Veteran broadcast journalist Tom Brokaw, the longtime anchor and managing editor of NBC Nightly News, gave the annual Sacerdote Great Names Series Lecture in the Margaret Bundy Scott Field House at Hamilton College on April 27. Brokaw shared his insights on the state of American politics and society, and called on today's youth to involve themselves in politics and public service.
Hamilton President Joan Hinde Stewart introduced the event by speaking about the Sacerdote Great Names Series. Over the last 10 years, the series has brought distinguished speakers to Hamilton, including Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, Margaret Thatcher, Madeline Albright, Desmond Tutu, Colin Powell, Rudy Giuliani and F.W. deKlerk. Tom Brokaw, Stewart continued, has covered all of these former Sacerdote speakers, as well as nearly ever other person of distinction during his 40-year career. He is a person of distinction in his own right, Stewart said, noting that he has “exemplified broadcast journalism at its best” during his time as host and managing editor of the NBC Nightly News.
Brokaw began his lecture by saying that it was a great privilege and honor to speak at Hamilton, and that he was grateful for the opportunity. "We should all be grateful for Hamilton and institutions of its kind," he said, "as they send qualified students into the world." He then opened with some lighthearted remarks on his failure to “kick into a lower gear” after retiring, and joked about his “typical anchorman hubris.”
Brokaw said that his lecture was designed to be “a dialogue about the issues that concern me as a citizen and a journalist.” He began by noting that in settings such as Hamilton where young people are preparing to go into the world, it is important to remember that there are people of the same age already in Afghanistan and Iraq, who are putting themselves in harm’s way every day. No matter how you feel about the decisions to enter these countries or about how the wars are being conducted, Brokaw said, you must remember that the soldiers serving there are “part of the American family” who have volunteered themselves in service to their country.
The fact that the military is often out of sight and out of mind for the highest levels of American society is a growing problem, Brokaw said. He spoke of the excellence he has encountered in his dealings with the U.S. military, and said that the way that the armed forces function without regard to race, gender or socioeconomic background should be an object lesson to all of us on how we should live civilian life. While the excellence of America’s troops may sometimes be news to “big shots,” Brokaw said, it is not news in small towns or working class neighborhoods where people have loved ones serving in the armed forces. Brokaw expressed his belief that it is unacceptable and dangerous for people in a democratic society to be disconnected from their military.
The disconnection between America and the military that serves us is indicative of other disconnects in American society, Brokaw continued. The ethos of national politics today is one of division between red and blue states in which the national parties seek to divide and conquer the nation by turning people’s views against each other. There is little tolerance for intermediate or unorthodox views, Brokaw said, citing examples of orthodoxy within the parties on issues of abortion, taxation and gun control. The parties and their hired operatives function by creating fears and then exploiting them, he said.
Brokaw admitted that he is not naïve about politics — after his more than 40 years of experience in journalism, he knows that politics is a “rough business.” However, the place of single-interest groups, the insulation of politicians from their constituents, and the influence of money has “brought the ruthless character of politics to a new level.” The recent scandal involving Jack Abramoff is a prime example of this trend, Brokaw said, though he was quick to note that both Democrats and Republicans take part.
Discussing the changes in the Democratic and Republican parties since the 1960s, Brokaw noted that, while Ronald Reagan was a staunchly ideological conservative in his campaign rhetoric, he governed as a pragmatist when in office and was able to cooperate with Democratic legislatures. Reagan’s political progeny, however, are “samurai warriors” who have learned to advance their agenda without compromise, Brokaw said. He identified these “progeny” as people including Karl Rove, Dick Cheney, and President Bush. Brokaw also noted decreased tolerance for centrist voices on the Democratic side of the aisle.
Overall, Brokaw said, the two parties have moved to the extremes of the political spectrum, while the people of America remain in the bipartisan center on the grassroots level. He pointed to “red states” with Democratic governors and “blue states” with Republican governors. Brokaw asked why these lessons of bipartisanship and centrism lost on the national political leadership, and said he could not provide an answer. It is time for a change in politics, he said, and we all have a place in making that change occur.
