Our Flatwater Free Conversation with…Bob Kerrey

Earlier this month, longtime TV and radio reporter and Flatwater Free Press correspondent Mike’l Severe sat down with Bob Kerrey for an in-depth interview.

Among the topics of conversation: The Jan. 6 insurrection, why partisan politics feels more and more divisive, the current battle over how we should teach American history in our schools, his views on war and Vietnam….and also Bob Kerrey’s own health.  

Enjoy our first-ever Flatwater Free Conversation. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Bob Kerrey on the growing political divide in the United States:

Mike’l Severe: A lot of times we are prisoners of the moment.  You hear people saying the divide in Washington…now is greater than ever before. Do you feel that way?

BK: Do you recognize this, what this is? (Kerrey holds up his iPhone.) 

MS: It’s a computer in your hand. 

BK: This is an iPhone. Yeah….It came on the market 2006 or 2007. This has dramatically changed politics because…I could turn it on and if you were a Senator, I’d ask you a question and put it up like this. (Kerrey holds the iPhone up like he’s videotaping Severe.)

Hoping that you said something really stupid. I’d post it on Instagram in the hope that I get a million people following me ’cause I wanna be an influencer. Right. That’s brand new. 

So social media’s changed that part. It feels more like unsocial media than social, definitely. 

So technology is really changing the nature of politics. I mean, TikTok is a Chinese company for God’s sakes and has had a huge impact, right?

It makes (politics) more difficult in one big way….let’s pick a time, 1994, and you come up to me and you say, you know, “Bob, last night, somebody started talking to me through the fillings of my teeth and they said A, B and C is gonna happen.” And it’s just a wild and crazy experience. 

And I (would have) said, “Oh, well, okay.” Um, uh, you know, what are you gonna do? You gotta write a book! 

You don’t have to write a book anymore! You don’t have to. I don’t have to talk to somebody (in the) press and persuade him.

I just posted it on the Internet. And there are people out there that had the same guy talking to the fillings of their teeth. And the next thing you know, you’ve got a conspiracy that 9-11 never happened, that nobody ever landed on the moon, that the Earth is flat. So it’s easier. And (these conspiracy theories) can be really formidable.

I think it’s also contributed to an environment where it’s harder to compromise, because if you want people to follow you on Facebook, you don’t get up and behave in a rational way.

You have to insult. You have to say things that aren’t necessarily true to get people’s attention…If you’re calm and, and rational, you’re not likely to be very influential. So I think that’s, that’s a huge problem. 

I think Trump is a big problem in that regard.

Sen. Bob Kerrey with fellow members of the United State Senate’s Ag Committee in 1995. Kerrey served as a U.S. senator for 12 years after a term as Nebraska’s governor. He also ran for president in 1992, losing to Bill Clinton in the Democratic primary.
Courtesy photo

Kerrey on The Big Lie and the Jan. 6 insurrection:

Bob Kerrey: He didn’t win the election and he’s persuaded, you know, well, over half of Americans who were registered as Republican, the election was stolen, right? It’s a lie…Everybody tells lies for gosh sake, but this is a big lie centered on the nature of democracy.

They tried to overturn the election. That wasn’t a demonstration. Uh, they would’ve killed Mike Pence if they’d have found him. And lots of those guys are going to prison. And again, I think it’s a bit connected to social media because (President Trump) had a huge following on Twitter.

Mike’l Severe: And that’s kind of how they got the information out about January 6th, right? Yeah. It was all under social media. 

BK: Yeah, that’s true. 

MS: So we’re not going backwards. Nothing’s going away with social media. We’re gonna keep getting more and more technology.

What’s the answer? How do we get more united, whether it be in the Senate, the House or as a country? 

BK: Well, the most important thing is don’t give up. Don’t surrender to the people who become cynics and say, nothing’s worth doing, it’s all broken.

It’s not all broken. It’s a system composed of human beings. And if you get angry and give up or you get angry and say, let’s blow it all up and destroy everything…

You’re going to sometimes lose elections, you’re gonna sometimes have to make the phone call to your opponent and say, “Congratulations, you won.”

Democracy is really hard. It’s much easier to have a dictator. It’s easier to have a religious leader you have to follow. We made a major break with that when we formed our Republic in 1787. It was risky. It is hard. 

Bob Kerrey, former Nebraska governor and United States senator and one of the state’s enduring political figures, was routed by Sen. Deb Fischer when he tried to regain a Senate seat. Despite that loss, and the fact that Nebraska hasn’t had a Democratic U.S. Senator or governor since 2012, Kerrey said he still believes Democrats can and will win statewide races. 
Photo courtesy of Bob Kerrey

Bob Kerrey on America getting better, and being treated for prostate cancer. 

Mike’l Severe: You said don’t quit, obviously. Don’t look at everything and say that it’s helpless. But do you feel that we are headed in a direction where the country’s going to be better or even feel better about itself over these next four years?

Bob Kerrey: Well, feeling better about yourself and actually being better are two different things. Do I think we’re gonna be stronger? Yes.

I think we’re gonna have a competitive advantage in biotech. 

I think we’re having breakthroughs in medicine. 

I’m right now being treated for… prostate cancer.

And, you know, I’d be dead 10 years ago. 

My daughter was treated (for) breast cancer. She’s all the way through that whole thing. I’m not sure she would have survived 20 years ago. 

So all these changes that are occurring. Now, people sometimes can’t afford it. Strike sometimes. Oftentimes they can’t afford it at all. 

So there’s a lot of problems. 

But, if you actually look at the facts, we’re in pretty darn good shape. 

Bob Kerrey, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln alum, delivers the commencement address at a UNL graduation in December, 2018. Photo courtesy of University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Bob Kerrey on the importance of understanding American history:

Mike’l Severe: Are you concerned at all? That there’s such a, uh, not wanting to talk about the negative side of our country’s history, people getting upset about CRT (critical race theory) and things like that. 

