Kerrey's Style Is All His Own Young Nebraska Senator Is Deft, Energetic, and Never Predictable, Observers Say. US POLITICS

By John Dillin, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, October 2, 1991 | Go to article overview

Kerrey's Style Is All His Own Young Nebraska Senator Is Deft, Energetic, and Never Predictable, Observers Say. US POLITICS


John Dillin, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


WHEN Bob Kerrey stepped before TV cameras and cheering supporters to announce his presidential campaign here this week, media advisers had refined even the smallest details of the electronic image that would flash across America.

Five blocks away from the outdoor Kerrey rally, technicians had fired up 15 powerful floodlights, even though it was a bright, blue Nebraska morning. The capitol would be visible to television viewers over the candidate's shoulder as he spoke, and strategists wanted the 400-foot-tall limestone building bathed with extra light so it would photograph well.

The Kerrey campaign's attention to even the tiniest elements of style reminds some critics, like Republican James Rogers, of the kind of media strategy that once helped put Ronald Reagan into the White House.

Senator Kerrey, says Mr. Rogers, who was once a speech writer for former Nebraska Gov. Kay Orr, has "a deft feel for the drama of the moment. He can appeal to deep feelings in people. He has a charisma most Nebraska politicians don't have."

Joseph Robert (Bob) Kerrey isn't well known, but in the next four months leading up to the New Hampshire primary, he could well become a household name.

A Medal of Honor winner who lost part of one leg as a Navy Seal in Vietnam, Kerrey has captured every political prize he sought in Nebraska with surprising ease.

Like former Sen. Gary Hart, whom he supported for the White House in 1984, Kerrey talks of "new ideas," and encourages his staff to look for fresh solutions to old problems. But also like Mr. Hart, Kerrey creates nagging doubts in some observers. Flexible thinker

In a lengthy portrait of Kerrey, the New York Times once called him "the unfinished politician," a reference to his seemingly endless quest to change and improve not only government, but himself. It is a characterization that his friends generally support.

F. Gregory Hayden, an economics professor at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, once served on then-Governor Kerrey's staff as a special assistant for policy research. He agrees that Kerrey's personal views will always be fluid. "He will never be finished in his own mind. He will take off in new directions, take risks."

But Kerrey's searching mind doesn't worry Professor Hayden. He says:

"I would emphasize that he is a cautious person. He is a risk-taker with his own life and political career. But in terms of what he does with government programs or government money, he is extremely cautious."

In the early 1980s, when Kerrey served as governor of Nebraska, this caution led to criticism from progressives, Hayden says. In the face of hard times, Kerrey told liberals "no" to spending programs.

That view of events is confirmed by Bob Sittig, a political scientist at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. During the 1982-83 recession, Dr. Sittig says, Kerrey was faced with two choices:

"Raise taxes, or cut spending. And he chose to cut spending, and that alienated some supporters. But with brashness and self-confidence, he engenders support and commitment, and he eventually won his way back with many Nebraskans." Enigmatic politician

Despite his great popularity here, however, skeptics still wonder what makes the senator tick. …

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