Bob Kerrey Goes on New York’s A List

For all its blowhards, highbrows and mega tuition bills, New York City academia doesn’t necessarily light up the sky these days with star power. The days when Dwight D. Eisenhower would accept the presidency of Columbia University as the waiting room for the Presidency of the United States are long past. And besides the occasional Kenneth Starr sighting at New York University, big shots in New York’s higher-ed universe barely register a blip with the public at large.

But here comes, of all people, Senator Bob Kerrey, maverick Democrat of Nebraska, war hero in a season when war heroes seem to count once more, sensitive, chiseled and a little arid, and just minted as the next president of … the New School University in Greenwich Village. The New School may not be Columbia, or even Cooper Union, but it suddenly has a damned good-looking president who immediately becomes New York’s biggest man on campus.

A 56-year-old Congressional Medal of Honor winner who lost the lower half of his right leg to a grenade attack in Vietnam, Mr. Kerrey is an articulate, sometimes temperamental leader who rarely uses a five-second delay before saying what he thinks. And in an age in which-from Hillary Clinton to William Weld to the President himself-the public-sector power elite are rushing to New York to get a kind of post-service dose of glamour, Mr. Kerrey seems better suited than many to New York.

For one thing, he already had been well broken in to the celebrity game: He years ago followed in the great Washington-Hollywood tradition of Henry Kissinger and Jill St. John, of John Warner and Elizabeth Taylor, by having had an extended romance with a genuine movie star, the diva of quirky early-80’s independence, Debra Winger.

For another, he speaks his mind: It was he who famously referred to Bill Clinton as an “unusually good liar.” It was Mr. Kerrey who, fresh from getting steamrolled in the 1992 Presidential primaries, infuriated Mr. Clinton by delaying his budget plan (and calling the new President “green and inexperienced”). And it was he who bolted from the Al Gore formation to campaign for his former colleague Bill Bradley this year, only to get splashed by mud in New Hampshire, where thuggish Gore zealots called him “cripple” and “quitter.”

Those who know Mr. Kerrey-who won’t be officially installed at the New School until January 2001, after his Senate term expires-expect him to take New York by storm.

“Oh, my God, he’ll make Hemingway look like John the Baptist!” said Alan Simpson, the former Senator from Wyoming, a Republican, who now helms the Institute of Politics at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. “He’ll have a hell of a time … he’ll lap it up like a great big Nebraskan sheepdog!”

In an interview, Mr. Kerrey was somewhat more restrained. The Senator praised the city’s “rich culture” and “diversity of people and problems.” “It’s certainly much different than the Plains,” he said.

In leaving Washington for New York, Mr. Kerrey may, friends said, be seeking to replenish his drained “spiritual side”-a condition he lamented at his Jan. 20 press conference in Washington, where he announced he wouldn’t run a third term. “He’s a guy going from being a serious contender for the Presidential nomination to deciding that he doesn’t want to do that, to deciding he doesn’t want to be in politics,” said his friend Rutt Bridges. “He wants to do something completely different.”

Mr. Kerrey expressed some regret at the “spiritual side” remark, saying it didn’t come out the way he had intended. He hadn’t meant to imply that spiritual fulfillment was impossible in Washington, he said. “It’s not incompatible with being in Congress,” he said. Nevertheless, Mr. Kerrey will move to New York’s ground zero for spiritual fulfillment-West 11th Street, where the New School houses its president-and plans on teaching a class on writing laws. “Citizens have more power than they typically suspect,” he said. “You don’t need to be a lawyer to write laws.”

There’s also Mr. Kerrey’s girlfriend-Sarah Paley, a 43-year-old New York screenwriter with whom he has been involved more than four years. A tall, attractive brunette who once wrote for Saturday Night Live and has three film projects in preproduction, Ms. Paley has made few public appearances with Mr. Kerrey at political events. She is reluctant to publicly discuss her relationship with Mr. Kerrey. And to a large extent, Ms. Paley has managed to maintain a quiet, private relationship with a United States Senator.

“I haven’t had to deal with it very much,” she said. “But I just won’t. And I can’t believe I’m talking with you.” Ms. Paley was speaking by telephone two days after Mr. Kerrey had made official that he would take the New School job. “I think he’s going to be really good for the New School,” Ms. Paley said. “They are lucky to get him.”

Mr. Kerrey insisted the fact that Ms. Paley lived in New York was merely serendipitous. “It’s a nice coincidence the offer came in her neighborhood,” he said.

