BORN to RUN: The Life & Times of Bob Kerrey

June 24, 2012


One day in the early 1990’s, I picked up the phone in Bethesda, Maryland and on the line was Eunice Kennedy Shriver. She told me she’d just finished my biography of Bob Kerrey (St. Martin’s Press, 1992) and found it fascinating.

“I notice that you’re from Lincoln, Nebraska,” Shriver said. “Just like Ted Sorensen. You know your writing reminds me of him.”

That’s a compliment I’ll take to my grave. She totally said it with the classic clipped, ‘pok the caw in Havod Yod’ Boston accent and I was over the moon, as my mom would say. She invited me to her downtown D.C. office on New York Avenue (with views of the White House) for an interview to become a “Writer-in-Residence” at the Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr. Foundation, the non-profit that launched The Special Olympics. Long story short, I got the gig. More on that later.

Here are a few excerpts of the first chapter of the book “Born to Run: The Life & Times of Nebraska Senator Robert Kerrey” (the original title; after Kerrey’s presidential campaign ended, I switched it to “Waltzing Matilda“) that handed me my second book, “A Change for all Seasons,” a history of Eunice Kennedy Shriver’s stewardship of the Kennedy Foundation.


“Senator Bob Kerrey was born and raised in Nebraska but he grew up in Vietnam. By his own admission, Kerrey went to Southeast Asia an adventure-seeking, beer-drinking frat rat, “gung ho to go at the Viet Cong with a knife in his teeth,” as he once told an interviewer. A little more than three months after he arrived, as the leader of a seven-man Navy SEAL unit, Kerrey continued to direct his commando unit on an island in Nha Trang Bay until all his men were safe, despite the explosion of a grenade at his foot. Later, in a 1984 speech introducing Gary Hart at the Democratic National Convention, Kerrey said: “In one explosive moment in Vietnam, the physical strength of my youth was blown away.” The accident shattered his leg and his unwavering support for American policy in a war he had just begun to learn about first-hand.

Kerrey’s pre-1969 sentiments about Vietnam, while not shared by those young Americans and their parents who already opposed the war, reflected those of conservative Midwesterners. Nebraska’s two Republican Senators, Carl Curtis and Roman Hruska, were both outspoken Vietnam hawks and unabashed apologists for President Richard Nixon. During the Vietnam War one Congressman is reported to have told a Nebraska audience that America would win in Vietnam because the United States is a nation of meat-eaters and the Vietnamese are a nation of rice-eaters, and carnivores always conquer vegetarians.

Lincoln’s American Legion club boasted during the sixties as it does today, “The Largest Membership of any Post in the World.” It makes for great advertising on signs, letters, and fliers, and somehow that claim leaves the impression that Lincoln legionnaires are just a little closer in their comradeship, more organized, and perhaps a little more patriotic than veterans from just an ordinary post. In truth, the board of directors, right after World War II conspired to develop a single post with maximum amenities rather than several smaller ones as was customary in other cities. Lincoln’s thousands of vets flock to their spacious Legion Club with its expansive dining room, first-rate kitchen, and excellent chef who serves Nebraska beef to the boys who banter about Big Red football and huddle over hawk talk.

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