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Bob Kerry: Un-Candidate

Are voters ready for a politician who doesn’t wallow in emotion or rhetoric, for an earnest and sober discussion of the issues?

Bob Kerry, Democrat Donkey Graphic

Democrat Silhouette by Linda Braucht, computer graphics

Linda Braucht/Getty

It’s a cold day in early December, and Nebraska Senator Bob Kerrey, candidate for president, is in Boston to speak at a rally at Tufts University. By all indications, this has the makings of a real love-fest after all, Kerrey is not some arthritic old New Dealer; he’s a new-generation Democrat, a sexy 48-year-old who lost half a leg in Vietnam and won the Congressional Medal of Honor, then publicly condemned the war. As a divorced dad living in the Nebraska governor’s mansion, Kerrey carried on a very public romance with Debra Winger. He even campaigns in what looks like a surfer van, with mag wheels and blue velour captain’s chairs, listening to the Doors and the Commitments, his current favorites.

The auditorium is packed with more than 300 students, and all heads turn as Kerrey enters and makes his way to the podium. He walks without a limp it’s impossible to tell which leg is fake. The only giveaway is a faint bump on his right pants leg where the prosthesis meets his knee. Beneath his large, E.T.-ish forehead, his light blue eyes are sharp and direct. He’s dressed in the conventional candidate’s uniform dark blue suit and red tie but opens with an unconventional program note: “I will talk 15 minutes or so, and then I will let you ask some questions, and I will try to answer those questions. Or I may choose to pretend to answer them, while I am really avoiding them. . . .”

The crowd laughs. They get his message: I’m not just another politician. But then he digs into his speech: “We need to change the way we finance health care in America. I introduced a specific proposal that came as a result of lots of effort in Nebraska that shifts us away from a premium-based system of paying for health care to a tax-based system funded with progressive taxes. . . .”

Eyelids droop, heads drop. Kerrey slogs on, impervious, piling detail upon detail for 20 minutes. Now the students are getting a different message. Kerrey’s not just another politician, he’s worse: He’s a policy nerd in drag. Freshman Eric Johnson sums up the crowd’s reaction: “He’s one of those politicans who has his mouth too close to the microphone in order to simulate passion.”

And so it went during the first three months of Bob Kerrey’s presidential bid. The man heralded by political insiders as the most electric Democrat since Bobby Kennedy underwhelmed voters nationwide. Often he seemed tone-deaf to his audience like emphasizing health care to a group of college students who still think they’re going to live forever. To a roomful of struggling workers in Manchester, New Hampshire, worried about paying next month’s bills, he talked of the promise of fiber optics. To a hip L.A. crowd, he talked blithely about slashing defense spending, as if he were unaware or didn’t care that a significant percentage of the jobs in Southern California are defense related. At best, he came off as earnest and well intentioned. 

“Don’t get me wrong, I like Bob Kerrey,” says a member of the Hollywood political mafia, which only a short time ago was uniformly infatuated with the idea of a Kerrey candidacy. “I think he would make a great student-body president.”

Kerrey did manage a couple of breakthroughs: In mid-November he made it into newspapers across the country, not to mention onto The Tonight Show and Saturday Night Live, for telling a lesbians-and-Jerry Brown joke (which played off the line that both the lesbians and Brown wanted to “lick Bush”). Then, a month later, Kerrey made headlines again, when the Nebraska restaurant chain in which he owns a one-third interest was fined $64,650 for numerous violations of federal child-labor laws. Coupled with a flagging effort in New Hampshire, these incidents signaled a campaign that wasn’t exactly swift out of the blocks.

What is odd is that one-on-one, Kerrey can be quite charming, impressing even the most cynical journalists and sending hearts aflutter wherever he goes (“Senator, you shouldn’t dress so nicely,” a woman told Kerrey when he interrupted breakfast at an adult day-care center in New Hampshire. “It gets people upset. We burnt our muffins”). But put a speech in his hands and an audience in front of him, or ask him about issues that don’t excite him, and Kerrey’s blue eyes fade and his wit vanishes.

