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?

Photos by Danny Wilcox Frazier

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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.

“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.

FOUR MONTHS BEFORE THE TIMES Magazine story ran, and as his political career appeared to be closing out, Kerrey got a phone call from Bill Clinton, who wanted to unwind with his old friend and sometime political foe. The two took in a basketball game at Madison Square Garden and then headed to Mario Batali’s Babbo restaurant in the West Village. According to co-owner Joe Bastianich, there was “lots of backslapping and drinking.” Eventually, talk turned to a night in November 1991, when both men were seeking the Democratic presidential nomination and stood together offstage at a New Hampshire fundraiser. C-SPAN mics picked up Kerrey telling an off-color joke.

It goes like this.

Jerry Brown (the California governor and then-Democratic presidential hopeful) walks into a bar and sees two attractive women. Gov. Moonbeam says to the bartender that he’d “really like to lay some lovin’ on one of them.” (Or, that’s the way Chris Matthews, then the DC bureau chief for the San Francisco Examiner, reported it.)

“Forget it, pal,” the bartender tells Brown. “They’re lesbians.”

“How do you know?”

The bartender leans in and whispers something in Brown’s ear.

Kerrey’s sardonic wit can come off well: “What can I say? She swept me off my foot,” he once said of dating Debra Winger. But it can also make him look embittered: “Santorum? Is that Latin for asshole?”

“So what?” Brown protests. “I like to eat pussy. Does that make me a lesbian?”

The joke effectively ended Kerrey’s campaign and kicked the door open for Clinton to become president. Nearly a decade later, laughing about it over dinner, the two men discovered, too late, that the table of young women next to them were willing and able to dish to gossip columnists. As Bastianich later recalled, “Kerrey got screwed for the same joke a second time.”

Kerrey’s waggish wit hasn’t always been a liability. When he was governor and struck up a relationship with Debra Winger while she was in Lincoln filming Terms of Endearment, he deflected personal questions by joking, “What can I say? She swept me off my foot.” But more often, Kerrey’s sardonic sense of humor has contributed to the view that he is embittered. In 1998, he responded to the Lewinsky scandal by suggesting that “Kenneth Starr’s approval rating is lower than Saddam Hussein’s.” As recently as the current presidential season, Kerrey drew headlines for an old quip, “Santorum? Is that Latin for asshole?”

Such tendency toward the quotable worries some that Kerrey, who hasn’t run a political campaign since 1994, fails to grasp the extent to which social media now drive the 24-hour news cycle. (Kerrey told me that he didn’t have a smartphone until the campaign began.) At one event, speaking to a group of veterans at Bellevue University, Kerrey ridiculed Nebraska’s Republican Sen. Mike Johanns for his obsequious remarks to JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon before he testified in front of the Senate Banking Committee. “Mr. Dimon,” Johanns said, “[it] occurs to me that an enterprise as big and powerful as yours, you’ve got a lot of firepower and you’re—you’re just huge.” Kerrey told the veterans that, watching the hearing, he thought, “My God, he wants to have sex with him.” In the elevator afterward, Kerrey’s social-media manager expressed relief that her video camera was the only one in the room.

But often it’s not just offhanded remarks; it’s a question of strategy. As the carpetbagger label was getting traction, for example, Kerrey gave an interview to Matt Bai for another New York Times Magazine profile, and soon after Kerrey’s wife, Sarah Paley, a Brooklyn-bred ex-writer for Saturday Night Live who still hadn’t moved the couple’s son from their Greenwich Village home, wrote in Vogue that the Great Plains are “a strange land for an Easterner of my ilk.” With poll numbers sagging, Kerrey bluntly enumerated his challenges to Bloomberg News: Only 32 percent of Nebraskans are registered as Democrats; pro-Republican super-PACs were filling Fischer’s coffers; and Obama is wildly unpopular in Nebraska, which will drive up Republican turnout in the rural 3rd District, where the Senate race is likely to be decided. Fundraising staffers are aware that Kerrey’s no-bones-about-it assessment can sound defeatist, stunting their efforts to open Democratic wallets. But Kerrey almost pathologically identifies with the underdog. “Warren Buffett is fond of saying he won ‘the ovarian lottery.’ Well, I did too,” he says. That sense of unearned privilege compels him to serve. “When you’re fighting for economic and social justice, you’re always fighting for the minority.”Bob Kerrey sits in a Scottsbluff diner, waiting to meet with ranchers and farmers.Bob Kerrey sits in a Scottsbluff diner, waiting to meet with ranchers and farmers.

Meanwhile, with polls giving Fischer anywhere from a 14- to 25-point lead, the untested Republican has gone to ground. After Kerrey’s camp called for seven debates, her campaign agreed only to one—at the state fair. [Update: read about the debate here.] Almost all communication has been taken over by her campaign manager (who never answered my repeated emails and phone calls). Fischer’s efforts, according to Kerrey’s camp, have focused on private fundraisers, forcing Kerrey to behave like the rookie challenger, chasing an aloof incumbent.

Even so, Kerrey must walk a messaging tightrope, never giving off the air of an entitled politician piqued at having to vie for what is rightly his, while still forcefully answering attacks from outside interests. Nebraskans are adamant about self-determination and have gravitated toward Fischer’s rancher image and claim that she is “sharp as barbed wire.” So Kerrey’s best bet may be to portray Fischer as a sock puppet—a candidate chosen for her pliability, not her pluck.

