What’s the Matter With Flakiness?

(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.

Spontaneity, playfulness, quirkiness. He told the Times he probably wouldn’t run, but added, “You know me: I am just crazy enough to do this.” Lawrence O’Donnell, the West Wing writer-producer, served as chief of staff of the Senate Finance Committee when Kerrey was a member. “There’s a little bit of nuttiness in every one of them,” he says of senators, but 90 percent “are robots who never make a non-robotic move. What’s great about [Kerrey] is there’s also an actual person there.” Before the last election, for instance, he talked to humor writer Patricia Marx about collaborating on a prankish, deconstructionist guidebook to running for president. Quirky enough for you? He also writes poetry, which he illustrates.

In addition to bewildering and upsetting local Democrats and Republicans, however, this latest display of Bob Kerreyism also aggravated the people who employ him. Having just signed a new six-year contract with the New School, Kerrey told the Times that he could “break it” if he decided to run. “It came across very cavalier, and regrettably so,” he admits, particularly “combined with not talking to my board ahead of time.”

It’s hard not to see that as a passive-aggressive gesture, a dis that makes psychological sense if he doesn’t entirely have his heart in the job, as some of his friends say.

It might also make psychological sense that he has had a hard time getting into the New School and New York groove, given that in his first months here, The New York Times Magazine and 60 Minutes II broke the story about his Navy SEAL unit attacking a Vietnamese hamlet in 1969 and killing thirteen civilians. “I would have rather told the story” of what happened that night in the Mekong Delta “in almost any other city,” he told me. “This is a hard place to tell a story like that.”

His particular circumstance aside, how does he find the humid ideological weather in New York, the Village, the university? “There are times I find it exceedingly unpleasant. It’s never healthy—in Nebraska it was the other way around. Everybody had this conventional-conservative way of thinking, and here it’s a conventional-liberal way.”

But his very discomfort—the enforced ambivalence—also fits a Kerrey pattern. He puts himself in situations where he is an insider who feels like an outsider, on the reservation with one foot off it: the sexy liberal in Nebraska, the bipartisan truth-teller in Washington, now the free-range New Democrat in Manhattan.

I asked him if, four years after the Thanh Phong story came out, it had changed the way he reconciled himself to those events. And for the only time during our talk, he was murky and evasive: “It allowed me to talk about it in ways I couldn’t before.”

But why couldn’t he talk about it before?

“Because”—resorting to tautology—“people didn’t know about that part of my life.”

I sent him a follow-up e-mail, asking again why he’d never talked or written about the incident before the news broke. His full reply: “I just couldn’t. I still can’t. I did it once and that’s enough for one lifetime.”

The afternoon I met with him, New School security was on high alert to prevent upset Actors Studio students from storming his office. I asked if he found the work tedious. “Yeah!” he said immediately, Mr. Impolitic Candor once again at my service. “Writing is tedious, everything has a tedious aspect to it. Five or six hundred meetings a year is a lot of meetings.

“I’ve been offered—I’ve been asked to enter searches for [the presidencies of] three large public universities since I’ve had this job. I’ve said no. I’m not sure I could be the president of any other university. The New School is an easier place for someone that lacks academic experience. And Sarah’s here,” he said, the unusual way he put it illustrating the preternatural respect he grants his wife, as if the mother of his 3-year-old son might reasonably decide not to move with him.

Is his career in politics really, finally, over? “Yeah. This may actually be the last moment for me.”

Lawrence O’Donnell introduced the couple ten years ago. “Sarah loved everything about Bob,” he says, “except she wasn’t going to be a Senate wife. She never asked him not to run for president or to quit the Senate. They just always end up seeing things the same way.” Marx, a friend of both Kerrey and Paley, says, “I wonder if he would have quit if she hadn’t been in New York.” According to Kerrey, although his wife didn’t want him to run for mayor, either, “she was willing to be supportive.” However, the night before the Times story appeared, she joked to a friend, “If Bob runs for mayor, then I’ll be the head of Democrats for Bloomberg.”

When I asked Kerrey if he misses the Senate, Mr. Candid Personal Ambivalence replied that he does sometimes regret not being part of the big debates. Such as “the one over Schiavo,” Mr. Thoughtful Independence mentioned. “I support federal habeas for criminals in prison who want to appeal to federal court. It’s not that different. But,” Mr. Philosophical Ambivalence demurred, “I think I would not have supported [federal intervention], because this is a family decision, an intervention against a husband.” “My wife tells me I shouldn’t be so sympathetic to him,” added Mr. Playful Humor, but Mr. Candid Personal Ambivalence returned to finish the discussion. “You know, I think, Well I’d like to be in the debate, but I know what you have to do to be in the debate, and I don’t want to do that.”

I asked if dipping his foot in the mayoral waters and then walking away had forced him to decide that his career in elective politics is really, finally, over.

“Certainly I’m not going to be running for mayor. That one’s out.”

Or governor, or senator? “Yeah …”

Or president? “Yeah. This may actually be the last moment for me.”

But his interest in the game remains intense, acute. And his certainty that Hillary Clinton will be the next Democratic presidential nominee approaches 100 percent.

Would he support her if the opponent was a moderate, independent-minded Republican like John McCain or Rudy Giuliani or Chuck Hagel of Nebraska?

“It depends,” replied Mr. Independent, “on what she wants to do. It matters to me what a person wants to do, and what I think they’re capable of doing.” Mr. Candor interceded—“It’s more likely that I’m voting Democratic than voting Republican”—before Mr. Independent insisted on having the final word: “But I am not a party-line guy.”

The prevailing red-state-blue-state caricature notwithstanding, most Americans (if not most New Yorkers) are not party-line guys, either. And yet party-liners utterly dominate national political discourse. New York State voters have welcomed provocative celebrity carpetbaggers (Bobby Kennedy, Hillary), but the powerful preference of the city’s political system is for time-servers in City Hall. Mayor (or President) Bob Kerrey would be splendid, but our politics now demand the very antitheses of all his “flaky” attributes—unwavering consistency, perpetual dissembling, unthinking partisanship, overrehearsed sound bites, bland witlessness. If the flaky politicians are driven out, we shouldn’t be surprised when only the time-servers and robots and ideologues remain.

What’s the Matter With Flakiness?