It’s not surprising that a man who’s waged only two political campaigns both in Nebraska would need some seasoning in his first national effort. And working out the kinks is what the early months are for, before the crush of media arrives and the campaigning moves from retail to wholesale. However, Kerrey’s difficulty in connecting with voters is nothing new. “Bob’s body language doesn’t lie,” says James Pribyl, who ran his ’82 Nebraska gubernatorial campaign. “If an issue isn’t close to his heart, he’s not good at faking it.”

But there’s something more at work here than Kerrey’s inability to fake it. At times Kerrey sounds more interested in reinventing the whole business of American politics than in winning an election. A few hours before his Tufts rally, talking to a small group of students at Harvard, Kerrey launched unprompted into a political critique. “Typically, when you’re out campaigning there is a requirement to be quite emotional,” he said, complaining. “Otherwise, people come up afterwards and say, ‘What’s the matter with Bob? Something must be wrong with him.’ The art of American politics today is to stand up before the audience, angry at every single second, even if you’re only reading the phone book.”

Later, when pressed about his low-key style, Kerrey was quick to shift the discussion away from the day-to-day ugliness of a campaign. “I’d be very surprised if Jesus Christ, when he delivered his Sermon on the Mount, screamed and shouted,” Kerrey said quietly. “And I suspect it was very moving.”

The apparent question Bob Kerrey is putting to the Democratic party is, Could Jesus Christ beat George Bush?

If anybody needs a savior right now, of course, it’s the Democrats. For the last 20 years, they’ve wallowed in the remains of the New Deal, tagged in presidential elections as wimps, weenies and Communists. But Kerrey is one of a new generation of fiscally conservative and socially liberal Democrats who’re breaking this mold and are fighting to recapture the vast middle from the Republicans. In the process, they’re challenging some of their own party’s most entrenched beliefs. Already in the campaign, former Massachusetts senator Paul Tsongas has seconded President Bush’s demand for a capital-gains-tax cut. Arkansas governor Bill Clinton has called for stricter requirements on welfare recipients. Kerrey himself has said he’d like to reduce drastically the size of both the executive and legislative branches of the federal government.

“In 1984, you had only Gary Hart saying we’ve got to change the way we’re doing business as Democrats; in 1988, you had only Bruce Babbitt,” says Mike McCurry, a senior Kerrey adviser. “But in 1992, you have only [Tom] Harkin defending the old orthodoxy. The change has now happened: We are now in the post-New Deal Democratic party.” Kerrey and Clinton are the two front-runners of this group. Of the pair, Clinton is more polished, his professional fundraising smile well worn into his face. He’s a cofounder of the Democratic Leadership Council, a shrewd political insider who has been preparing for his presidential bid for a long time. He’s got a detailed policy agenda and broad regional appeal.

In contrast to Clinton’s deliberate positioning, Kerrey is a political foundling. “He is the new politics,” says William Schneider, a political analyst for CNN. “More than Gary Hart or Bill Clinton or Al Gore or anyone else, it’s completely instinctual with him.”

Nothing illustrates the difference between Kerrey and Clinton better than the decision to enter the race. Clinton has been prepping himself for years, making the right friends, readying himself on the issues. Not Kerrey. Although he had been considering his candidacy for several months last year, he finally decided to get in during the failed Soviet coup in August, when for a few hours President Bush appeared to support the interim military government. Kerrey was incensed.

“He called me up,” recalls one of his aides, “and said, ‘I’m running for president, and I’m going to make the announcement in a half-hour.'” The aide then gently suggested that Kerrey ought to do a few things first like pick a campaign team. The candidate agreed to put off the announcement for a month, until September 30th.

Not surprisingly, Kerrey is pushing a more radical message than Clinton, who is trying very hard not to scare anyone. Kerrey wants to toss out our current health-care system and build a new one from scratch. He wants to cut the number of cabinet agencies from 14 to seven and eliminate two-thirds of the oversight committees in Congress. On these two issues alone, Kerrey’s campaign amounts to a virtual revolution. “I’m not talking about tinkering around the edges,” Kerrey says. “I want a mandate, a mandate for fundamental change.”

