"The real problem in the Senate today," says Kerrey, "is your imagination is limited by polling data." When Kerrey brings up an idea in the cloakroom, he says, his colleagues immediately point out that the polls say they shouldn't do that. "You feel like you're boxed in," he says. "I have somehow acquired the capacity to do the unpopular sometimes. That's what the Senate needs, but the Senate doesn't know it needs that."
While almost every Democrat with Kerrey's home phone number is begging him to stay, only his son and daughter (both in their twenties) are urging him to take the job, the home -- a West Village brownstone -- and the new life the New School is offering him in New York. "They're telling me, We want our dad to be healthy and happy," he says. His girlfriend is staying out of it. "Everyone thinks I want him to move to New York," says Paley, who has a strong aversion to political life, "but I just want him to do what he wants to do."
The provision of the New School contract he keeps coming back to is 22 days of vacation. Kerrey has not had that much time off in as long as he can remember. "That's 22 days on top of every weekend," he says, seeming not to realize that civilians take free weekends for granted. With the New School salary, the Senate pension, the corporate boards he could join, and the speaking fees, he would easily make a million or two a year, while living rent-free in Manhattan.
Kerrey has the lifers telling him how much he will miss the Senate, but he can't find anyone who has left -- Sam Nunn, Alan Simpson, and the rest -- who isn't happier and richer than ever.
Unable to stop looking for opportunism in any politician's decision about anything, including choice of spouse, I pointed out to Kerrey that not running for re-election frees him up nicely for the vice-presidential nomination. "I hadn't thought of that," he said, as he was campaigning for Bill Bradley in Iowa last week.
Then he did think about it. "I don't think the New School opportunity enhances my political career," he said. "I think it ends it. However, you can never tell."