IN JULY, THE NEBRASKA DEMOCRATIC Party unveiled a new attack ad, hammering Fischer—who rails against government bailouts and subsidies—for receiving what amounts to a subsidy by grazing her cattle on public lands. Fischer’s family lease on 11,724 acres of land in McKelvie National Forest costs less than $5,000 a year—estimated by the Omaha World-Herald at about $110,000 less than the going rate for surrounding private land. In a state with more than 20,000 beef producers, Fischer’s operation is 1 of about 140 to receive such a lease. “Think you know Deb Fischer?” the ad darkly intones. “Well, behind her rhetoric is a lot of bull. Tell welfare rancher Deb Fischer to cut wasteful spending, not profit from it.”

But in a Perkins just off Highway 26 in the Nebraska panhandle town of Scottsbluff, Pete Lapaseotes wasn’t buying it. He owns and operates Lapaseotes Feed Yard, about 30 miles down the highway in Bridgeport, and he sits on the board of the North Platte Natural Resources District. “That’s politics,” he said. “Wherever you live, you have opportunities. We live where you have good groundwater, where some of our neighbors don’t. She lives where there’s public land. That’s just the way it is. In the agricultural business, you got to take all the opportunities you can.”

Lapaseotes wore a red Western shirt, mottled goatee, and a worried expression. He said he couldn’t afford to waste time with political squabbles; he was more concerned about the rising drought conditions in western Nebraska and the mounting risk of wildfires. The night before, lights on the Western Sugar plant in Scottsbluff blazed orange through the haze from fires burning all the way from Laramie to Colorado Springs. Lapaseotes was finishing dinner with his family when he saw a lightning strike outside his window ignite one of his fields. The fire department was able to contain the burn at just 50 acres or so, but the incident underscored his fears.

“Are there conversations going on about whether this is a long-term trend in weather?” Kerrey asked a room full of ranchers. ” If we go from a semiarid to an arid state, our state income is going to drop precipitously.” The room fell silent, and everyone studied their breakfast plates.

When Kerrey arrived he assured the group of local ranchers and farmers: “I know how to do this job. I know what occurs in the valley. I understand the sugar program. I understand beans. I understand corn and cattle.” He’d called the USDA the week before to stress that more than 40 percent of Nebraska was in severe drought conditions and was calling old congressional colleagues, urging passage of the farm bill. “Again,” Kerrey said, “I know how to do that. If you have a problem with the USDA, the Department of Labor, or the EPA, you got to go right at them.” He talked in depth about high corn prices and the threat to ethanol production, dryland millet sitting in drought-stricken fields, and the small beef producers who were liquidating their herds because they couldn’t get enough forage to feed their cows. Farmers and ranchers nodded their approval.

But then Kerrey leaned forward in his seat. “Let me mention the great unmentionable,” he began. “Are there conversations going on about whether this is a long-term trend in weather? Does climate get raised at all in this conversation? Because we’re a hell of a lot more vulnerable than anybody else to long-term climate change. If we go from a semiarid to an arid state, our state income is going to drop precipitously.”

The room fell silent, and everyone studied their breakfast plates. Finally, one rancher spoke up. His son works closely with Monsanto, and the researchers there had told him that they believe the science of climate change. When his son asked what he could be doing to prepare for the future, the Monsanto researchers told him, “You need to be buying land in North Dakota.” It seemed intended as a laugh line, but no one cracked a smile. Kerrey finally conceded, “I can see from the looks that I probably shouldn’t have raised the topic.”

It might have seemed a misstep, but later in the day, Lapaseotes was circumspect. I had spent the afternoon with his daughter Cassie, loading fat steers onto trucks. As we drove around the feed yard afterward, she fretted that the cattle were so hot—thick ropes of drool and snot spiraling from their mouths and nostrils. They’d had a cow die that morning and were worried about the calves as the mercury pushed north of 100 for yet another day. As we talked, the feed truck came around to augment the troughs with fragrant distiller’s grain because there was scant hay and wheat to be had.

“When we hear ‘global warming’ out here, we just say it’s a bunch of bull,” Lapaseotes said. We were in the cool of his office, just down the highway from the feed yard. “As soon as you talk about global warming, you hear ‘Al Gore.’ We don’t want to hear that—but he’s right.” Kerrey seemed to have gotten him thinking about the risks farmers and ranchers could face from global warming.

And, just maybe, this is Kerrey’s secret weapon. When he goes off script, Kerrey sometimes stirs the ghost of George Norris, the hardheaded congressman and senator who pioneered the single-chamber, nonpartisan Legislature in Nebraska—and left the Republican Party in 1936 in demonstration of his commitment to common people and stability as the country hit rock-bottom during the Depression and the world slid toward war. If his handlers will let him, Bob Kerrey—long portrayed as an untamable political eccentric or a war-plagued veteran with a jaundiced worldview and crabbed sense of humor—might prove to be an heir to Norris and an an­tidote to Rove-era electioneering.

Lapaseotes, for one, said that seeing Kerrey in person had convinced him that he was the same man who had been such a good governor and senator for western Nebraska, the same man he could raise on the phone whenever there was a problem. He had come away from the breakfast more confident of Kerrey as a Nebraskan who was still in touch with the needs of his home state. “Now—he’s been in New York City,” Lapaseotes said. “I don’t know if it’s changed him. I doubt it.”


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