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."
That 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 Navy SEALS 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.
Soon 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 conspicuous gallantry."
Kerrey 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."
He 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 help!"
In 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.
"It 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."
In 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.
But 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 won.
Kerrey 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 prepared for!"
Kerrey 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 foreign-born.
Kerrey 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.