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Bob Kerrey had to coax his wife into leaving the comfortable and blissful life they had built over the past decade in a Manhattan row house so he could return to his native state.
The Democrat is enduring 14-hour days in what's largely seen as an uphill, underdog campaign. The homecoming hasn't always been pleasant, either. He's been called a carpetbagger or worse, and even seen the middle finger flashed at him while walking in a parade.
And it's all to get back to a U.S. Senate that his former colleagues tell him isn't the same place he left in 2001 — one so gripped by a toxic, intransigent partisanship it's nearly impossible to get anything done. "Don't do this," some former colleagues told him.
Which raises the question: Why would Bob Kerrey do this?
Kerrey and those closest to him say the ideological divide in Washington is exactly why the 69-year-old contrarian is again driven to run.
He truly believes he has the skills and experiences that can help the nation rise up to what he sees as its greatest challenges: mountainous budget deficits and bitter partisanship that he believes has broken down America's shared sense of purpose.
During his two terms in Washington, the mercurial Kerrey didn't fear breaking from the pack or tackling the finances of the politically untouchable entitlement programs that are at the root of the nation's growing budget crisis. John Cavanaugh, a former Democratic congressman from Omaha, said he's never seen his friend more energized.
"He knows he can bring to the Senate and the country what it needs to break these logjams," Cavanaugh said. "It has to be done. That weighs on him."
His wife, the extremely private but congenial Sarah Paley, laughs when she hears some of the other motives ascribed to Kerrey concerning his run — that he was restless and bored, or just listening to the Democratic Party bosses.
"Believe me," she said, "we had a very nice life without politics. But he is somebody with a sense of duty that is larger than most people's sense of duty."
Kerrey has a reputation for restlessness that's well-deserved. He twice walked away from public office while popular with Nebraskans, giving such cosmic reasons as his need to refill his "interpersonal, creative and spiritual cistern." He publicly wavered before jumping in this time. But he said no one should question his commitment to the race or how strongly he believes Washington must now change.
"Actually, rather than talking me out of it," Kerrey says, "those who told me not to run contributed to me wanting to do it."
On the campaign trail, people can see he has aged since the last time he hustled for votes, some 18 years ago. His hair has turned a silvery gray, his face creased by time.
He loves to tell of his visit this summer to a veterans home. When he leaned forward to introduce himself to a vet in a wheelchair, the old man clasped Kerrey's hand, looked him in the eye and asked, "What room are you in?"
But it also doesn't take long to see he's still capable of creating buzz when he walks into a room. He visibly thrives on human contact and still possesses his trademark ability to connect with an audience, inspire his supporters and soften the feelings of those predisposed not to like him or his party.
Now his words are tinged with a sharp prairie populism as he decries the partisan orthodoxy that is creating gridlock in the nation's capital. After largely working within the system in the 1990s — twice raising millions as a party official in efforts to help his fellow Democrats gain control of the Senate — Kerrey now vows to shake things up.
A recent Saturday morning campaign stop in North Platte got off to a sleepy start before the subject turned to Congress' failure to pass a bill to help returning veterans find jobs. Gray eyes flashing, Kerrey railed about the party bickering and maneuvering that killed the bipartisan bill. Then he got on a roll. He criticized Republicans for failing to bring the farm bill to a vote. And he blasted both parties for voting to go to war in Afghanistan and Iraq and then not paying for the conflicts, borrowing the money and piling on more than $1 trillion in debt.
"We have a treaty with Taiwan, and the terms and conditions state that if China goes to war against Taiwan, we have to go to war with China," he said. "The problem is we'd have to borrow the money from the Chinese to pay for it."
The comment elicited laughter from his audience, to which Kerrey smiled but quickly added: "It's not very damn funny."
It was quintessential Kerrey: Plain-spoken. Bitingly funny. Unconventional. In command of the issues. Making his point passionately.
Hearing him, retired North Platte teacher Jane Hassel and her husband recalled how their jaws had dropped some 30 years ago when they first saw Kerrey. At that time he was a magnetic 39-year-old on his way to toppling a seated GOP governor.
"He hasn't lost any fire," Hassel said. "He still has it."
The question in this race is whether Kerrey's "it" factor and his open challenge to the ways of Washington will be enough for voters to send him back.
