Joseph Robert Kerrey (born August 27, 1943) is an American politician and lobbyist who served as the 35th Governor of Nebraska from 1983 to 1987 and as a United States Senator from Nebraska from 1989 to 2001. Before entering politics, he served in the Vietnam War as a United States Navy SEAL officer and was awarded the Medal of Honor for heroism in combat. During the action for which he was awarded the Medal of Honor, he was severely wounded, precluding further naval service.
Kerrey was a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1992. He retired from the Senate in 2000 and was replaced by former Governor and fellow Democrat Ben Nelson. From 2001 to 2010, he served as president of The New School, a university in New York City. In May 2010, he was selected to become the head of the Motion Picture Association of America, but he and the MPAA could not reach an agreement, so former Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd was chosen instead.
In 2013, Kerrey joined the Carmen Group lobbying firm.
|United States Senator
January 3, 1989 – January 3, 2001
|Preceded by||David Karnes|
|Succeeded by||Ben Nelson|
|35th Governor of Nebraska|
January 6, 1983 – January 9, 1987
|Preceded by||Charles Thone|
|Succeeded by||Kay Orr|
|Born||Joseph Robert Kerrey
August 27, 1943
Lincoln, Nebraska, U.S.
|Education||University of Nebraska, Lincoln (BS)|
|Service/branch||United States Navy|
|Years of service||1967–1969|
|Unit||SEAL Team 1|
|Battles/wars||Vietnam War (WIA)|
|Awards|| Medal of Honor
Kerrey was born in Lincoln, Nebraska, the son of Elinor Fern (née Gonder), a University of Nebraska instructor, and James Henry Kerrey, a builder and businessman. He attended public schools, graduating from Lincoln Northeast High School. He went on to earn a degree in pharmacy from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 1966. Kerrey pledged Phi Gamma Delta fraternity, and during his senior year he was tackled into the Society of Innocents, the chancellor's senior honorary society of spirit boosters.
Kerrey served in the United States Navy as a SEAL officer during the Vietnam War. He completed Officer Candidate School in Newport, R.I in 1967. He then received assignment to Naval Amphibious Base Coronado and subsequently completed Basic Underwater Demolition/Sea, Air, Land (BUD/S) training with class 42 in 1968. He volunteered for and received assignment to SEAL Team ONE, a separate organization from the Underwater Demolition Teams that personnel were normally assigned. After pre-deployment training, Kerrey deployed to the Republic of Vietnam as assistant platoon commander with Delta Platoon, SEAL Team ONE in January 1969. He was seriously wounded and lost the lower part of his right leg in combat on Hon Tre island near Nha Trang Bay on March 14, 1969. While suffering shrapnel wounds and blood loss, Kerrey organized his squad in a counterattack that killed or captured enemy Viet Cong. He was later medically discharged from the US Navy for his combat wounds. On May 14, 1970, President Richard Nixon awarded Kerrey the Medal of Honor at the White House for his heroic actions in 1969.
For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty on 14 March 1969 while serving as a SEAL Team Leader during action against enemy aggressor (Viet Cong) forces in the Republic of Vietnam. Acting in response to reliable intelligence, Lieutenant (jg) Kerrey led his SEAL Team on a mission to capture important members of the enemy's area political cadre known to be located on an island in the bay of Nha Trang. In order to surprise the enemy, he and his team scaled a 350-foot sheer cliff to place themselves above the ledge on which the enemy was located. Splitting his team in two elements and coordinating both, Lieutenant (jg) Kerrey led his men in the treacherous downward descent to the enemy's camp. Just as they neared the end of their descent, intense enemy fire was directed at them, and Lieutenant (jg) Kerrey received massive injuries from a grenade which exploded at his feet and threw him backward onto the jagged rocks. Although bleeding profusely and suffering great pain, he displayed outstanding courage and presence of mind in immediately directing his element's fire into the heart of the enemy camp. Utilizing his radioman, Lieutenant (jg) Kerrey called in the second element's fire support which caught the confused Viet Cong in a devastating cross fire. After successfully suppressing the enemy's fire, and although immobilized by his multiple wounds, he continued to maintain calm, superlative control as he ordered his team to secure and defend an extraction site. Lieutenant (jg) Kerrey resolutely directed his men, despite his near-unconscious state, until he was eventually evacuated by helicopter. The havoc brought to the enemy by this very successful mission cannot be overestimated. The enemy who were captured provided critical intelligence to the allied effort. Lieutenant (jg) Kerrey's courageous and inspiring leadership, valiant fighting spirit, and tenacious devotion to duty in the face of almost overwhelming opposition, sustain and enhance the finest traditions of the United States Naval Service.
