Senior Correspondent, NBC News; Author, The Fall of Richard Nixon: A Reporter Remembers Watergate
Former Ferris Professor in Residence, Princeton University; Author, Being Nixon: A Man Divided
Tom Brokaw discusses his distinguished career in journalism and his experience as a young reporter covering the Watergate story.
The Distinguished Voices Series focuses particular attention on the contributions made by a prominent individual at a critical juncture in the history of the country or the world.
THOMAS: Welcome, everybody. Thanks for coming out on this rainy, snowy day.
So the country is badly divided and we seem to be on the verge of an impeachment. Wonder what Tom Brokaw would say about all that? (Laughter.)
Tom, you—as it happened, Tom was the White House correspondent in an earlier impeachment era, 1973-74, and has written a wonderful book about it which I urge you all to buy. But, Tom, why don’t you tell us, how is it—how is it the same as it was in 1973 and how is it different?
BROKAW: Well, it’s different to a—to a magnitude I can almost not describe. Social media has made all the difference in the world. There was something kind of disciplined about what we went through at that time. I’ll just give you two examples.
As a White House correspondent, we got briefed at 10:00 in the morning by Jerry Warren, who was a pro at the job. He had replaced Ron Ziegler. So we would spend the rest of the day working our contacts and sources, finding out what else was going on. I wouldn’t go on the air until 6:30 that night on Nightly News, and by then I would have had it kind of pulled together about the strengths and the weaknesses of whatever they were saying at that moment. And then at 6:30, when I finished that, I would go work for the Today Show for the next morning. That would be it.
Now, as I need not tell this audience, 24/7 there’s this enormous universe out there of information, most of which we don’t know where it came from and what the attempts are by—I think that at any given moment there are, like, forty-five million messages going across the universe every day. And as I again need not tell you, there’s almost no way to determine the authenticity of them. So you try to develop a system for saying, well, it came from here so it probably means that, but you can’t trust it to put it on the air if you’re a good reporter. Unfortunately, a lot of it gets on the air.
And I believe very strongly that Donald Trump wouldn’t have been president without social media. I just think that he was a master of that, you know, at the beginning and knew how to—how to manipulate it, how to use it for his own purposes. And there was also a ready audience out there for that kind of—that kind of presidential candidate. I don’t think we can dismiss that idea, frankly. But social media has changed everything.
I don’t know how—and I—and I believe that the people have a right to have a voice in places where they didn’t have a voice before. But then the question is, in a democratic society, how do you determine what we can trust, what we should act on, you know, what is useful to us, and what is there simply for causing as much hell as they possibly can?
THOMAS: The journalism tradition certainly in 1973, when you got to Washington for NBC, was to play it straight—to be very neutral and objective. I mean, at the New York Times that was—you know, that was—
BROKAW: No, it was—not even in the newsroom would there be a lot of, oh my God, can you believe they’re saying that. You know, there would be a little buzz around the newsroom. I have a passage in the—in the book. We all tended to kind of team up so that we could check one another on what was going on, and my partner was Fred Zimmerman. He was a Wall Street Journal reporter from Kansas City. We could not have been more unalike. He was a chess whiz, smoked cigarettes, and kind of laconic guy. I didn’t smoke, didn’t play chess. But we had that regional kind of association, coming from the Midwest. And we would go to lunch, as I describe it, at the Old Ebbitt Grill a block away from the Treasury Department, and we’d go through whatever we’d heard that day. And I’d say to Fred, God, it doesn’t make any sense. He’d say—cock and eyebrow—until you remember he’s guilty. I said, oh yeah, that’s right. (Laughter.) But we confined it to that. That’s the point. He didn’t write it and I didn’t go on the air and say he’s guilty. I didn’t have somebody saying to me you do 24/7 now depending on where you are. Well, he’s guilty, isn’t he? He’s guilty. Or, it’s outrageous, he can’t be guilty, if you’re on Fox for example. I mean, everybody has a point of view, and it’s fed by social media primarily and then expanded by social media.
Here’s something else that we don’t think about enough. You can be the smallest voice in the world on social media, but if you get something that’s slightly provocative it’ll get pumped right to the top of the front page. It’ll be there and it’ll stay there. And there’s no way, then, of determining its authenticity. And then people react to that, and act on it, and come to conclusions about what it means. And I think that’s an area that society left, right, and the middle has to start thinking about a little bit.
THOMAS: But it puts the old mainstream press in a difficult position because, as you said, when you were on—you would not say on the air he’s guilty.
THOMAS: We kind of knew it, but you didn’t say it. Today, the New York Times every day says he’s guilty.
BROKAW: Everybody is a commentator today, and they would say it. Not only that, but it’s not just the people that I know. And I’m pretty tuned into, you know, what the press corps—who it consists of. But the second line is, I don’t recognize them anymore. I mean, somebody comes up and is for the Southwestern Kentucky Opponents of the President of the United States, and this is their spokesperson, or whatever it is. There are a lot of people out there who have got titles that don’t seem to be connected to reality as we know it, and I don’t know how we get our hands around that, you know. Maybe there should be a kind of program. You know, if you want to know more about this person, go to that, you know, call it up on your iPhone or whatever. But folks are not inclined to do that.
We have a friend out in Montana. About twice a week in the summertime she’ll come across a little bridge that connects our houses, wide-eyed, and say to me, you’re not going to believe what I read on the internet this morning. (Laughter.) My answer is always the same: You’re right, I’m not going to believe what you read on the internet this morning. (Laughter.) And then she’s, oh, yeah, Tom, you always tell me that. She goes back. Two days, comes back, you’re not going to believe what I read on the internet this morning. So I think attention has to be paid, so to speak.