A recent World-Herald poll showed Kerrey trailing GOP nominee Deb Fischer, a state lawmaker, by 10 percentage points — 16 points among likely voters. Many voters are too young to remember the last time Kerrey appeared on a Nebraska ballot. This red state has tilted both more Republican and more conservative since then. He faces stiff headwinds running on the same ballot as President Barack Obama.
Kerrey remains undaunted. He said he is increasingly encouraged by how Nebraskans are warming up to him, his message and what he could bring to the table in the Senate. "I'm glad I ran," he said. "Nebraskans are going to have a clear choice."
It's a little ironic that someone who was once as close to being a political star as Nebraska had seen since William Jennings Bryan would now have to make introductions. But such is the reality when you've spent the previous 11 years living in Greenwich Village and running one of the nation's most liberal universities. It's all part of the fabric of Kerrey's unique life story — one quite familiar to many Nebraskans.
If you were looking for the roots of Kerrey's sense of duty, you'd probably find it in the working-class northeast Lincoln neighborhood where Joseph Robert Kerrey grew up. Jessie Rasmussen, Kerrey's sister, said their father would break the word "responsible" down to two words: "response" and "able." While those aren't the word's actual grammatical roots, Jim Kerrey's message was sound: If you are able to respond, you should.
After graduating in 1965 from the University of Nebraska with a pharmacy degree, Bob Kerrey enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1966. There was no sense of duty there, he acknowledges. He believed he was about to get drafted into the Army. But his family wasn't surprised when Kerrey then volunteered to train with the Navy SEALs, an elite commando unit. If Kerrey was going to enlist, Rasmussen said, he wanted to be the best.
Perhaps nothing has more defined Kerrey's life, both personally and politically, than the months he spent in Vietnam during early 1969. On March 14 of that year, while Lt. Kerrey led a nighttime mission to capture some political leaders in Nha Trang, a grenade exploded at his feet. Despite grave wounds, he continued to direct his men. He lost his right leg below the knee and was awarded the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest honor for war valor.
The portrait of Kerrey as a war hero has long been at the center of his political biography. But in the past decade, a more complex picture has emerged. It was revealed in April 2001 that Kerrey had led another covert mission, in February 1969, which resulted in the deaths of more than a dozen women and children.
One member of Kerrey's squad said the women and children in Thanh Phong were gunned down on Kerrey's orders, for fear they would betray the squad's location. Kerrey and other members of the squad denied that, saying the civilians were caught in crossfire when the unit was fired upon.
Kerrey's version of the events was not consistent over time — one reason the reporter who wrote the story did not believe it. A Harvard University Vietnam scholar who considered the incident said it appeared the killings were not premeditated but were "driven by fear and the inexperience of Bob and his men."
While the killings were not intentional, Kerrey says, the memories of that night have always haunted him. And, revealingly, Kerrey has said in interviews that Thanh Phong provides incentive for him to run, adding to his sense of duty.
"You can't get rid of it," he said of the memory. "It can torment, and you make a choice: What are you going to do with it?"
After nine months in a military hospital, Kerrey returned home, bitter about his military experience and searching for several years. He spent a lot of time studying the political history of the Vietnam conflict, eventually concluding — much to his surprise — that many of President Richard Nixon's actions were right. Kerrey developed a strong interest in international affairs and a strong dislike for timid politicians.
He also rediscovered his inner drive. Kerrey became a marathon runner (he still tries to run every day and is grouchy when he can't). And he joined his brother-in-law in opening and running a successful chain of restaurants in Omaha and Lincoln.
His involvement in business on the regulation side sparked an interest in government and politics. Believing he could make a difference, he vaulted from obscurity to win election as governor in 1982, his first run for any office.
In the Statehouse, Kerrey presided over a state ravaged by a major farm crisis. He closed more banks than any Nebraska governor since the Great Depression and was forced to consistently work with state lawmakers to confront shortfalls in state revenue.
Though almost assured of re-election, he walked away after one term, mystifying his supporters, but then was beckoned back into politics with a successful run for U.S. Senate in 1988.
In Washington, Kerrey operated in ways that defied easy labels.
Democratic leaders could usually count on his vote — Kerrey voted with his party an average of 81 percent of the time, just slightly below the 83.5 percent average over that time for the Senate's entire Democratic caucus. But he did frequently team with moderates from both sides of the aisle.
He was generally liberal on social issues — opposing the Defense of Marriage Act and an anti-flag-burning amendment — but more conservative on fiscal matters. He was a frequent critic of President Bill Clinton but voted against impeaching him. The veteran voted against going to war in the Persian Gulf in 1991, but on the Senate's Intelligence Committee he was generally considered hawkish on national security.
