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Bob Kerrey's New War

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But this isn’t Ozzie and Harriet, New York–style. Kerrey’s still a politician, sought after by Democratic presidential contenders for their endorsement (he’s leaning toward Kerry); he hosts fund-raisers with Fred Hochberg, a gay activist and New School trustee, for Dems, most recently one for Chuck Schumer; he’s out most nights at see-and-be-seen events; he dines frequently with his wife’s circle of artist and writer friends—from the painters April Gornik and Eric Fischl to comedian Steve Martin; and he summers in a Shelter Island rental.

Nearly halfway through his five-year New School contract, he is impatiently trying to make his mark. This private school’s finances were hurt by 9/11, since few people wanted to go out for night-school courses, many day students dropped out, and a brand-new downtown dorm’s location no longer seemed so desirable and occupancy plummeted. Kerrey has been trying to raise a ton of money (pulling in $59 million so far) and woo big-name talent to boost the school’s reputation. Louis Menand, an English professor at cuny who is mulling job offers from Kerrey and several other colleges, admits he’s intrigued. “The university is in transition,” says Menand. “It could be very exciting—or traumatic.”

Like a CEO attempting to merge a bunch of newly acquired companies, Kerrey is trying to transform into a coherent university its rival divisions: the original entity, the Graduate Faculty of Political and Social Science, Parsons School of Design, and schools in music, jazz, management, humanities, and drama. Each has its own admissions policies and faculty-pay structures. Kerrey has the heretical idea of imposing two required courses for all students, and he wants to do it, well, yesterday. He’s trying to make it easier for students to take classes in all divisions. He’s exploring the idea of starting a law school, a monumentally expensive proposition.

But the people whose daily lives are affected are not all enthusiastic. “Bob has an idea a minute, but not all of them are good,” groans a veteran prof.

"If you had told me when I was younger that I'd go out with a Vietnam vet, this politician who had a bad haircut and wore a suit every day, I wouldn't have believed it," says Paley.

Ken Prewitt, who quit as dean of the graduate school a year ago after clashing with Kerrey and now teaches at Columbia, says, “Bob’s smart in many ways, but he’s not a manager. He makes speeches and charms people. This is a difficult place to manage. The question is whether he’ll have the patience and skill to turn things around.”

On a chilly afternoon earlier this spring, Kerrey flew into Providence, en route to give a speech at the Naval War College in Newport. There was an odd déjà vu element to the trip: It was at this Navy base that in 1967 he trained in the Officer Candidate School before shipping off to Vietnam.

Picked up at the airport by dean Alberto Coll and a Navy driver, Kerrey peppered them with questions about the base and the officers now being sent to Iraq. Then his cell phone rang; it was Paley, with the sad news that one of his closest friends in the Senate, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, had just died. Hanging up, he said solemnly, “At 4:15 p.m., the Navy lost one of its best men,” then called Moynihan’s wife, Liz, to pass on his condolences. He reminisced at length about Moynihan’s memorable political battles and affectionately recalled the elder senator’s talking about his 60-year grudge against Joe DiMaggio: “It took longer for Moynihan to forgive Joe DiMaggio for striking out than it did for me to forgive Richard Nixon.”

A few blocks from the base, Kerry suddenly asked, “Is the Viking Hotel still here?” Informed that it was, he was curious to see it, so we did a U-turn and headed downtown. In his memoir, When I Was a Young Man, published last year, Kerrey recalled staying at the Viking his first night in Newport, and picking up women at the bar after a Joan Baez concert. Now he gazed out the window at the handsome mansions, the view of Narragansett Bay, and went time-traveling. “There used to be a couple of good restaurants down this street . . . It was hard to get back to the base by curfew . . . The Viking used to be a dump . . . The girls at the bar were very sympathetic to Navy men.”

When Kerrey returned to Nebraska after Vietnam, awarded a Congressional Medal of Honor for directing his men out of danger after he’d been severely injured by a grenade, he didn’t talk much about his experiences during the war. Rod Bates, a close friend and the head of Nebraska public broadcasting, recalls asking Kerrey back in the late seventies: “ ‘Did you have to kill anyone in Vietnam?’ Bob blew up at me, he was furious.” Bates says Kerrey called the next day to apologize but cautioned, “You don’t ask those kinds of questions.” And nobody did, for a lot of years. Until 1997, when investigative reporter Gregory Vistica began poking around into Kerrey’s war past. Kerrey ultimately agreed to speak to Vistica about a terrible night in Vietnam in February 1969 when Kerrey and his Navy seal unit entered the village of Thanh Phong expecting to attack a high-level meeting of the Vietcong. By the end of the night, innocent women and children and male civilians were dead. How and why they died is in dispute. “I did not have to give an order to begin the killing, but I could have stopped it and I didn’t,” Kerrey writes in his anguished memoir. “In truth, I remember very little of what happened in a clear and reliable way.” He insists that the Vietnamese civilians were caught in enemy crossfire, saying, “I saw women and children in front of us being hit and cut to pieces.” When he was wounded by a grenade in a subsequent mission, he writes, he thought “my injury was retribution.”