But, clearly, Ms. Paley’s presence played at least some part in Mr. Kerrey’s decision to flee the Senate and come to New York. Friends of Ms. Paley’s and Mr. Kerrey’s-who, like the couple themselves, were reluctant to speak on the record about the relationship-call them a terrific pair. Some said they are altar-bound. “He and Sarah are in love, and he wants to get married,” said Frederick Graefe, a Washington lobbyist and a member of Mr. Kerrey’s political action committee. “It’s a love story.”

So thus comes Senator Kerrey, a former Navy Seal with the power to transform the New School from that-weird-artsy-school-downtown-where-my-friend-has-been-watching-Bergman-movies to a potentially heavyweight institution-not just in the city, but nationally. “More and more institutions are turning to presidents who are able to fund-raise and give the institution a public face in a relatively high-profile way,” said Nancy Fraser, co-chair of the New School’s political science department. “And in that sense, Senator Kerrey is an extremely good choice.”

Those who are close to Mr. Kerrey are not so surprised. In fact, they describe a person who, like his new employer, may be looking for a kind of redefinition. They describe Mr. Kerrey as a man who has never been completely comfortable inside a politician’s skin, and has never been inclined to take the safe route. They recall Mr. Kerrey’s having quit as Nebraska’s Governor in 1986 after one term, even though his approval rating was up around 70 percent. They remember a man who opted not to take on a flailing Bill Clinton in 1996, when insiders thought he had a better than decent shot. They describe a senator who would prefer to talk about a book, or a film he had just seen.

In short, they describe the kind of person who just might give up the Senate for the New School.

“If anyone has shown flexibility in his life, it’s Bob,” said Mr. Kerrey’s friend, the New York attorney Michael Rips, both in terms of “thinking about issues in the U.S. Senate, and also in terms of moving in and out of public office.”

And though Mr. Kerrey is a native Midwesterner, he appears custom-built for New York. Something of an outsider in Washington, Mr. Kerrey showed little taste for the notoriously petty and narrow life inside the Beltway. “He’s a no-bullshit kind of guy,” said Rutt Bridges. “That’s his defining characteristic.”

When he takes the reins of the New School early next January after his Senate term expires, Mr. Kerrey can expect to wind up on everyone’s A list. “He’ll be a good invite, because he says what’s on his mind,” said Liz Robbins, the Washington lobbyist who lives in New York. “That’s refreshing, and it’s also very New York.”

The Senator has been warming up to Manhattan for a while, circulating in what one friend described as the “bohemian half” of the city’s media-cultural elite. It is not a political crowd. Mr. Rips, who introduced Mr. Kerrey to many of his friends in New York, described Mr. Kerrey’s scene as “people who are intellectuals but not necessarily limited to the traditional academics … academics doing other things, [like] journalism and writing fiction.”

Mr. Kerrey said he hadn’t been aggressively seeking a career change, but was contacted in December by a member of the New School’s search committee, who asked the Senator if he knew anyone who might be good for the job. “Their initial inquiry was based on a belief that I might be able to identify someone who was a more nontraditional background as opposed to someone who had a scholarly background,” the Senator said.

The more Mr. Kerrey thought about it, however, the more he became interested in the New School job himself. He said he was intrigued by the downtown university’s history of sociology- and arts-based teaching and especially its continuing education programs. “Educating those who are already educated is most important in a liberal democracy such as we have in the United States, because democracy can only be as good as the people themselves,” Mr. Kerrey said. “Their preparation is key to making democracy work.”

Mr. Kerrey brought up the New School’s offer with friends and colleagues, including Jonathan Fanton, the New School’s last president, now head of the MacArthur Foundation in Chicago, and John Brademas, the former president of N.Y.U. who had served as a Representative of Indiana for 22 years. Conversations with both men excited him, Mr. Kerrey said, as well as the fact that the New School’s first president, Alvin Johnson, was from Nebraska.

Taking over the presidency of a school, of course, is a lot different than just teaching a class. Instead of wearing khakis and burning hours in coffee haunts with shiftless graduate students, a university president is usually stuffed in suits, shaking down alumni and various assorted fat cats for donations, and must regularly sort out faculty and student clashes.

But Mr. Brademas said Mr. Kerrey’s political experience should have him well prepared. “After I’d been [at N.Y.U.] for a few months, some of my former colleagues asked, ‘John, what’s it like as a university president?’ Mr. Brademas said. “And I said, in Congress, I dealt with a wide diversity of constituencies, I made a lot of speeches, I raised money, I resolved conflicts and I wrestled with massive egos. In short, I felt very much at home at New York University.”

In Ms. Paley, friends said Mr. Kerrey found someone unmoved by the tribulations of politics. Since she and Mr. Kerrey first met in 1995-they were introduced by a mutual friend-she has generally steered clear of the spotlight that surrounds the Senator’s political life. She avoided his Jan. 20 “See ya!” press conference in Washington; apparently, she didn’t want to come off as Mr. Kerrey’s version of Yoko Ono-that mysterious woman who was pulling him out of politics.