He twice served as the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee chairman — the point person for bringing Democrats to power in the Senate. He raised large amounts of money, much of which would typically be spent on advertisements attacking Republican Senate candidates.
But he also at times rankled his party's leaders. After a caucus meeting in which Democrats plotted to criticize a health care bill championed by Republican presidential aspirant Bob Dole, Kerrey instead went to the Senate floor and praised Dole — even calling him a patriot for offering the measure.
"No one can tell Bob to do anything," Alan Simpson, a former Republican senator from Wyoming, said of Kerrey. "That's a wonderful trait."
Kerrey's political and apolitical sides sometimes seemed in direct conflict. When Dole resigned from the Senate to pursue his presidential bid, Kerrey put out two press releases, a half-hour apart. The one from his Senate office called the Kansas lawmaker "a truly great individual." The other, issued as head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, suggested Dole was playing back-room politics.
Simpson and Slade Gorton, a former Republican senator from Washington, offered differing assessments of Kerrey's practical ability in the Senate to get things done across party lines.
Gorton said he saw Kerrey as "more of a happy, relatively independent gadfly" than one who worked behind closed doors to hammer out bipartisan deals. Simpson, who worked directly with Kerrey on several issues, said the Nebraskan showed keen knowledge and the ability to compromise with others without compromising himself — traits Simpson said are vital if a legislative body is to function in a bipartisan way.
For his own part, Kerrey lists several bipartisan successes he helped drive, including reform of the Internal Revenue Service — for which he received an award from the conservative Tax Foundation — and normalization of relations with Vietnam.
Some of Kerrey's most high-profile work in the Senate was related to budget and entitlement issues. He supported President George H.W. Bush's 1990 deficit-reduction bill that both raised taxes and cut spending, and he supported a similar measure offered by Clinton in 1993. On the Clinton bill, Kerrey became the last holdout, publicly agonizing before announcing he would support it.
Though the budget votes were controversial, they did contribute to ending years of federal deficits. The nation ran budget surpluses from 1998 through 2001, Kerrey's final years in Congress. "It was unpopular, but we got it done," he said. "We were paying down debt when I left."
On entitlements, Kerrey became concerned during the budget debate about the demographic challenge that baby boomers posed to Social Security and Medicare. That prompted Clinton to appoint Kerrey to head a bipartisan commission to look into ways to ensure future funding for the programs. Kerrey and Republican Sen. John Danforth of Missouri came together on a bipartisan proposal to both raise taxes and cut future benefits for retirees, but they could not persuade the rest of the panel to sign off.
Kerrey's reputation for independence often made him a player in the Senate and a favorite on Sunday morning talk shows. Some saw in him the potential to be president, but his bid for the 1992 Democratic nomination fell flat. Kerrey was re-elected to his Senate seat in 1994 and pondered another run for president in 2000 before deciding against it late in 1998.
In January 2000, the 56-year-old Kerrey again stunned his supporters by announcing he would not seek a third term in the Senate, even though he had a campaign and $3 million war chest in place. Reinforcing his "Cosmic Bob" reputation, he said he wanted to "rediscover the magic in life."
He now acknowledges a major reason for his decision was that he and the then-43-year-old Paley had made plans to get married. Kerrey had met the screenwriter and former writer for TV's "Saturday Night Live" on a blind date in Washington in 1995.
They married in early 2001 and settled into her home city of New York — Kerrey going to work as the president of the New School. On Sept. 10, 2001, Sarah gave birth to Henry. Kerrey — who has a son, Ben, and daughter, Lindsey, from his first marriage — by all accounts has loved being what he calls a "geezer dad."
Meanwhile, presiding over the New School at times proved challenging, with Kerrey unprepared for how complicated and political running a university could be. As much as his political opponents over the years had labeled him a liberal, students and faculty at the New School saw him as a war-mongering conservative — particularly for his outspoken support of the Iraq War.
Kerrey moved back into the limelight in 2003 and 2004, serving on the commission that investigated the root causes of the 9/11 terrorist attacks — an experience he called "a game changer" in shaping his current push for bipartisanship.
Commission members say the panel was almost set up to fail. Five Republicans and five Democrats had been selected in a highly political process. During an election year, Republicans faced outside pressure to blame Clinton for intelligence oversights; Democrats, to blame President George W. Bush.
