June 2002

Bob Kerrey

Bob Kerrey looks at life from both sides now
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Former U.S. Senator Bob Kerrey says there is a very practical reason for ending his new autobiography, When I Was a Young Man in 1970, when he is only 26 years old and a fresh (and reluctant) recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor.

“When I finished the longer version, it was almost 300,000 words,” he explains by phone from his office at New School University in New York. His whole life “was too big for one book. So I had to cut it down to size.” After being critically wounded in Vietnam in 1969, Kerrey returned to his native Nebraska and gradually immersed himself in business and politics. He served as governor of Nebraska and then moved on to two terms in the U.S. Senate. In 2001, he was appointed to his current post as president of the New School.

While Kerrey doesn’t regard himself as having been a “lone wolf” in his youth, the stories he tells reveal a personality which, while not indifferent to family and friends, seems extraordinarily self-contained. “If you ask me what’s the most important thing in my lifetime,” he reflects, “it’s the friends that I have and the love they give me male and female. And if you ask me what’s at the top of the list in terms of relationships, it’s the love of my wife and my children. I don’t know why I didn’t put more emphasis on that in my book.” Kerrey recalls his boyhood years in Lincoln, Nebraska, as idyllic. He worked in his father’s prosperous lumber and coal yard, had a newspaper route, became fascinated with his church, glued himself to the emerging medium of television, strove at high school football and developed a taste for politics via his participation in his YMCA’s model legislature program.

In national politics, Kerrey became known as a liberal on social matters. But in his youth he voted for conservatives Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon. He says his political outlook has grown mostly from personal discoveries. “I went to Eastern Europe to Berlin and Prague and Russia in 1989 and 1990, when the revolutions were still going on [and] right after the [Berlin] Wall came down. Those experiences were shocking to me [seeing] the destructiveness of Communism. I saw how it destroyed the will of human beings and their potential and reduced their capability.” In his book, Kerrey confesses that he remained basically a provincial during his years as a pharmacy major at the University of Nebraska. He says he knew and cared little about art, literature or the grand social and political issues of the day. When he graduated in 1965, the war in Vietnam was intensifying, and he realized he was a prime candidate for the draft. Instead of seeking a deferment from military service, he bowed to the inevitable and, in 1966, enlisted in the Navy, enrolling in Officers Candidate School. His descriptions of his training at Newport, Rhode Island, and later at Coronado, California, crystallize those strange and dissonant times when America discovered it was at war not only with a foreign enemy but also with itself.

Last year, one of the soldiers he commanded the night he was wounded accused Kerrey of deliberately killing old men, women and children in the battle. Kerrey addresses that accusation only obliquely in his memoir, noting, “I would not swear that my memory [of the event] is 100% accurate. It is merely the best I can remember today.” In his interview, though, he admits he was “quite surprised” at the venom directed toward him because of this charge. “My guess is that it would be a different reaction if the story were to be told today, or if it had been told on October 1, 2001 rather than on May 1, 2001.” As a college president, Kerrey says one of his missions is to make sure the New School has an impact on the “great public debates of the day.” Is his passion for those great debates strong enough to lure him back into politics? “I don’t consider that I’ve left politics,” he snaps. “I love politics. I think democracy is very hard. It’s fun and enormously important. I’m not sure I’ll ever come back in as a candidate. I think it’s unlikely. But you never know.”

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When I Was a Young Man

When I Was a Young Man

By Bob Kerrey
ISBN 9780151004744

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