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Maverick Kerrey back in politics

Mar 25, 2012 - By Mark Shields

The officeholder in the Opposition Party who dares to break from his side's rigid orthodoxy is admired -- by those of us in Our Party -- as a courageous maverick who has the guts to take a lonely stand against party bosses. But when the rebel is in Our Party, too often we react quite differently. Then, the dissenter in our ranks is an unreliable and, probably, self-absorbed turncoat. Hypocrisy, anyone?

Let me tell you about one of my favorite mavericks, a Democrat, who served two terms in the U.S. Senate before leaving voluntarily. Facing a tough re-election race in the very Republican year of 1994, he was assailed for having voted to outlaw assault weapons. In a TV spot, he picked up an AK-47 at a target range and said: "Twenty-five years ago in the war in Vietnam, people hunted me. They needed a good weapon like this AK-47. But you don't need one of these to hunt birds." Heard anybody make that case recently?

Of course, many politicians of that generation had used money or connections to evade the Vietnam draft. This maverick got "a letter in the mail offering a free physical examination," which he passed. Combat wounds forced the amputation of his right leg just below the knee. Eight months at the Philadelphia Naval Hospital followed.

He admitted bitterness at his fate," but I had my life saved by that hospital, which wasn't there because the Navy decided to put it there.

It was there because of a law the Congress passed to build the hospital, to appropriate the money necessary to hire the doctors and the nurses and all the other people who gave me the opportunity to get my life back.

"When I was discharged from the Navy, my fellow citizens paid for free health care and a monthly check while I put my life back together.

Now I know there are a lot of people who think that getting a check in the mail makes you lazy -- it didn't do that to me. It made me grateful to live in a country as great as this one."

Back home in Nebraska and manifestly unlazy, he built a successful chain of restaurants and health clubs. Elected governor in 1982, he dated the sultry Debra Winger, who was in Lincoln to film "Terms of Endearment" and after one successful term with a 70 percent favorable job-rating, chose not to run for re-election.

Elected to the Senate in 1988, he angered many Democrats by championing entitlement reform, which included raising the Social Security retirement age to 70.

He infuriated Republicans and more than a few Democrats by opposing the bill to outlaw same-sex marriage. Armchair commandos were furious at his leadership in normalizing U.S. relations with Vietnam and his forceful opposition to a constitutional amendment to criminalize flag-burning: "Patriotism calls upon us to be brave enough to endure and withstand such an act, to tolerate the intolerant."

Now Bob Kerrey, the only U.S. senator in the last 147 years to earn the nation's highest military citation, the Medal of Honor -- and after spending his post-Senate years as president of the New School University in New York -- seeks again the Nebraska Senate seat he left in 2000.

Attacked by the organized left as insufficiently liberal and unreliably independent, Kerrey is defended by two of Washington's most respected arms-control advocates, John Isaacs and David Cohen, who cite Kerrey's record of seeking to reduce nuclear arsenals, supporting Senate ratification of the Chemical Weapons Convention and urging a worldwide ban of landmines.

As this maverick once told me: "Let us cast aside the conspiracy theories and the notion that we are victims of our own government. What nonsense! ... We've got more freedom than any country on the face of the earth."

If you think that the Senate in 2012 could use a large dose of candor and independence, then we have just the maverick for you.

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Editor's note: Syndicated columnist Mark Shields is a former Marine who appears regularly on "Newshour" on PBS

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