While this might sound like textbook rhetoric for a presidential candidate, the difference here is that Kerrey seems to mean it. There is a reckless, go-for-broke attitude about Kerrey’s campaign, rooted in the fact that he came of age in the Sixties. Dan Quayle might have been the first national politician weaned on rock & roll, but much more than Quayle, Kerrey embodies the contrarian impulses of that era the idealism, innocence, disillusionment and rage.

“I believe we are all burdened with the need for a personal search,” he says, intoning the theme song of his generation. But Kerrey has taken his search further than most and, in a peculiarly American way, has fashioned his own personal mythology about himself as someone special, someone out of the ordinary. Getting part of his leg blown off in Vietnam, and the suffering he endured during recovery, only reinforced that notion. Kerrey learned to look at his own life with an almost religious cast, interpreting his past as a series of steps toward a meaningful end, all of it deliberately leading up to this moment and to what he refers to as “a calling” to run for president. Kerrey is deliberately vague about the details of this calling, wary perhaps of reminding anyone of his nickname: Cosmic Bob.

“I’m not very good at explaining it,” he says. “I just felt that it was something I could and should do. That I could help people.”

Apparently, feeling “called” to the presidency exempts Kerrey from much thought about campaign tactics or positioning himself in relation to his opponents. “I’ve never heard him say, ‘What do you think Clinton is going to do?'” says John Cavanaugh, an Omaha businessman who’s a member of Kerrey’s inner circle. “I couldn’t engage him in a discussion of what he was going to do if [Mario] Cuomo decided to run. He’d just look at me with this blank expression he didn’t understand the question.”

Kerrey is perfectly capable of taking this unconventional vision of himself to perverse lengths, professing to dislike even the conventional language of politics. “[An aide] said to me, ‘I’ve never seen anyone overrun their applause lines like you,’ ” recalls Kerrey. “And it’s true, I don’t like them. Part of me wants to say, ‘Look, don’t applaud this. I’m telling you what I think we need to do you’ve gotta have some ideas on this as well. Let’s develop a collective dream together, and let’s commit ourselves to roll up our sleeves and build the damn thing.'”

It sometimes seems that Kerrey’s whole campaign is not about winning but about proving to himself that despite his desire for power and his feeling of being called to public service, he is not a politician at all. And if running for president is a strange way of doing that, so be it. “Bob Kerrey,” says Jim Robinson, a South Dakota political consultant who worked on Kerrey’s ’88 Senate election, “is the kind of guy who will piss in the wind just to see if he’ll get wet.”

Kerrey was not conceived under a magic star, nor did he come into this world marked with the sense of specialness that now seems to motivate him. He was born and reared in Lincoln, Nebraska, one of seven children, the third of four boys. No genius at the books, he did manage to make the honor roll in high school. One childhood friend remembers that a science teacher “inspired” Kerrey to enroll in pharmacy school upon graduation. By then it was the early Sixties although Kerrey certainly wasn’t living proof. “I remember one of my professors talking about the war with great passion,” he says. “He was talking about Americans’ bombing the Vietnamese he was obviously against the war. But it never registered with me.”

Kerrey is rehashing his military history while slouched in a coach seat on a crowded Delta flight from Las Vegas to Dallas. He’s been working on a speech commemorating Pearl Harbor, and he clearly enjoys the opportunity to indulge himself in his own war stories. When the draft began, Kerrey could have gotten special consideration with his pharmacy degree, but he wanted action. He enlisted in the navy because he’d read The Cain Mutiny just before his physical. He completed Naval Officer Candidate School in 1967, then volunteered for the navy’s underwater demolition team. “I loved the water,” he says, “loved being in the ocean.” It was a rigorous ordeal of the 177 who began, only 69 finished. But it wasn’t enough for Kerrey, who was picked along with a dozen others to go on to the next level, the SEALs, the navy’s equivalent of the Green Berets.