THOMAS: Nixon was very clever at turning mass opinion against the East Coast elite establishment media, all that. I mean, certainly he coined the phrase “silent majority.”
THOMAS: He put Agnew out there talking about the “nattering nabobs.” And it all worked for him for—until it didn’t. Trump also is superb at doing this, but he seems to be even better at it than Nixon. Is that because he’s got the internet on? I mean, why is Trump so successful at turning the public against the media? And Nixon—that string kind of ran out for Nixon.
BROKAW: I think Trump fits into the cultural universe with more ease than Nixon did. That is, before he got to be a candidate, before he got to be president, he was Donald Trump on television. And, you know, “you’re fired,” and he became an outrageous character. And people, it was like another version of television wrestling of some kind. We didn’t quite believe in it, but people were willing to follow it because they were kind of amused by it.
You know, when he was—this all happened at NBC, by the way, which I often reminded people who put him on the air—that he was—(laughter)—he was going broke in all kinds of businesses, but he was making declarations about the young people who came before him: no, that isn’t going to work; you’re fired. And I think that that just played out not just in homes, in the bars and other places, and also—again to get back to it—on social media. You know, you could dial it up and see him saying that. So that was the beginning of his presidential campaign.
I remember being in Des Moines when he was coming in one night, and it was dusk. And the Trump plane I think at that point was in arrears on maintenance and a lot of other things, but it was the Trump plane, and there it was at dusk coming into the Des Moines airport. And there were all kinds of Des Moines and Iowa residents out there slack-jawed just saying, oh my God, look at that, he’s got his own big airplane he got off. So he played perfectly to the current environment about what you can get away with.
THOMAS: In a way that Nixon couldn’t just because he just—
BROKAW: Nixon couldn’t have—wouldn’t have done that, for one thing. But Trump, whatever opportunity he had to do that kind of thing, he would do it in a heartbeat.
THOMAS: So Trump is effectively using the establishment press or the legacy press as his foil. Do you think the legacy press ought to be doing something different?
BROKAW: You know, I’m looking at some books that are being written by the current press corps, and a couple of them are pretty good. But at the same time, at the end of the day what they’re doing is they’re playing right into his game. You know, he is using—he’s teeing—he’s teeing them up, how can I trust you, and saying to his audience effectively over their heads: you wouldn’t want to listen to this guy; he’s a liar. And the language that he uses is astonishing.
Look, I come from a working-class background and I’ve spent a lot of time in bars in my day, and I’m no prude. But I think the president of the United States ought to have a little better vocabulary for just dealing with routine exchanges with people. But he understands it works for him.
You know, having spent as much time as I had growing up out there, but now we’re back in Montana again, I’ve got a guy in Wyoming that—I’m not going to tell you who he is. It wouldn’t make any difference. I don’t think you would know. But he has real roots in Wyoming. He was former speaker of the House of the Wyoming state representatives He has a newspaper in a fairly prosperous little town. And in that part of the world, men have groups where they have coffee together. Women as well, but men it’s always been a fixed part. Businessmen get together one day a week and chew things over. So his group is called the Batting Box because there were nine of them, and they would meet on Saturdays. And he was gung-ho for Trump at the beginning. Then he began to dial down, and then he began to dial down more. He still says, however, he’s my president because he’s a conservative and he’s got policies that we want. It’s not any of these people on the other side.
So that’s the other thing that you have to remember, is that this is not just an automatic transfer or something. They don’t like what they’re seeing on the Democratic Party side. And they’ll stay with Trump even though they have real reservations about some of his behavior, but they think they can live though it because, as they say, conservative economic policies mean a lot to us out here.
THOMAS: I want to stick with the press again because this is your world; you’re from it. Is there something they should be doing differently? Is there something that the heads of NBC, the heads of CBS, the heads of the New York Times ought to be doing differently to deal with this?
BROKAW: Yeah, they ought to get the hell out of New York more often, frankly. One of the things I say to my—and they are my friends, and we work together on MSNBC—you know, Iowa is coming up very quickly. So I’m listening to the guys who spend their weekends out in the Hamptons. Why am I listening to them? (Laughter.) You know, why don’t you have the editor of a small-town newspaper? Iowa has got at least one newspaper that has won a Pulitzer and a couple of others as well that have done really smart things in the coverage. Let’s get them on the air. I want to see a guy who’s sitting on a tractor and he’s worried about what’s going to go on with grain sales to China. I don’t see him. I see the same old cast.
And this, by the way, is true across the board. It’s true on CNN and it’s true, as well, on Fox. They’ve got their own little team. They don’t come from out there. You know, they’ve got them teed up so they can be in the makeup room on time and be on the air on time and support the president. So it’s more—there’s more consolidation than in my lifetime about who we’re hearing from, and I think it’s a huge mistake.
And so one of the things that I try to do is to go out there and listen to other people and see what they’re having to say. In the last election, a month before the election itself the principal strategist for Hillary Clinton told me Trump ought to not even consider going to Pennsylvania; it’s over, we’ve got it, it’s locked up. The last night before the election, they had everybody that they could find—Bruce Springsteen, everybody else—in Pennsylvania trying to save the place. And they didn’t, obviously. But there were a lot of people who knew what was going on in the upper part of Michigan and other places, and they were listening and looking at their—at their polls and their stats. And the people who are not out there touching real people and listening to them, that’s—I think that’s the big thing.
