"He's going to have to hit a sitting jump shot"

Bob Kerrey talks about why -- against the odds -- he endorsed Bill Bradley for president.

Published August 6, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

After the Soviet Union crumbled, the U.S. Senate began debating the best way to aid Central Europe. In an attempt to make this decision, in the spring of 1992, Sen. Bob Kerrey, D-Neb., accompanied then-Sen. Bill Bradley, D-N.J., on a trip to the Ukraine and Russia.

Kerrey says the trip was pivotal in his decision to become one of only two senators to endorse Bradley for the Democratic presidential nomination against Vice President (and heavy favorite) Al Gore.

"I was impressed," Kerrey said in his July 5 speech, "because he had taken the time and made the effort to get beneath the easy sloganeering that dominated the American political debate ... I was impressed with Bill Bradley's ideas and with the way [he talked] with people on the street to hear their views and opinions. I liked the way he struggled against the controlling restraint of the State Department and others for whom a side trip was a scheduling inconvenience. And I liked his self-deprecating sense of humor, his interest in art, and his knowledge of history."

"I want Bill Bradley to be the next president of the United States of America. He has the intelligence, the experience, the humility, the dignity and the leadership skills needed for this most important elective office."

Kerrey could prove that Bradley leaps tall buildings in a single bound, and it still would be a fairly risky political move to buck clear front-runner Gore to endorse a man whom, much like Kerrey himself, the Democratic establishment sometimes regards as a maverick pain in the ass.

Few, including Kerrey, are under the impression that Bradley has much of a chance. But it bears pointing out that Kerrey, while generally supportive of the Clinton administration, unsuccessfully challenged Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination in '92. And the Medal of Honor winner who lost a leg in Vietnam as a Navy SEAL has never been entirely comfortable with the way Clinton evaded the wartime draft.

We caught up with Kerrey a few weeks after his announcement for a quick interview to try to get to the bottom of why he endorsed Bradley.

So you're going to tell me that this isn't about Gore's weaknesses, it's about Bill Bradley's strengths.

That's exactly right; this decision was entirely about who Bill Bradley is, and his strengths.

But, at least on paper, Gore seems to have this thing pretty clinched. And I don't know if any incumbent vice president has ever lost his party's nomination to succeed his boss. So why would you endorse Bradley?

The most important thing for me, as a citizen, for who I want to be president -- almost more than his opinions on the issues -- is how does he make decisions. I've watched [Bradley] make decisions. I watched him in 1992. He's extremely smart. He listened to experts and researched and read all about the region. He listened to people in Russia and people here and he would reach his own conclusions. It caused him sometimes to be disliked because the decision he would reach would not necessarily be the decision that others would reach.

So it has to do with his intellect, and his open-mindedness and the way he comes to decisions?

You know -- and I'm sure you've heard Bradley tell this story -- but Einstein, he gave a test one year at Princeton, and a student said, "Professor Einstein, the questions on this exam are the same from last year's." And Einstein said, "That's true, but the answers are different." And there's a lot to that today. A lot of the answers are different.

And Bradley has the answers?

The two biggest challenges facing us are Russia and race, and he knows them both cold.

But you don't really think he has a chance at winning the nomination, do you?

I like horse racing. I like going to the track. Sometimes you bet on a horse that's got 2- or 3-to-1 odds; sometimes on one that's 23 to 1.

But it's going to be tough for him to achieve.

Oh, he's going to have to hit a sitting jump shot.

Has any incumbent VP ever not gotten his party's nomination in such circumstances?

No, not that I know of, but, you know, before '92 it had never happened that we elected a president who was governor of Arkansas. There's always going to be precedents.

And you honestly think that this could be one of them.

Absolutely. I believe we can get the 2,142 delegates, which is what we need to win the nomination. I believe we can get there. And I know Bill Bradley will make every effort to get there -- without ruining Al Gore's chances in the general election.

Have you seen Bradley on the stump at all? Have you noticed an improvement in his much-maligned campaigning skills?

Oh, yeah, he's better than he used to be. Definitely. He seems to me to be connecting to the audience. I was just with him in Omaha and in Des Moines, and there were rounds of applause, they liked what he said, and they seemed to be following what he said.

You and Bradley are similar in a lot of ways, no? You're both quixotic intellectuals, both media darlings ...

I don't know about that; Bill and I are different in some very significant ways. I'm much more of a legislator. I'm more interested in trying to get better at being a legislator. And I'm proud of the fact that I'm learning to be a good legislator.

How about Bradley and Gore? How are they different? Or better yet -- how are they similar?

Both of them are free-traders, they're not populists on trade, which induces heartburn in the heart of our party, which is organized labor. They both also tend to pick issues that are kind of intellectual. Bill causes the audience to wonder what exactly he's talking about when he starts discussing petroleum reserves ... Gore did it with the Internet.

How'd you break the news to the Gore folks that you weren't going to be on their team, at least initially?

Well, I called the VP and I told him. Same with [campaign manager Tony] Coelho. I said, "If you win, which I expect will happen, sign me up as a volunteer."

And they were cool about it?

I wouldn't say they were cool about it. They were certainly understanding.

By Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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