- On the parallels between JFK's assassination and 9/11: "I think both events stripped away a certain false sense of security that we had we have — that we're invulnerable to these cataclysmic events that can change the course of history...we've always been a resilient people but these tests come along and we have to measure up to them again."
That newfangled rock n' roll, the Wild West of the Internet, and whether or not I had the nerve to actually call him "ToBro" — find it all after the jump!
Okay! Let's get right into it, because you did: On page 11 you relate what you thought when Kennedy was assassinated: "This will change us." That reminded me of you making that same assertion on 9/11, and I'm wondering if you see parallels — beyond the fact that these were two horrific days of national mourning. They both triggered or kicked off new eras, so to speak. Do you see parallels between the 50s/JFK days and Clinton-era prosperity, vis a vis where they ended up?
I think that there are parallels — I think both events, the assassination of JFK and 9/11 stripped away a certain false sense of security that we had we have — that we're invulnerable to these cataclysmic events that can change the course of history, like a gunshot, or a plane flying into a building. And it's a great test of any society but especially this one — we have had, and deservedly so, a very long run here as a democratic republic and we've always been a resilient people but these tests come along and we have to measure up to them again.
That begs the question of whether they are being measured up to now.
I think it's too early to say. I think certainly the post 9/11 period has been tumultuous — just as '68 was tumultuous. We're a deeply divided country again — in this case, we have a very unpopular and divisive war going on — being fought by people who don't belong to the elite or the privileged class, or the part of the society that since '68 on has really put military service not just on the backburner but out of their minds.
That's a big contrast with this war, where there's no draft, only voluntary service by small segment and non-engagement from rest of population, versus Vietnam where there was engagement (even if some of it was in the form of draft-dodging), versus the time of the Greatest Generation when, as you said in the opening of the documentary, there was no one who wasn't involved in the war. Everybody simply was.
What I've been saying as I go around the country is that it's inappropriate for democratic society to have the schism with the political leadership doesn't ask anything of people, effectively — there's not that part of the society that's not involved in the war in some fashion, and so it's kind of a citizen obligation from the ground up to find ways to connect to the families that do have people who are serving. You can hate the war, but it's inappropriate in my judgment — deeply inappropriate — not to have some sort of connection to those families who are leading [the war on terror from the front lines] — their child or their husband or their brother or their wife in some cases — will never come back
Why do you think that's how it is now, and why do you think it was different in the 60s?
We'll, in the 60s it was kind of like that too — guns and butter, you know? There were a lot of families who had kids that were getting student deferments, and they didn't have to go. I think what's different now is that we have a political culture in which nothing is being asked of those who are staying behind — no extra taxes, no energy sacrifices — there's really no discomfort whatsoever. In fact the last several years have been very prosperous in a lot of ways. In the 60s you had also that bifurcated society between those who went and those who stayed behind, and not enough of an effort to find those connections. It was worse in the 60s in some ways because those who served were vilified when they got home.
Well, the returning vets aren't exactly getting the warmest welcome back here.
Well, they're getting treated better by society certainly than they were then. The medical services are uneven but there've been enormous advances made. There are wounds in this war that would never have been survived in Vietnam. So — it's always tough. It becomes an uneven landscape, and matching it up is a little hard to do, frankly Rachel, it really is. It's not a perfect mirror of '68 but there are obviously some very strong points that do line up.
But do you think the lessons were even remotely learned?
I was surprised there wasn't more discussion about it. My own personal opinion is that the Democratic party, and those members of the Democratic party who voted for authorization of this war were haunted more by '91 than they were by Vietnam — you may not remember this, but in '91 the Democratic party was deeply divided on whether
Or not they should authorize military action against Saddam Hussein in Desert Storm I. And then it went well and they paid a political price for it, in their judgment. I think that haunted them this time more than Vietnam did.
The Vietnam parallel has always been a spectre hanging over the war, but it was smacked pretty firmly down by the right until President Bush mentioned it a few months ago. But there are obviously parallels.
