SAN FRANCISCO — Democratic presidential contender Bob Kerrey apologized profusely Tuesday for privately telling another candidate a dirty joke about two lesbians and a third White House hopeful--former California Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr.
"It was an insensitive, stupid joke told by a hopefully temporarily insensitive, stupid politician," the Nebraska senator told reporters here Tuesday. "I apologize."
The joke, told by Kerrey to Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton as the two waited to speak Friday at a political dinner in New Hampshire, was recorded by a microphone of the cable television public affairs network C-SPAN.
The network confirmed that the conversation had been recorded without the candidates' knowledge and said that, for that reason, the remarks would not be broadcast. But a story about the recorded joke was published Tuesday by the San Francisco Examiner. And Kerrey, 48, coincidentally found himself on a campaign stop in a city well known for fervent gay activism as the story received national exposure.
Pausing during a long-scheduled tour of AIDS treatment clinics at San Francisco General Hospital, Kerrey said the joke had been told during a "locker room" atmosphere that prevailed at a "roast" in Manchester, N.H., for Dick Swett, a local Democratic congressman. A Kerrey aide in Washington said the senator and Clinton were repeating jokes composed by staff members for the roast--some not fit for general audiences and thus not to be told.
Kerrey said he had not yet reached Brown to apologize for the joke, but he said he hoped Brown realized that the remark "was encouraged by the spirit of the event."
"There were a lot of locker-room jokes going around . . . including some about me--'one-legged' jokes," Kerrey said with a smile. The senator lost his lower right leg during the Vietnam War.
Brown, who was not present when the joke was told, tersely upbraided Kerrey in a statement released by his presidential campaign office Tuesday.
"A presidential campaign is a time to inspire and bring people together, not make fun of them," the statement said. "The language of politics is already debased and the process itself is avoided by a majority of Americans. And overcoming this is what we should be talking about."
According to the account in the Examiner, the joke Kerrey told begins with Brown entering a bar and expressing interest in one of two women sitting at the counter. A man nearby advises Brown not to get his hopes up--that the women are lesbians.
Brown, the joke continues, asks the man how he learned this, and the man describes graphically a sex act he witnessed between the two women. The punch line has Brown saying he would like to perform the same act on the woman and asking: "Does that make me a lesbian?"
Kerrey's telling of the joke drew sharp protests from gay activists throughout the country.
A spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign Fund, a Washington D.C.-based lesbian and gay advocacy group, said: "We feel that (Kerrey's) apology was insufficient. It didn't seem to grasp that this joke's insensitivity hurts many Americans, not just women and lesbians, but those of us who believe that the telling of off-color jokes demeans people and treats them as objects rather than as human beings."
The spokesman, Gregory King, said Kerrey's remark "raises questions about whether he is smart enough to be President."
During his San Francisco stop, Kerrey repeated several times that telling the joke to Clinton displayed "massive insensitivity" on his part. In answer to a question, he said he did not know how the incident would affect his presidential campaign.
Clinton adviser Frank Greer told the Associated Press that Clinton considered the conversation a private matter and had no further comment.
While answering questions from reporters Tuesday, Kerrey was interrupted by Jean Harris, chairwoman of the Lesbian-Gay Caucus of the California Democratic Party, who demanded that the senator support state and federal legislation aimed at outlawing discrimination against gays.
"I really felt compelled to come here and look you in the eye," Harris said to Kerrey. "You're in a town with a high population of lesbians and gays . . . . We can't tolerate the kind of thing that has happened."
Harris later acknowledged that Kerrey received a 92% approval rating from the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force for his voting record in the last congressional term. But she said the fact that Kerrey could receive that rating and "still be telling lesbian jokes" reflected "the level of our civil rights these days."
Kerrey is scheduled to make a campaign stop in Los Angeles today, and aides said he plans to meet with gay and lesbian activists in Venice.
Times staff writer Cathleen Decker contributed to this story.