Bob Kerrey’s New War

Senator Bob Kerrey speaking at a picinic in New Hampshire when he was a presidential hopeful for 2000.Photo: AP Photos

On a rainy morning just twelve hours after american troops began to bomb Baghdad, Grand Central was surrounded by a protective cordon of police cars as Bob Kerrey arrived at the Hyatt next door to give a speech. For the former Democratic senator turned New School president, this tense trip to midtown was actually a respite, since his pro-war views on Iraq had made him a pariah on his own Greenwich Village campus. As Kerrey told the group of out-of-town educators, only half in jest, “I’ve gone from Nebraska, where people thought I was a liberal, to New York, where people think I’m a right-wing nutcase.”

Kerrey, now 59, gave up his political aspirations and a safe Senate seat two years ago to embark on a new life here—a new job, a new wife after decades as the ultimate commitment-phobic divorced guy, a newborn son. But even Kerrey, who has enjoyed a reputation as a political provocateur, seems startled by the controversies that have swirled around him virtually since he arrived. “Did I expect to have a quieter life when I moved to New York? Yes!” he said last week. Granted, the New School was a weird place for Kerrey to begin his new life. Take the most mercurial, diffident, talented, and irreverent Democratic superstar—a self-taught intellectual with a pharmacy degree from the University of Nebraska and no academic experience. Then put him in charge of revamping New York’s most radical left-wing academic institution, a place founded in 1919 by pacifist professors fired by Columbia, famous as a haven for Jewish scholars fleeing Hitler in the thirties and forties, and even now a hotbed of political ideology. The resulting furor was as inevitable as the class conflict in Karl Marx’s dialectics.

Then it got worse. Shortly after he arrived in Manhattan, Kerrey, a Vietnam veteran who lost his right leg below the knee to a grenade, was visited by the ghosts from his war past. Pressed by investigative reporter Gregory Vistica for an article that ran in April 2001 in the New York Times Magazine, Kerrey admitted that he’d been involved in a wartime horror in which more than twenty civilians, included women and children, were killed by the Navy seals he’d commanded. Kerrey said that they’d been killed in crossfire, but one of his soldiers maintained that Kerrey had ordered the shooting to prevent the civilians from alerting the Vietcong.

“I was tired of being described as a hero when I didn’t feel like a hero. I though full disclosure of what I had done would help. But it was mostly destructive.”

The uproar was intense. Paparazzi staked out Kerrey’s West 20th Street apartment and his office, dozens of newspaper editorials weighed in on his past, and many students and faculty members demanded his resignation. “Everything was disrupted,” says Dick Bernstein, dean of the Graduate Faculty of Political and Social Science. “It was very disturbing.”

Then came the attacks on the World Trade Center. “After 9/11, the New School turned a page,” says sociology professor Jeffrey Goldfarb. “But when Bob turned out to be a hawk on Iraq, his past came back into view as an unresolved problem.”

Kerry is philosophical: “Vietnam was a very charged war, and the debate won’t end until we’re all dead.” Still, he never expected to have his face next to Henry Kissinger’s on a war-criminals placard brandished at an antiwar rally this spring in Union Square. Or to have demonstrators storm his office, picket a New School fund-raising dinner at the Sheraton, and launch an Internet site attacking him. As a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Kerrey co-sponsored legislation in 1998 supporting regime change in Iraq; he didn’t anticipate that this foreign-policy view would prove to be so explosive. His wife, screenwriter Sarah Paley, who opposed the war, wryly adds, “He hasn’t just been getting it at work; he’s been getting it at home too.”

After a Senate career in which he periodically incensed Nebraska voters—he’s a pro-choice liberal who voted to ban assault weapons and led the opposition to the flag-burning amendment—Kerry has certainly faced tough crowds in the past. “I’ve experienced angry human beings before who detested who I am and what I’ve done,” he says. Referring to the university protests, he says, “These didn’t rise to the top anti-Kerrey moments.”