And just one other thing in that regard. Real people—and I don’t mean that in a kind of critical way—but real people have access to the same tools as the elitists do now. They’ve got the iPhones and iPads and they—you know, they’re connected in a way. They’re quite sophisticated in what they’re doing and they’re not going to get rolled. You know, in the old days of machines they could just punch a button in Chicago and they could turn out a thousand voters because they were part of the system. That’s not true anymore. You know, people make their own judgments and they have access to the things that can provide that for them.
THOMAS: I want to go back in time a little bit because you’re the ultimate inside now. I mean, here we are. But you weren’t in—in 1972-73, you were a kid from Dakota, you know? You were—
BROKAW: I was in California.
THOMAS: And you were in—you were in California—(laughter)—even further out. And yet, you’re coming into this world of the East Coast establishment right to the dead hot center. What was that like for you as an outsider coming in?
BROKAW: Well, it was a little surprising because in California—and this is—I do have an opportunity to be immodest from time to time; this is one of them—I was well known in California as a good political reporter. You know, my friends were from the East Coast as well—Bob Novak, David Broder. They would call up—they would get to California and call me up and say, hey, can we have a lunch? Bring me up to date what’s going on here. And I would go to Washington a couple times a year and do stuff there.
But, boy, it is—(laughs)—a tough, tough crowd to come in as an outsider. And immediately, Ken Clawson, who saw me saw me in the front says, oh, he’s just another pretty boy from California. You know, kind of knocked me down. And then I knocked a couple stories out of the park in the first couple of weeks. And the first one to call me was Bob Woodward. And we’d become friends—we became friends on the spot. Stayed friends after that. And then I had a really big break in a story. And there was a man by the name of Peter Lisagor, that some of you in this room will remember, who was the best reporter in Washington, and the wisest guy. And he took me lunch. And, I’m so flattered. And he said, oh, hell, it has nothing to do with that. We’re trying to find new members for this club, and I figured you were a television guy you got the money. (Laughter.)
So you know, it was—it was a little tough at the beginning. Some of the White House correspondents, a small clique of them, wrote to the president of NBC News and said: He’s not qualified to be one of us. This is the same group that got rolled by Nixon, by the way, during Watergate. So I wasn’t too hurt by that. By the end, it was great. We all got along and, you know, I thought I earned by stripes, but I wasn’t above anybody. There was just a lot—a lot of stuff to do, and I was able to do it.
THOMAS: But you were actually talking to Woodward as a friend, but you knew some of what Woodward was up to, right? I mean, I had the sense that there’s sort of two levels here. One is what you say on the nightly news from your standup, which you seem to be objective and not to get too far ahead of the story. But there’s another level, where you’re talking to reporter behind the scenes, your friend Woodward, you’re comparing notes. You know things that you’re actually broadcasting. You have heard things that you’re not broadcasting. There are two levels here. That it, seems to me, has broken down.
BROKAW: Yeah, it doesn’t exist anymore.
THOMAS: It’s—you go straight on.
BROKAW: No. And, in fact, a couple of the younger correspondents in the White House press corps called me and said: How did it work when you were here? And I said, well, we talked to each other, the correspondents did. And we tried to get a common point of view on complex issues. You know, do I have this right? No, you’re going in the wrong direction here. I remember that I could call Bob. I didn’t know Carl as well then. But I could call Bob. And I said, Bob, this makes no sense. And he said, I agree. But he said, here’s something we probably both ought to look at. He would help out. And it was not just Bob. For me, it was everybody also doing the same thing in the press corps, frankly.
THOMAS: But that’s not even possible today because of Twitter, because it all gets out there.
BROKAW: Yeah. Everybody—before the press briefing, everybody’s on Twitter. And they’re not dealing with it in an objective way. They’re really dealing with it to look at me, look at me. That’s the other issue for me is that, you know, when I hear—when I hear something from you, I want to hear it from you because I think you’ve got something fresh, and interesting, and authentic. Don’t bother me with your musing that is going on.
THOMAS: This is a genie we can’t put back in the bottle though, right? I mean, because of modern technology, we can’t go back to a day where—
BROKAW: Oh, no. It’s—I just think that it’s here to stay. And as I said a few moments ago, Trump is a perfect instrument for all that. And it was a perfect instrument for Trump, frankly, to use that. I’m not sure he understood that at the beginning. I think he always understood the importance of getting on the air, whatever it takes. Whatever you need to do to get on the air. And you know, I’ve watched him do that here in this town a lot. Stories I tell friends out there, that they say: What was he like? And I said, I’ll tell you what he was like. If there was a big, big benefit of some kind Trump would show up with his little posse. Got $200,000 from the Trump organization. Never saw the money. I know for a fact we didn’t see the money in a lot of these instances. People were left holding the bag. And he worked the system. I mean, we’ve got a long tradition in this country. P.T. Barnum and, you know, everybody else who was doing that kind of thing. (Laughter.)
THOMAS: Well, let’s try to think for a second now like journalists, but politicians. So you’re Nancy Pelosi. And you have to make a decision here about whether to try to get this quick and dirty, get it over with fast, let it go to the Senate, make it go away, or do you actually send out the subpoenas, get the courts involved, let the impeachment process drag on, as it inevitably would, but really make an effort to get it all out over time? It looks like she’s chosen the former, let’s do it fast, get it done by Christmas, get it all done. Is that the right choice? Or should she let it—should she let it—should she let it drag out?
