November 25, 1991 12:00 PM

IT WAS HOBO DAY AT NORTHEAST HIGH School in Lincoln, Nebr., and Bob Kerrey didn’t have a costume. At least that’s what his classmates thought. Then, to their surprise, Kerrey stole off to the boys’ room and re-emerged in a striped cape. His regular clothes had been Clark Kent garb, of course, and now he was transformed into Superman.

If only real life were so simple. Thirty years later, Bob Kerrey, 48, the freshman Democratic Senator from Nebraska, is running for President. And he’ll need superhero attributes to clear the field of Democratic contenders and oust George Bush in 1992. He has the requisite fearless attitude, at least. “I have survived worse than political campaigns can dish out,” says Kerrey, a decorated Vietnam veteran who lost half his right leg in the war. “I can fight.”

There are many who believe he can win, including a growing coterie of Hollywood heavyweights such as Fox chief Barry Diller and Sally Field, who are starting to raise money for Kerrey. Friendly, self-deprecating, blue-eyed and handsome without being pretty, he radiates the kind of star quality that gets attention and votes. He was a popular one-term Governor of Nebraska, even though he had to make cutbacks in education and mass transit spending to get the state’s economy out of the red. Solidly conservative Nebraskans even condoned his overnight visits from actress Debra Winger, whom he met during the Nebraska filming of Terms of Endearment. (Kerrey noted at the time that more of them thought she should be staying in the Governor’s mansion than thought he should.)

His politics (he is pro-choice and in favor of deep defense cuts) tend to the left of center—but who would dare call a war hero a liberal wimp? He is the sort of guy, to top it all off, who can rally even his ex-wife to his side. In September, when Kerrey announced his candidacy to the accompanying strains of Springsteen’s “Born to Run,” Beverly Higby, Mrs. Kerrey from 1974 to 1978, sat behind him with their two children, Ben, 17, and Lindsey, 15. “I know his heart,” says Higby. “I think he would do a really good job.”

And then there are those who aren’t so sure. Kerrey prides himself on refusing to be pigeonholed politically, but open-mindedness can also be read as plain indecision. In the Seriate he spoke out in favor of an anti-flag-burning amendment, then announced he had changed his mind after reviewing the case. As a candidate for Governor he reassured antiabortion advocates that he opposed the use of public funds for abortions, a stand he later rejected. “He has a magical ability to make you believe in him—he can make s—look like apple butter,” says Republican John DeCamp, a state senator during Kerrey’s governorship. “But I called him flip-flop Bobby because what he promises you at 8 A.M. he may completely reverse at 12.”

Or he may have no opinion at all, and say so. Asked at a recent press luncheon to outline his position on cutting National Guard forces, Kerrey said simply, “I don’t have one.” Says Charlie Black, a GOP consultant: “Having a good bio and a wonderful war record and star quality only takes you so far unless you have a good message for the American people.”

What Kerrey seems to be hoping is that Americans will vote for the man more than the message. That he hasn’t leaped tall buildings in a single bound yet is of little account, goes that line of reasoning, its long as you sense that he can. “In politics the issues we’re discussing now are not apt to be the ones that will be crucial two or three years from now,” says Kerrey, on a campaign break in Nebraska. “What [a voter] needs is some understanding of who you are in order to predict what you would do. What are your values, what do you care about?”

Kerrey learned his values from his close-knit, middle-class family. His father, Jim, a builder, and his mother, Elinor, a nutritionist, created “a very secure environment,” says Kerrey’s sister Jessie, now a Nebraska state senator. Lively debate was encouraged at the dinner table in their Lincoln home—and with seven children, there were plenty of voices.

In his teens, Kerrey worked summers pouring concrete for his dad. “You’re hot and sweating and wishing the work was easier,” he says. “Well, it’s not going to get easier, so I learned from my father to focus on the job and do it right the first time.”

That attitude served him well in high school, where he was a solid student and a center on the football team. At the University of Nebraska’s pharmacy school he excelled academically, and his less cerebral talents developed as well: He was president of his fraternity, vice president of the student council and, in the 1965 Cornhusker yearbook, runner-up for most eligible bachelor.

When it came time to present himself to the local draft board, Kerrey didn’t hesitate. Instead of using his pharmacy degree to pull noncombat duty, he chose to join the SEALs, the Navy’s elite fighting team. “I’ve always liked exciting things,” explains Kerrey. “There is something about getting beyond your own fears.” He shipped out to Vietnam—but not before casting a vote for Richard Nixon. “He had a plan for ending the war,” says Kerrey, who switched to the Democratic Party in 1978, “and it sounded right.”

His own war would last just three months. On March 14, 1969, Lt. (j.g.) Kerrey came up with a plan to corner the North Vietnamese troops his SEALs unit was chasing. “It was a gutsy operation behind enemy lines,” says Gary Parrott, a fellow SEAL and a right-wing Republican who, like many of Kerrey’s conservative Navy buddies, now shows up to support him whenever he runs for office. “It was like a jewel heist.”