Vistica came up with a much more disturbing sequence of events from Gerhard Klann, a member of Kerrey’s unit. Klann charged that there was no crossfire and that Kerrey cold-bloodedly ordered all civilians killed, for fear that they might trigger an alarm and endanger the seals. Kerrey has vehemently denied the accusation. Vistica, now a 60 Minutes II producer in Washington, expanded his Times Magazine article into a book published in January, The Education of Lieutenant Kerrey.

Two years after these explosive charges became public, the aftereffects persist. “There are still repercussions,” says William Hirst, a professor of psychology at the New School, who was on the search committee that chose Kerrey as president. “The students are quite upset.” And the school’s administrators were left with lingering mistrust over the episode, since Kerrey neglected to mention—in his job interview or in his first months as president—that this story was about to break. Says Hirst, “We were completely surprised.” I ask Kerrey whether he should have informed trustees or the faculty, and he replies, “I’ve thought about that. I didn’t know how to handle it.”

Kerrey says he regrets agreeing to talk with Vistica and Dan Rather: “I was shockingly naïve. I underestimated the impact. I was tired of being described as a hero when I didn’t feel like a hero. I thought full disclosure of what happens in war and what I had done might have an impact on how people are trained going into combat. I thought it would help. But it was mostly destructive. It brought a tremendous amount of pain to the surface, for me, for my squad, for other Vietnam vets.” Vistica, in a phone interview, responds, “Bob has a way of turning himself into the victim. He’s working you. I find him a likable guy who was involved with a horrible event. He’s changed his story several times, and the press has let him off the hook.”

Kerrey’s friends, for the most part, have rallied round. “It was hard for me, personally,” says Bates. “I didn’t know how to respond, how to be supportive, when I had questions in my own mind. But I decided that if he’s made peace with his God, it’s not my position to judge.” Sarah Paley had heard Kerrey’s version of what had happened after they’d dated for a year. “He wanted me to know the worst thing about him,” she says. “It was very painful for both of us.” His Senate colleague and fellow vet John Kerry defends his friend, saying, “When you’re behind enemy lines on a night mission, and you’re compromised and you’re trying to get out alive, I’m not going to second-guess what happened and challenge memories of 30 years ago. I’m sure you’re going to find innocent people who got killed in the last few days.”

Kerrey has since been sought out for emotional support by others tortured by their own guilt, from Vietnam vets to a fireman unable to save colleagues who died on September 11. “People see me as someone they can talk to about terrible things they’ve done, things they’re ashamed of,” Kerrey says. “It enables me to say, ‘You can get through it, survive it, be accepted. You aren’t the worst thing you’ve done in your life.’ ”

On the New School’s campus this spring, there are signs that Kerrey has started to win the respect of the skeptical academic community and that his hard-charging style has won converts. “Even Bob would admit that he had very little idea about the politics and policies of this university, and he’s had a significant learning curve,” says Bernstein, who has been teaching at the New School since 1989. “But he’s a quick learner, he has enthusiasm. Bob can be thin-skinned, but he doesn’t bear grudges.” Adds Randy Swearer, the dean of Parsons, “If I disagree with Bob, I can tell him. He’ll change his mind.” Faculty members are pleased that he acceded enthusiastically to a long-held demand to create a faculty senate, to give the staff more of a voice in university matters. Poet Honor Moore, who teaches at both the New School and Columbia, says, “Bob is the first president who has supported the idea of faculty governance. People are impressed—he takes it seriously, he comes to meetings, he seems to be listening.”

For all his busy public persona, Kerrey also has a private side: He works out his complicated feelings alone, keeping a journal (“Sarah knows not to look”) and doing a daily watercolor or collage based on a newspaper photo. (Only after the security fuss at the airport does he tell me he had an X-Acto knife with him, to slice out photos.) Sometimes his emotions rise unexpectedly to the surface. Speaking in April to a group of 15-year-olds on the Upper West Side, he offered some wisdom laced with obvious regret. “I’m 59 years of age, and as you go along in life, it’s an absolute certainty that you’re going to have loss,” Kerrey said. “Your mother’s going to die, your father’s going to die, your friends are going to disappoint you, things are going to happen, you’re going to feel terrible. Love is the most important thing.”

The students, baffled, curious, squirmed in their seats. But Kerrey kept going. “Your hair’s going to turn gray and fall out, you’re going to get fat. You’ve got to experience those losses without getting bitter, without turning against the world,” he said. “Unless you have the renewing power of falling in love available to you, life is very hard.” He was summing up his painful past, looking toward his future, the words just pouring out. "It’s important to believe that human beings are capable of doing good.”


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