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Bob Kerrey Will Call Your Bullshit

But will his sardonic wit and straight talk help him survive a barrage of attack ads? Or serve as fodder?

Update, 7:34 PST, November 6, 2012: ABC and CBS are calling the Nebraska Senate race for Deb Fischer.

IN THE LOBBY OUTSIDE PALACE E of the dank and down-in-the-heels Ramada Plaza Convention Center, just off the interstate in Omaha, Nebraska, veteran political reporter Don Walton and Senate candidate Bob Kerrey were chatting amiably. I had been shadowing Kerrey all morning as he met with various Democratic caucuses gathered for the state convention. He had run unopposed, as party forces acknowledged that he was their best hope in the race for the US Senate seat vacated by Democrat Ben Nelson. The delegates seemed eager but edgy when Kerrey rolled out his red-meat campaign against the unknown and largely invisible Nebraska state Sen. Deb Fischer. Despite her low profile, the tea party Republican was killing Kerrey in the polls, thanks to millions in super-PAC funds from Karl Rove, the Koch brothers, and TD Ameritrade founder Joe Ricketts. Kerrey's campaign had been dented by a slate of negative ads branding him a "carpetbagger" for having spent the last decade in New York City—much of it as the embattled president of the New School. On Fox News, Karl Rove accused Kerrey of "moving to the big city and turning [his] back on the folks back home," a charge that visibly gets under Kerrey's skin.

Earlier that morning, while addressing the county chairs, Kerrey vowed that his campaign would call out such outright lies. "Negative campaigning is one thing if you're telling the truth, but let's talk about what a lie is," he said. "It's a lie to say that I'm a New Yorker. I was born in this state. I went to public schools in this state. I went to the university in this state. I volunteered for the Navy in this state. I came back disabled to this state." His voice kept rising in pitch and volume; if the speech was rehearsed, it was still raw. "I started a business in this state," he continued. "I was the governor of this state. I was a senator for 12 years. Karl Rove—I'm not sure he's ever been in Nebraska—is telling Nebraskans a lie. It's a lie. I took a job in New York City. That's true. And I've been back and forth for the last 11 years, seeing my friends, seeing my family, seeing my business. I almost never turned down any opportunity to be involved in some community effort during that entire time. So it's a lie."

Kerrey's handlers know that such oratorical jags may represent their best chance of climbing back into this race, but they are also painfully aware that he can come across as thin-skinned and defensive. That's the gamble they're forced to take—resting everything on the hope that Kerrey's passion will be enough to win over voters and recapture the seat he yielded 12 years ago to Nelson, who announced his retirement in December after Citizens United made it clear he would face a full-on tea party assault. Kerrey has the "100 percent" backing of Warren Buffett, the CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, whose family has held fundraisers for the fellow Nebraskan. But Buffett also told Politico, "I will not be doing super-PACs of any sort. I think allowing unlimited contributions to campaigns is a terrible idea and an important and unfortunate step toward a plutocracy." So Kerrey's camp must cobble together small donations while convincing Nebraskans that their candidate came back because he feels duty-bound to serve his home state, not because he answered the call of Harry Reid. Only grudgingly had his campaign allowed me to watch the effort unfold in real time—though, thus far, Kerrey had been cagey with me, offering little more than side comments and polite questions. But in casual conversation with Walton, who has been covering Kerrey's political career for the Lincoln Journal Star for decades, he was loose and unguarded.

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"You're gonna speak today," Walton said, teasingly. "I'm gonna listen."

"With tears in your eyes," Kerrey replied with mock tremolo.

Kerrey wasn't scheduled to take the stage for more than an hour, so the two bantered about the struggles of their shared team—the Yankees. Walton faulted the starting pitching for New York's recent troubles. Kerrey was hoping the bullpen might get a boost in the form of a late-season return by Mariano Rivera.

Walton paused a moment, then mused, "Can I out you as a Yankees fan?"

"I've been a Yankees fan since I was six," Kerrey replied.

"But you know what they'll say," Walton scolded, "'Yeah—New York.'"

"And my response to that," Kerrey said, "is: Fuck 'em."

Walton laughed, but Kerrey wasn't joking. He turned to me, unsmiling but affable, and asked if I wanted to get that cup of coffee now. He was suddenly ready to talk.

IN JANUARY 2000, AS KERREY was winding down his second term in the Senate, he shocked pundits by announcing he would leave politics. "I feel my spiritual side needs to be filled back up," he said. On the surface, it seemed vintage Bob Kerrey: confounding conventional wisdom and giving little clue to his inner thoughts.

"My response to that," Kerrey said, "is: Fuck 'em."