Oh, there are indisputably parallels. Look at the dialogue I have in the back of the book between the Vietnam veterans, between people like Bob Kerrey; Chuck Hagel, Bill Bradley's involved in the debate, Dick Holbrooke...any number of people I talk about in the book say, "I don't think Vietnam will die off for us until our generation dies off."
One of the things that struck me was the gestation of it: You talk about your friend who flew combat missions who warned you not to take the official line about the war was going well with a grain of salt, and Westmoreland calling up more troops — that's the surge all over again.
Well, there's a difference between the Surge and the Westmoreland buildup which was hundreds of thousands of troops. And there is now some visible success for the surge.
Sure, but when you were on "Reliable Sources" you were one of the few people who has taken the Surge and put it in the larger context.
It was too late, there were a lot of officers and military analysts who said early on that we needed more troops there, the fact that the surge came so late in the process is, I think, a black mark against the war planners and against the administration, I don't think there's any question about that. But now that it's in place it is having some effect: The diminution of insurgent attacks — but now we find out that they're moving north and they're just changing the battlefield.
And plus the refugee situation, which is obviously having an effect. Do you see parallels between how Vietnam proceeded with a political goal in mind, and how the Iraq war proceeded behind closed doors, with the faulty intelligence and —
I do. Yeah. I think that Dick Cheney talks about the difference between Vietnam and Iraq, trying to put the Vietnam syndrome behind — and a big difference between Vietnam and Iraq is that the United States was not attacked, physically, during Vietnam.
Well, it wasn't actually attacked by Iraq.
No, what I'm saying is that Iraq was part of a response to an attack on the United States, however faulty the premise may have been. And therefore changed the DNA of the political debate some.
And I guess that the political debate of that DNA is something you see as being rooted in the 60s with Democrats being tainted with soft on national security
Democrats are the first to say that — they're the first ones to say that we've got to get beyond that — [Chicago political figure] Bill Daley saying, "I don't think it will happen until we die off," (p. 105), John Kerry opening his acceptance at the convention with the salute — "Reporting for duty" — and then having this kind of tortured experience with explaining how he felt about national security matters.
[Richard Daley, brother of Bill and long-serving Chicago mayor: "Democrats...didn't respect the sacrifice the men and women who were in the service gave. I hope the party is beginning to realize — and I think it is — we have to honor the idea of patriotism. We have a lot to learn from Vietnam."]
But don't you think that could have been more endemic of John Kerry rather than all Democrats? I'm sort of getting a little bit into the weeds here, but I'm curious.
You're deep in the weeds. (laughs) No, I think it was not endemic of John Kerry, I think it is part of the struggle with what the party's going through. And any number of Democrats will say that.
Okay this makes me think of Clinton and Gingrich and the chapter comparing their views. Neither side can engage in honorable debate because neither side thinks the other is honorable.
I think that what has happened at the national level — much less at the state level, at the national level — the professional party organizations have gotten hung up on this liberal/conservative wavelength and it becomes a radioactive wavelength. I was a talk show the other day with Hugh Hewitt — he wanted to just parse the country with these labels! And he didn't want to make a qualitative judgment. He wanted to add up how many were left of center and how many were right of center and make a judgment about that. Listen, I'm out around this country a lot. And what I hear — from Republicans and Democrats alike, in Montana, the Southwest, wherever I am — they don't give a damn if the solution comes from a liberal or comes from a conservative as long as it's working. A lot of these are not ideological issues we have to face.
So how do you think that bodes for the upcoming election?
Well, I think — I'm waiting to hear — we'll find out. I think there's an opportunity here for someone to change the tenor of the debate. I think that's why Mike Bloomberg has not completely taken himself out of the race.
When you talked about changing the tenor of the debate I was expecting you to mention Obama.
Well, I think Obama has been trying within the democratic party — he certainly has used the 60s and the divisions that grew out of the 60s and the kind of party schizophrenia on some of the issues — he's portrayed himself as the transformational candidate. The larger question for him of course is whether the public will accept him as that.
Is that because he's a different sort of candidate or because he's black?
