|SEN. BOB KERREY RETIRES|
January 24, 2000
Last week Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey announced his retirement after two terms. After a background report, Jim Lehrer interviews Kerrey.
JIM LEHRER: Senator Kerrey is with us now from Des Moines, and again, welcome.
SEN. BOB KERREY: That was very cruel of you to do that.
JIM LEHRER: Why? Why? All it shows is that you've grown a little bit older or wiser or whatever. Go ahead.
SEN. BOB KERREY: I loved the side burns.
JIM LEHRER: Oh, thanks a lot. Thanks a lot. I should have had those cut out of there. What happened? OK. The last time we talked -- we've talked other times, but since you've obviously been senator on issues, but the last time we had a talk, like, OK, what's Bob Kerrey up to, you wanted to be president of the United States. Now you're quitting before that happened. Why? What happened?
|Leaving the public sector to get perspective|
SEN. BOB KERREY: Well, I mean, nothing's happened. I left -- we didn't have an interview in 1996 when I went back to the private sector after I served four years as governor. I will have served 12 years a year from today in the Senate. And I just think it's time for me to breathe some private air. It gave me a great opportunity to get a perspective that I needed in 1987. That enabled me to be a better senator. And it just helps to leave from time to time and go back out to the private side to breath the private air to, get privacy and get the perspective that only a private sector citizen can have.
JIM LEHRER: Why can't you get that kind of perspective in public life?
SEN. BOB KERREY: Well, you can't. I mean, you can this a lot of good things in public life. And I've tried to do that. I've tried to use the power of the office in a respectful fashion and understanding that I just hold it temporarily and try to use it to help individuals and groups of people, especially in Nebraska. But it's like trying to jump over your elbow. There are some things you can't do. You can't be in the private sector and in the public sector simultaneously. The world looks different from both of those positions.
JIM LEHRER: What's the most satisfying thing about public life, about being a public servant as you have been?
SEN. BOB KERREY: Well, the most satisfying thing is to come into a hospital room where somebody has suffered a recent disability or illness and tell them it's going to be OK, and make them feel like they're worthwhile, like they've got some value. The cheapest thing and most valuable thing simultaneously that a person could give is kindness. And the power of a Senate office, a cup of kindness can be quite remarkable in what it could do.
JIM LEHRER: What's the biggest downside to it all?
SEN. BOB KERREY: Well, you begin to focus on your own navel all the time. It's like being John Malkovich. I go through my own head and everything looks like me. You have to be real careful not to become so egocentric that, you know, you see the world through all your own problems and all your own dilemmas. And there's some limitations in addition, but there's a great opportunity to learn about history, to learn about the law, to learn about the power of the United States of the America to do good.
For example, I spent a couple weeks with Pat Hughes, who at the time was in the Department of Defense as their G-2, during December when the United States of America took over the authority from the United Nations and headed up a NATO mission in Bosnia under President Clinton's instructions. It's remarkable what the power of the United States of America did. There were people dying in August of '95 when I was there. I couldn't even get into Sarajevo when I tried to get in on the 27th of August. And today it's at peace. So the opportunity to see the remarkable good and the remarkable power that a citizen has, even though they may think they don't, is something that's quite gratifying on the public side.
|Heroic and cowardly|
JIM LEHRER: Every poll, recent poll shows that the American people don't think much of politicians. Should they think more of them or less, or is that -- what should people think about folks like you?
SEN. BOB KERREY: Well, there's a paradox. It's like my father used to say, "You can't build a house that's any better than you are." So the United States of America, the people cannot have a Congress that's any better than they are. So if you don't like what you see, it's apt consequence of our own unwillingness to make the effort, our own unwillingness to exert the bravery that's required to take a stand in a public issue, in a public debate. So I praise enormous praise to the tens of thousands of people that turned out not just for me but against me in elections every time. That takes courage. I still see in this presidential campaign, for example, where I'm out campaigning right now, I still see thousands of people out there who think it's worthwhile, and thank God for them, because they're the ones making a difference.