BROKAW: I think she’s in a terrible spot, frankly. My own—this is my own personal judgement. I don’t think they quite have enough on him to get it through the Senate, with the assurance that they’re going to get a guilty verdict. I think that the Republicans have done a very good job of pushing back. You know, I keep saying: You got to get his hands down in his bank account. When he pulls them out, we know a lot more about how he’s moving money around and what he was doing for personal reasons. I just think they’re a dollar short at this point in the impeachment proceeding. And you look at the polls in Milwaukee and other places in the last week or so, and the country kind of feels that way as well. Ukraine? Where is Ukraine? And then, no, no, he didn’t say it that way. And the Republican side, they’re—you know, they’re pretty damn effective about how they bounce back, and come at the Democrats who are saying that.
So I—and, you know, this is a personal impression on my part. I have no authentic way of certifying that this is what she must do. I think it’s a tough call for her. You know, I don’t envy her. I think that she’s played her side really skillfully. She’s given to the—you know, to the people who want to move on fast enough room to pursue what their objectives are. But at the same time, she’s kind of said, well, we have to know what we’re doing and where this is going to end up. I don’t know. And I’m not—I’m not in the business of saying that I know, even though a lot of people in business say that all day long: I know how it’s going to turn out.
THOMAS: Well, you do actually—the last—I believe, from reading your book—you asked the last question of Richard Nixon as president in a press conference in the spring of 1974. And the question, as I recall, was: In an impeachment proceeding, does the president still have executive privilege? Does it—in an impeachment proceeding, can the president still claim executive immunity and privilege? And the Supreme Court answer—the Supreme Court later answered, well, actually not, U.S. versus Nixon. So the question is, do you think that legally if they sent out the subpoenas, the courts would vindicate those subpoenas and the pressure would be on—is that even—is that a viable route?
BROKAW: Well, I think that those subpoenas have to be foolproof in terms of what they’re asking for and what the—the whole country’s the jury. It’s not just the Senate, frankly. You know, the whole country will be looking in on this. And they’ll have more access than they’ve ever had before, to go back to what I was saying earlier. They’ll be able to punch in, and they’ll be flooded with the Republican point of view: This doesn’t hold up. This is a subpoena, but here are the fault lines in this subpoena. And the question that I asked—we were—he kept claiming executive privilege. I’m not a judicial scholar but, you know, when I started to pay attention—when I was an undergraduate I was paying a lot more attention to what was going on in that arena.
And I said—I had a really good researcher. I said, I wonder if you can claim executive privilege if it’s an impeachment proceeding. And immediately we started canvassing conservative law professors across America. And they all said the same thing: No. You know, if it’s an impeachment proceeding, executive privilege doesn’t have application. So some of you will remember this for one very specific reason. We were in Houston. And Dan and I were the last two network correspondents. It was primarily a situation where local reporters were going to be asking questions, and if they got stuck they would come to Dan or me.
I’m sitting there with this hot question that I really want to get out. And Dan gets called first. He doesn’t have it quite as tied up as I did, but he was close. I mean, he was saying, in effect, how can you turn him down without knowing? And I didn’t know whether they would get to me or not, and then they did. And that’s when I said, you know, the judicial scholars across America will say that you cannot claim executive privilege in a—in an impeachment proceeding. So aren’t you either misleading the American public or outright deceiving them?
And the next day—and he gave that—he went back to executive privilege again. The next Ron Ziegler saw me he said, you can’t challenge the president like that. I said, Ron, what do you think I’m doing? That’s why I’m here. (Laughter.) You know, that’s what I do. I’ll tell you one quick anecdotal story about that as well in a moment. But anyhow, it was true. And so you know, when the time came the Supreme Court agreed that he couldn’t apply protection.
The story about Ron Ziegler is that I had known Ron Ziegler and Bob Haldeman in California before I came to Washington. They were running J. Walter Thompson, the ad agency. And they were doing promotions that included me at NBC. So I don’t know, in January or February I got a call from Ron. And he had really moved himself up in the lineup for Nixon. He had been not a successful press secretary, then he became a political advisor, and he was more and more involved in strategies in terms of what they were going to do. So he called me and said: Let’s go have lunch, Brokaw. And I could tell by his tone that he was not happy. So we go to a very popular place across the from the White House, Sans Souci.
And we’re sitting there. I always remember that he—I have this kind of quirky memory—he ordered veal piccata and two scotch Rob Roys. And he looked at me and he said: We’re so disappointed in you. I said, what do you mean “we’re so disappointed”? What are you talking about? (Laughter.) He said, well, we thought you’d have a fresh approach when you came here, but you’ve just fallen in with that Georgetown crowd again. I said, Ron, it’s not the Georgetown crowd, or me, or any other crowd. It’s what’s going on in the White House that we’re talking about, what we’re dealing with. So there was this fairly sharp exchange.
And Paul, the maître d' dropped a note on the table for me. And before I could get it, Ron got it. And picked it up. And he said, I rest my case. And it said, hey, kid, I guess this means you’re not coming to Hickory Hill for dinner tonight, love Ethel. It was Ethel Kennedy. (Laughter.) I wasn’t going to dinner there that night. I had not been invited. But she knew how to stir things up. (Laughter.) Actually it broke the tension. And Ron laughed hard. And he said, I rest my case. And then we walked back to the—back to the White House.
He was a true believer, right to the end, you know? It was hard on him. I mean, he ended up dying before he should have because he had a drinking problem by then. And there was a lot of collateral damage in that group, frankly. Not just the people who went to jail, but others who believed in him. I saw one, I don’t know about a year ago maybe, who was kind of a second-level Nixon aide. He was a car driver and an advance man. And we started talking about Nixon. And he said—I was actually working on the book at the time.
