WASHINGTON — In 1988, a candidate for the US Senate spoke to a group of hearing-impaired teenagers at Boys Town, Nebraska. He told of how he lost part of his right leg during the Vietnam War.
"At the end of his speech," Ivy Harper wrote in her excellent biography of Bob Kerrey, "his hearing-impaired audience, with arms outstretched, repeatedly fluttered their hands from above their heads to their waists: silent thunderous applause."
In the 1960s, a generation of young Americans was drawn to politics by the leadership of John F. Kennedy. In the 1980s, another generation was inspired by the bold confidence of Ronald Reagan. These two presidents, miles apart on many issues, shared a romantic optimism about America and the self-confidence to truly lead.
Today, many young people are repelled by politics, while many senior citizens nostalgically remember the political giants who called us to greatness. Half our nation is so disillusioned with lesser-of-two-evils choices that they don't even bother to vote, while growing numbers regard the political process as corrupt or irrelevant.
I propose that Democrats, independents, and progressive Republicans initiate a draft movement to support former Democratic Sen. Bob Kerrey for president and urge him to invite Republican Sen. John McCain to be his running mate, in whatever political affiliation they believe would best unite the country.
America is ready for a campaign of integrity, honor, patriotism, reform, bipartisanship, and service that challenges us to "ask what we can do for our country."
Such a campaign could inspire record numbers of voters, and motivate the next generation of young leaders at all levels of political and community service. This ticket would have the potential to carry all 50 states and, in the meantime, would challenge George W. Bush to rise to the occasion to become an even better president.
Before Mr. Bush's inauguration, I wrote that both parties should reach out with bipartisan goodwill. Sadly, only weeks later our economy drifts downward, the permanent campaign continues, and politics sinks back into a morass of cynicism as special-interest lobbyists ask what their country can do for them.
In recent days there has been an attack on worker-safety protection, new anti-bankruptcy bills at a time of layoffs, a retreat from the president's promise to combat global warming, and efforts to destroy campaign-finance reform, as a great battle unfolds in Congress.
Serious discussion of a Bob Kerrey draft would add vigor and excitement to the loyal opposition. It would set a standard for debate, while promoting a powerful and inspiring candidate.
As a war hero, Kerrey demonstrated courage. As a business founder and CEO, he understands entrepreneurial success in ways rare among political leaders. As a governor, he tapped the potential of state and local community service. As a senator, he built a substantial record of leadership on issues from Social Security to foreign intelligence with a strong commitment to reform. Above all, Bob Kerrey, like John McCain, could run a campaign that doesn't merely promise us things, but challenges us to give something back.
Kerrey faces the challenge of any presidential candidate: making that leap toward being seen as a credible leader of the nation. Kerrey's brief presidential candidacy of 1992 was reminiscent of President Kennedy's campaign to be vice president at the 1956 Democratic Convention.
Like JFK in '56, Kerrey appeared eager but unprepared. Now, having left politics to serve as president of the New School for Social Research in New York, Kerrey has time to see the world as a private citizen, reflect on his experience in government and the needs of the nation, and, should he ultimately run, prepare both intellectually and politically, as JFK prepared from 1956 to 1960.
During the last campaign, something magical happened in New Hampshire that can be recaptured. Instead of pandering to voters, John McCain respected them. Republicans, Democrats, and independents responded with passion. He brought out "old soldiers" for one more campaign - and "young soldiers" honored to be asked to serve their country.
My guess is, those young people Kerrey spoke to at Boys Town left his speech with greater confidence. The thunderous applause at one speech shows the promise of a campaign that can bring out record numbers of people to participate again.
Listening to the negative talk on the evening news, we forget that we live at a special moment in history. The end of the cold war brought trillions of dollars and many of the best minds out of the war economy and into the peace economy. Leadership can chart a course toward an unprecedented era of entrepreneurship and opportunity, in which we are challenged to feed everyone who is hungry and educate everyone for success. There must be a place and time for every American to do even more for our country.
Wouldn't it be exciting to be inspired by our politics again? What a star-spangled presidential ticket Kerrey-McCain would be, and July 4, 2002, might be a reasonable time to start.
Brent Budowsky, a Washington-based entrepreneur, was an aide to former Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (D) of Texas.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor