Joseph Robert "Bob" Kerrey
(born August 27, 1943) is a former Democratic Governor of Nebraska
from 1983 to 1987 and a U.S. Senator
(1989–2001). He was also an unsuccessful candidate for the Democratic
presidential nomination in 1992. Since leaving the Senate he has served as president of the New School
, a university in New York City
Education and military service
Kerrey was born in Lincoln, Nebraska
, attended Lincoln Northeast High School
and, went on to graduate from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln
in 1966 with a degree in pharmacy
. During his senior year at Nebraska, he was a member of the Society of Innocents
, the chancellor's senior honorary. He served in the United States Navy
as a SEAL
from 1966 to 1969 during the Vietnam War
, lost the lower part of one leg in combat, and received the Medal of Honor
Medal of Honor citation
His Medal of Honor
- For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty while serving as a SEAL team leader during action against enemy aggressor (Viet Cong) forces. Acting in response to reliable intelligence, Lt. (j.g.) Kerrey led his SEAL team on a mission to capture important members of the enemy's area political cadre known to be located on an island in the bay of Nha Trang. In order to surprise the enemy, he and his team scaled a 350-foot sheer cliff to place themselves above the ledge on which the enemy was located. Splitting his team in 2 elements and coordinating both, Lt. (jg.) Kerrey led his men in the treacherous downward descent to the enemy's camp. Just as they neared the end of their descent, intense enemy fire was directed at them, and Lt. (jg.) Kerrey received massive injuries from a grenade that exploded at his feet and threw him backward onto the jagged rocks. Although bleeding profusely and suffering great pain, he displayed outstanding courage and presence of mind in immediately directing his element's fire into the heart of the enemy camp. Utilizing his radio, Lt. (jg.) Kerrey called in the second element's fire support, which caught the confused Viet Cong in a devastating crossfire. After successfully suppressing the enemy's fire, and although immobilized by his multiple wounds, he continued to maintain calm, superlative control as he ordered his team to secure and defend an extraction site. Lt. (jg.) Kerrey resolutely directed his men, despite his near unconscious state, until he was eventually evacuated by helicopter. The havoc brought to the enemy by this very successful mission cannot be over-estimated. The enemy soldiers who were captured provided critical intelligence to the allied effort. Lt. (jg.) Kerrey's courageous and inspiring leadership, valiant fighting spirit, and tenacious devotion to duty in the face of almost overwhelming opposition sustain and enhance the finest traditions of the U.S. Naval Service.
Thanh Phong Massacre
In 2001, the New York Times Magazine
and 60 Minutes II
carried reports on an incident that occurred during Kerrey's Vietnam War
service. On February 25, 1969, he led a Swift Boat
raid on the isolated peasant village of Thanh Phong, Vietnam
, targeting a Viet Cong
leader that intelligence suggested would be present. The village was considered part of a free fire zone
by the U.S. military.
Kerrey's SEAL team first encountered a peasant house, or hooch, and killed the people inside with knives. While Kerrey says he did not go inside the hooch and did not participate in the killings, another member of the team, Gerhard Klann, said that the people killed there were an elderly man and woman and three children under 12, and that Kerrey helped kill the man. Despite the differing recollections about who actually stabbed these people, Kerrey accepts responsibility as the team leader for their deaths: "Standard operating procedure was to dispose of the people we made contact with," he told the New York Times Magazine.
Later, according to Kerrey, the team was shot at from the village and returned fire, only to find after the battle that all the dead were women and children, clustered together in the center of the village. "The thing that I will remember until the day I die is walking in and finding, I don't know, 14 or so, I don't even know what the number was, women and children who were dead," Kerrey said in 1998. "I was expecting to find Vietcong soldiers with weapons, dead. Instead I found women and children."
Klann, and a Vietnamese woman, Pham Tri Lanh, who says she witnessed the assault, gave a different account, saying that the SEALs rounded up the inhabitants of the village and shot them.