But here in New York, Ms. Paley is something less of a mystery, having been a presence in the city’s comedic writing community for more than 20 years. Born in Virginia, Ms. Paley said she moved to Brooklyn with her family when she was 12. (Ms. Paley is not, as some have speculated, related to CBS honcho William Paley.) Skipping college, she took to freelance writing and landed a writing job on Saturday Night Live . “I submitted some writing, and they were looking for a woman writer,” Ms. Paley said.

It was a big break for someone in her early 20’s. Ms. Paley showed talent early on, and was well liked by the SNL staff, said James Downey, a member of the original writing staff. “I just remember she wrote whimsical stuff that everyone liked,” Mr. Downey said.

“Sarah was always fun to write with,” said the Al Franken, author of Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot: And Other Observations who also worked with Ms. Paley that season. “I remember we wrote a sketch together that Burt Reynolds was in: Burt Reynolds shows up at somebody’s suburban house, and they have a 14-year-old daughter who wrote to him or something, and he’s there to pick her up and take her to a motel, and everybody in the family is just thrilled. I don’t remember whose idea it was, but we wrote it together.”

“She has kind of an elegant manner,” said Mr. Downey, who saw Ms. Paley for the first time in several years last fall at SNL ‘s 25th-anniversary reunion. “She’s very sweet. She’s definitely not at all the type [of person] you might associate with writing comedy. She’s certainly not loud or aggressive. She’s a nice opposite of that.”

After leaving SNL , Ms. Paley accumulated a variety of television credits, including Steve Martin’s Best Show Ever , the New Show , The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd and Women Allowed , a women’s comedy show hosted by Mo Gaffney. Ms. Paley also wrote articles for magazines, including Vogue , Harper’s Bazaar , Marie Claire and The New Yorker ‘s Talk of the Town section.

Recently, Ms. Paley has enjoyed a solid run of success as a screenwriter. One of her scripts, Almost Human -described in one industry publication as an “epic adventure spanning from the 1920’s to the 1970’s about the intertwining lives of two men who meet when they are boys-one the son of wealthy society parents, the other a barely human wild man”-sold to Beacon Pictures for $400,000 and is scheduled to be made with director Peter O’Fallon.

Ms. Paley has also sold two comedy film pitches she developed along with her close friend and writing partner, Patty Marx. One of the Ms. Paley’s and Ms. Marx’s pitches, Matricide -about a standup comedian who tells so many jokes about his mother that he becomes the top suspect when his mother shows up dead-was purchased by Working Title Films, and is set to be directed by Griffin Dunne. And, last month, Miramax Films purchased another one of Ms. Paley and Ms. Marx’s comedy pitches-this one entitled Long Lost , about the rise and fall of a Barry Manilow-esque singer. Long Lost , too, is set to be directed by Mr. Dunne, and Steve Martin is set to star. Ms. Paley described herself and Mr. Martin, whom she has known for more than two decades, as “very good friends.”

But don’t expect Mr. Kerrey to hook up with Ms. Paley’s comedy-writing pals and become a 70’s-style SNL gadabout. Ms. Paley said she sees her old SNL colleagues in New York from time to time, but said the Senator “hasn’t been exposed to them at all.”

“He’s just going to be living a normal life,” Ms. Paley said of Mr. Kerrey. “He loves going to the movies, he loves walking around New York.”

And the Senator has a crew of Nebraska expatriates in New York that includes NBC anchor Tom Brokaw and fellow Nebraskan Mr. Rips, as well as his Omaha posse pal Warren Buffett.

Ms. Paley’s friends include author Susan Minot, writer Kurt Andersen (another Nebraskan) and Lawrence O’Donnell, the former Senate Finance Committee chief of staff who is now an MSNBC commentator.

Mr. Kerrey said he doesn’t intend to get out of politics altogether, even in New York. He has not ruled out a future bid for public office, though he said that while at the New School, he will probably stick to endorsing particular policy issues as opposed to specific individuals. “It’s more likely to be associated with causes than candidates,” he said.

But, for now, Mr. Kerrey seems most excited about getting at least part of his private life back. After all, between Nebraska’s Governor’s Mansion and the Senate, he’s spent more than 15 years in public office. And, after decades of worrying about it, he doesn’t have to answer those questions anymore. Asked if he and Ms. Paley planned to live together once he moved to New York, Mr. Kerrey enjoyed his first moments as a prospective New Yorker. “I’m not going to discuss those plans,” he said with some satisfaction. “That’s the nice thing about being a private citizen.”