The Spreading Profile of Robert Kerrey


December 27, 1990|By Richard Reeves

LINCOLN, NEB. — THERE WERE two questions about Iraq for Sen. Robert Kerrey at a ''town hall'' meeting broadcast statewide one night earlier this month on the Nebraska public television network. All the other questions, save one on agri culture, were about health insurance.

The health questions predominated partly because Senator Kerrey is trying to put together legislation for state-administered national health insurance and because insurance is a big business in Omaha. But there was a lesson in those questions for any national politician, and Mr. Kerrey is about to become a favorite of The Great Mentioner, Russell Baker's term for whoever or whatever begins mentioning the names of possible candidates for president.

The senator, a war hero who was the governor of Nebraska, understands a couple of things: Presidential candidates actually get that way by mentioning themselves, and health care or health insurance could be the dominant issue of the 1992 campaign. More than that, Senator Kerrey seemed also to understand that the United States, the only developed country in the world that does not consider rudimentary medical care a right, is headed for two national health crises, one noisy and one quiet.

The one getting the attention so far is the fact that perhaps 40 million Americans have no health coverage at all, and the most unfortunate of them are turned away at emergency rooms if they cannot produce Blue Shield or American Express cards. The quiet crisis concerns Americans with ''pre-existing conditions''; we are moving toward the point at which men and women with identifiable (and expensive) health problems will not only not be able to get insurance, they also will not even be able to get jobs of any kind at corporations that provide any level of medical insurance.

''I'm not 100 percent confident of this proposal,'' he said of his own ideas for health insurance. ''That's why I seek your help and your ideas. But I think we have to move the siting of health care away from business. . . . I just think we are going to have a higher and higher velocity of job turnover.''

The translation of that thought is this: As corporate health insurance costs soar out of control, companies are attempting to screen out employees and new job applicants whose medical histories or tests indicate they might one day cost somebody a lot of money in hospital and doctor bills. And that discrimination could get infinitely worse if genetic tests prove capable of showing that a totally healthy person may be vulnerable to future conditions that will cost somebody a small fortune.

During the town hall session, Mr. Kerrey listened earnestly to the problems of a middle-aged lady with a staggering list of conditions from diabetes to cancer, who had predictable troubles getting any response from government or private health-coverage agencies. It turned out he knew the woman and had advised her that her only recourse and only chance was to go to court -- which she had done, and where she had won.

The senator, a free-market Democrat, seemed to be a good and comfortable listener, the rarest of qualities in professional politicians. He was reminiscent of the young John Kennedy, listening well but talking too fast to be understood. But, alas, there was no evidence here of any of Kennedy's wit. Being good-natured and candid, which Mr. Kerrey was that night, is no substitute for the perspective of humor and irony.

A fellow named Charles Schwab from Omaha stood up at the meeting at Creighton University and offered the opinion that the Soviets are broke and have only one salable line of manufactured products, weapons. What are you going to do, senator, when the Russians start selling nuclear delivery systems to Third World countries like Iraq?

''I don't know,'' the senator said. ''It's scary, isn't it?''

Mr. Kerrey, who is 47 and looks younger, does share more than the usual similarities with the Senator Kennedy of the 1950s -- most important, big ambition and a sense of political timing rooted in the knowledge that no one asks you to be president. It is yours for the taking. He was a lieutenant in the Navy, too, losing a leg and winning the Congressional Medal of Honor in Vietnam, which might even be enough to protect him from the patriotic blather of toy soldiers such as Dan Quayle and Newt Gingrich.

And Senator Kerrey has a bit of glamour, because he had an affair with Debra Winger when he was governor and she was in Lincoln filming ''Terms of Endearment.'' They are tolerant and kind of proud of that out there. Local boy makes good and a movie star. He also has money but, unlike Kennedy, he made it himself, in the restaurant business.

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