But he adds that he’s not immune to the attacks: “It hurts. I do not have thick skin. But when I know where I’m going, I can get through an ambush. If I appear not to be affected, it’s because I don’t want to be self-indulgent.”

Kerrey freely admits that he hasn’t always handled himself well. In November, when students staged a sit-in at his office, insisting on a public forum on the war, Kerry swore under his breath before walking out. “I behaved inappropriately with them. I got very angry,” he says. He ultimately agreed to two public forums on the war, which he endured sitting ramrod-straight on an auditorium stage, listening to accusations that he was stifling free speech with his pro-war stance: “Students are afraid to speak their minds,” said one young detractor. “Professors are afraid of losing their jobs.”

At times during the Iraq war, Kerrey was virtually under siege at his West 12th Street office. Through an ironic twist of timing, Howard Dean—the most outspoken war critic among the serious Democratic presidential candidates—had an appointment to see him on a February afternoon just as protesters were attempting another sit-in. Kerrey’s office was in full lockdown. With the elevators programmed not to stop on Kerrey’s floor, Dean and two aides were brought up via a back service elevator. As we stood around in a waiting area, students began pounding on the locked stairwell door, screaming for Kerrey’s resignation and yelling, “One, two, three, four, we don’t want your racist war.” When Kerrey opened a locked glass door and came out to usher us into his office, Dean half-jokingly offered to intercede. “Maybe I should go talk to your students,” he said. Kerrey’s succinct reply: “Maybe you should go tell them I’m not an asshole.”

Kerrey doesn’t edit himself, which is a highly unusual quality for a former politician. He can be wildly humorous, prickly with rage, a charming confidant, an idealistic big-issue thinker, darkly moody, and ever provocative. “Bob enjoys being a contrarian. He can be fiery and angry and very funny,” says Democratic presidential contender and longtime Senate colleague John Kerry, a fellow Vietnam vet. “He likes to challenge people—that’s part of his appeal.”

At a time when traumatized Manhattan denizens have stocked up on bottled water, packed escape kits, and plotted kayak routes to Jersey, Kerrey has taken the ultimate conversation-stopping tack. He rails repeatedly that we’ve become a city and a nation of wimps, unduly terrified by terrorism. It’s an unlikely stance given his Senate Intelligence Committee background, but Kerrey genuinely believes that the horrors of September 11 were an aberration, made possible by airline rules encouraging pilots and passengers to turn over control of planes to hijackers rather than to fight back. “All we had to do was change that one rule,” Kerrey told the educators at the Hyatt. “I think this administration has overreacted to the threat to our soil. If we took all the money we’re spending on security and threw it out the window, I’d feel just as safe. I’m in a small minority, but I’m not afraid of terrorism in America.”

Some of his opposition to increased security measures may be personal. Airports have become a major annoyance to Kerrey, whose prosthetic leg sets off metal detectors. On a recent trip to Boston to give a speech at the Kennedy Library, he had no trouble at the Delta Shuttle in LaGuardia, but on the return trip, a security guard gave him a very hard time.

First, the guard asked Kerrey to sit down and wanded the metal leg, as usual; then he demanded that Kerrey roll up his pant leg and roll down his sock. Kerrey looked surprised, but dutifully complied. But that wasn’t enough: Then the guard insisted that the Vietnam vet remove his leg. White-faced with fury, Kerrey said, “No one’s ever asked me to take it off.” The guard replied, “You mean no one’s had the guts?” Kerrey spat out, “The guts? I’m not taking it off.”

For a moment, there was a tense standoff as other passengers stared curiously—I began wondering how I’d find Kerrey a lawyer this late at night—and then a supervisor nodded to the guard to back off. But the man wasn’t done quite yet, insisting that Kerrey stand up and lift his chin so he could stick his wand underneath.

’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,” Sarah Paley observes over lunch at Michael’s. “Bob’s life was so alien to me and what I’ve known. We both thought this would never work.”

