The Return of ‘Cosmic Bob’

by Robert Costa

On Tuesday, Deb Fischer, a little-known state senator, won Nebraska’s GOP Senate primary. Her general-election opponent, former senator Bob Kerrey, is one of the state’s most colorful political figures. On Capitol Hill, his nickname was “Cosmic Bob,” due to his legendary eccentricity and indecisive nature. But Kerrey, a 68-year-old Democrat, has been out of politics for over a decade, living in Manhattan and working as an administrator at the liberal New School, so his most memorable (and quirky) moments are somewhat hazy memories.

Over on the home page today, I report on the Fischer–Kerrey race, which looks like a likely Republican pick-up. Rasmussen’s latest poll shows Fischer up by 18 points, 56 percent to 38 percent. During the course of reporting, I spoke with a number of Nebraska Republicans, all of whom seem to have a favorite Kerrey story. The most famous tale, which has been widely reported, revolves around Kerrey’s trip to the Union Station movie theater in 1993, during the height of the Clinton budget negotiations. Instead of hanging around the chamber and listening to the Democratic whips, he went to see What’s Love Got to Do with It, a Tina Turner biopic. He went alone, hoping to collect his thoughts in the darkness.

Nineteen years later, the image of a senator seeking solace through the drama of Ike and Tina is still good for a chuckle. But it’s far from the only example of Kerrey’s unusual behavior, which has irked both Democrats and Republicans over the past three decades. As Fischer sees it, the outcome in November will hinge on policy, not personality, and I mostly agree. But “Cosmic Bob” may be a factor, albeit a quieter one than others.

Most Nebraskans respect Kerrey, a highly decorated Vietnam veteran, for his service, but a decade in the political wilderness has done little to change his reputation as a flaky progressive. According to Public Policy Polling, a majority of Nebraskans view him unfavorably, and Rasmussen surveys reveal his candidacy to be a static one — stuck in the mid-30s since mid-March. Nebraskans don’t appear eager to send him back to Washington. Of course, most of that is due to the president’s unpopularity and Kerrey’s ties to the administration, from his enthusiasm for Obamacare to his support for same-sex marriage. But I suspect Midwesterners’ recollection of the following Kerrey anecdotes may be partly responsible for his dismal poll numbers. #more#

* His office had an unsettling, messianic culture. “There was also something vaguely unsettling about the atmosphere in Kerrey’s office. Staffers always defer to senators, but as Kerrey spoke to us from behind his enormous desk, I noticed a slow nodding of heads that suggested the words Kerrey spoke were deeper than your average political talk — that the senator’s terse replies were political koans. A cool but unmistakably messianic zeal hummed just below the surface of the Kerrey campaign.” [George Stephanopoulos, All Too Human]

* Bill Clinton couldn’t stand him. “Something went really bad between them. . . . Kerrey is really quirky and in a way that is off-putting to Clinton on a lot of different levels.” [Jonathan Alter, via Clinton in Exile by Carol Felsenthal]

* His colleagues didn’t “get” him. “Oh, Kerrey, I saw him float over the chamber. He’s communing.” [Trent Lott, via Bill Clinton by Nigel Hamilton]

* He once considered running for mayor of New York. “‘BK is a true existential man,’ Bob Kerrey’s friend Tom Brokaw e-mailed to me last week from Dubai, en route to Kabul. . . . In other words, when Kerrey, president of the New School and former U.S. senator, admitted to the Times that he was thinking about running for mayor only a week or so after he had consented to chair Democrats for Bloomberg, he was reverting to type — a beautiful loose cannon, a gonzo pillar of the Establishment, a restless, discombobulating political freak of the most exquisite and interesting kind.” [New York, May 21, 2005]

* He also mulled writing a “deconstructionist” book about politics. “Before the last election, for instance, he talked to humor writer Patricia Marx about collaborating on a prankish, deconstructionist guidebook to running for president. Quirky enough for you? He also writes poetry, which he illustrates.” [New York, May 21, 2005]

* During his ill-fated presidential run, Kerrey made headlines for telling an off-color joke about lesbians. “Bob Kerrey apologized profusely Tuesday for privately telling another candidate a dirty joke about two lesbians and a third White House hopeful.” [Los Angeles Times, November 20, 1991]

* He had Hollywood hype before he caught Beltway fever, dating actress Debra Winger. “They set off a prairie fire of passion; traipsing off for a spring fling. . . . The press loved the love-bugs. The Omaha World-Herald ran a story comparing the couple to former California Gov. Jerry Brown and singer Linda Ronstadt.” [People, June 6, 1983]

* Democrats have worried that he’s a mystic. “He still cultivates an outsider’s air; some Democrats think of him as the ‘un-politician.’ He lapses from time to time into moments of “cosmic Bob,” putting aside the details of health care, education and foreign policy to talk of God, altruism and the need for spirituality in American politics. Some Democrats worry that they have produced another Jerry Brown, another mystic, when what they need are street-smart pols.” [New York Times Magazine, April 14, 1991]