I said, you know, there was so much stuff. And he looked at me and he said: Tom, remember, he was a great man. I said, I’m sorry, great men don’t do what he did. I mean, the fact is that he was a complicated man. He had a wide range of political understanding. But at the end of the day, as you have written so brilliantly, he was a paranoid guy who just couldn’t come to grips with people who didn’t see the world he did. And he always felt under assault, I think it’s fair to say.
THOMAS: He was able to count votes, and he did have the good sense at the end not to even—remember, he was not impeached. They were starting to vote on impeachment when he resigned, and it never got to the Senate. What would it take Trump to step down, to go away? How much—what would have to happen?
BROKAW: Yeah, I don’t want to try to get inside his head, because I don’t know what I would find there for one thing. (Laughter.) I think it just has to be prima facia that we got him, you know, this is—he’s parked money overseas, you know, that he did this deal with a Ukrainian guy who bailed him out and put the money somewhere in Saudi Arabia. It’s going to have to be that kind of absolutely clear violation of any—so everybody understands what it is. And I think if it comes to that, my guess is that it will be something financial. I mean, that drives him, about who he is. You know, when you say to people—they say, well, he’s so rich. I say, so rich he’s gone broke on everything that he’s done, frankly. And we don’t know. We don’t know what his—what his account shows now, frankly. We don’t know how much of what he’s got, frankly, is tied up in debt at some point. And he doesn’t want it out.
I do think we have to come in this country to two kind of requirements, and maybe even codify them. One is, we need to have the president’s medical records, so the people know what they are before they vote for him. And it has to be done by a neutral physician or a medical team of some kind. And the other one is we need to know what their financial arrangements are. And not just in a trust fund of some kind. What do they have and where is it? And the country deserves to know that.
I was just reading a little bit about Harry Truman, David’s book. And I was struck by the fact that Truman went to Chicago to try to—I can’t remember who he was backing when he was running in ’48. But he had Ed Pauley, how was a huge California oil man, who flew in ahead of him and said: Sit down. You’re running for president. You know, that’s how it ran in those days. Well, you don’t want to go back to that. Here’s Ed Pauley, the biggest oil man on the West Coast dictating who’s going to run for president. But I do think that we have to have a lot more transparency than we have.
THOMAS: Let’s open it up to all of you for questions.
BROKAW: Or if you have answers. (Laughter.)
THOMAS: Bob Rubin, in the back. Why don’t you wait for just a second and grab the mic? Thanks.
Q: Tom, you’ve seen a lot of the world. If you look forward ten years, what do you think our political system and our country will be like? Well, what—(laughs)—in the sense of probability is likelihood as to what our country and our political system will be like?
THOMAS: The question is, what is our political—ten years from now, what’s our political system going to look like?
BROKAW: Boy, that’s a good question, Bob. I don’t know. I think that it’s being reinvented every day. A lot of the assumptions that this crowd has, as I look at you, you know, I don’t know how they could be sustained, about what we have believed about an orderly process, even though we go through difficult times. We know—I don’t know, I think probably a lot of you have been reading about this new phrase from younger people when they talk to Baby Boomers, “Hey, Boomer.”
THOMAS: OK, Boomer. OK, Boomer.
BROKAW: OK, Boomer, right. OK, Boomer. And it’s kind of, pfft, what do you know?
THOMAS: OK, Boomer.
BROKAW: Yeah, OK, Boomer. And you got to—that’s going to be part of the play, frankly, is what does this new generation—highly educated, a lot of them made a lot of money—what do they want the political process to look like? And I think there has to be an evaluation of that at some point. I think the core obviously will stay, because of the founding fathers and what it was that they had in mind. A lot of it was genius. The electoral college, I think, is going to get kind of roughed up in the next couple of years probably because of the disparity between population and where they’re located. But by and large, you know, the system worked for us.
And it really depends on good people. And it also depends not just on good people running for office, it depends on strong, good advisory groups that get behind candidates, so they just don’t put their head in the sand. I’m really struck by the fact that none of the Republicans in the—in the Senate have raised even the slightest doubt that they want to. I know that it’s strategic, that they’re trying to say we’re not going to let this guys get at us. But at the same time, anytime one of them does that, they get their heads blown off almost immediately. And we need to have a more vigorous dialogue about where we’re going.
And even on the personal behavior of the president. You know, the fact of the matter is, look, I grew up in a blue collar, working-class family, you know, and was in locker rooms a lot of my life. And I’ve been around a lot of tough language. But this is the president of the United States. And the way he talks about people, and how he characterizes what we’re going through is not a good thing, in my judgement. And it has nothing to do with my age. It has really to do with what I want the country to be.
THOMAS: We’ve always assumed—we’ve always assumed that democracy is going to survive. Has this—in the last year or two, has this shaken you at all, and your faith that liberal democracy is going to survive?
BROKAW: Not yet. But I can see where it could lead to some doubt about it, depending on how it ends. We don’t know how it’s going to end, frankly, and we don’t know what desperate people will do at the end. And I think that’s the real test.
THOMAS: Do you think that if Trump is subpoenaed—let’s say there are subpoenas and the Supreme Court upholds those subpoenas. Do you think he will obey them?
BROKAW: I don’t know. I never know what he’s going to do from moment to moment, quite honestly. He’ll do what he wants to do. He’ll listen to no one. That’s what we’ve learned so far, is that he’ll just do whatever the hell he wants to do. And that’s also dangerous.
THOMAS: I guess the key is really whether the public will, if he disobeys the subpoenas, whether the public will turn against him.