In 2001, The New York Times Magazine and 60 Minutes II carried reports on an incident that occurred during Kerrey's Vietnam War service. On February 25, 1969, he led a Swift Boat raid on the isolated peasant village of Thanh Phong, Vietnam, targeting a Viet Cong leader whom intelligence suggested would be present. The village was considered part of a free-fire zone by the U.S. military.
Kerrey's SEAL team first encountered a villager's house. Later, according to Kerrey, the team was shot at from the village and returned fire, only to find after the battle that some of the deceased appeared to be under 18, clustered together in the center of the village. "The thing that I will remember until the day I die is walking in and finding, I don't know, 14 or so, I don't even know what the number was, women and children who were dead", Kerrey said in 1998. "I was expecting to find Vietcong soldiers with weapons, dead. Instead I found women and children."
In contrast, Gerhard Klann, a member of Kerrey's SEAL team, gave a different version independently supported by a separate interview with Vietnamese woman Pham Tri Lanh. According to Klann, the team rounded up the women and children from hooches (shelters) and decided to "kill them and get out of there", for fear that they would alert enemy soldiers. Kerrey responded to Klann's account by stating "it's not my memory of it", and accused Klann of being jealous that Kerrey had not assisted him in obtaining a Medal of Honor for a later mission. Other members of Kerrey's SEAL team also "wholeheartedly" denied Klann's account.
Kerrey expressed anguish and guilt over the incident, saying: "You can never, can never get away from it. It darkens your day. I thought dying for your country was the worst thing that could happen to you, and I don't think it is. I think killing for your country can be a lot worse. Because that's the memory that haunts."
Kerrey was awarded a Bronze Star for the raid on Thanh Phong. The citation for the medal reads, "The net result of his patrol was 21 Viet Cong killed, two hooches destroyed and two enemy weapons captured."
A display at the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City is based on the incident. It includes several photos and a drain pipe, which it describes as the place where three children hid before they were found and killed. The display reads:
From 8PM to 9PM February 25th, 1969, a group of Seal Rangers [sic] (one of the most selective rangers of U.S. Army) led by Lieutenant Bob Kerry [sic] reached for Hamlet 5, Thanh Phong Village, Thanh Phu District, Ben Tre Province. They cut 66 year-old Bui Van Vat and 62 year-old Luu Thi Canh's necks and pulled their three grandchildren out from their hiding place in a drain and killed two, disembowelled one. Then, these rangers moved to dug-outs of other families, shot dead 15 civilians (including three pregnant women), disembowelled a girl. The only survivor was a 12-year-old girl named Bui Thi Luom who suffered a foot injury. It was not until April 2001 that U.S. Senator Bob Kerrey confessed his crime to the international public.
In 1982, Kerrey ran for Governor of Nebraska and defeated incumbent Republican Charles Thone. He served as governor from 1983 to 1987. In 1986, he served as the Chairman of the Midwestern Governors Association.
In 1988, Kerrey ran for the U.S. Senate seat held by recently appointed incumbent Republican David Karnes. He won the Democratic primary with 92% of the vote. In the general election, he defeated Karnes 57%-42%.