Kerrey’s plan involved scaling a 350-foot island cliff, then descending to a ledge where the enemy was entrenched. He rarely talks about that day’s events, but the Medal of Honor citation he later received describes them in detail. As Kerrey and his men reached their goal, they were hit by enemy fire. A grenade exploded at Kerrey’s feet and “although bleeding profusely and suffering great pain,” the citation reads, “he displayed outstanding courage and presence of mind,” continuing to command his troops until he was evacuated by helicopter.

At the Philadelphia Naval Hospital, another kind of battle would begin. After a brief skirmish with self-pity—”a very destructive emotion,” he says—he fought to win. Lewis Puller, a Marine who spent time in the same hospital, remembers the first time he saw Kerrey. “He was listening to an Aretha Franklin tape played several decibels above what the ward rules allowed, and he was dying to take pictures of his mangled leg with an Instamatic camera,” writes Puller in his recently published autobiography, Fortunate Son. “He handed me the camera and asked me to snap a few pictures of his leg for the American Legion folks back in his home state.”

Shortly afterward, Kerrey’s leg was amputated below the knee. Despite almost constant pain, he forced himself to learn to walk on his prosthesis. (In 1981 he completed a marathon in Lincoln.) Between physical therapy sessions he did plenty of thinking about the war, and he decided he was against it. “I felt enormously betrayed,” he says, recalling the cold welcome for veterans who were tormented with taunts of “baby killer.” “We said this was a war about self-government, while we were selecting corrupt leaders in a very nondemocratic fashion.” (Earlier this year, he favored using sanctions rather than force in the Persian Gulf.)

Back in Lincoln, instead of using his pharmacy degree, Kerrey started a restaurant with his sister Jessie’s husband. Dean Rasmussen. Their first Grandmother’s Skillet opened in 1973; the following year Kerrey married Beverly Defnall, a hometown girl who set aside her dreams of acting to be his wife. Today, Grandmother’s is a chain of eight Nebraska restaurants that, along with three health clubs, have made Kerrey and Rasmussen millionaires. But in those days its founders were run ragged busing tables and doing dishes. Kerrey did find time to attend Lamaze classes with Beverly, and he was present for the births of both their children. “Watching Ben and Lindsey be born was the most powerful thing that ever happened to me,” he says. “They made me want to live again.”

Yet the strain of his working hours and his anxiety about his mother, who developed Lou Gehrig’s disease in 1976 and died two years later, was more than the Kerrey marriage could bear. Bob and Beverly divorced in 1978. “The biggest—I wouldn’t call it a mistake, but it was certainly a failure—was my marriage,” says Kerrey. “But I’m also presenting the voters with someone who has the capacity to understand what the children’s mom goes through, and it’s very hard.” Says Beverly: “Divorce is sad, and ours was.” She remarried and moved to Texas with Ben and Lindsey in 1980. “It was hard not being with them,” Kerrey says. “I’m still not with them as much as I either should or would like to be.”

With his family at a distance, Kerrey decided to try a new challenge: politics. He ran against incumbent Republican Gov. Charles Thone in 1982, and thanks in part to voters’ frustration over the ailing farm economy, he won. He proved an unconventional presence in the Governor’s mansion—eating in the capitol cafeteria, hanging out at a local blues bar and dating Winger. (They broke up in 1985 and are now officially just friends, though the actress and her 4-year-old son by actor Tim Hutton still see Kerrey now and then.)

Voters liked his informality, and the state’s economic rebound, enough to make him a strong favorite for reelection in 1986. But Kerrey decided he had had enough and stepped down to spend more time with his children and his businesses. In 1988, after U.S. Sen. Edward Zorinsky died in office, he couldn’t resist seizing the opportunity to run for the Senate. Once elected, he introduced the tax-funded national health-care proposal that is now the central issue of his campaign.

Since Beverly divorced her second husband and moved the kids back to Lincoln last year, Kerrey has been able to be a more hands-on father. He reads the books Ben is reading in English class so they can discuss them, and he drove daughter Lindsey to a New Kids concert. (He waited in the car.) “I like talking to them and I like listening to them,” says Kerrey. “I worry about the world they will face.”

As he travels New Hampshire’s chilly highways this month, drumming up voles for the first Democratic primary, in February, Kerrey tries to communicate what he has learned about the world so far. He has seen the worst—and the best—of what government can accomplish. “My government almost killed me,” he points out. But it also gave him his life back, he notes, with good medical care and business loans. Critics complain that Kerrey tends to “personalize” all political issues, but in the end that may be a strength, not a weakness.

Harvard Professor Robert Coles, for one, is impressed. An adviser in Robert Kennedy’s 1968 presidential campaign, he had given up on politics since then—”until this guy showed up,” Coles says. “Bob Kerrey has moral vision.”



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