To become a SEAL, Kerrey had to endure 25 more weeks of training that culminated in Hell Week, during which recruits were forced to operate for six consecutive days and nights on 20 minutes sleep a night. Kerrey was learning his first lesson in leadership: Be tough, be silent. “Stoicism was the name of the game,” says Gary Parrott, a friend of Kerrey’s and fellow SEAL. “If you showed any vulnerability, the instructors would immediately attack it if — you said your arm hurt, they would make you do 50 push-ups and pull-ups to give you more pain.”

Still, after all his training, Kerrey arrived in Vietnam almost as raw as the average recruit. “You’ve heard of the clich of the green junior officer?” Kerrey jokes as he munches on a handful of oriental-mix nuts. “That was me.” It was a pitch-black night in December 1968 when Lieutenant Kerrey and his men landed at the navy base in Da Nang. Before they traveled to their barracks, Kerrey had his men apply face paint and lock and load their M-16s. The next morning, Kerrey realized he’d been a bit premature; outside their barracks, GIs were driving to the beach with surfboards sticking out of their jeeps.

Three months and almost 20 missions later, Kerrey was still learning. One night, Kerrey and his men were watching a John Wayne movie when they got word that two enemy deserters had been plucked out of the waters off an island in nearby Nha Trang Bay. Off Kerrey went to interrogate them. The deserters told him that two enemy squads were hiding on the island they had left, squads that were known to be responsible for several recent attacks against U.S. installations in the area.

Kerrey responded with little hesitation. “I made the judgment that if we were going to get them, we’d have to act quickly,” he says. “Because they could break camp and discover [the deserters] gone, and they’d move on. So we told the guys, ‘So you’re going to lead us back in; show us where the sleeping positions are.'”

The SEAL team paddled silently to the island via rubber raft. Once on shore, they scaled a rocky 350-foot cliff on the backside of the island; on top, according to their informants, was the enemy. Kerrey had his men climb barefoot (it was quieter) and without ropes.

Just like the night he first landed in Vietnam, the sky “was moonless, starless, overcast, just black you couldn’t see the guy in front of you.” Just then, the Delta pilot cuts in over the loudspeakers to say that the lights of Albuquerque are visible some 40,000 feet below. The announcement doesn’t register with Kerrey, who’s now deep into his tale. Twenty-three years later, it’s a story he hasn’t told often – even some of his closest friends haven’t heard it. Still, it comes out flat, simply, as he reverts to military lingo. “But what happened was, we got there a little too late. We found the first sleeping group all right, and if we’d been smart, if I’d not been so green, we probably would have said, let’s just stop the operation, we’re going to take these guys right here. Instead, I followed through.”

Kerrey left a few men to watch over the first group, then headed off to find the second. But something went wrong. They found the second group, but they weren’t sleeping. “I ran into these guys, and they initiated fire,” Kerrey says. “I emptied a half a magazine on one guy I ran into, and he dropped a charge right in front of me. . . . I was down in a sorta one-knee-bent position, leg out, like I served it up for the guillotine. . . . The good news was [the ground] was very rocky, so the blast was blocked, and it didn’t come up into the gut. It hit both hands and a little chest, a little head, but most of the blast was sheared by the rock.”

Kerrey’s soldiering was almost over, but not quite. “I had a headband on, and I used it as a tourniquet to tie off my leg.” With the radio man at his side, Kerrey remained conscious, directing fire. The SEAL team eventually prevailed, then called in a helicopter to lift Kerrey out.

He was taken to an army hospital in Yokosuka, Japan, and from there to Philadelphia Naval Hospital, where his leg was amputated below the knee. But it was at Yokosuka that Kerrey had what he calls “the most important experience of my life.” Kerrey had been knocked out for three or four days since the firefight, fading in and out of consciousness. Suddenly he was wide awake.

