NY1’s Budd Mishkin continues his series, “One On 1,” with a profile of a man who came to New York by way of Nebraska, Washington D.C. and Vietnam - New School University President Bob Kerrey.
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In his four years as president of the New School, Bob Kerrey has gotten to know New York, even if his fellow New Yorkers are still a little bit fuzzy about his home state.
"I ran into somebody on the street not long after I came here and he said, ÎYou're the guy from Nebraska, and all I know about Nebraska is you're the reason it takes five hours to fly to Los Angeles instead of four,’” says Kerrey. “That's all he knows — that it's 500 more miles that wouldn't be there if Nebraska were taken out. It'd be a shorter trip.”
Was it someone who is teaching at the university? "Not any longer," Kerrey says with a laugh.
It's been a pretty unlikely journey for Kerrey; from Nebraska pharmacist to Vietnam vet, businessman, then governor, senator, presidential candidate, and now president of a university known for its radical left-wing tradition.
“You could've tapped me on the shoulder when I was in the Senate in 1998 and said, ÎYou're going to be up in New York City running the New School two years from now,’ and I'd have said, ÎYou're nuts,’" he says. “It's just, learn as fast as you can and hope that the board understands it's going to be a couple of years before you figure it out. So the board basically wasted their money for the first 18 months, it felt like to me. It was like air conditioning your house with the windows open - that's how inefficient I was around here."
And if you think that Kerrey's days are spent bandying about stories and theories with students and professors, think again.
“People say, ÎWell, you're in academia.’ Not really - I'm president of a university. What I do is try to manage the university so others can bandy around with the students, can read poetry and study film, so others can do all those things that we offer here at the university,” he says. “So that's what administrators do - they create spaces for others to be intellectuals.”
Kerrey’s return to private life in New York has been very public. A story from his Vietnam past surfaced about an attack on a village that ended in the deaths of women and children.
His son was also born the day before the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. In the aftermath of 9/11, Kerrey came out in support of the war in Iraq, which not only triggered student protests at the New School, but put him at odds politically with his wife, who opposes the war.
“I just keep working on her and try to persuade her that she's wrong,” he says. “[How am I doing with that]? Not very good. The way the administration has operated this thing has more than one time caused me to say, ÎMaybe my wife was right.’"
Then Kerrey was named to the 9/11 Commission. So only a few years after Kerrey had left Washington D.C., he found himself back there frequently, studying documents. He was right back in the fray.
"It was intensely partisan,” he says. “I mean, God, you whack [former National Security Adviser] Condoleeza Rice and the New York Post goes nuts.”
Still, Kerrey says he made new friendships working with the other commissioners.
“You acquire a certain common cause of purpose that led us to produce a report without minority reports or any kind of dissent,” he says. “So it was a pretty remarkable experience, sort of like being in the Navy. I wouldn't trade it for anything, but I wouldn't do it again for a million bucks.”
New York was a world away when Bob Kerrey was growing up in what he calls the idyllic life of 1950's Lincoln, Nebraska.
“I came here in 1961 right after I graduated from high school with a bunch of us that drove back here, and it was like going to a foreign country,” he says. “We went to Yankee Stadium and it was the most exciting thing I had ever done in my life.”
Kerrey loved science, studied pharmacology at the University of Nebraska, and started working at a pharmacy in the mid-60’s.
“To be a pharmacist in 1965 or 66 - [with] birth control coming on the market, amphetamines and quaaludes lying around in free samples, [and] there was no regulation at that time - it was a pretty good gig,” he says. “I was a pretty popular guy."
But eventually Kerrey wanted a change, and he joined the Navy. Despite misgivings about the war, he went to Vietnam in 1969. His Vietnam experience was short, its impact powerful.
“Vietnam is a very unusual war in lots of ways because it's almost an expectation that you're going to talk, whereas in World War II, quite the opposite happens,” he says. “You know, grandpa went to his grave and never talked about it, and you said, ÎIsn't it wonderful, he never talked about it.’ But in Vietnam, you know, [it’s], ÎWhy the hell don't you tell us everything?’"
Kerrey says Vietnam is always just below the surface, a permanent part of him.
Soon after taking on the job of president at the New School in 2001, more than 30 years after he left Vietnam, a story in the New York Times Magazine and on “60 Minutes” reported that a Navy Seals unit commanded by Kerrey had been involved in an attack on a Vietnamese village in which women and children were killed.
Accounts of the night varied. Kerrey said his unit was fired upon first and the villagers were killed in crossfire. A fellow Navy Seal remembered that Kerrey had been actively involved in the killing.
In advance of the publication of the story, Kerrey held a news conference to discuss the situation.
“We had reliable intelligence both that a significant military meeting was taking place in the village that was our destination, and that there were not civilians in the area," he said at the time.
The reaction to the story was intense, and more than 30 years of personal pain over what happened that terrible night become very public.
“Others have justified it militarily to me. I have not been able to do so, nor have I been able to justify it morally," he said in 2001.
Perhaps Kerrey's most painful moment came when he had to tell his grown children from a previous marriage about that night in the Vietnamese village and its awful end.
“I knew it was going to hurt me to talk about that night to them,” he says. “It turns out it didn't. Their love for me was as unconditional for me as mine is for them, so it turned out to be a wonderful moment. But there's fear in talking about it."
Kerrey's war ended on another mission in 1969 when a grenade exploded at his feet. He was evacuated out of the country and taken to Philadelphia Naval Hospital, where his right leg was amputated below the knee.
“I was young, I was angry, I was hurting,” he says. “I had been able to run fast and climb tall buildings and jump from airplanes and all that sort of stuff, and all of a sudden old women were walking faster than I was through O'Hare Airport. All of a sudden I didn't have anything in a pant leg. You've changed - everybody else hasn't, and you expect them all to have changed. ÎDon't you understand what's going on?’ is a typical thing that comes from that. Well, they don't, because they haven't been hurt, they haven't been to the hospital, they didn't go to Vietnam and kill people."
Kerrey says that one of the lessons from his Vietnam experience extends far beyond that war.
"What we did in that village is the danger in every war, especially when you're fighting like we are in Iraq today,” he says. “You've got that possibility every single time you go out, and it requires restraint, it requires recognition that it can happen to you.”
Kerrey went to Vietnam as a 25-year-old college graduate, and he cautions against generalizing the experience of returning home for all Vietnam veterans.
“I had significant advantages that a lot of kids coming right out of high school who got drafted in 1967, 68, 69 at the age of 18,” he says. “Do a little bit of basic training, here's your M-16, you’re in the jungle all of a sudden, 13 months and back home again, and you're supposed to be normal again - that's a much different thing than I went through.”
Privately, Bob Kerrey reads poetry. But the public Bob Kerrey is still often asked to speak about Vietnam and all topics relating to it. He wrote about the war in his 2002 memoir, “When I Was a Young Man.”
Kerrey says with all the pain, with all that was taken away, he gained something in Vietnam.
"I'm now an amputee, and recognizing that is very liberating," he says. “I can call someone who has suffered a trauma, I can visit somebody who suffered a trauma and I can help them because I've been through it. That's a pretty good thing to have.”
- Budd Mishkin