Elected senator from Nebraska in 1988, J. Robert (Bob) Kerrey (born 1943) made an unsuccessful bid for the Democratic nomination for president in 1992. He made a name for himself as being a maverick and a deficit hawk.
Robert Kerrey was born in 1943 in Lincoln, Nebraska, where he was raised and educated. Upon completion of college at the University of Nebraska (B.S. in pharmacy in 1966), Kerrey entered the military service as a Navy SEAL (the Navy equivalent of the Green Berets). During his service in Vietnam in 1969 he was wounded in battle, which required the amputation of his right leg just below the knee. In 1970 he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for "conspicuous gallantry." He is the only current member of the Senate holding the Medal of Honor. In the history of the United States Senate only four other members have been Medal of Honor recipients—all for service during the Civil War. While convalescing and rehabilitating in a military hospital in Philadelphia, however, he developed a strong conviction against the war in which he served and later opposed several armed conflicts involving U.S. military personnel. Notwithstanding a prosthesis, Kerrey was an avid runner, finishing a marathon and logging six miles a day.
Upon completion of his military service, he returned to Lincoln with the intention of opening a pharmacy (his undergraduate major). He decided against pursuing this profession because he thought there already were too many pharmacies operating in the area. Instead, he developed a string of restaurants with his brother-in-law (Grandmother's Restaurants—so named because they wanted to provide food just like grandmother's). The success of this venture along with the development of fitness centers in Nebraska made him a millionaire.
In 1983 he entered into politics for the first time and defeated an incumbent governor to take office as the head of the state of Nebraska. Inheriting a large budget deficit and a farm crisis that struck the Midwest during the early 1980s, his popularity and approach to governing facilitated a quick turnaround of the state's fortunes. By cutting some programs, increasing taxes, and expanding the tax base, he was able to reverse the state's deficit and replace it with a $49 million surplus by the end of his first term. He decided to forego what many considered certain reelection (he enjoyed an approval rating above 70 percent) and dropped from the political scene when his term ended in 1986.
His self-imposed suspension from the political arena was short-lived, however. In 1988, perhaps realizing that a rare opportunity presented itself for a chance at the Senate, he decided to challenge Republican David Karnes, an attorney from Omaha who was appointed to finish the term of Senator Edward Zorinsky, a Democrat, who died suddenly in 1987. He handily won election and took office in 1989. While still learning the ropes of the Senate, he decided to enter the Democratic presidential sweepstakes as a candidate, attempting to wrestle the White House from 12 years of Republican occupancy.
His presidential bid in 1992 was limited, as he was unable to mount a successful challenge to the eventual Democratic nominee and president, Bill Clinton. He did strike hard at the sitting president (George Bush) as one of only three members of the Senate voting against support for the Gulf War in Iraq. Even with a capacity for inspiring speeches and a press corps that gave him considerable attention, he was unable to convince voters that he should be the Democratic party's presidential candidate in November. He only managed a disappointing third-place finish in the New Hampshire primary and won in South Dakota (40 percent to 25 percent over Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa). Nonetheless, he was unable to gather any further significant support as he finished fourth or fifth in five other primary states a week after the South Dakota victory and abruptly dropped from the race.
Kerrey continued his efforts in the Senate, establishing his credentials as someone who worked hard at understanding issues. His general views on policies appeared to favor cutting spending wherever possible in order to reduce the deficit (he argued against uncontrollable entitlement programs that lock in expenditures and contribute to a large budget deficit). Of this problem, he told The Washington Times in 1996, "We (will) have converted the federal government into an ATM (automatic teller machine)."
He held positions on the Senate Appropriations and Agriculture Committees. While he was not categorized as a traditional "tax and spend" senator, he was willing to consider tax increases where appropriate to cover necessary governmental spending. He argued for a health care trust fund to finance the federal government's health programs and worked for programs that benefited Nebraska's farming economy, including export assistance, crop insurance, and wetlands laws.
Kerrey was considered in some circles to be a maverick. He articulated positions that made him a voice for a new vision of the Democratic party. He had characteristics that some attribute to the new Democratic party: He was traditionally liberal on lifestyle issues, civil rights issues (he argued against flag burning legislation), and child and nutrition issues. Yet he also took more conservative positions on economic policies—the need to eliminate the budget deficit by cutting entitlements and a generally reduced role for the federal government. He co-sponsored legislation with Senator Joseph Lieberman (Connecticut) to set up a bipartisan commission (similar to the base-closing commission) to streamline the federal government.
His relationship with President Clinton's administration was at times a rocky one. He cast the key vote in the Senate in 1993 that led to the passage of the president's tax increase and budget deficit reduction plan. As a condition, he wrangled a promise from Clinton to support a commission on entitlement reform. Its recommendations, however, were largely ignored. He was re-elected to the Senate in 1994. He chose not to challenge Clinton for the 1995 Democratic nomination instead heading up the job of chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. Kerrey continued his outspoken ways when he told Esquire Magazine in January 1996 that "Clinton is an unusually good liar. Unusually good. Do you realize that?"
Kerrey remained close to his children, a son, Ben, and a daughter, Lindsey, who resided in Omaha with their mother, from whom he was divorced. An avid reader, he suggested that members of Congress should read only fiction, and he enjoyed a reputation as a member of the Senate who was always prepared.
Kerrey's speeches on the Senate floor are interesting reading— see the Congressional Record; also see Michael Barone and Grant Ujifusa, The Almanac of American Politics (1994); and "Grave Doubts," Esquire Magazine (January 1996). □