Senator Kerrey was a member of the Agriculture Committee and the Finance Committee, and was a member of the Appropriations Committee from 1989 to 1996. He also served as vice chairman of the Intelligence Committee from 1995 to 1999. He was the chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee for the 104th Congress before retiring in 2000.
Kerrey voted for the Gramm–Leach–Bliley Act which repealed the Glass–Steagall Act in 1999, defending his position against opposition by stating, "The concerns that we will have a meltdown like 1929 are dramatically overblown".
After his retirement from the Senate, Kerrey served on the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, commonly known as the 9/11 Commission. The commission was created by Congressional legislation to investigate the circumstances of the attacks on September 11, 2001, and to provide recommendations of actions that could help prevent future similar attacks. It was a bipartisan commission of five Democrats and five Republicans. The commission issued its final report, the 9/11 Commission Report on July 22, 2004.
Kerrey criticized the 2014 Senate Intelligence Committee report on CIA torture as "unfair" and "partisan".
In September 1991, Kerrey announced his candidacy for the 1992 Democratic nomination for president. In a small field of five second-tier candidates devoid of an early frontrunner, Kerrey was seen as the early favorite. However, his performance on the campaign trail sometimes seemed lackluster, especially in comparison to that of Arkansas governor Bill Clinton.
Kerrey finished third in the New Hampshire primary in February 1992, despite spending heavily on TV advertising. He briefly rebounded after winning the South Dakota primary but soon dropped out of the race after finishing fourth in the Colorado primary. Kerrey was on Clinton's "short list" of vice presidential candidates, but Tennessee Senator Al Gore received the nod instead.
Kerrey served as President of the New School from 2001 to 2010. During this time he more than doubled the endowment, taking it from $94 million in 2001 to $206 million today. He also secured substantial federal funding for the school. Both of these factors helped the New School accomplish major academic growth and expansion in the decade that Kerrey was President.
Kerrey presided over an ambitious program of academic development at the university. Under his leadership, the university launched numerous new academic programs, including several joint degree programs. Enrollment increased by 44% to over 10,200, and online course enrollment doubled. He also oversaw an increase in the size of the faculty. The number of full-time faculty members grew from 156 in 2001 to more than 372 in 2009. He also helped to establish the Faculty Senate, which allowed the school to set university-wide standards for promotion, hiring, and faculty evaluation. Additionally, tenure was instituted for all academic departments.
On April 14, 2005, Kerrey announced that the university was changing its name from "New School University" to "The New School", and rebranding its eight divisions as specialized, separate entities serving different constituencies.
On December 10, 2008 it was announced that Kerrey had received a vote of no confidence from the University's senior faculty. This was perceived to have come as a response to his management style. The no-confidence vote was largely a symbolic gesture. The Board of Trustees offered their unanimous support for Kerrey at a meeting following the faculty vote.
On December 16, 2008, dozens of students took over the cafeteria in the 65 5th Avenue building; as the occupation continued, the group grew into hundreds of students from the New School, other New York City based universities, labor union members, and other supporters. Initially, the students stated that they would not leave the building unless several school officials resigned. Kerrey attempted to have a discussion with the students at the beginning of the occupation, but the students voted down that option. The occupation ended after 30 hours when the two parties accepted a treaty; Kerrey agreed to amnesty for the students involved in the occupation, more student space, and more student input in school investments and decision making.
Early in the morning of April 10, 2009, 19 students took over the 65 5th Avenue building, erecting an anarchist flag and demanding once again that Kerrey resign. A few hours later, about 20 police officers entered the building, arresting 22 students and ending the occupation after five hours.
In December 2012, the Chronicle of Higher Education reported that in 2010, the year of his anticipated departure, his salary was more than $600,000, and his total take-home pay, including bonuses, deferred compensation and nontaxable benefits, was $3,047,703, making Kerrey the highest-paid private college president in the United States.