What no one knew then was that Kerrey had been dogged for more than a year by Gregory Vistica, a reporter working on a story originally pegged to appear when Kerrey, as was expected, announced he was running for president. Vistica first contacted the senator after speaking to members of the Navy SEAL team Kerrey had led as a young lieutenant in Vietnam, and he was chasing down a rumor about a midnight commando raid on a remote village called Thanh Phong in the eastern Mekong Delta on February 25, 1969.

That night, acting on intelligence that a meeting of high-level Vietcong was to be held there, Kerrey's commando team approached Thanh Phong, where the point man came to an inhabited bamboo hut that hadn't been noted on reconnaissance. "We had been trained that in such situations it would be too risky to move forward knowing that they would warn the men in the village," Kerrey would write later. Standard procedure was to slit their throats. One of Kerrey's squad, Gerhard Klann, told Vistica that Kerrey gave the order. Kerrey disputes this—as does Mike Ambrose, the point man. "I did not have to give an order to begin the killing," Kerrey wrote in his memoir, "but I could have stopped it and I didn't."

Worse still, once in the village, the team found that there was not only no Vietcong meeting but that every hut was empty of men. Women and children began to rouse and gather outside, talking loudly. "We knew we were in trouble," Kerrey wrote. "We had two choices: withdraw or continue to search houses in the dark. Before we could make the decision, someone shot at us from the direction of the women and children, trapping them in a crossfire. We returned a tremendous barrage of fire and began to withdraw, continuing to fire. I saw women and children in front of us being hit and cut to pieces. I heard their cries and other voices in the darkness as we made our retreat." Kerrey was awarded a Bronze Star for his actions that night and never spoke of it again.

Thirty years later, facing the prospect of public accusations from Klann that he ordered the massacre, Kerrey first announced he wouldn't run for president and later that he'd leave the Senate. But the story came out anyway—culminating not only in a New York Times Magazine cover story in 2001 but also a segment on 60 Minutes II—and he wrote about the incident in his memoir, When I Was a Young Man, published the following year. He confessed that, when he was later wounded by a grenade as he led a daring assault on a Vietcong stronghold and the lower part of his right leg had to be amputated, he regarded his suffering as penance for his misdeeds: "I had convinced myself that my injury was retribution, punishment, rather than a combat wound from heroic duty. My spirit was in darkness. Like Jonah, the whale had swallowed me; unlike him, I believed I would spend eternity inside the belly of the beast." Kerrey was awarded the Medal of Honor for this mission, but he carried with him a wrenching inner pain.

"We celebrate the sacrifice," said Kerrey, a former SEAL, "but avoid the discussion of what it is those kids are being trained to do."

Now, 11 years after these public revelations, Kerrey is more comfortable discussing Thanh Phong and the darkness that welled up inside him afterward. "I told that story for a reason," he told me. We were tucked into a booth at the restaurant in the Ramada, drinking watery coffee from thick mugs. He said that he spoke out to help others who carry similar demons, and now, in an era when thousands of combat veterans are committing suicide, he feels that he can become a public voice for the pain they are going through. "We celebrate the sacrifice," he said, "but avoid the discussion of what it is those kids are being trained to do."

"It's unutterable," he continued. "You're not going to be the same. The kid that went in there is dead. You're a different person. You've come back changed. You've got the same name. You've got the same Social Security [number]. You've got the same friends, same family. Everything's the same, but you're different."

Kerrey said that walking in a field, approaching a ridgeline in Nebraska, still conjures flashes of Vietnam, a back-of-the-neck prickle of danger. Other times, usually when he's alone, he feels a regret so acute that he likens it to a heart attack. "I haven't mapped it out to understand exactly where it comes from," he said. Kerrey believes that understanding the unending personal toll of war has made him more circumspect about using military force. "In this campaign I was asked the question, 'Do you want to go to war in Iran?'—and the answer is absolutely not. Deb Fischer said, 'Well, if our nation's security is threatened, we'll have to go in.'" His voice grew incredulous. "Have to go in? Excuse me, you want to unpack that expression? We have to go in? What does that mean? We have to go in. What are the details behind that? We have to go in." He faults politicians for lobbying for military actions—first in Afghanistan and Iraq, now in Iran and Syria—without having frank discussions about the costs, in the process accumulating trillions of dollars of debt and marring young lives. "Don't go to the American Legion and get them all fired up with your patriotic—" His lips pursed into a tight B, but he caught himself. "Patriotic rhetoric," he said. "Either put your money where your mouth is, or stay away from this issue."

I couldn't help but laugh. "Was 'rhetoric' your first choice of words?" I asked.

"No, I was gonna say 'bullshit,'" Kerrey responded. And, for a moment—finally—he smiled.

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