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What's the Matter With Flakiness?

The traits that make Bob Kerrey such an appealingly gonzo politician are just what today’s political system needs. He should be mayor. Or president.


(Illustration by Jack Unruh)  

"BK is a true existential man,” Bob Kerrey’s friend Tom Brokaw e-mailed to me last week from Dubai, en route to Kabul. “He is wholly unpredictable in the most endearing way.”

In other words, when Kerrey, president of the New School and former U.S. senator, admitted to the Times that he was thinking about running for mayor only a week or so after he had consented to chair Democrats for Bloomberg, he was reverting to type—a beautiful loose cannon, a gonzo pillar of the Establishment, a restless, discombobulating political freak of the most exquisite and interesting kind.

Bloomberg called to recruit him in early April. “I don’t know him that well,” Kerrey told me. “I’ve met him a number of times. I think he’s done in many ways a relatively good job.” However, “when I hung up, the more I thought about it, the less I liked the idea. He has not confronted the president when the president is supporting policies that are very negative for the city. I see the mayor’s defenders saying, ‘He’s a team player.’ Well, whose team is he on?” And speaking of teams, there’s also the stadium Bloomberg wants to build for the Jets.

All that “led to my trying to size whether there’s a political opportunity here for me [to run]. I like politics. I’m relatively good at it. And, so, you know, I thought, Oh, maybe I’ll be a candidate myself. The Times called and said, ‘The rumor is that a high-ranking Democrat is considering a run for mayor. Is that you?’ I said, ‘Yes, though it is highly unlikely.’ ”

Kerrey, who’s 61, was a 39-year-old businessman when he entered politics in Nebraska, running for governor against the Democrats’ designated party man in the primary. But here, in this old-school, sclerotically one-party city, he realized such a play would be almost impossible. The only Democrats given a shot at the mayoral nomination are people who’ve come up through the system. And thus, in this glammiest and most Democratic of cities, we get . . . Ferrer and Fields, Miller and Weiner. It is why candidates with heft and experience outside city government convert to Republicanism; Bloomberg has been a Republican only a few months longer than Kerrey has been a New Yorker.

I asked what his wife, a writer named Sarah Paley, thought of the idea. “Her advice was, ‘I don’t think you want to be a public person again.’ And she was right. That’s the threshold decision. ‘Do you want to go back in the public arena, yes or no?’ and I answered no. I like what I’m doing here, like being private, don’t want to go back and be a public person.”

And so the word of the week to describe Bob Kerrey was “flaky.” On the day he announced he wasn’t running, the Daily News disparaged his “flaky indecision,” and that night a NY1 interviewer asked him, “Are you flaky?”

As a former Nebraskan, I’ve watched him for a long time. (In 1988, I contributed to his first Senate campaign, a low three-figure sum that, to my amazement, he recalled when I met him years later.) All along he has been—in the very best senses—flaky. It was flaky to spend a decade building a business and then abandon it just as the go-go eighties began, and it was flaky to believe he could be elected in Nebraska as an unknown left-of-center Democrat. It was flaky (and brave and grand) for a divorced governor to let his movie-star girlfriend, Debra Winger, live with him in the governor’s mansion. It was flaky (and brave and moving) for a one-legged Medal of Honor winner to talk-sing the sad, grisly lyrics to the World War I elegy “And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda” in lieu of a normal speech the night he was elected to the Senate.

His 72-hour debate with himself about the mayoralty was, it must be admitted, capricious and half-baked. Yet its very whimsy reinforced my fondness for him. Indeed, I count most of the attributes that are conflated into that invidious “flaky”—unapologetic ambivalence, reflexive candor, independent-mindedness, a habit for giving bipartisan offense, spontaneity, playfulness—among Kerrey’s great virtues.

Ambivalence. Like most of us, he has mainly approved of Bloomberg but also felt ambivalent; as he was obliged to consider the record closely, the ambivalence grew. In the age of Bush, unbudging conviction is so highly regarded that ambivalence has been stigmatized as the M.O. of dissemblers and pussies. But is it possible to be intellectually serious about most of today’s most contentious issues (Iraq, abortion, Terri Schiavo, immigration) without some ambivalence? Kerrey is that extremely rare public person willing to admit that his positions do not always spring forth simple and fully formed. (It’s telling that his favorite current play is Doubt.)

Candor. When the Times phoned, Kerrey was characteristically forthright. He can’t help himself. His most frequently quoted line as a senator was his pre-Monica estimation of the president: “Clinton’s an unusually good liar. Unusually good.”

Independence. Musing about a mayoral candidacy pissed off both the Republican incumbent and his would-be Democratic successors, since it explicitly slagged the former and tacitly the latter. Kerrey’s positions have always tended to be impolitic. It would serve any Democrat in Nebraska to tack right, but given great opportunities to cave in to political expediency, again and again he did not: He voted against the ban on partial-birth abortions, against banning gay marriage, against voluntary school prayer, against mandatory corn-ethanol gas (from the Cornhusker State), and, most memorably, against the Flag Protection Amendment to the Constitution. Conversely, in 2000, he spoke favorably about the ideas candidate Bush was pushing for Social Security reform, and two years later, as the head of a left-wing Manhattan academic establishment, supported the invasion of Iraq.

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