BROKAW: Some of them won’t, frankly. Some of them won’t. You know, I don’t spend all my time in pool halls and beer joints in the west, but I do have enough friends out there who are fishermen, and hunters, and other people that, you know, I’ve known for a long, long time. And, boy, a lot of them are for him primarily because of the economy. Primarily—oh, I don’t like it, but boy are we doing well in our company, or whatever.
Q: Cathy Gay.
Two questions for you. One is, what do you think of Bloomberg? And who would you put your money on for the Democratic candidate? (Laughter.) And two is, I don’t know how to frame it, but just anything you can say about the Evangelicals for Trump.
BROKAW: Well, I’ll take the second half of that first. (laughter.) I’m not surprised about the Evangelicals for him. I think that they see themselves as outliers, if you will, in the American population and culture. You know, that they’re proud of who they are for their beliefs, and they feel like they’ve been mocked by them. And they think that this president is carrying, if you will, their water, in a way, by giving the back of his hand to the people who don’t. I don’t know how much the monetary thing fits into it, but if you look at those Sunday morning programs where they’re always asking for money and so on, that obviously drives a lot of that population.
Mike, look, I’ve never bet against him, but this is a long, hard throw that he’s involved in here. I’ve been talking to him a little bit earlier, but a lot of the people who have been advising him. And I thought he wouldn’t get in because he said what was my core belief. He said: I’m a hero in New York. I go through the Holland Tunnel and I’m a five-foot six-inch Jew with a lot of money. (Laughter.) And that’s how people will see me. And I thought, well, if he acknowledges that and see is that way, because I think there is a lot to that, then he won’t. But he’s always played with the possibility as part of his—part of his strategy of they’re going to be looking for somebody before the end. And no one has the kind of record that I do, or is willing to put the money up that I am.
So you know, like everything else, we’ll see. Meredith Brokaw is in the room tonight. So she’s been tired of hearing this for a lot of years. My great operating theory has always been—and I stole this from a Time Magazine reporter. He called it the UFO theory—the unforeseen will occur. I don’t know what that is. But something’s going to happen between now and the election of one kind or another. Donald Trump was a UFO, frankly, doing as well as he did. No one saw that one coming. So there will be other aspects of it. And by the way, what we can’t ignore, the world is in play.
I just got back from Germany, where I was there thirty years ago when the wall came down. And Germany is, you know, on fire economically and culturally. But all around it—in Poland and in Hungary—there’s a lot of anxiety and a lot of anger about the—about the refugees who were coming from the Middle East and, you know, they’ve gone very conservative. They’re not as much interested, obviously, in the old concept of the Western alliance of some kind. So there are a lot of pieces that are in play here. And I don’t know how it’s going to turn out. You know, Putin’s best at causing havoc. He’s not best at creating an economy. But he is great at doing what he does. I believe that Trump likes him because he’s, God, I’d like to be like him. You know, why do I have to put up with all this democracy, kind of stuff. So there are parts that are unsettling.
I’m saying all of this in the presence of Dr. Kissinger. (Laughter.) And I ought to be, you know, taking his.
Q: Stephen Blank.
In talking about the future of democracy, you emphasize personalities, good people. What about institutional arrangements? You’ve been around for a long time. What institutional changes might we see in the governments, governments of the United States, that would facilitate the recreation of a more liberal, open democracy?
BROKAW: I’m not sure that they’ll go hard liberal. I do think that our financial and cultural institutions should get more credit than they do for what they—the contributes they make to society. All the big financial institutions that I’m aware of really do invest in society with education, and opportunities for people who don’t have as much. I don’t think that they get quite enough credit, because everybody just looks at them and just says, well, they’re just rich. But I was—I made a couple pitches to these institutions. I have an association with Arizona State University, in which I wrote—I guess it was in a speech.
And the president now, a very innovative guy. And I said, we need to work harder at public service concepts within the institution of universities. And he said, I’m your guy. We’re starting a center for public service. We’ll make it a degree at Arizona State. They’ve done a phenomenally good job of doing that. So I, you know, went around town and talked to banks and other financial institutions. And we got some money, not as much as I’d like, but they were all invested in other kinds of social enterprises of one kind or another. So there is that activity going on out there.
I do think—I don’t believe, and it’s—you know, as I said earlier, I came from a—you know, my dad was a blue-collar worker who got thrown out of his family when he was in the third grade to kind of make a living. But he never, ever complained about people who made more money than he did.
And when I started to make money there was, really, a hilarious exchange between the two of us. He called one time—he had a great sense of humor—and he said, I’m reading about your salary. I said, yeah, Dad, we’ve—he said, yeah, but is this true? And I said, well, why are you asking me now? You’ve never asked me before. He said, well, because as long as I’ve known you, you’ve always run a little short at the end of the year and I need to know how much to set aside for you this year. (Laughter.)
And it was a perfect response, frankly, to me. But I don’t think, frankly, that there are people out there saying, so they’ve got a billion dollars. I hate them. You know, I think that that moneyed class has to work harder at presenting themselves in different ways. But institutions do as well and they can’t pretend they’re not part of a society.
THOMAS: Right there.
Q: Henry Breed.
You spoke about the role and the personal resources of smaller media, particularly in the center and the west of the country. But many of those smaller media organizations are really struggling now. What advice would you have for them?
BROKAW: Well, that’s a problem. There’s a lot of consolidation going on. Sioux Falls, South Dakota—now, I haven’t lived in South Dakota for fifty years but I still stay in touch and they keep me posted on it. The biggest newspaper in the state is now owned by, I think, three different entities and it was really tricky to try to figure out where they came from. One of them was Gannett. Meredith was on the board of that for a while.