“I remember this guy in my room with a purple robe on, with a sort of plastic cap on his head – he had some sort of a skin problem,” Kerrey says. He leans forward in his seat, and his mood shifts again as he moves from the moment of injury to the moment of recovery. “I remember the lamp on the table next to me, and magazines. And I read a Newsweek. All the stories just came alive. That was the first recognition that I was alert, that I was awake. Then I saw me, and I saw the day before, I saw the mission itself, saw all the way back through my life. A Spanish short-story writer – I can’t remember his name – describes a similar moment, and he talks about the compression of all time into a single moment. And that’s what it felt like. For 20 or 30 minutes, I was completely awake. . . . I thought and believe now that it was a gift from God. I did nothing. I made no effort. Just there I was.”

For Kerrey, raised in the cold, practical confines of Midwestern Protestantism, it was the closest thing to a religious experience he’d ever felt. When he talks about his “calling,” this is the moment it can all be traced back to. What Kerrey discovered in the hospital in Yokosuka, although he didn’t know it at the time, was that his life had meaning. That in some odd, peculiarly American way, losing the leg made him more special, more invincible than before.

Kerrey spent nine months in the Philadelphia hospital, recovering from his wound. “You felt like you were in a trash can,” he says. “This was the refuse of the war. It was the first time I had experienced suffering. I pledged myself not to forget.”

“Every morning surgeons would go room to room, changing dressings on the stumps,” says Jim Crotty, Kerrey’s hospital roommate and now a lawyer near Philadelphia. “You knew where they were by the sound of the screams. I observed Bob’s dressings changed for weeks, and I never heard him scream.”

Kerrey’s SEAL training may have taught him how to bite the bullet in silence, but nothing prepared him for the view of human suffering that now surrounded him. It had a profound effect on the middle-class kid from Nebraska: “I pledged that I would never forget what happened in the hospital, that there were suffering people in the world, and that I could help.”

A year later, in 1970, Kerrey was nominated for the Congressional Medal of Honor. He initially refused it. “He just thought it was bogus,” says one friend. Kerrey remembers feeling that “you bring people home, you clean them up, put a medal around their necks, and everyone thinks that’s what the war is about.” But after a talk with one of his SEAL instructors, who told him he owed it to the team, Kerrey changed his mind and accepted the award from President Nixon in May 1970. To Kerrey, as to many vets just home from the war, Nixon was the devil. “I’ve joked before about how he had bad breath,” Kerrey says, “but that was just my way of saying that he was human. When I shook his hand, I realized that he was a human being.”

Several years of bitterness followed. He moved out to Berkeley, California, for a while, then back to Nebraska, drifting in and out of pharmacy work. In 1973 he started a restaurant with his brother-in-law, Dean Rasmussen, which eventually grew to a chain of nine restaurants and three athletic clubs that made the two men millionaires. In 1974, Kerrey married Bev Defnall, an aspiring actress. Four years and two children later, they were divorced.

In 1981, although he had never held political office, Kerrey announced that he was running for governor. Friends thought he was nuts, but after an all-out house-to-house campaign, aided by some of his old SEAL buddies, Kerrey narrowly defeated Republican incumbent Charles Thone. Once in office, Kerrey’s tangible achievements were minor: He eliminated a small budget deficit and settled long-standing disputes over water rights and the state’s regulation of Christian schools.

More memorable was his talent for drama. Nebraskans still talk about the day he stopped a train carrying nuclear waste at the state line. Kerrey had heard rumors about the train and called the U.S. Department of Energy to inquire, but no one there would tell him anything about the train or its cargo. So Kerrey dispatched his chief of staff to the state line in a helicopter to stop the train. The standoff made headlines all over the state; finally the DOE gave in and told Kerrey what he wanted to know. Satisfied, he let the train pass.

And then, of course, there was his involvement with that other actress. The story is by now familiar how Kerrey met Winger when she came to the state to film Terms of Endearment, and how he didn’t hesitate to invite her to stay with him in the governor’s mansion, even for weeks at a time. His staff howled, begging him to either marry her or kick her out, sure that the good people of Nebraska would be outraged. Kerrey knew otherwise or didn’t care. As it turned out, Nebraskans loved it.