JIM LEHRER: You use words like "bravery" and "courage." What's the most courageous thing of you done as a public official, something you really felt you had to lay it down for?
SEN. BOB KERREY: Oh, I don't know. You know, the thing about courage is if you pay attention to what other people are doing and admire their courage, it's much more apt to be that you'll be courageous yourself. If you spend too much time worrying about your own bravery, you're apt to pull a punch, you're apt to freeze up. I have plenty of fears. I did one thing, one heroic thing one night a long time ago. And there are plenty of times where I didn't. I think it's much more likely I'll sustain heroic activity on behalf of other people, presuming that their lives and their health and security are more important than mine if I pay attention to the heroic example of my other and father and other people who have sustained it over a long period of time.
JIM LEHRER: A lot of people belief that a person like you, who has done something incredibly heroic, is then equipped to do all other things in an heroic way. Is that incorrect? Should we not think that way about you?
SEN. BOB KERREY: I think it is incorrect. You know, I'm capable of being brave in one situation, and in another situation, I'm a shivering, quivering coward. So I can't promise that I'm going to be brave in every single situation. I can promise to follow the example of my mother and father and others who I admire, role models who have never let me down, and try to live up to their standards, but sometimes I won't.
|Politicians are trying to do the best they can|
JIM LEHRER: Help us understand politics a little bit, about the individual politician. I've heard it said that a lot -- we all have -- that not most, but a lot of people in politics get their biggest kick out of winning elections. That's the magic moment. That is when you're -- that's the highest of the high, is when those results come in and the majority of the people say, "I want you, Bob Kerrey, rather than Sammy Sue." Is that true, or does it come afterward when you do things as a government official or what?
SEN. BOB KERREY: It's the latter. Certainly it's an exhilarating moment. You see that happy moment when a victory occurs. There's much satisfaction that comes from it. But almost without exception, I can't think of a colleague in either the House or the Senate that doesn't take much more satisfaction when they do manage good, some change in the law, some use of the power to help a individual with a government agency or with a private sector company they're having trouble with. I can't think of a single colleague that doesn't take far more satisfaction from being able to accomplish something once they've got the power than just getting elected.
JIM LEHRER: What has been your impression of most of the people you've run into in politics?
SEN. BOB KERREY: My impression is that most people in and out of politics are just trying to do the best they can. But they're not evil, mean people. And they're trying to do the best that they possibly can with the talents they've been given. Sometimes they do a great job. Sometimes they do a lousy job. But they're trying to do the best they can.
JIM LEHRER: But they do sometimes do evil, mean things, do they not?
SEN. BOB KERREY: Sometimes we do. Sometimes I do. I have a dark side and I have a light side. Sometimes the dark side gets the better of me. But that doesn't mean I'm an evil man. It just means that sometimes evil wins.
JIM LEHRER: Yeah. Should politics be considered noble work?
SEN. BOB KERREY: Unquestionably noble work.
JIM LEHRER: Why isn't it, then?
SEN. BOB KERREY: Well, I think it's beyond my probably my capacity to analyze. I mean, I think it's in part because people see us up close. They see the mistakes that we make. They see mistakes we make in campaign financing. They see us say stupid things. They see us behave in ways they don't like. But what they miss when they make it personal, when they say I don't like Bob Kerrey, and there are plenty of people with don't, what they miss is that it's not Bob Kerrey, it is the cause. It's the power of our laws -- especially given the power of the United States of America -- in general to do good. I'm a great example, Jim. I went to the Philadelphia Naval hospital for eight months, and I didn't know-the-when you interviewed me in 1973, and I didn't recognize it in 1982. I learned it in 1989 when I was on the Appropriations Committee of that Senate -- that that hospital there in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the nurses, the doctors, the physical therapist, the man who made the first limb I wore when I got up and walked, they weren't there by accident. They were there because of a law passed by a Congress, signed by a president.
