“Cosmic” Bob Kerrey’s best decision

At our celebration on Friday, where Senior United States District Judge Joe Bataillon was honored, former United States Senator Bob Kerrey showed up. It is also true that he showed up late. He wore jeans, a sport coat and evidently saw no need for a tie. Further, it is true that Kerrey has a quick wit and poked fun at Judge Bataillon with seeming delight. Joe once served at the Chair of the Nebraska Democratic Party in Nebraska. Kerrey and Joe bumped heads more than a few times. But, it was apparent that they remained friends and highly respected each other.

As I watched Kerrey, I thought of all the criticism he had received for being a tad bit strange. Kerrey often acted more like a good looking Buddhist monk with a killer sense of humor than a seasoned pol. Those traits caused supporters and opponents to scratch their heads.

Here are some examples taken from a 2012 article entitled The Return of ‘Cosmic Bob’ written by Robert Costa for the National Review Online:

* Bill Clinton couldn’t stand him. “Something went really bad between them. . . . Kerrey is really quirky and in a way that is off-putting to Clinton on a lot of different levels.” [Jonathan Alter, via Clinton in Exile by Carol Felsenthal]

* His colleagues didn’t “get” him. “Oh, Kerrey, I saw him float over the chamber. He’s communing.” [Trent Lott, via Bill Clinton by Nigel Hamilton]

* He once considered running for mayor of New York. “‘BK is a true existential man,’ Bob Kerrey’s friend Tom Brokaw e-mailed to me last week from Dubai, en route to Kabul. . . . In other words, when Kerrey, president of the New School and former U.S. senator, admitted to the Times that he was thinking about running for mayor only a week or so after he had consented to chair Democrats for Bloomberg, he was reverting to type — a beautiful loose cannon, a gonzo pillar of the Establishment, a restless, discombobulating political freak of the most exquisite and interesting kind.” [New York, May 21, 2005]

* He also mulled writing a “deconstructionist” book about politics. “Before the last election, for instance, he talked to humor writer Patricia Marx about collaborating on a prankish, deconstructionist guidebook to running for president. Quirky enough for you? He also writes poetry, which he illustrates.” [New York, May 21, 2005]

* During his ill-fated presidential run, Kerrey made headlines for telling an off-color joke about lesbians. “Bob Kerrey apologized profusely Tuesday for privately telling another candidate a dirty joke about two lesbians and a third White House hopeful.” [Los Angeles Times, November 20, 1991]

* He had Hollywood hype before he caught Beltway fever, dating actress Debra Winger. “They set off a prairie fire of passion; traipsing off for a spring fling. . . . The press loved the love-bugs. The Omaha World-Herald ran a story comparing the couple to former California Gov. Jerry Brown and singer Linda Ronstadt.” [People, June 6, 1983]

* Democrats have worried that he’s a mystic. “He still cultivates an outsider’s air; some Democrats think of him as the ‘un-politician.’ He lapses from time to time into moments of “cosmic Bob,” putting aside the details of health care, education and foreign policy to talk of God, altruism and the need for spirituality in American politics. Some Democrats worry that they have produced another Jerry Brown, another mystic, when what they need are street-smart pols.” [New York Times Magazine, April 14, 1991]

Image credit: objectiveconservative.blogspot.com

Image credit: objectiveconservative.blogspot.com

For all the jabs directed at Kerrey, he once did something that for my money showed his capacity for greatness. When Kerrey was Governor, and when Attorney General Paul Douglas resigned after losing his law license, Kerrey appointed Robert (Bob) Spire as Attorney General. Spire was a Republican, and Kerrey drew serious fire from those in his own party for that appointment. Spire later went on to serve Senator Kerrey in Washington, D.C.–in a sense, both men were bound together by a concern for the “cosmic.”

Bob Spire did not need and did not want to be Attorney General. Moreover, despite the fact that there was no political upside for Kerrey, Spire was the perfect pick to restore Nebraskans’ confidence in the office of Attorney General.

