Born to Run: The Life & Times of Bob Kerrey; Ch. 8 (continued)

July 6, 2012


Kerrey was not going to be steamrolled into appointing a Democrat for something as elusive as party loyalty. He had been a Republican himself a few years earlier, and he had been elected with the help of Republicans, including his brother-in-law, Dean Rasmussen, and other GOP family members. Republicans were not bogeymen to him.

In addition to having the nation’s only one-house legislature, Nebraska is the only state with a nonpartisan legislature, the legacy of Senator George Norris, who convinced voters in 1934 to abolish the party system. According to Nebraska Government & Politics, a 1984 political science text, the state’s responsibilities were in no sense partisan, and such a blueprint would enable the Unicameral to function more like a business corporation [you can say that again, Comment added by Ivy Harper on Friday, July 6th, 2012].

Legislative candidates in Nebraska run in nonpartisan elections without party labels, although they are often encouraged and financed by members of their respective parties, and almost everyone understands that he or she is voting for a Republican or a Democrat. For a time, however, Kerrey’s appointment of Bob Spire as attorney general convinced some Nebraska Democrats that he was really a Republican in Democratic clothing.

Choosing Bob Spire was a brilliant and far-sighted decision. Kerrey wanted someone with superior intellect and integrity. He believed that stability and trust had to be restored quickly to the attorney general’s office. He knew that nobody in Nebraska would be as instantly effective in accomplishing that goal as Spire. A high-profile Omaha lawyer, Spire was revered in the legal community for his intellectual prowess. In both Spire’s public and private persona, he was a gentlemanly scholar. A World War II Pacific combat veteran who had studied at Julliard School of Music and Harvard Law School, Spire brought to the office a broad base of experience and study.

When it became readily apparent that Spire’s character was not only faultless but his legal opinions would be congruous with traditional Democratic ideology, the mea culpas came rolling in from previously disgruntled Democrats. Later, Schimek raved about the Spire choice. “I love Bob Spire,” she says. “He is a wonderful man, one of the real genuine people in the world. I have told Bob this, that he couldn’t have appointed anybody better. Kerrey needed someone who could inspire and who would give people confidence in the system again. Bob Spire certainly did that. I’ve since come to realize you have to be aware of the total picture when you make appointments.”

During his tenure, Spire showed a compelling interest in the welfare of minorities, persons with disabilities, socio-economically-challenged citizens, and his office displayed an aggressive commitment to affirmative action. Following Kerrey’s lead, Spire appointed more blacks, Hispanics, and Asians to his staff than any other public official in the state’s history. In fact, the great irony of Spire time in office was that he endeared himself to Democrats, and became something of an enigma, if not irritant, to fellow Republicans.

Nebraska Attorney General Spire delighted colleagues and staffers with memos quoting everyone from Muddy Waters to Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes to Professor Roscoe Pound, a Nebraskan who was Dean of Harvard Law School from 1916 to 1936.

The Spire story is noteworthy not only because of Spire’s distinguished work, but because his appointment was the first example of Kerrey’s bona fide political courage. Spire ended up so roundly appreciated (he later became Chief of Staff in Kerrey’s Washington, D.C. Senate office), it’s easy to forget that Kerrey took considerable heat for choosing Spire in the first place.

Spire brought renewed faith to the attorney general’s office. The Commonwealth situation, which triggered his selection, became the major thorn of the Kerrey administration. The unraveling of Commonwealth also precipitated the decline of two other state-chartered thrifts, one of which, State Securities Savings Company (SSSC), was directed by Kerrey confidant and personal adviser Bill Wright.

Before the failure of SSSC, Kerrey had been a co-investor with Wright and was involved in a partnership with Wright that included an investment in a Lincoln commercial property called Shoppers Fair. Later, state investigators concluded that improprieties on Wright’s part led to the thrift’s demise; that Wright “milked and drained” the institution. Eight months after the collapse of Commonwealth, SSSC filed for bankruptcy and was later re-organized. After exhaustive legislative investigations, Kerrey was cleared of any wrong-doing; however, coming as it did on the heels of the tragic Commonwealth [one depositor who lost everything committed suicide], some Nebraskans believed that at the very least, Kerrey exhibited poor judgment in conducting business with WrightKerrey later agreed and curtailed his friendship with Wright, who slipped out of Lincoln one night and headed for California.

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