It’s hard to imagine a politician walking away from certain reelection, but at the end of his first term, Kerrey did just that, despite a 70-percent approval rating. Four years was enough. “I want more danger in my life,” he told a reporter. Kerrey bided his time, teaching high school, then lecturing at the University of California at Santa Barbara in a class on Vietnam. In March 1987, Nebraska senator Ed Zorinsky died suddenly. It was the challenge Kerrey had been looking for.

The campaign was a breeze, and the victory celebration on election night turned out to be one of the most memorable moments in Kerrey’s political career. Standing in front of a crowd that included five SEAL buddies, Kerrey thanked everyone who had contributed to his campaign, then quietly began singing “Waltzing Matilda,” an Australian ballad adapted by World War II soldiers, about a veteran who returns home after his leg has been blown off:

Then a big Turkey shell knocked me assover head.
And when I awoke in my hospital bed I saw what it had done
And I wished I were dead. Never knew there were worse things
than dyin’. No more waltzing Matilda for me.

The crowd of 3000 dissolved into tears, including a local TV correspondent, who barely finished describing the scene for viewers.

It is a moment that’s been re-created by dozens of journalists to illustrate what a daring, unconventional politician Kerrey is (two months into the current campaign, several of Kerrey’s handlers had become so sick of hearing about “Waltzing Matilda” that their eyes rolled whenever it was mentioned). But the outburst at the victory celebration wasn’t as spontaneous or as risky as it might seem.

Kerrey had given the same performance a year earlier. After delivering a dry, unemotional lecture on Vietnam to a class at UC Santa Barbara, several students hounded Kerrey for not revealing his own personal feelings about how it felt to go to war. Instead of answering directly, Kerrey, the wounded hero, broke out in song and moved his audience to tears. Kerrey the politician had learned how to strike a chord, and he wouldn’t forget.

Kerrey’s most successful moments as a presidential candidate have, in fact, come when he’s played less to reason and more to emotion. During the first Democratic debate in December, former California governor Jerry Brown implied that because Kerrey had accepted PAC money, he was therefore corrupt. Kerrey leapt at him: “Are you saying I’m bought and sold?” Brown mumbled, and Kerrey hammered him again: “Are you saying I’m bought and sold?” It was the most compelling moment in the debate.

For a man who claims to loathe sound bites, he can be remarkably good at them when he gets worked up. One evening, at a small gathering in Salem, New Hampshire, Kerrey was asked how he would respond if Bush tried to peg him as “a card-carrying liberal” the tag that had helped to destroy Dukakis in ’88. Again Kerrey leapt at the challenge. “Card or no card, Mr. Bush, on the basis of spending, you guys have spent us off the planet,” he snapped. “You put us in bankruptcy on the issue of spending. I’ve never seen guys who have borrowed money like you. And on the issue of programs, tell me which of these liberal programs you don’t like — is it the farm program, Mr. Bush? Is it Medicare? What is it you don’t like, Mr. Bush? Tell me.”

In Dallas, Kerrey held up a picture of Bush’s new campaign staff that he’d ripped out of a newspaper and asked the crowd, “Who are these people? Whose interests do they represent in America?” In New Hampshire, he told a crowd, “Bill Moyers called George Bush the most deeply unprincipled man he ever met.” Kerrey paused, letting it sink in for a minute. “And I’d say as far as politics goes, I’d have to agree.”

The crowd was riveted. “When Kerrey is on, when he really connects with people, everyone gets silent,” says a longtime observer. The problem is, they’re also silent when Kerrey is off because they’re asleep. In mid-December, Kerrey included this sentence in a major address on trade policy at MIT: “I was in business prior to getting into politics, and my orientation, as a consequence of that, tends to be much more from the point of view of one who is trying to assemble capital, get permission from government to do a variety of things, organize an effort toward a presentation of business services into a marketplace that obviously needs to be satisfied, and trying, with the assistance of a very good bookkeeper, to make it appear that my payables were current long enough to become liquid enough to feel comfortable predicting that I am going to survive economically.” Translation: I used to run a restaurant.