So, one, Buffett invested, you know, in small newspapers. But he wouldn’t invest over circulation of, like, ten thousand because at that circulation level people want to read about the high school sports, they want to read the obituaries, and they want to read about the good deals that they could get at the Hy-Vee Drug—I mean, Supermarket. But he said, when you get beyond that, he said, you’re spending money which you’re not going to get a return on.
So I don’t think that the newspaper business has a revival of any kind. I will tell you that there are good newspapers out there that are unconventional. They’re not part of the old Yankton Press& Dakotan concept, for example. You knew, they’ve come online and they’re doing things that people respond to because it’s something that they can’t get elsewhere.
So I’m primarily worried, however, about the electronic piece of it, you know, because, plainly, that’s where we’re going.
Q: John (sp) Austin.
Mr. Brokaw, how do you distinguish between news and entertainment, particularly as it relates to cable news? For example, if you turned on the channel at 4:00 and there are three issues and they are covering these three issues and you hear the commentator turn around and say, now I want to talk to my experts, these are the same experts that are on TV every day who, in my opinion, don’t offer any particular insight beyond the top line. So how do you evaluate the people who deliver it and where you get your news from?
BROKAW: Well, that’s tough. I mean, I agree with you and I’ve said earlier that we see the same faces day in and day out and we don’t know what their experiences are. I think that off to the side it wouldn’t hurt to have a little kind of run down, if you will. This is Susan Jones, a graduate of Yale Law School, and worked for two years on Wall Street and has a foundation going in her home in West Virginia, and then we hear from her on whatever is going on. I’m making this up as I go along. We need to know more about who they are and where they came from, and we see the same ones night after night after night after night.
At Fox, they made no effort to disguise this. This is who they are. You know, they’re going to go hard. I think MSNBC is, obviously, liberal but not quite as outspokenly liberal as others. CNN is a mix. But mostly it depends on the viewers. Mostly it depends on all of us to say, heard that, done that. Click. Not going there.
You know, that’s really what it takes. My line to an audience is always if we spent a fraction of the time on determining where we get our news as we do on buying a new stereo or a car or something, we’d invest more of our effort in that than where we get our news and I—you know, I’m whistling in the dark on that. It’s not going to happen. People are not going to go make that real effort.
Entertainment has always been part of the news. You know, even in the New York Times you’ll find those stories on the front page that, you know, grab your attention not because they’re going to change your life but because they’re interesting and they’re fun and they’re entertaining. That’s why they have a sports department. That’s why they have an arts department. You know, we don’t—in the news business we don’t ask people to hold out their hands so we can just slap them with a paddle of some kind. You know, this is stuff we think you should know and need to know. But at the same time, we need to get you through the door.
Q: Tom, good to see you. Roland Paul, a lawyer.
I think the Mueller report confirmed that the Russians tried to influence the 2016 election. To what extent do you think they determined the 2016 election and do you expect that they will try again in 2020?
BROKAW: I think the second part of it is easy. I think they’ll try again. I don’t know how much they did before. I have a very close friend, very conservative guy—very conservative guy—and he’s a Republican who’s been in the system for a long time, and he believes that the liberals—that the Democrats have a greater operation in place on meddling with elections than the Republicans do. There are all these systems that they drop the names of and nobody has really been able to get at it, take it apart, look at it again.
I believe it’s probably worth having some kind of almost a SEC organization and we’re going to get Republicans and the Democrats alike to look at how we have been manipulated by foreign powers and what we could do to stop it. But I think you have to have some nonpartisan high-ended group doing that.
The other problem is, quite honestly, is that in all of these developments that have come along, just as you think you’ve got them figured out, the brainy little kids are moving ahead of you. They’re out there and they’re inventing the other system that’s going to get out there ahead of it, and that’s going on as you and I sit here and talk. They’re at home and they’re, you know, manipulating whatever they need to do. You know, I’m just happy when I get my iPhone turned on and it gets to the place that I want to. (Laughter.)
I was just—I was just saying that I was in Germany and I met this young man who—my team over there said, you got to meet this guy and see what he’s doing. So he has developed—and this is fairly rudimentary but it was also—tells you about where they are. He had a—like, a larger iPad and he pointed it at the site of the Berlin Wall and how it exists now—what it looks like, and so I could look on the screen and look—yeah, that’s what it looks like. And then he hits another button. The wall came up and how it looked then, you know, and what it was like. Just bang, bang, bang.
That kind of thing is going on constantly and he invented that particular phase of how you were changing things. So this generation, which lives in that world and has invented it, you know, is constantly—sometimes for their own amusement, sometimes for financial reasons, and other times just to be mischievous, or worse—are trying to find ways to distort how we get our information. I think it’s the single greatest challenge that we have in the world today. I really do.
Q: Hi. Charles Henderson.
Tom, do you think the evening news at 6:30 for the three major networks will continue to exist for the foreseeable future and, if not or if so, what would be the evolution? Either them getting replaced with what or would they evolve into something else?
BROKAW: I’m sorry. I got—missed the middle.
THOMAS: Will the—will the 6:30—any of the three networks still—will that go on?
Q: Yeah. Will that go on either in its current phase or will it be just phased out and replaced with some other programming?
BROKAW: No, it’s already—it’s fading and it’s—you know, it doesn’t mean that it’s the end of the world, by any means. A lot of it is attuned to demographics. You probably look for the evening news. You know, your children don’t look for the evening news. They don’t need—well, why would I do that? I’ve got ba, ba, boom. Here. It’s right here.