Regardless of what actually occurred that night, Kerrey expressed anguish and guilt over the incident:
- You can never, can never get away from it. It darkens your day. I thought dying for your country was the worst thing that could happen to you, and I don't think it is. I think killing for your country can be a lot worse.
Kerrey was awarded a Bronze Star
for the raid on Thanh Phong. The citation for the medal reads, "The net result of his patrol was 21 Viet Cong killed, two hooches destroyed and two enemy weapons captured."
Returning to Nebraska, he operated a chain of restaurants and fitness centers from 1972 to 1982 before narrowly defeating Charles Thone
in the 1982 election for Governor of Nebraska
. He served in that office from 1983 to 1987. He declined to run for re-election in 1986, but in 1988, ran for the Senate against appointed incumbent David Karnes
and defeated him by 15 points. He was reelected to the Senate in 1994 and served as the chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee
for the 104th Congress before retiring in 2001.
In September 1991, Kerrey announced his candidacy for the 1992 Democratic nomination for president. In a small field of five second tier candidates devoid of an early frontrunner, Kerrey was seen as the early favorite. However, his performance on the campaign trail often seemed lackluster, especially in comparison to the dynamic Arkansas Governor, Bill Clinton. A weak performance at a Chicago Democratic gathering in November 1991, combined with a lesbian joke that he told Clinton overheard on a mike, seemed to set the tone of his campaign. Most damaging of all, though, was the revelation that few workers at Kerrey's restaurants and fitness clubs received health insurance , this despite the fact that Kerrey emphasized universal health care as one of his primary campaign themes. Kerrey finished a weak third in the New Hampshire primary in February 1992, despite spending heavily on TV advertising. He briefly rebounded after winning the South Dakota primary, but soon dropped out of the race after finishing fourth in the Colorado primary.
As a Senator representing one of the more conservative states in the country, Kerrey took arguably liberal positions on some hot-button, conservative issues. For example, he was one of only a handful of senators to vote against the Defense of Marriage Act of 1996. Kerrey also led the opposition in the Senate to the proposed flag burning amendment, which failed to get the necessary two-thirds majority needed for passage. His record on economic issues was mixed but generally liberal. He voted against phasing out many farm subsidy programs, lawsuit reform measures such as the Private Securities Litigations Reform Act, and he was one of the twelve senators to vote against the initial version of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act, a welfare reform bill vetoed by President Bill Clinton. Kerrey also voted against the revised version of the legislation that was signed into law by Clinton in August 1996. Kerrey's record on environmental issues and taxation was more moderate, and he was a strong supporter of free trade and limiting the size of the federal government. The Senator pushed for a more aggressive foreign policy, helping to author the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998. He was a member of the New Democrat Coalition.
Kerrey was a member of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (popularly known as the "9/11 Commission"), where he accused Madeleine Albright, William Cohen, and Donald Rumsfeld of pursuing U.S. interests with insufficient aggression.
The New School
In 2001 Kerrey left the Senate to become President of The New School
. At the school, Kerrey initially opposed the efforts of the United Auto Workers
to unionize the adjunct (part-time) faculty, agreeing to negotiate with them only after several rulings against the administration by the National Labor Relations Board
. A threatened strike of adjunct faculty was averted by the approval of a labor contract just before the strike deadline of October 31, 2005.
Kerrey presided over an ambitious program of reorganization at the university. He overhauled several divisions and brought in the respected Arjun Appadurai as Provost in 2005. Appadurai resigned this post in 2006. On April 14, 2005, Kerrey announced that the university was changing its name from New School University to The New School, and rebranding its eight divisions as specialized, separate entities serving different constituencies.
Possible return to politics
On April 17, 2005, The New York Times
reported that Kerrey was interested in becoming a Democratic candidate for Mayor
of New York City, joining such candidates as Fernando Ferrer
and C. Virginia Fields
in opposing the re-election of Mayor Michael Bloomberg
. After much speculation over the potential ramifactions of his entry into the race, Kerrey eventually withdrew his interest in the 2005 mayoral race.
