Restless Mind

As the 9/11 commission's chief inquisitor, Bob Kerrey continues a lifetime of questioning - himself above others.

May 17, 2004|By Tom Dunkel | Tom Dunkel,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK - On Sept. 10, 2001, his son Henry was born.

On Sept. 11, his adopted city was attacked and 2,749 men and women died in a cascade of concrete and steel.

A few months later, Bob Kerrey - the high-profile bachelor senator from Nebraska who has reinvented himself as a New York college president and second-marriage "geezer dad" - wrote a Christmas-card poem that he sent to family and friends. The last two stanzas are infused with the kind of stubbornly sunny optimism that seems to shine especially bright in his native state:

Hearts brought down by bitter fall

Hear laughter and resist.

Then beauties soft and quiet call.

Remember-Life-Insist.

We learn again to see above

No wonder to be missed.

No stranger passed without our love

Caress and not a fist.

But don't read too much into those words. At age 60, Kerrey has a well-earned reputation for being as full of surprises as a magician's prop box.

A year after waxing sentimental about laughter and love, his Inner Poet gave way to geopolitical realist as he took pen in hand again, but this time to write several newspaper op-ed pieces defending America's fist-flying invasion of Iraq.

Earlier this month, Kerrey again pulled something unexpected from his sleeve. Sitting in his office at New School University in Lower Manhattan, he vigorously defended the poster girl of Abu Ghraib prison abuse.

Lynndie England, the West Virginia reservist featured in many of those infamous photos, was by then an object of near universal condemnation. Kerrey, however, took issue with President George W. Bush's comments that she and the accused military guards are rotten-apple anomalies who don't represent the real America.

"Well, they do for God's sake," he sputters. "This girl England, jeez, she was in the wrong place at the wrong time and didn't realize what she was doing. It happens in a democracy!"

Bob Kerrey has been to war and to Washington. He knows about dichotomy. He has seen the best and the worst in many people, himself included.

"Human beings are not perfect. They make mistakes and do terrible things."

In a nutshell, we all have axis of evil potential.

Last December, Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle appointed Kerrey to one of the Democratic slots on the 10-member 9/11 Commission charged with investigating events surrounding that painful day.

Tomorrow and Wednesday, the next-to-last round of public hearings will move from Capitol Hill to the New School University here, about a mile from Ground Zero, at Kerrey's invitation. The subject will be the performance of emergency-response teams, and former mayor Rudolf Giuliani will testify.

Kerrey says he didn't foresee "this sort of Perfect Storm" of developments that have turned the media's klieg lights upon the commission. The attention puts him back on the public radar screen, where he spent much of his 18-year political career.

He's also on good terms with Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry. Consequently, Kerrey's name is being bandied about as a long-shot vice presidential candidate or a future CIA director in a Kerry administration.

Amazingly, Kerrey has served on the 9/11 Commission nearly three times as long as his boots were on the ground in Vietnam, which redirected the flow of his life and still exerts an almost gravitational pull on him.

He was in combat just shy of two months; long enough to lose half his right leg and all his innocence.

"My spirit was in darkness," Kerrey writes of the difficulties he faced returning home in his 2002 memoir, When I Was a Young Man. "Like Jonah, the whale had swallowed me."

He was born in the capital city of Lincoln, Neb., in a house once owned by William Jennings Bryan, the silver-tongued prairie populist and failed presidential candidate.

The product of a conservative Republican family, Kerrey studied to be a pharmacist at the University of Nebraska.

In October 1966, he escaped the draft by enlisting in the Navy. He became part of the first crop of applicants selected for the newly formed elite SEAL program.

"His mind is his own mind," says Bill Belding, a close friend who in 1967 took underwater-demolition training alongside Kerrey in California.

Two of their fellow SEALS drowned during a drill, recalls Belding. They were "lying like dead cod on the beach" when a crusty Marine instructor tore into the rest of the group, telling them this is what happens when you lose focus, when you don't watch out for one another.

"Kerrey immediately, without flinching, gets in this guy's face," says Belding. "He tells him, `We're grieving in our own way and get the hell out of here!' That to me was leadership. It was an inspiring moment."

A pair of subsequent moments during actual combat forever changed Kerrey. He learned the heart can be its own Vietnam, an emotional quagmire where higher truths confront self-doubt and dark impulses.

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