A slender, elfin woman with a mischievous smile, Paley, 46, grew up in a liberal family in Brooklyn: “Nebraska was more exotic to me than Africa.” But she doesn’t tease Kerrey about his state-school pharmacy degree, because she didn’t bother to go to college at all. “I wanted to be a writer,” she says, and after working odd jobs as a carpenter and secretary for a few years, she lucked out, landing a job in 1979 as a writer on Saturday Night Live. Since then, she’s been making a living as a screenwriter, working in that anonymous limbo, selling scripts that have never been produced, and doing the downtown single-girl thing, dating artists and creative types.

Kerrey, in turn, has had a number of political and personal incarnations. The son of a lumber-yard owner, he was a right-winger (he registered in 1964 as a Republican and voted for Barry Goldwater), became a left-winger (winning Nebraska’s governorship in 1982 as a Democrat), and then dated Debra Winger. He smiles at the memory of that romance; they met while she was filming Terms of Endearment in Nebraska and saw each other for two years. “We’re still friends,” he says; in fact, he and Paley and their son celebrated Hanukkah this year with Winger and her husband, actor and director Arliss Howard, at their home in the New York suburbs.

Elected to the Senate in 1988, Kerrey enjoyed being a man-about-town in Washington, a sought-after date on the Georgetown circuit. “I loved and I hated being single,” he says. “I was a serial monogamist. I had resigned myself that I’d be alone the rest of my life.” Kerrey has two grown children—Ben, 28, now a doctor, and Lindsey, 26, a nurse—from a brief first marriage that ended in 1978.

In 1995, on the Senate floor, he ran into pal Lawrence O’Donnell, a Senate Finance Committee staff member who has since gone Hollywood (he’s written for The West Wing and created Mr. Sterling), and asked whether he knew any women. “What Bob meant was, did I know someone other than these lobbyists or heiresses that people think a senator would want to date?” says O’Donnell. “I said no.” That night, O’Donnell recounted the conversation on the phone to two New York friends, Paley and her writing partner, Patty Marx, and Paley interjected, “Yes, you do.” O’Donnell says, “Every guy I knew had a crush on Sarah. I was surprised she was interested in Bob.”

And so the couple’s unlikely romance began, with a first date in Washington on December 7, 1995. “I was very taken,” says Paley. “He was living this spartan existence in this horrible apartment. I made him get a nicer place.” Kerrey, in a separate conversation, adds, “We both discovered that we had a certain aversion to making a commitment necessary to get married.” The couple had a volatile on-and-off relationship for five years: She wanted a baby; he didn’t. She was New York; he was Washington. She didn’t want to be a politician’s wife—“It’s too public a life”—while Kerrey, who ran against Clinton in 1992 for the Democratic presidential nomination, contemplated but ultimately decided against another presidential run in 2000.

After Jonathan Fanton, the longtime president of the New School, announced he was leaving to run the MacArthur Foundation, the search committee—recalling how another Washingtonian, Congressman John Brademas, had transformed NYU—approached Kerrey in early 2000. “I was more interested than I should have been,” says Kerrey, who was about to organize his Senate-reelection campaign. The more he thought about it, the more he realized that he was ready to leave public life; Manhattan beckoned.

He and Paley moved in together in December 2000 and went to City Hall and got a marriage license, but both stalled on actually tying the knot. Then age 44, she was still lobbying for a baby, and Kerrey finally conceded: “I said, ‘I’ll try, but I’m trying under the presumption that the odds are against this happening,’ which is probably why she got pregnant.” Just a few days before the 60-day license expired, Kerrey, at work, called Paley and suggested that a visiting minister friend from Nebraska, Darryl Berg, marry them that night. As she recalls, “I said, ‘Bob, didn’t Darryl marry you the last time?’ ” The answer was yes. “I told him I didn’t think this was such a good idea,” she says with a laugh, fingering her gold wedding ring, “but he convinced me.” Kerrey, who jokes about his new role as “geezer dad,” cannot say enough about the newfound charms of married life. “It’s so nice to love and be loved. “

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.”

Bob Kerrey’s New War