Well, I — look, I'm not the first one to say this: He's made some rookie mistakes, and he's still a work in progress. Everyone agrees he's a man of enormous intelligence and great potential, but one of the reasons we have these campaigns is to see it through, so to speak.
Well, I guess that's a decent segue to ask you about somebody I've heard you mention over and over again in talking about your book: Hillary Clinton, who seems to have come up with the one question that encapsulates the book, which is "Have you cracked the code?" And what is the actual code. And that just makes me wonder if you've cracked the Hillary code.
No, (laughs) not entirely — I'll try to be quite clinical about it: I think she's run a very impressive campaign, I think she has enormous capacity in terms of her just native intelligence and her political acuity...she still struggles with what I would probably best describe as that missing component — people are not quite there with her yet. And a lot of it unspoken and some of it just has to do with character — 'I don't quite trust her, I can't warm up to her' — whatever the element is, it's there.
Despite all that she has run a remarkably strong campaign.
And is obviously qualified and intelligent and all of the rest of those things, but do you think that if they haven't warmed up to her yet...? Of all the candidates, she seems to have had the longest time for people to get to know her.
How about we wait and hear what they have to say in the primary.
Okay, fair enough. Obviously there's so much focus on the campaign —
Listen, I get a little impatient with my colleagues. This — you're probably not — are you a sports fan or not?
Sure - I can keep up if I have to. I watched the Patriots-Baltimore game the other day!
One of the most futile exercises in sports are the 48 hours before the Superbowl, when all the greatest football experts in America gather around the table and say with great confidence what's going to happened. And then, guess what — the ball is kicked off and the game goes in an entirely different direction. I've likened a lot of what's going on at this stage of the campaign, although it's beginning to take shape a little more, the polls are a little more reliable because people are thinking about it a little more carefully and are a little more focused on it — but I gotta tell you — between now and December 28th — Iowans are going to be thinking about Christmas.
As well they should, frankly.
Well, if everyone's so focused on the horse race of this campaign, what are they missing? What do you think is the most under-covered issue of the campaign?
Well, I can give you lots of them. On the Democratic side, we have not had a thorough airing of the whole immigration issue, which has become a flashpoint in this country. Whether it's out of proportion, or whether it's the special interest groups... [inaudible]
I would like to see an entire debate devoted to these three things: One would be economic justice in America, and within that the tax load; I would like to see another debate just about health care, and the delivery system and what the role of the government is; and then I would like to see, in part because of my own particular interest, a debate about the environment and climate change. And overarching all of that, there's this enormous national hunger for a change in tone. What happens in primary season in caucus states, is that you get this kind of hard-core crowd driving the debate. And I think a lot of people are feeling left out of it.
Another silent majority?
I wouldn't go that far yet...my own guess is, there's a real opportunity here for cross-pollination of party lines.
So you think that's where Bloomberg could come into it.
Yeah. I think somebody like Bloomberg, and — look: This is not an abstract. Now fully one-third of the registered voters in this country are in the independent column...I'm talking a huge body of voters who have gone independent. A lot of young people these days are registering not as Republicans or Democrats but as independents. I did a story last week on Nightly News about the emerging voice of young evangelicals.
I saw that, yes.
And they're going independent.
That was part of the story, that they were going independent?
Yes, that's what the Pew guy said. Republicans can't count on them but neither can Democrats — they're much more inclined to be independent.
Is this the highest percentage of independents...
It is. Check that but I think it may be a historic high in independent registrations. [Ed. See here and here.]Then there's this other campaign called Unity '08 that they're running on the Internet...there's a lot of frustration out there about the classification of these parties.
Well, I think that's a pretty darn under covered area of this campaign. I don't want to bog you down in talking only about this and about the war...I wanted to get back to the book —
Let me see if I can anticipate a few things.
(Laughs) You've clearly been doing this a lot.
Before we get to music.