Kerrey's time as President concluded on January 1, 2011. He was succeeded by David E. Van Zandt. Kerrey was then appointed President Emeritus.
While visiting Vietnam in May 2016, then Secretary of State John Kerry announced that the Americans had appointed Bob Kerrey to be Chairman of the Board of Trustees of Fulbright University Vietnam. This announcement unleashed a heated controversy, in view of Kerrey's role in the Thạnh Phong massacre of 1969.
Outspoken Vietnamese critics of the appointment of Kerrey included Tôn Nữ Thị Ninh, a former ambassador to the European Union, and the award-winning Vietnamese-American author Viet Thanh Nguyen. On the other hand, Kerrey's appointment was endorsed by Đinh La Thăng, who at that time was Communist Party Secretary of Ho Chi Minh City and a member of the Politburo, but in January 2018 was tried, convicted, and sentenced to 13 years in prison on corruption charges.
In May 2017, Mark Ashwill, a higher education consultant based in Vietnam, reported that Bob Kerrey had quietly stepped down from the position of Chairman of the Board of Trustees. However, this has never been officially confirmed, and in a January 2018 interview Kerrey "said he believed he still technically held the title."
On December 27, 2011, Political Wire reported that Ben Nelson, who had succeeded Kerrey in the Senate, would not seek re-election, and asserted that Kerrey was in talks with senior Democrats about the possibility of replacing him. The Washington Post reported that Kerrey would neither confirm nor deny the rumor. American Crossroads had been running advertisements critical of Kerrey's potential Nebraska Senate run, focusing on the fact that Kerrey had been living in New York for the last ten years. Kerrey responded to the ads with an invitation for Karl Rove to eat at one of Kerrey's restaurants in Nebraska, or to work out at one of his gyms that he owns in that state. On February 27, 2012, the Washington Post reported that Kerrey had earlier decided against a run, but that an aide had confirmed that he was now filing to seek election to his old Senate seat. He won the May 15 Democratic primary against four minor candidates. However, he was defeated on November 6 by Republican state senator Deb Fischer. Kerrey narrowly won the state's two largest counties, Douglas and Lancaster—home to Omaha and Lincoln, respectively—but only won three other counties. His margin in Omaha and Lincoln was not nearly enough to overcome Fischer's margin in the more rural parts of the state.
While he was Governor of Nebraska, Kerrey dated actress Debra Winger while the latter was in Lincoln filming Terms of Endearment (part of which is set in Nebraska), which won the 1983 Oscar for Best Picture. When confronted with intense questioning by the press over the nature of the relationship, Kerrey famously replied; "What can I say – she swept me off my foot", alluding to the fact that the lower part of one of his legs was amputated because of injuries sustained in his Medal of Honor action in Vietnam.
Kerrey is friends with fellow Vietnam veteran Jim Webb. In 2006 he became involved in convincing Webb to run for the US Senate. Webb entered the Virginia Democratic Primary, and Kerrey volunteered to serve as Webb's National Finance Chair. Webb went on to win the extremely close election in Virginia, defeating George Allen. Kerrey has also endorsed, and appeared at campaign events for, Al Franken in his bid for the U.S. Senate in Minnesota.
Kerrey is married to Sarah Paley. They have a son, Henry. He has two children from his previous marriage: Ben and Lindsey.
|Special Warfare insignia|
|Naval Parachutist Insignia|
|Medal of Honor|
|Bronze Star Medal||Purple Heart Medal||Combat Action Ribbon|
|National Defense Service Medal||Vietnam Service Medal||Vietnam Campaign Medal|
|Party political offices|
|Democratic nominee for Governor of Nebraska
|Democratic nominee for U.S. Senator from Nebraska
|Chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee
|Democratic nominee for U.S. Senator from Nebraska
|Governor of Nebraska
|United States Senator (Class 1) from Nebraska
Served alongside: James Exon, Chuck Hagel