Brian Williams does very well at 11:00 at night on the tail end of what’s gone on on MSNBC all day long and it’s, in effect, the new kind of evening news at 11:00. At 6:30, now, the three networks—ABC, NBC, and CBS—are struggling to find a formula that people want to watch and which is fresh.
I think they have to be bold. I think that they have to say, we’re going to show you things that you didn’t see elsewhere. But they end up repeating everything that you’ve seen all day long on cable television. I know from my personal experience and other—for other reasons how much interest there is in health in America and the development—I’m a cancer patient, you know. And if you said we’ve got the best cancer reporters in the world, they’re going to be on once a week; they’ll talk about different cancers, what families are going through now, aging families, what they’re going through with Alzheimer’s; and then families that have children who have been born with things—and so that’s not on every night, but there are extraordinarily important developments out there in all these fields and they get very, very little attention.
I’m not sure you can make it work economically but I think that they’ve got to not show me Cuba Gooding one more time groping some woman on a subway somewhere. I just don’t need to see that on the evening news. (Laughter.)
Q: Elliot Cosgrove.
Do you think with the passing of the Greatest Generation that we’ve lost our shared national narrative or do you feel that we ever had a shared national narrative to begin with?
BROKAW: I think probably on the latter half of your question you were more right. When I wrote The Greatest Generation there was resistance in my family and also at Random House. You can’t—you know, that’s going a little too far. I said no, it’s the big picture. And that’s what I’m saying. I’m not saying everybody was perfect, but I do think that there was a commonality about what we went through.
Danny Inouye would always say, before he died, that was the last time we were one, and he would take, you know, that one hand up that he had. And I must say I didn’t think it would become part of the language as it has. You know, I take a certain amount of pride in that. But, mostly, it’s a tribute to those people and what they went through. Came out of the Depression, fought the war, came home, and never talked about it.
I’ll just tell you, quickly, one of my—got a lot of funny stories about it and also telling stories. I lived on a government base after the war. We lived on an Army base during the war and afterward there was a Corps of Engineers town that was built in the middle of nowhere in South Dakota to build a huge dam, and almost all the employees came were veterans of one kind or another and they never talked about it. But they did everything. They were the American Legion. You know, the baseball team, a picnic. Whatever that was needed they were there. Never talked about it.
There was this really winning guy who came to fix your furnace and his name was Gordon Larson. He was cheerful and he had a pocketful of Tootsie Rolls every day. And my mother worked at the post office. She was behind the window. It was the morning after Halloween and Gordon came in and mildly said, oh, God, those high school kids last night were kind of out of control. My mother says, oh, come on, Gordon. What were you doing when you were seventeen? And he said, I was landing in Guadalcanal. Turned around and walked out. (Laughter.) This was some time ago.
So when I started to write the book I called Mother and I said, where do you think Gordon Larson is? My mother and I had a kind of wavelength in which we operated and she said, you’re going to—you want to write about him, right? I said, I do. We have to find him because I want to find out more about his story.
So we found him. I called and I left a number in Idaho. He was working on another big dam project up there, and I said, Gordon, it’s Tom Brokaw. Call me back. I want to talk to you about something. The next day the phone rang. It was Gordon. He said, Tommy, why would you call me? My God, I haven’t seen you in forty years. Why would you call me? I said, well, Gordon, I’m writing about the war. Long pause. He said, I never talk about it. And I went to a bar and they were talking about it. I knew they hadn’t been there, so I just never talked about it. I watched my brother die on the beach at Bougainville. Another just long pause, and I said, Gordon, are you OK? Are you still there? And he said, yeah, but I just realized I’m paying for this phone call. (Laughter.)
That’s who they were. (Laughter.) That was, for me, the summary thing. I said, hang up. I’ll call you right back. You know, and it was those kinds of values that came out of the Depression. They fought the war. They came back and they had a life they never expected that they could have with decent houses and good wages and their kids were going to go to college.
In that town that I just described they were building the biggest dam in the world of its kind at the time, and when we moved there, my dad was going to go to work on it. It was, I mean, unbelievably barren in the middle of South Dakota. A group of just river bluffs where Lewis and Clark had gone through wild country. My dad said they’re going to build a house—build a town here to house three thousand people. In two years we’re going to live there. And I said—I was six years old. I said, that’s not possible.
We were living in a duplex in two years, and the people came from all over America to build that town and to build that dam. And they had enormous pride in what they were doing, and there was no punching back and forth between Democrats and Republicans about—we’re just going to get the job done, because they came out of the can-do generation.
We have reunions from time to time. None of the people that I knew, with the exception of about eight engineers on the project, had a college degree. Everybody else was working class. In my dad’s case, if it had an engine he could run it and if it was broken he could fix it, whatever it took, and everybody was like that.
So we go back, the next generation down, and not just me but there are lawyers and engineers and dentists and doctors and it’s a portrait of what happened in that generation. And so that’s what motivated me to write about it at the time, and I must say I can’t go through an airport in America—it’s been—it was 1999 when I wrote the book—without someone coming up and saying, I’m one of them. And they’re now ninety-eight years old or a hundred years old. But they’re quiet. They’re modest about it. They’re not punching their chests, you know, and then they just kind of move on. So of all the things I’ve done journalistically, nothing quite, for me, is as important as having done that.
THOMAS: I think we should end there.
BROKAW: Thank you. (Applause.) Thank you.
THOMAS: Thank you, Tom.