I think that the vexing problems in race and among women are in some ways more difficult than the initial challenges we faced about getting women on the agenda and then moving it forward, with Title IX and then a shift in the cultural expectations for women, and that's the Mommy Track. As you have more women coming out with law degrees and medical degrees and advanced training and taking a more prominent place in the workplace, what has not gone away is, what happens when they decide to have a baby? And the personal choices they (a) have to make in their relationships with their husbands and (b) how the economy responds to that — the corporate structure of America or the academic structure of America or the professional structure of the country. I have three daughters, and they're all professionals, and this is a vexing issue for them. One of my daughters I quote in the book. She said, 'You know, for our generations of moms we really are trying to have it all — and it's very, very demanding.'
I hope the internet will help with that — you can work from home more easily now — but that's an issue that's not being much addressed in this presidential campaign. And it's a critical one to this country.
The other issue that's not being much addressed in this campaign is the black underclass — the great disparity that exists in too many communities that was briefly revealed to the country after Katrina in New Orleans but it's still there, and it's there from one end of the country to the other. And that has to do with great disruptions in the black family structure — what Bill Cosby talking about — and the presence of a deeply-rooted drug criminal empire in the inner cities.
The reminds me of the kerfuffle a couple of weeks ago when Brian talked about the 'attack on marriage' — that's where marriage is being not "attacked" but certainly undermined in the black community.
Yeah. I know. I know it is — and there's a helluva lot of concern for the people who came through the civil rights movement, and worked so hard and made so many sacrifices. They think (a) there's an underappreciation of what they went through and (b) there's great despair that people are now in reverse, they're not in forward gear anymore.
I did a documentary in Jackson, Mississippi after Katrina because we decided that we could show that it's not just in New Orleans — and Jackson had historic roots in the civil rights campaign, obviously, and we came up with these great stories of — The entire city of Jackson now in its power structure is black — the editor of the paper's black, the police chief's black, the most prominent law firm in town is black — and in the old Georgetown black neighborhood, so many of the families are in worse shape now than they would have been 40 years ago, because of drugs and missing fathers and no premium on education because the bright kids in the area have gone away from the near high school. It's going on in Watts as well — Stan Sanders talks about it in the book (p. 310) — he goes back and he's depressed by what he finds at Jordan High School [armed gangs]. Watts is really in the grips of violent, well-organized gangs, organized around the drug culture.
Tancredo's using that. The gang culture is being used as a wedge to push the immigration agenda forward.
Yes, but there is a reality about the presence of these gangs and the amount of violence in the inner cities of America. Forty years ago you didn't have these kinds of drive-by shootings and lethal, heavily-armed gangs at war with each other, in the streets of Los Angeles, Chicago — you name the city. I was just in Philadelphia, they've got a horrendous problem with homicides.
Well, I'm glad that you're out of there safely! That didn't come up in the debate in Philadelphia, actually, and I remember seeing people write about that.
No. Listen, I've got lots of ideas of things that didn't come up in the debate.
What would you like to see come up? Besides these issues?
Well, I — Tim [Russert] and I talked about this on a panel the other day: The American airline industry is broken. You can't travel in this country — you get delays, you lose your bags, you stand in lines, you can't figure out what the price structure is — and this is the greatest industrial country in the world! And air transportation is a central part of how we move goods and people, and we should expect it to operate at the highest possible levels.
I don't think those are the issues exciting people on political strategy teams...I guess they don't poll well.
They may not poll well but this is where people live — they don't poll well among the kind of hard-core dedicated people who are in the primaries. But at some point somebody's going to have to start addressing these things.
And that's where Bloomberg comes in?
Well, I don't know...I think it could be done by either party — it's not an ideologically-specific issue...
It's only an ideologically-specific issue in the sense that it's not a priority.
Well, in fairness to the candidates and their campaigns and both parties, we're at the beginning of the process, not the end of it.
Well, I don't mean to be hard on them!
Those of us who cover politics and the candidates and their consultants — they don't think of these kinds of issues as having real sex appeal — especially when there's a war, and that's the central theme. And that's gonna get a lot of the attention.