Following the announcement that Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning would challenge incumbent Senator Chuck Hagel in the Republican Primary, Kerrey began to show interest in returning to the Senate. Kerrey had endorsed Hagel had the Senator chosen to run again. On August 23, Kerrey said he believed that Sen. Hagel would retire, and he contacted the board of directors at The New School to inform them of the possibility that he might announce a return to Nebraska to run for the open seat. On September 8, 2007, Republican officials confirmed that Hagel would not run for a third term, heightening speculation that Kerrey would run.
On October 24, 2007 Kerrey announced through a news release that he would not run for the Senate because his family decided that it was "not the time for me to re-enter politics as a candidate".
Endorsement of Hillary Clinton
On December 19, 2007, Kerrey endorsed Senator Hillary Clinton
for the Democratic Presidential nomination. In doing so, some say he attacked Clinton's rival by mentioning Senator Barack Obama
's Muslim family members. Kerrey said, "It's probably not something that appeals to him, but I like the fact that his name is Barack Hussein Obama, and that his father was a Muslim and that his paternal grandmother is a Muslim." He continued, "There's a billion people on the planet that are Muslims, and I think that experience is a big deal." Kerrey later wrote a letter of apology to Obama, saying: "I answered a question about your qualifications to be president in a way that has been interpreted as a backhanded insult of you. I assure you I meant to do just the opposite." Obama has said that he accepted Kerrey's apology.
Kerrey also made negative comments about John Edwards while speaking of his Hillary Clinton endorsement in January 2008:
"Even before John Edwards was chasing ambulances in North Carolina and Barack was voting ‘present’ in the Illinois state senate, Senator Clinton was involved in major policy initiatives.
While he was Governor of Nebraska, Kerrey dated actress Debra Winger
while the latter was in Lincoln filming Terms of Endearment
(part of which is set in Nebraska), which won the 1983 Oscar
for Best Picture
. When confronted with intense questioning by the press over the nature of the relationship, Kerrey famously replied; "What can I say she swept me off my foot," alluding to the fact that the lower part of one of his legs was amputated due to injuries sustained in his Medal of Honor action in Vietnam.
He is the model for the character of Senator Charlie Martin in the book Primary Colors.
He is married to Sarah Paley and lives in New York City. Their son Henry was born a day before the September 11 attacks in 2001. His children from his previous marriage are named Ben and Lindsey.
Kerrey is friends with fellow Vietnam veteran James Webb. In 2006 he became involved in convincing Webb to run for the US Senate. Webb entered the Virginia Democratic Primary, and Kerrey volunteered to serve as Webb's National Finance Chair. Webb went on to win the extremely close election in Virginia, defeating George Allen.
Kerrey has also endorsed, and appeared at campaign events for, Al Franken in his bid for the U.S. Senate in Minnesota.
On September 9, 2008, a pedestrian bridge connecting Omaha, Nebraska with Council Bluffs, Iowa was named in his honor by the Omaha City Council.
- The New School's website of president Bob Kerrey
- "One Awful Night in Thanh Phong," by Gregory L. Vistica, New York Times Magazine, April 25, 2001
- CNN Story on the Thanh Phong Incident
- Clinton, Bill (2005). My Life. Vintage. ISBN 1-4000-3003-X.
- Saddam, Al Qaeda Did Collaborate, Documents Show
- "The War Within Bob Kerrey", New York Times, published April 26, 2001.
- "Finish the war. Liberate Iraq. " by Robert Kerrey, The Wall Street Journal, September 12, 2002.
- "My Perspective on the New School Commencement", blog by Bob Kerrey, Huffington Post, posted May 23, 2006.
- "Why I'm Not Running Again for the US Senate" blog by Bob Kerrey, Huffington Post, posted October 24, 2007.
- Kerrey, Robert. When I Was a Young Man: A Memoir. New York: Harcourt, Inc., 2002.
- Vistica, Gregory L. The Education of Lieutenant Kerrey. New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2003.