“Bob always has to fight his desire to tell the whole story, not just pieces of it,” says his sister, Jessie Rasmussen, who’s a Nebraska state senator. “He hates to stop here with ideas; he wants to keep thinking about it, keep evolving. But you can’t do that in presidential politics you have to have a simple message, and you have to get it out to everyone.”

On most of the litmus tests, Kerrey is the definition of the new-generation Democrat: He’s for the death penalty, for a woman’s right to choose, for middle-class tax cuts. On trade, he’s less of a protectionist than some of his rivals, and he has also has been bold in his support of affirmative action. He has been unwilling to talk in detail about welfare reform, which is quickly evolving into one of the campaign’s hot issues. On education he speaks in a very general way about establishing a venture-capital corporation to help schools on a local level — an idea he frankly admits he borrowed from the Bush administration. And when it comes to the deficit, Kerrey’s all-too-typical response is to cite his own record of reshaping the Nebraska budget during his tenure as governor, turning a three-percent deficit into a seven-percent surplus. “Mostly it requires will,” says Kerrey, content to leave it at that.

Combined with a handshake and a smile, Kerrey’s broad package has succeeded in two statewide elections. But some question how it will play nationally. Kevin Phillips, a conservative political analyst, says: “Kerrey has been able to work well in small markets like Nebraska, where if you’re good at retail politics and reasonably intelligent, you can work the image thing and play to centrist Democrats. But he doesn’t have time to do that in the entire country, so the question becomes, How do you project that? It’s not clear Kerrey has any answers.”

Kerrey thinks his answer is, simply, health care. It’s all he really wants to talk about. But the issue is so Byzantine that it’s almost impossible to cram a coherent explanation of his proposal, known as Health USA, into a 15-minute whistle-stop speech, much less a 30-second sound bite. The basics are as follows: Kerrey’s proposal would untie health care from employment, providing long-term care for all while still allowing people to pick their own doctors and hospitals. Costs would be contained because they would be budgeted at the federal level. The program would be funded by a five-percent payroll tax. Kerrey argues that, since insurance premiums would disappear and out-of-pocket costs would shrink dramatically under his proposal, a median-income family would save about $500 a year, even after the new taxes.

As sturdy and thought through as Kerrey’s proposal may be, it will not slide down the gullet of America without a fight. The dirty word taxes is buried in there, after all. But his proposal carries other risks. “It’s a dangerous thing to run on,” says William Schneider, who points out that Harris Wofford won his Pennsylvania senate race on the promise of health care, not the specifics. “If Kerrey ever gets up there closer to the nomination, it’ll become a target — doctors, insurance companies and other interests, they’ll all start picking it apart. No matter how good it is, they can make it seem so radical that a lot of people will start thinking, ‘Hey, this guy has a lot of crazy ideas.’ It could end up scaring off a lot of voters.”

But that doesn’t scare Kerrey. “Health care is the defining issue in 1992,” he says. “I’m willing to stake not only my campaign on it but my entire political career.”

No doubt he prefers those stakes. In his political life, Kerrey has shown a proclivity for big risks and reckless talk. A look of terror comes over his handlers’ eyes whenever a reporter pulls Kerrey aside — he’s liable to say anything, without regard for the consequences. “We never know what he’s told them until we read about it a couple weeks later in the paper,” says Will Kanteres, one of Kerrey’s advisers. No one who is close to him was surprised when the Jerry Brown-lesbian joke he told Clinton at a political roast got picked up. “And I wouldn’t be surprised if it happens again,” says Mike McCurry. To Kerrey’s credit, he knows how to respond when he’s made a faux pas after both the joke and the restaurant scandal, he got on top of the story right away, not letting it mushroom into something larger.