When I said I wanted to get back to the book, I didn't mean to go in this direction but I'm glad we did. I haven't really seen this as much in the interviews that you've been doing. I've not caught them all of course, but —
Oh, no, I've talked a lot about this. I think these are two of the primary themes....we got through the 60s, we proved we're resilient, we're a more tolerant nation, we've made great progress — but we've got some real fixing issues here we've got to deal with, and I use those as an example. They're the other side of the coin, with progress for women and progress for African-Americans or ethnic minorities over and over and over again.
And an issue that you don't really touch on in the book, which is gay Americans.
I had a long talk with the Advocate about that. Here's why: The five big colors of the 60s are the ones that I address: Race, war, politics, women and culture. There were other movements that took root in the 60s, but didn't get any national traction until the late 70s, 80s, 90s. And gay liberation is one of them, I looked at it very hard. And when I come out with later editions I want to make more specific references to the Stonewall riot —
Right, that was in '69 —
— and I'm also going to do that for Hispanic political power, which also took root then. And by the way, so did the evangelical movement: Pat Robertson in the 60s was organizing the 700 Club, in 1971 Jerry Falwell forms Liberty University — and they used the tactics of the left in terms of organization to build up that movement. So, yes, there were other things. Someone said to me the other day, 'You didn't do enough about the disc jockeys. You didn't do enough about the people who really got the music to the folks.' I said, 'No, I understand, but I had to make some hard decisions here.
I went back and I — do you know who Roy Aarons was?
No. I'm sorry. Did I read about him?
No, he's not in the book. Roy Aarons was a friend of mine. He formed — he was the driving force of the National Association of Gay & Lesbian journalists, which he formed in 1990. We were close friends in 1973 when I was working in California before I went to Washington. He was not yet out in 1973, as a reporter for the Washington Post. So — it was not as if it all happened overnight. It began to ramp up in the late 60s. But the traction didn't come until the 80s and the 90s.
Oh, I tend to agree with that. But because you talk so much about the counter-revolution of the Right as having its roots then and being built out of that.
Well, actually, the original counter-revolution of the Right was not about the gay movement. It was really about carrying Viet Cong flags, calling cops pigs — it was a lot of cultural stuff about dress and language and pushing back against that, pushing back against parental authority and institutional authority. I don't think in '68 — and even '72 probably — that gay liberation was on that agenda in terms of counter-revolution.
Right, I just meant that the movement started then, like the counter-revolution of the right.
I mean Nixon did not run against gays. The whole gay political thing came later with civil unions and gay marriage and homosexuality, is it a sin or not? That was not at play in the McGovern campaign.
Right. It was not one of the 'A's.
(laughs) Right. It was not on of the 'A's.
Okay, let's talk about music.
Music is one issue that has kind of an enduring, consensus legacy. I've been telling this story about going to a James Taylor concert a year ago and running into one of the most conservative people I know in New York walked in and I said, "Good God, what are you doing here?" and he said "Love the music, hate the politics."
Well, I just though it was funny reading about your DJ name — I'm sorry, I just have to bring it up: "DJ Terrible Tom" — that seems to be an NBC theme, you guys are all very into your music. I was actually going to ask you, as part of the 'Extra' portion of the interview: What's on your iPod? What's on high rotation right now? Everyone likes to know that.
Well, I can't listen to my iPod right now, my iPod's in the hospital. My iPod died on me.
Yeah. So I had my wife redo it. I have a real mix of things...there's a Bay Area couple called Tuck & Patti that I like, do you know them?
I do, yeah.
So I have Tuck & Patti, Diana Krall, Norah Jones...then I have my old favorites that come out of that era a little more, I'm more inclined to the more melodic sounds of Simon and James Taylor, but I also have some Stones on there, the classics, some Beatles songs...I have a daughter in music, she's the vice-president of brands and marketing at Warner's, so she's kind of my guide now. And I've got my 50s jazz — I've got Chet Baker and there's a wonderful jazz guitarist by the name of Jim Hall who I've known a long time... and the way I got to know Diana Krall is that she was a protégé of on of my favorite jazz pianists by the name of Jimmy Rolls.
So you don't have Brian Williams trying to foist his newfangled indie music on you?