Spire came from a “white shoe” Republican firm in Omaha. He was financially secure. With undergraduate and law degrees from Harvard, there was no doubting his intellect. The fact he was also a CPA said much the same thing. That he was an accomplished pianist who attended the Julliard School of Music set him apart, far apart. from the typical corporate practitioner. His membership in the local Musician’s Union punctuated that point in the most melodic of ways. His service as President of the Nebraska State Bar Association was a testament to the respect he garnered from lawyers throughout the state. That he was a teacher at the University of Nebraska Medical Center exemplified his wide-ranging intellectual interests. That he was known for picking up trash in front of the All Saints Episcopal Church before entering spoke to his commitment as a servant to others in matters both great and small. Upon his death at 68, the pall bearers who carried his casket included the Democrat Kerrey plus the Chair of the Nebraska Republican Party. That Spire earned two purple hearts during the Second World War connected Spire in a profound way to Kerrey who had lost his leg while earning the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Thus, as I watched and listened to “Cosmic Bob” at Judge Bataillon’s ceremony I was thankful to the Senator. Kerrey’s appointment of Bob Spire as Nebraska’s Attorney General proved to me that a concern for all things “cosmic” can turn an ordinary politician into an extraordinary one.

RGK

 

11 responses

  1. Cosmic Bob also was the moving force for the federal courthouse in Omaha.

    And my favorite quote from him was about Bill Clinton. “He’s a good liar. Unusually good.”

    And it is a little known fact that the Bob Kerrey Bridge cost almost as much as the Golden Gate.

  2. I joined the Navy five days after graduating from high school in 1984. Despite the fact that there was a recruit training center (i.e., boot camp) less than 150 miles from my hometown, I was sent to boot camp in San Diego. The recruits were driven from the airport in a school bus. The petty officer driving the bus yelled at us recruits to identify which of us where from Nebraska. Three kids raised their hands. One was from Fordyce, one was from Oshkosh (especially interesting to me as I was from Oshkosh Wisconsin and was amazed that there was another place on earth named Oshkosh), and the third was from McCook. After admonishing the recruits for not ending their answers with the word “sir,” the following exchange took place:

    PO: Do you recruits know that Bob Kerrey is the Governor of Nebraska?

    Recruits: Sir, Yes Sir!

    PO: Do you recruits know that Governor Kerrey is a Navy veteran?

    Recruits: Sir, Yes Sir!

    PO: Do you recruits know that Governor Kerrey was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions in Vietnam?

    Recruits: Sir, Yes Sir!

    PO: Do you recruits know that Governor Kerrey’s girlfriend is Debra Winger, the most beautiful and talented actress in Hollywood?

    Recruits: Sir, Yes Sir!

    PO: Governor Kerrey has shown the world what Navy men from Nebraska can do. You recruits better not screw it up.

    And that is how I first heard of Bob Kerrey.

  3. When I was in high school my Dad mentioned my interest in becoming a lawyer and mentioned that I was already reading advance sheets to the old breakfast crowd at Northrup Jones. Bob Spire was there and began to send the Harvard L Revs home for me after he read them. I think that is an example of his wonderful kindness. My Dad’s view was that since I already was a guardhouse lawyer I might as well know something.

  4. Thank you for your reminder to all of us about Bob Spire, who was truly a lawyer’s lawyer. My first job as an attorney was working for Bob in the Nebraska Attorney General’s office. It was an incomparable experience. He was everything that is right about the law.

  5. Cornhead,

    Now wait just a minute. Cosmic Bob was both helpful and a pain in the ass when it came to the Omaha courthouse.

    While he wanted it built, and worked hard to see that it came into being, he acted like an accountant with an old fashioned eye shade when it came to cost. For example, instead of a granite facade–a perfectly appropriate expenditure for the first federal courthouse in the country to be built under the GSA’s Design Excellence Program under the direction of James Ingo Freed the world-renowned architect who created the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum-what the public got instead were bricks. That was short sighted in my opinion.

    All the best.

    RGK

  6. The money saved on the courthouse was part of the $18m in federal money for the BK Bridge.

    $27m for the Golden Gate and $22m for the BK and we can’t even drive over it to CB!

  7. Judge:
    It seems that it takes two tango in politics as well as in dancing. By that I mean, even with a man of General Spire’s unquestioned stellar qualifications, it also took a governor of the opposite party to recognize those qualifications and (here’s the hard part) act on them in spite of the political opposition such a decision may have created. The result was a restoration of the credibility of the Office of Attorney General. That is no mean feat in a world of political compromise. Bravo to Bob Kerry.
    Robert

  8. Met Kerrey very briefly on a drive to or from Ann Arbor in the 1990s. I think it was at a rest stop on I-90. He was campaigning. We were/are amps in common. I liked him.

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