There wasn't a politician in America that I liked in 1969, let alone be willing to make a contribution to. It's the goodness of this country that allowed the Congress, and indeed necessitated the Congress enacting that law. And freedom meant something to me as a result. I was liberated as a result of that law. It's why I've been fighting for 11 years to try to change the law to say we have to lower the barrier and say if you're an American, under law, that's how you get the liberation of knowing you're in a 270 million person health insurance group called the United States citizenry. But the law liberated me. It's wonderful. It didn't make me lazy and it do anything bad to me. It made me grateful to live in a country as good as this. It came from a Congress that I had maligned in 1969. It came from a president I had maligned in 1969.
JIM LEHRER: Why can't we get the best out of all of us? What is there that -- you hear people say that, and believe, as you did, that we're all good people. And yet we as a group, we as little groups or as a big group don't always do the right thing. Our dark side is the one that sometimes rules. Isn't it up to political leaders to try to get us to do the right thing?
SEN. BOB KERREY: No, it's not. I mean, it's up to the political leaders to try the lead to the best they possibly can but, no, it's up to the American people themselves to draw on their own goodness and then say, "This is what we want" -- not for ourselves, but for our friends and neighbors who may not have it as good as we do. It's up to us. I would say that the history of the United States of America is a great testimonial to the fact that the people, we may make mistakes and appear to take a step backwards from time to time, but for every one back, we take two steps forward. We have expanded the circle of opportunity, the circle of freedom in the United States of America. We're much more prosperous and healthy and much more free today as a consequence of the laws than we were 200 years ago. So we're never going to make it a perfect union, but all we've been doing is trying to make it more perfect. To that end we should feel successful.
|Kerrey will remain in public service|
LEHRER: So we should feel good about ourselves?
SEN. BOB KERREY: As Americans, we should feel fabulous. And we should begin, I try to do my best, we should begin by feeling gratitude, feel grateful, feel, you know, the goodness that you ought to feel when you sit and say, you know, the median family of poverty guideline for a family of four is almost $19,000 in the United States of America. You know, there are nations on this earth that don't have double digit expenditures for health and education as a consequence of a much lower standard of living. We should all feel lucky as Americans that we won the ovarian lottery at the date of our birth that we were born in the United States of America because it gives us a big advantage as a consequence.
JIM LEHRER: What are you going to do now in private life? Have you got something you've been dying to do if you could get just back, go around the world or write a play or poem or anything like that?
SEN. BOB KERREY: Well, I want to continue in public service in some fashion. I like public service. I'm not leaving to go out and make a bunch of money. I hope to be able to continue in public service in some fashion. And I'll try to make a good decision.
JIM LEHRER: But you don't have a plan at this point? Are you leaving out of frustration?
SEN. BOB KERREY: No.
JIM LEHRER: Is this a positive move or a negative move? Put it in a context for us.
SEN. BOB KERREY: It's very much a positive move. Have I been frustrated -- yes. Have I been disappointed -- yes. But I have been exhilarated by the opportunity to serve in the United States Senate with terrific men and women trying to write good laws. And, for the most part, they do. I'm exhilarated by having used the power of the office to do good things for individuals and for groups who have built a lot of things, hundreds of things in Nebraska as a part -- not of my legacy, the list of things that I have done as a individual are quite small. The list of things that we, the people in my staff and other Senate offices, colleagues in the House and Senate that have said yes, and thousands of people in Nebraska that have participated in making our state healthier, better capable of educating our children, safer, all the things we try to do, we've gotten it done. There's along list of accomplishments that the collective we have done.
JIM LEHRER: And more to come from Bob Kerrey?
SEN. BOB KERREY: I hope so. God willing.
JIM LEHRER: All right. Well, thank you, senator, for being with us again.
SEN. BOB KERREY: Thank you, Jim.