(laughs) No. I wish I could give you the playlist on my iPod but it crashed three weeks ago, and you know how it is, you just rifle through it and play 'em...I'm trying to think....
No, that's okay, shockingly I have more important things I want to ask you about! I just found it so interesting yesterday when you said "Let's do this the old fashioned way." [Backstory for readers: Brokaw and I spoke last week for the first time when I was on vacation, and after trying to set up a time he caught me when I was away from my room and had no computer or recorder or any of my notes, though I did have the book to read by the pool. NB, James Brady. Brokaw suggested that I utilize the revolutionary new method of writing things down on paper — which, let the record reflect, I was prepared to do but he graciously agreed to talk the next day when I could record his every word for your reading enjoyment now.] Nostalgia for the "old-fashioned way" is not uncommon in journalism these days with the advent of the web and the blogosphere and all the game-changing that came with it. I'm curious about your perception of standards in journalism these days, and the new lower barriers to entry in the profession.
Uneven. I think we're working through what I call — I have two metaphors, one which I call the wilderness — we're about ten miles into what appears to be a thousand-mile stretch of wilderness ahead of us. The other metaphor I use is, we're creating the second big bang. The first big bang created the physical universe that we now know, and then in information technology and journalism, we're trying to determine which of these planets will support life, which ones won't, which are too close to the sun, where is the sun — and, we're at very [inaudible, but sounds like 'seminal'] stages of all this — and part of the playing out of it is, who can we rely on...what's our comfort zone...who establishes a record over a period of time...who can we rely on most for useful information that has real integrity attached to it, and what I love about the new technology is that it gives voice to such a much greater variety across the country.
It's a different sort of dissent now. It's not marching in the streets, but it's a different kind of engagement.
I just made this point in a speech here. Someone said, "Why aren't they in the streets?" and I said "Because the streets have moved to the small screen." The dissent takes place there — and in many ways it's more effective and it reaches more people. They can get their arguments in order. I'm a big user and a big fan of this technology — I think it is the most transformational thing in my lifetime, in many ways. But, as I say, in one of the history lessons, I remind especially youngsters, I say "I know the power you feel in your fingertips. Well, let me take you back to the beginning of the 20th century. A young generation had at its fingertips for the first time: communication by telephone, electricity, air travel, automobile travel; medicine that's started to do more good than harm to your body. And in the 20th century we had two world wars, the introduction of the nuclear age, genocide in the heart of Western civilization, and in Africa and Southeast Asia, so technology alone is not the solution."
You've reminded us about the big picture here, that's for sure. Well, I guess as the last question I'd want to bring it back to what Stewart Brand said [to end the book], "seeing what connects rather than what divides." I'm curious about what you think connects us.
That's kind of an existential question, I wanted to leave it at that, and let people answer it for themselves.
After writing a 600+ page book and giving all these interviews you don't have an idea?
What I think connects us is the ability to talk to each other and to have a reasoned dialogue about these issues. We're not always going to agree by any means. But I think what does connect this immigrant nation is its authority to somehow find a way to move forward together. It's an uneven process, but it also requires cooperation and listening as well as shouting, and what troubles me a lot — and it's something I love dearly and it's what got me into journalism — is the political arena in America, and I'm in some despair about what's happened to it at a national level. I still think it works at the state level by and large, but at the national level it's become this kind of highly financed video game — and I mean it in the sense that these characters are just wiping each other out whenever they can. It's not about solutions, it's about assassination.(Voice in background Brokaw to voices] Ten minutes, thank you. To me: I've got to leave now.
Oh, sorry — thank you so much for your time.
Oh, and by the way, when I said the old-fashioned way, I just meant: Take out a pencil, or a pen, get your notebook out, take some notes!
It's not that I didn't want to, it's that I know something you don't know, and that's I have atrocious handwriting!
Okay, Rachel, it's been a pleasure!
Thank you so much, have fun in Atlanta!
I never did get up the nerve to ask if I could call him ToBro. Ah well.
Top photo of Brokaw and Boom! from press materials; television stills from "1968 With Tom Brokaw" on the History Channel.