Most politicians will go to almost any length to avoid public displays of indecision, soul-searching or waffling. Sen. Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.) is not among them.
When Kerrey, 56, confirmed last week that he is reassessing his earlier plan to seek election to a third term this fall, he evoked memories--some of them painful to people in high places--of earlier Kerrey vs. Kerrey debates over issues ranging from budget deficits to abortion.
For some, he reinforced an image of a grandstander who likes to draw attention to himself and his thought processes. For others, he solidified his place in the dwindling pantheon of Washington politicians who are willing, even proud, to defy convention, act a little differently and change their minds in full public view when they decide they've made a bad choice.
"Bob always thinks outside the boxes. . . . He is not a captive of traditional thinking," said his friend and Republican colleague from Nebraska, Sen. Chuck Hagel. "He has boundless energy and immense abilities, and he always wants this talent to be working every hour of every day toward some objective." If he stays in the Senate, he wants to be sure it will be worth his time, Hagel added.
But the novelty for other friends is growing thin. In the midwinter gloom, "some people get sunlamps . . . Bob Kerrey reviews his 'life choices,' " sighed a Democrat who admires Kerrey but sometimes wishes he would do as others do and just go get a tan.
For Democrats, Kerrey's political future is a matter of intense concern. GOP-leaning Nebraska is viewed as likely to elect a Republican if he does not run again, ending whatever slim hopes the Democrats have of winning control of the Senate in November.
In a telephone interview yesterday from Nebraska, where he is mulling a decision, Kerrey acknowledged he is intrigued by the possibility of becoming president of the New School University in New York, which has a reputation for thinking as provocative as his own.
But Kerrey, a Vietnam War hero-turned businessman-turned politician who has rarely stayed put for very long in a single pursuit, said the main question is a broader one: whether to continue in public life or go back to the private sector. While he has enjoyed public office (first as governor, then as senator) and may well decide to continue in it, Kerrey said, "I've had a private life and I like it." He said he will make a decision by early next week.
When he abruptly decided against seeking a second term as governor in the mid-1980s, he did so without warning supporters, as he did again last year when he started to gear up a presidential campaign and then suddenly abandoned it. This time, especially after reporters sniffed out his discussions with New School officials, he decided to go public with his internal debate, he said.
Kerrey said that willingness to change course in public--and share the thought processes that caused it--was a lesson he learned from Vietnam, where he was heavily decorated as a Navy SEAL, lost part of a leg and came away with convictions that led him to oppose the war that he had helped fight. "I talked to politicians who were unwilling to change position [on the war] because they would be accused of flip-flopping," he said. Whenever he is tempted to do the same, he tells himself, "Stop," he added.
Kerrey's most famous public debate with himself came when he remained undecided on President Clinton's budget plan in 1993 until the last minute and then cast the deciding vote for it after a speech calling for bolder action on deficit reduction. The speech followed days of public and private soul-searching by Kerrey and amused-to-angry grousing by many colleagues.
In retrospect, "this is not what I'd hold up as a model," Kerrey said yesterday. It was a mistake to be the last senator to decide, he said. "It made me look like I was just seeking the spotlight."
Most recently, he found himself torn as the Senate approached a critical vote last fall on a bill to ban "partial birth" abortions. Kerrey, who supports abortion rights despite strong antiabortion sentiment in Nebraska, spoke of the difficult choice, welcomed advice from constituents, consulted openly with colleagues on the Senate floor and eventually voted against the bill. "I think I helped make people understand there are no easy choices" on the issue, he said.
CAPTION: Some see Sen. Bob Kerrey's ongoing public display of his decision-making process as a virtue, others as blatant grandstanding.