a problem with a sense of the effect on people in mind."
Kerrey said he is thankful for such confidence and praise from peers and admirers. But he says it goes too far.
"I'm certainly not perfect, I can tell you that," Kerrey said. "I'm about 93 million miles away from perfect."
Kerrey illustrated his point with a story.
"When the SEALS guys were back - I think we were in Scottsbluff - talking to people out there, a guy stood up," Kerrey said. "He asked one of the SEAL guys - I think it was Gary Gray - something like 'Hey, what's the deal with this Kerrey guy? I heard he threw his Medal of Honor in the Potomac River.' Gary said, 'That is not true. I know Bob Kerrey. He wouldn't do that. I've seen that Medal of Honor.' "
Kerrey began to chuckle as he wound up for the punch line of the story.
"Gary said, 'You know, though, come to think of it, that medal was a little muddy.' The point is this: You should take seriously your work, but not very seriously yourself."
Bob Kerrey, freshman senator - elect from Nebraska, has yet to spend a day on the job but already the question has been asked: Will Kerrey some day run for president?
He already has a theme song. At his victory party on Election Night, on live television, Kerrey sang all the verses of "And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda" to his supporters. The crowd listened in silence and by the end of the song, some in the room were in tears. Kerrey said it was an impromptu decision to sing the song - about a wounded war veteran's return home - at the celebration.
"With the kind of singing voice I have," Kerrey said, "you wouldn't consciously plan to suddenly burst into this horrible a cappela in front of a lot of people. It is just a song that I like."
To some, the song and circumstances revived memories of John F. Kennedy. Following election victories, Kennedy would sing "Sweet Adeline," a family favorite.
"I take the talk (about a presidential candidacy) very seriously," Kerrey said. "Right now, sure, it is sometimes a distraction, but it is not unique in politics and it certainly is not the only distraction.
"I'm increasingly comfortable with who I am, increasingly aware of what is there and what isn't there. There is an uneasiness in me about the world at large."
Kerrey said he isn't sure what kind of impression he will make in the Senate, but he said that his voice will be heard. Broder's prediction: "First, Kerrey has a good reputation in Washington. There are many Kerrey admirers there. He now has the chance to change, alter, expand and improve on that reputation. He will be much sought after among the newcomers in the Senate."
McHale, Kerrey's campaign driver, said that once, while driving the campaign car, he brought up the subject of the presidency to Kerrey.
"Bob said very emphatically that he was going to be a senator from Nebraska and that was his purpose," McHale said.
Kerrey's brother John said they had talked about such a possibility several years ago, mostly in jest. Bob's election to the Senate, though, has set John to speculating.
"It is all very hypothetical, of course, but I'll tell you what - he would do one hell of a good job," John said. "He came from a solid business background. I think that he would be a dynamite president. To me, he is just plain ol' Bob, but I'm smart enough to realize that he is a rare breed. If it ever happened, what kind of president would Bob Kerrey be? Remember Harry Truman? Well, there is a lot of Harry Truman in Bob Kerrey."
Spire said that Kerrey's personality will make him a leader in the Senate. That, in turn, should entrench Kerrey in the national political picture, Spire said.
"I know that most Nebraskans are proud of Bob Kerrey," Spire said. "He has a true sense of idealism and it is genuine. They are proud of his independence. This nation will come to know and respect Bob Kerrey the same way we do in Nebraska."
Cavanaugh said that Kerrey simply being himself in the Senate will project him into the national arena, if Kerrey decides to lean that direction.
Cavanaugh said Kerrey critics, who cite his perceived unpredictability as a fault, do not understand that for Kerrey unpredictability is a strength.
"Bob Kerrey is always dynamic, always in change," Cavanaugh said. "He is always looking to expand, to learn. Yes, he is unpredictable, but in a very positive way.
"He has the most unique personality I've met, in private and public life. There is nothing phony about him. I sense an uneasiness about him. Most people, by age 45, settle into a comfortable formula for their lives. Bob Kerrey hasn't done that. For him, though, that is positive.
"It is hard to tell what will happen. I believe he will have an immediate and profound impact on the Senate. His personality is that dynamic. The presidency? At any one time, there are probably 10 to 12 people in the country who have the potential to seek the office of president in a serious way.
"Bob Kerrey is one of those people."