Star quality and a big head may help Kerrey


November 06, 1991|By ROGER SIMON

MANCHESTER, N.H. -- It is early in the morning when Bob Kerrey enters the American Legion Post just off Elm Street, but a goodly crowd is already seated on folding chairs spread around the scuffed linoleum floor.

"People are looking for a leader," a supporter is telling me as Kerrey walks in. "A Churchill."

But if people are looking for a Churchill among the men currently running for president, they better keep looking.

On the Republican side we have a known factor, George Bush, and on the Democratic side we have a group of major candidates with so little name recognition that they probably could not get a parking ticket fixed outside their home states.

But Bob Kerrey, 48, has a certain something going for him in this regard: star quality. Potential star quality, anyway.

You hear the questions being asked in the crowds at the gatherings where the Democratic candidates parade before the public like beauty queens on a runway:

"Which is the guy with the one leg?"

"Who won the Medal of Honor in Vietnam?"

"Which is the one who dated Debra Winger?"

The answer to all three is Bob Kerrey.

A senator and former governor from Nebraska, a war hero who lost his lower right leg to a Viet Cong grenade, he has attracted not only early public attention, but some very sharp staff people from past presidential campaigns.

They stand here now, along the back wall, arms crossed over their suits. These are guys who can organize a state or a nominating convention or a national campaign. Unfortunately, none of them thought to organize a microphone for Bob Kerrey this morning.

So he must address the crowd through a bullhorn, giving his speech a certain "come-out-with-your-hands-up" quality.

He is shorter and much slimmer than one expects. Though once rugged enough to become a Navy SEAL, an elite commando unit, he now looks almost frail. His head is big, however, and this helps him on TV. (Merv Griffin, the vastly successful TV producer, believes in hiring stars with big heads because they show up so much better on the screen. Vanna White and Pat Sajak have big heads.)

Reporters have been shadowing Kerrey for some time now, and the reviews have been mixed. It seems Kerrey has not yet fully learned the trick of hiding his intelligence, which may be essential if he wishes to become president.

Americans want presidents they consider smart or savvy, but not presidents who are too brainy or intellectuals. George Bush never impressed anybody as being an intellectual. Ronald Reagan was never accused of being too brainy.

Candidates who do not disguise their intelligence -- Adlai Stevenson comes to mind -- scare people and are quickly given negative labels. Which is why Kerrey is sometimes called "Cosmic Bob," just as Jerry Brown, former governor of California and also running for president, is often called "Governor Moonbeam."

It is a way we have of saying that people who have ideas or thought processes we can't understand are not really superior to us but just goofy. Such labels make the rest of us feel better.

This morning, however, Kerrey goes for what George Bush calls the "vision thing." (George Bush admitted during his 1988 campaign that he lacked a "vision thing." He got by on "Read My Lips, No New Taxes" instead.)

"I want to lead a renewal of America and be guided by the values of a great society," Kerrey tells the people. "With dignity and with values, we can create, produce and do marvelous things.

"Everything I've done good, I have never done alone. Everything I've done good, I have not done without reaching out. I ask for your help today. Will you help me today be the next president of the United States?"

The applause is warm, and Kerrey leads a march out of the hall -- he has an artificial leg and his limp is very slight; he has run marathons -- and over to the National Guard Armory, where five of the six Democratic candidates will speak.

There, Chris Spirou, the state Democratic chairman, talks candidly: "I haven't seen great interest among rank-and-file Democrats about individual candidates. People are more concerned about survival than about who is going to win [the Democratic nomination.]"

Exactly. But the candidate who can persuade people he can do something meaningful about their survival has the best chance of winning.

While other candidates have walked up to the lectern on the giant stage by coming out of the curtains behind, Kerrey walks down the long aisle in front, surrounded by screaming supporters who carry placards and chant his name. Ker-REY! Ker-REY! Ker-REY! "Right Here, Right Now", the big hit of the rock group Jesus Jones that celebrates the democratic changes in Eastern Europe, blares through the public address system. Kerrey mounts the stage and stands behind the lectern, looking at the cacophony below him.

He gives a sardonic smile. "This is a heck of a way to make a living," he says.

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