Hasta La Vista, Maybe

Democratic Senator Bob Kerrey, who is up for re-election this year, has terrified his party with his recent thoughts of leaving the Senate. Long before the Daily News broke the story this month that Kerrey is considering an offer to come to New York as president of the New School University, Minority Leader Tom Daschle, Ted Kennedy, and Chris Dodd started begging him to stay. It’s personal – they like him – but, more important, they need him: An open seat in Nebraska would be a tough one for the Democrats to keep. After Kerrey took yet another phone call from a Democrat who believes that if Kerrey stays they have a good chance of winning back the Senate, he told me, “I’m not sure it makes much difference which party runs the Senate. If the Republicans run it, they’ll actually schedule floor time for flag-burning amendments. If we run it, they’ll just try to stick flag-burning amendments on anything that moves.” If Kerrey still feels that way on the day he makes his decision, he will be moving to New York when the Senate adjourns in the fall.

Put your finger at the bottom of your right knee. Look at everything below your finger: the shin, the ankle, the foot, the toes. Bob Kerrey has none of that. He has air below his right knee. Nothing in the way he moves gives that away, not the way he walks, not the way he dances, not the way he runs, not even the way he skis. He had to learn to walk twice in his life. His parents taught him how to do it the first time, on two legs. His government taught him how the second time, on one.

After being carried off his last battlefield in Vietnam, it took a year of physical therapy in a veterans’ hospital in Philadelphia to get Kerrey walking again. Kerrey came away from the experience not hating government for getting his body blown apart but grateful to it for putting him back together. He went from successful entrepreneur to governor of Nebraska with as much lust for applause as most politicians but also with a respect for government born of his utter dependency on it during the most vulnerable period of his life. You see that respect in the former welfare mothers serving in the Congress and the state legislatures. But in Kerrey, you also see the pent-up courage that allowed him to face enemy fire but is allowed no outlet now in the United States Senate.

Hanging out with Kerrey on the Senate floor, as I used to do when I was chief of staff of the Senate Finance Committee, you sense him itching to do something brave. And he sometimes does.

“Kerrey put his hand over the microphone, leaned over the arm of his throne as the Democrats were happily demonizing Dole, and said, ‘Sometimes, I just wanna go down there and rip out their throats.’ “

Brave does not necessarily mean smart or correct. Brave simply means doing something against your political interests, something unpopular with your supporters. Most senators never even think of doing that.

You can argue the merits of raising the retirement age to 70 for full Social Security benefits, but you cannot deny the bravery of a senator proposing it. When Kerrey first proposed it in 1995, he got Republican Alan Simpson to join him while most of the rest of the Senate just stood there and stared. No one was surprised by Simpson: Everyone knew he was not running for re-election. But Kerrey was thought to be laying the groundwork for another run at the presidency in 2000, which he decided against at the last minute. If Kerrey had run for president this time, he would be the only candidate in favor of raising the retirement age. That alone would have left him running a distant third in New Hampshire right now, and everyone in the Senate knew that when Kerrey first floated the proposal. In the Senate, where bravery has no reward, the word crazy is used in its place.

The repressed courage accompanies, or perhaps provokes, a not-so-repressed anger at the shenanigans that sometimes become the official strategy of Kerrey’s party. In 1994, when the Democrats controlled the Senate but the Republicans were clearly winning the great debate over the First Lady’s health-care-reform plan, “Demonize Dole” is what Democrats were told to do every time they spoke. Kerrey took to the Senate floor and made a speech in which he both revealed his party’s strategy and promised not to adopt it. Later, when taking his turn in the presiding officer’s chair – an excruciatingly boring duty that all senators try to avoid – Kerrey summoned me to his side. With the C-span camera on him, he put his hand over his microphone, leaned over the arm of his throne as the Democrats were happily demonizing Dole, and said, “Sometimes I just wanna go down there and rip their throats out.” The words stay with me because they came not from a senator but from a former Navy SEAL who had been trained to do just that.

Watching Bob Kerrey make a decision – a big one – can be nerve-racking. He can quickly become sure of what he is going to do but just as quickly become unsure; then he can alternate for days, sometimes weeks – sure, unsure, sure, unsure. When his girlfriend of four years, New York screenwriter Sarah Paley, told me last month that he was “99 percent sure he’s going to leave the Senate” and take the New School offer, we both knew he was still a long way from 100 percent.

“He’s seeing how it feels,” says Paley, “when he goes back and forth like that. He takes one position, sees how it feels for a day, then takes the other and sees how that feels.”

The decision to leave is the single biggest decision of a Senate career but not necessarily the most difficult. Senators never have to explain to each other why they are thinking of leaving, which in most cases, as in Kerrey’s, simply means not running for re-election. None of them likes running for re-election, but none of them much likes what he or she does the rest of the time either – making the fund-raising calls and begging for money, attending the fund-raisers every weekend and giving thanks for money, sitting through the four-hour subcommittee hearings on subjects of vital interest to a voluble 0.5 percent of the electorate, being called back to the floor at midnight to cast a vote on another motion to table, meeting with constituents who hate everything you are doing, meeting with constituents who hate everything you are doing except the thing you are trying to do for them, meeting with lobbyists, meeting with staff, meeting with the leadership, meeting, meeting, meeting, and never, ever knowing what time you’re going to get out of work. All for $141,300 a year with no allowance for maintaining the mandatory second home. For rich men of narrow ambition and imagination, it is one way to spend a life. The rest take a good long look at the exit every time they are up for re-election.

“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.”

Hasta La Vista, Maybe