"We knew from the beginning if we weren't at least unanimous on the history leading up to 9/11, we were going to be a failure," said Gorton, who served with Kerrey.
Philip Zelikow, the former White House aide to President George H.W. Bush who led the commission staff, said Kerrey spoke out candidly and with no political agenda. When it came time to deal with the handful of issues that were "partisan lightning rods," Kerrey was one of two or three commissioners who proved particularly helpful in bridging divisions, Zelikow said.
Tom Kean, the former Republican governor of New Jersey who co-chaired the commission, said Kerrey was a quick study and tough interrogator, including during interviews with Clinton and Bush. "I don't remember him being a great partisan in hearings," Kean said. "I remember him digging in, asking tough questions and being provocative."
In the end, the commission issued a unanimous report that led to changes in the nation's strategy for attacking terrorism.
Friends say they never saw Kerrey happier than he was during his decade in New York. Kerrey also became considerably wealthier, thanks to his New School salary, consulting jobs and service on numerous corporate boards. His financial disclosures put his current wealth between $5 million and $17 million.
But Kerrey never really shook his itch for politics. In 2005 he told a reporter he was considering a run for mayor of New York City. He said that having been a resident of the city on 9/11, he considered himself a New Yorker. Kerrey now says he never seriously considered running, calling it little more than musings he mistakenly confirmed to a reporter. He quashed the talk the next day.
In late 2010 Kerrey ended a decade as leader of the New School. It was around that time, Paley and Kerrey's friends say, that he became increasingly frustrated by Congress' inability to deal with entitlements and the huge deficits rung up because of tax cuts, new spending, the Great Recession and two wars that weren't paid for.
"I could tell he wished he was there," Paley said.
Kerrey's interest intensified when Democrat Ben Nelson announced he would not seek re-election. Kerrey felt driven to run but was sensitive to his wife's concerns about leaving New York and raising their 11-year-old son in a political fishbowl. "He had to deal with me," she said, "and that wasn't easy."
The family's private debate played out messily in public, with Kerrey first announcing he would not run, and then in March changing his mind, flying back to Nebraska and filing. Kerrey's reversal came after Paley gave him her blessing to run, seeing he was unhappy with the decision he had made.
If people are looking for someone to blame for Kerrey's waffling, Paley said, they can point to her. She said even some of her friends were more sympathetic to her husband's point of view, one asking her, "Don't you care about the United States at all?"
"A marriage is a give and take," Paley said. "You don't want the person you're married to to be miserable, to hold them back."
Over the summer the couple bought an Omaha house, which they're extensively renovating. They are living in an apartment while Henry attends Dundee Elementary School. Kerrey acknowledges that if he wins, the family sometime next year would likely relocate to Washington, D.C. If he loses, Kerrey said future opportunities would likely determine where his family lives, but his inclination would be to remain in Nebraska.
Republicans have charged that Kerrey's candidacy was born in a "secret deal" he struck with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Kerrey acknowledges there was a deal, but says there was nothing secret or nefarious about it. He said he told Reid that if he ran, he wanted a commitment that his past seniority would be considered and that he would be able to retain Nelson's seats on the Budget, Agriculture and Armed Services Committees. Reid agreed, Kerrey said, giving him the platform he would need to get things done his home state.
Kerrey is clearly irritated by some people's contention that he is not an authentic Nebraskan. He can't see how someone Nebraska-born and Nebraska-educated, who served in Vietnam, came back, started businesses and served 16 years in public office, could now be considered a carpetbagger.
"It's insulting to who I am as a Nebraskan and what Nebraskans are," he said. "Everybody thought, to his death, that Johnny Carson was a Nebraskan."
Regardless, he says he's excited to be back in the state he loves. On a recent campaign swing through central Nebraska, during lunch in Arapahoe with supporters, he said, "It's good to eat Dorothy Lynch again." And he is increasingly optimistic that voters will entrust him to go back to Washington.
In Arapahoe, Grace Faw, a longtime Republican county treasurer, stopped in to see Kerrey. She's long been concerned about entitlements, and she appreciated his efforts to tackle the issue two decades ago.
"Do you plan to do something about it now?" asked Faw, still undecided about whom she would support in the race. Kerrey told her it was a big reason he was running.
Solving the problems won't be any easier this time, he said. It truly will take both tax increases and benefit cuts — not exactly popular selling points on the campaign trail. But Kerrey feels the urgency.
"We have to," he said. "This one, if we don't get it done, it's going to be like Greece."
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