Nebraska, which was Ronald Reagan's second best state in 1980 and his fourth best in 1984, has as its governor a 42-year-old, divorced Democrat named Robert Kerrey. Therefore, Nebraska is now without its own first lady. But the governor does have a first lady friend, Debra Winger, who is a movie star and who comes pretty regularly to vist the governor in Lincoln.
The couple's courtship has generated a lot of attention as well as some criticism in Nebraska. In a poll of registered voters in the capital city, the local newspaper straightforwardly asked whether "Gov. Bob Kerrey" should or "shouldn't have his girl friend, Debra Winger, stay in the governor's mansion with him." Now, even though the city is the home of the University ofNebraska, nobody has recently confused Lincoln politically with either Berkeley or Cambridge. Still, only 12 percent of those surveyed thought Winger's weekend visits were "not all right"; 76 percent judged them to be "all right." Obviously, this is an answer that demands an explanation.
1.Kerrey has not "gone hollywood"; instead, Winger has gone Lincoln. Along with its corn and its wheat, Nebraska has long been exporting its young people, who left in search of work. But Debra Winger's own work, the making of the movie "Terms of Endearment," brought her to Nebraska a couple of years ago where she met Bob Kerrey. When Winger visits Lincoln now, she goes to county fairs and track meets and walks her dogs. The star's trips to the state give a special lift to those Nebraskans who feel they're mostly ignored by people in New York and Los Angeles.
2.People like the two people involved. Bob Kerrey played high school football in Lincoln, graduated from the university and went to Vietnam with the Navy. He won the Congressional Medal of Honor. After recuperating, he became a public critic of the war and, even though he had lost his right leg below the knee, a marathon runner. The Lincoln restaurant he built into a success was destroyed by a tornado. In 1982, he sought and won his first public office, the governorship.
In the first of her two most acclaimed roles, Debra Winger played a plucky, blue-collar worker in "An Officer and a Gentleman," who had her lifetime sentence on the assembly line commuted by a young Navy pilot. In "Terms of Endearment," Winger was simultaneously a loving daughter to a self-centered mother, a cuckolded wife and a devoted mother who was terminally ill and who actually did die. If we lived in a lot better neighborhood, theoretically Debra Winger could be the girl next door.
What Winger is not also matters. She is not a rock star with either the aroma of incense about her or with Penthouse's Bob Guccione on her arm.
3.The car incident. On a recent visit, Winger was stopped for speeding in a car leased to the governor. Afterward, Curt Donaldson, a part-time columnist and full-time mischief-maker, asked for donations to buy her a used car. Contributions, which came from as far away as Texas and Canada, amounted to $300. Winger good-naturedly matched that amount, as did "Weird Wally" Smith, the state's largest used car dealer. At her request, a local home for troubled girls got its own 1976 Chevy station wagon with cruise control and factory air.
Columnist Donaldson explains the acceptance of Winger by pointing out that she has voluntarily spent more time in the state than such famous native sons as Johnny Carson, Fred Astaire ("who was born under an assumed name") and Dick Cavett ("who'll be back to visit soon because he's between successes right now"). Weird Wally has a less complicated analysis: "More people would rather have Debra Winger stay in the governor's mansion than Bob Kerrey."
A Final Note. People in and around Lincoln do seem to like Debra Winger and Bob Kerrey, separately and together. There is in Nebraska a live- and-let-live attitude that did not exist a generation ago. Weird Wally may have been speaking for a silent majority when he said: "I'm just glad that they're friends and that they care about each other." The times, they have changed.