Still, despite all the momentum these incidents cost him, the lesson doesn’t seem to have registered. As he wound down from his reminiscences of Vietnam on the flight from Vegas to Dallas, the frat boy in Kerrey emerged again, and he began to talk about more lively moments from his stay at the Philadelphia Naval Hospital. It had only been a month since the flap over the joke, but he launched without hesitation into a story about one of the older veterans in the ward with him and a tall, sexy, blond nurse who liked to amuse the man by sitting on his lap when he was in his wheelchair. Every time the nurse came into Kerrey’s room, he recalled, he got “an erection which was a little embarrassing, because I was stuck flat on my back at the time, with only a sheet to cover me.” While it was clear that Kerrey meant nothing offensive in recounting this anecdote, he didn’t seem to understand that it wasn’t the sort of story voters in Middle America expected their president, or someone who wanted to be their president, to tell.

During a hectic day on the campaign trail in December, Kerrey took time out to visit a college class to discuss Walker Percy’s novel The Moviegoer, which he read for the first time not long after coming home from Vietnam. (“It’s not possible to feel history, Percy tells us, unless we feel the here and now.”) Afterward, a student asked him for his ideas about the difference between soul and conscience. Kerrey didn’t bat an eye. “To me, the word soul offers very little, whereas the word conscience offers quite a bit,” he said. “And it is my conscience that I am constantly trying to develop.”

To illustrate his point, he told the story of a film in which a happily married young man reluctantly kills an army deserter who is terrorizing his family. Unknowingly, the man has crossed over an invisible line, and having killed once, he finds it easier to kill again. At the end of the movie, his life unraveling, he murders another man, just for his boots. “The reason I tell this story,” Kerrey said, “is that it’s very often true in these sorts of situations where you say, ‘Okay, I’ll divide my conscience once just to get this thing done, to survive, but I won’t do it again.’ And it’s very difficult to do that. My strong recommendation not to you, but to myself is to avoid it whenever possible.”

“As a candidate,” Kerrey explained later, reflecting on his remarks at Harvard, “you can become so possessed with winning the election that you say, ‘I’ll just change myself, and then once I get through. . .’ Well, you’ve just sold yourself under false pretenses. They’ve elected somebody you’re not. And then where are you? You’re back to the White House. That’s exactly what George Bush is.”

In his campaign, Kerrey is doing all he can to set himself up as a man apart not only from George Bush but from the whole system. And he’s doing everything he can to convince voters that he offers no easy path. Indeed, to win, Kerrey is going to have to convince people to make a leap of faith. To trust that a guy who made his millions running restaurants can restore the economy. That a man who sent men into battle in Vietnam understands foreign policy. That a man with but three years in the Senate can build the kind of coalition to bull through the fundamental reforms he’s campaigning for.

But for Kerrey, there is more at stake here than just winning the election. He’s created a moral dilemma for himself. All his life, he’s advanced by trusting his instincts. Now he seems aware of how deep he’s gotten himself in, and he’s beginning to see the consequences. If he plunges forward, he will not be able to avoid dividing his conscience, sullying himself in the art of compromise. To have a shot at the nomination, he will have to resist what seems to be a deep desire to ride through the campaign on a white horse, playing the hero in a fallen land too far gone to heed his call. He will have to become in his own mind, anyway the thing he loathes, the thing that almost got him killed in Vietnam: a politician.

It is not a moment without precedent in his life. “The first time I went rappelling [during SEAL training] was on a dam east of San Diego,” Kerrey recalls. “We’d been in a classroom before, and they showed us the physics of rappelling and all that. A couple of other people demonstrated it, and then we started doing the real thing. Well, I had it in my head that I could do it, and so I got out there, tied myself off to the railing on the top of the dam and was ready. The instructor says, ‘Okay, Lieutenant, you can let go.’ Well, I couldn’t let go.

I just couldn’t do it. So he rapped me on the knuckles, and I let go.” Kerrey takes a long pause. “It may seem like a long leap,” he says, “but that’s a repetitive process in life. Your mind says, ‘Why don’t you let go? I can do this.’ And somewhere else in you, you say, The hell you can. You’re not going anywhere. You’re going to get hurt.’ “

In This Article: Coverwall

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