Bob Kerrey was born in 1943, in the
Midwestern state of Nebraska. He says he had an uneventful, middle class
childhood far removed from the struggles over civil rights and the Vietnam War
that were roiling Americans in other parts of the nation during the late 1950s
and early 1960s. "The first black person I met was working for my father.
He delivered coal," he recalls, "and in 1965, my awareness of the
Vietnam War was practically zero."
lack of awareness was short-lived. Soon after graduating college, Kerrey
enlisted in the Navy. He was trained as an officer and inducted into the elite
special forces unit and sent to Vietnam.
Before long, Kerrey earned the Bronze Star for combat action that would
later prove controversial because it involved civilian casualties.
after that, he found himself in a fierce gun battle in which he single-handedly
saved the men in his unit and defeated the enemy, but suffered the loss of his
lower leg. Those actions earned him the Congressional Medal of Honor"…for
is modest when he recalls his military service. He says he is far more proud of
what he did in the hospital following his own recovery "… when I sat down
with somebody who was beginning the voyage of trauma, having lost an arm or a
leg or some loved one or something like that."
asserts that someone who faces, or has faced, physical handicaps has an enhanced
capacity to understand the suffering of others. "It gives you the capacity to understand people who are
suffering. They may reject it. But if you're able to reach them, you can
1982, after a decade building up a successful chain of restaurants and fitness
centers in Nebraska, Kerrey decided to try his hand at politics. He ran for
Nebraska state governor and was elected. He recalls
that the issues he had to wrestle with, from the funding of the public schools
to guaranteeing access to abortion services, were deeply meaningful, if
sometimes unglamorous and unpopular.
takes a certain bravery to get engaged in political issues, to get involved
because you are going to provoke somebody," he says. "If you want to get engaged civically
and have an impact on democratic outcomes, you've got to be prepared for the
controversy that comes with it."
spite of his achievements as governor -- he balanced the budget, and saw the
state through the after-effects of a calamitous tornado -- Kerrey chose to
return to private life rather than seek a second term.
his plans changed in 1987, when the senior U.S. senator from Nebraska died, and
Democratic Party officials urged Kerrey to run for the seat. He did, and he
is a confident man. "I have never run in a political race where my
dominant worry was 'what am I going to do if I lose?'" he asserts with a
chuckle. "It's the consequences of winning you've got to be
often warns even seasoned lawmakers never to underestimate the enormous
responsibility that comes with elective office: "There's real power in those offices," he says.
"If you see someone out there that needs help, just one person, and if a
letter or a phone call can get them out of those chains, do it."
In 1992, Senator Kerrey sought the Democratic
Party's nomination for president, but lost to a young Arkansas governor named
Bill Clinton. In 2001, Kerrey left the Senate to take the job of president of the New School in New
York. Twenty-five percent of the university's students are
says he is excited and challenged by immigration issues and America's relationship
to the world."What we're trying to do [at the New School] is
simultaneously teach people about 'here' (the United States), the place, the
history, the politics, the sociology, all the various things that make here
'here,' but also confront this human tendency to erect a barrier between us and
the people from 'there.'"
Under Kerrey's guidance, the New School
formed the India China Institute, and launched graduate programs in Global
English and Global Finance. His leadership of the New School has been one more
success in a remarkable life devoted to learning and public service.
Previous American Profiles