Bob Kerrey: Yes, I look, I, I think one of the great things about being free is that you get the opportunity to face the worst thing you ever did in your life – or the worst thing your country did – and face up to it. 

And yeah, the whole idea of the mission of the country is that of the preamble, which is to make a “More perfect union.” Not a perfect one. We got lots of moments where we did things that, looking back on it, we say, “Gosh, that was terrible. Why’d we do that?” So it makes us a better country to be able to examine it. 

It’s true for individuals – we don’t become better individuals as a result of sort of whitewashing of our history and our mistakes. I think we become better individuals by facing up to them. So yeah, it concerns me. 

I think you can be very patriotic and love the United States of America and still look at what we did to the Native Americans, what we did to African Americans. It took us, you know, until 1964, before we provided civil rights to African Americans, 150 years after they were liberated as slaves.

Young people could sometimes get turned off as a result of seeing that. But among the things we need to teach young people is how to deal with loss, the loss of this “Oh gosh, we’re not as great as we thought we were.” Well, we are as great as we thought we were. 

I’ll give you a concrete example. I’ve been involved, gosh, since 1990 in the effort to normalize relations with Vietnam. We fought a war we lost. Or at least we withdrew, so we didn’t win.

And the normalization legislation, drafted first by Herbert Walker Bush and signed by Bill Clinton in ‘95, contains an educational program through the Fulbright program. And I’ve been involved with that since 1995. 

I met a…former North Vietnamese soldier. And he said to me, something really, really important. He said, “I used to think that the demonstrations against the war were a sign of American weakness, because that’s what we were told. But now I see it’s a sign of American strength. You have the capacity to demonstrate against your own government — a sign of strength, not a sign of weakness.”

Bob Kerrey being given the Medal of Honor by President Richard Nixon in the White House in May 1970. Kerrey, a U.S. Navy SEAL, lost his lower leg in Vietnam in 1969.  
Courtesy photo

Bob Kerrey on Vietnam and war:

Mike’l Severe: I’m obviously gonna ask you about Vietnam. We were listening to Chuck Hagel speak at the Nebraska Vietnam Memorial groundbreaking. And he said a couple times there are things that happened in his life now that he looks back to Vietnam and he, he learned stuff, that’s helping him now. Do you feel the same way?

Bob Kerrey: Yes. I mean, first of all, we made peace with a former enemy. So I have friends, Vietnamese friends, that we bombed. So we made not just peace, but we’re connecting the ways that we didn’t connect before. So perhaps that’s the most important thing.

And, you know, the former prime minister of Israel died as a consequence of making peace. He used to say any fool can make peace with a friend, it’s making peace with an enemy that’s hard. So yeah, I’d say that’s the most important. I think the way that Americans have examined that war, we get angry at each other. Again, I think it’s a sign of strength.

I learned a lot from the military. Drives my wife crazy, because I still get up at 4 a.m. as if I’m about to be inspected.

I get up every single morning, grateful to be where I am and for what I’ve been given. My country doesn’t owe me anything. I owe my country still. 

MS: We were talking about some of the difficult parts of our history in terms of, you know, how we treated different minorities. But obviously that’s a difficult part of our history too, some of the things that happened in Vietnam. Do you, have you come to grips with some of the things that you were part of or some of the things that happened? 

BK: I think so. Yeah. And by the way, my father was in the second World War. 

And (A friend of Kerrey’s) fought in the second battle of the Philippines. 

That was an ugly battle. They did terrible things in order to win. They won the battle. They executed the general of the Japanese side. He felt terrible about it. 

They say to me, “World War II was the good war.”

No, World War II was not a good war. It was a necessary war. We won the war, vanquished a terrible, terrible enemy. But anybody that was in that combat can hardly come back and say, “Gee, that was great, I went over there and killed a bunch of people.” 

No war deserves to be called good. They may be necessary. They may be essential and may be a critical moment in our history. But anybody that’s killed human beings doesn’t feel good about it. 

Bob Kerrey is a Democrat who won an election to be Nebraska’s governor and then was elected to the United State Senate.

But no Democrat, including Kerrey, has won a statewide race of this magnitude since then-Sen. Ben Nelson decided not to run for re-election in 2012. 

Kerrey on whether a Democrat can win in Nebraska:

Mike’l Severe: Do you see a time in the state of Nebraska where we would have a Democrat in that position again? It hasn’t been very close in terms of the last few elections.

Bob Kerrey: Well, I mean, we’re up, up against guys. Who’s the governor? Yeah, he’s pretty wealthy – three fourths of the Republican budget comes from him. Both political parties have to be funded and I’d say the fundraisers for the Republican party are a lot easier than the Democratic party.

MS: So it is about being able to spend enough money? 

BK: Yeah, I think it is. These things tend to go in cycles too. Democrats. Now Republicans. Now Democrats. It’s not… nothing is permanent in politics. That’s one of the great things about it can be frustrating because people say, “Gosh, we fought that battle. We have to keep fighting?” And the answer is yes. You know, that’s the whole idea of democracy, the whole idea of self-government. Sometimes you win. Sometimes you lose. Sometimes you’re the windshield. Sometimes you’re the bug. 

Bob Kerrey on the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge

Mike’l Severe: How often do you go across your bridge? 

Bob Kerrey: My first time, it’s my favorite political story, my first time across that bridge. The guy is coming from Iowa full speed on a bicycle. And I hear him hit the brake, “squeeeeak” and come back. 

And he says, “You know, I didn’t vote for you for governor. I voted against you every time you ran for office. I didn’t like you. Anything you did. I didn’t even like this bridge. But I was wrong. This is great. Thank you.” And off he went.