The challenges and opportunities of modern politics are occurring at a time when we are on the cusp of the greatest communication revolution of all time, Brokaw continued. Today, with the power of the Internet and other telecommunications advances, we live in a smaller world with more people, all searching for prosperity and liberty. Unfortunately, ancient sectarian rivalries and religious fundamentalism are seen as an alternative to modernity in some parts of the world where the frustration of youth is high. The rage and hostility of those who teach terrorism must be addressed, Brokaw said. As we have seen in the past three years, he continued, military intervention is only, at best, a part of the solution. Solving the problem of terrorism will require fresh thinking and an infusion of people who are willing to tackle the problems and serve their countries.
Brokaw said that he is often asked who he has met in his career that has left the greatest impression on him, and that people expect him to name one of the many world leaders or celebrities he has met in his time. The people he remembers most, however, are people like those he saw working in the South during the civil rights movement to secure African-Americans their basic rights, or those he saw both participating in and protesting against the Vietnam War. Brokaw listed other people who have left an impact on him, including the protesters at Tiananmen Square, Tibetan lamas fighting for the freedom of their nation, and scientists who work to alert the world to the loss of biodiversity and the increasing danger of global warming. “These are people who have given up comfort and convention to follow their consciences,” he said.
In his book, The Greatest Generation, Brokaw wrote on the generation of Americans who grew up during the Great Depression and went on to fight the battles of World War II. He told a story which he said is emblematic to him of what the “greatest generation” means, but which came to him after he finished the book. The story is that of three young American soldiers who met during their stay in a veterans’ hospital in Michigan after sustaining serious wounds in the European theater of World War II. It would have been easy for these three young men to go back to their homes after leaving the military and think about themselves, Brokaw said. Instead, they chose to continue their service to their country in the field of politics and later they reunited in the U.S. Senate. These three men – Senators Bob Dole, Daniel Inouye, and Phil Hart – represent the greatest generation and all that we owe them today, Brokaw said. While the legacy they have left later generations is rich and secure, it still needs constant nurturing. Brokaw concluded his remarks by saying that he hopes 50 years from now the generation of students leaving college today will be able to be compared to the great generation which preceded us.
Brokaw then answered questions submitted by members of the Hamilton community which were read by Associate Professor of English Catherine Kodat. Fred Bernabe ’07 asked what career Brokaw would have entered had he not become a journalist, and Brokaw answered that he would have liked to be a prosecutor. He is constantly renewed, he said, by the idea that we are held together by the Constitution and the rule of law in this country. In response to a question from Pat VanGrinsven ’08 about the most significant events he has covered in his career, Brokaw named September 11, 2001, as well as the collapse of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Berlin Wall. Murtaza Ali Jafri ’08 asked if Brokaw’s personal perception of an issue had ever affected his coverage, to which Brokaw responded that which it is often hard to contain your own beliefs when covering a story, you have to work hard to give the most fair and contextual picture of the events possible.
James Helmer, co-director of Hamilton’s Oral Communication Lab, asked what Brokaw thinks about the way in which blogs are competing with traditional media. Brokaw answered that blogs are still in a “shakedown phase,” and that eventually there will be a test over who really has something to say with integrity, meaning and merit. In response to a question from Hannah Case ’08 about the influence of corporate ownership on the quality of network news today, Brokaw noted that networks have always been owned by corporate entities with their eyes on the bottom line, and that this is not necessarily a bad thing. He said that the ownership of NBC by GE, for example, has taught each side how to do their work better. In fact, Brokaw said, one shouldn’t always idealize the “old days” of network news, in which information was delivered through a prism of middle-aged white men. Today the news is more textured and has a richer menu of coverage, he said, while noting that viewers must be more aggressive and demanding in their consumption of news.
About 4,000 people attended the lecture, including 20 groups from local high schools. The Great Names committee will begin consideration of suggestions for the next speaker in the series in the next month. The committee solicits suggestions from the Hamilton community then reviews the feasibility of the proposed speakers based on their availability and cost.
-- by Caroline Russell O'Shea ’07