Down the home stretch Brokaw offers inside look at campaign for the presidency By: Randy Dockendorf
Yankton Media, Inc. The nation is at war, the economy is in turmoil and the country is polarized into the right and the left. Does this describe the 2008 presidential election between Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain? Perhaps â�?�? but it also describes the 1960s, which ripped the nation apart in many ways, former NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw told a University of South Dakota audience Tuesday. Important lessons can be learned from the 1960s that can be used today, the Yankton native and USD graduate told a packed audience of about 250 at the Al Neuharth Media Center. Brokaw, now the moderator of NBCâ�?�?s Meet the Press, spoke on â�?�?Campaigns, Citizens, Challenges.â�? â�?�?This (current era) reminds me of fall 1960, which was a transformational time,â�? he said. â�?�?It was a new generation of Americans.â�? Now, Americans find themselves filled with uncertainty, Brokaw said. â�?�?These are disquieting times. I can never remember the nation with such a crisis of confidence,â�? he said. â�?�?We wonder what happened to the Terra Firma of life. Can it be recovered?â�? The current presidential campaign allows Americans to take stock, Brokaw said. â�?�?Itâ�?�?s an assessment of our lives and what our priorities should be,â�? he said. â�?�?Whoever wins next Tuesday faces the most daunting opening act of any president in my lifetime.â�? On the one hand is the economic downturn, he said. â�?�?The stock market is in a free fall. Itâ�?�?s at warp speed,â�? he said. â�?�?What is a derivative? Itâ�?�?s hard to explain. But there is a ripple effect across the country thatâ�?�?s not yet done.â�? Then there is the war on terrorism and threats from abroad, he said. â�?�?We are in two wars, in two countries, not yet resolved,â�? he said. â�?�?In Afghanistan, things have gotten worse, not better than a year ago. Iraq is slightly better, but there is not a bright light at the end of the tunnel. There is a glimmer as Iraq takes over its own security. But the Islamic rage has not gone away.â�? That rage translates into jihad, or a holy war, against the West, he said. â�?�?There is no holier mission in life (for the terrorists) than throwing their bodies against what we hold dear,â�? such as democracy, womenâ�?�?s rights and the rule of law, he said. Americans need to bridge their divisiveness to find solutions as a nation, Brokaw said. â�?�?We have to find a way to deal with it. It seems we are at a passage in American life,â�? he said. â�?�?We have to find a way for continuing a national dialogue, what we are and what our priorities need to be.â�? That means changing the political warfare that has polarized the nation, he said. â�?�?We need to turn down the temperature and stop the ideological food fights,â�? he said. â�?�?You donâ�?�?t need to give up what you believe in, but you need to put first the greater good,â�? he said. The nation has undergone such trauma before in the 1960s, Brokaw said. The Tet offensive by the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong caused many Americans to re-examine that war â�?�? and President Lyndon Johnson to withdraw his 1968 re-election bid, he said. In the Democratic presidential race, Robert F. Kennedy (RFK) won the June primary in California. The victory made him the main opponent to the party establishment at the national convention in Chicago, Brokaw said. But RFK was gunned down in Los Angeles by Sirhan Sirhan, upset over RFKâ�?�?s remarks about the role of Palestinians in the Middle East, Brokaw said. â�?�?And the year wasnâ�?�?t half over. We had Chicago to go,â�? Brokaw said. Republican Richard Nixon eventually won the election with a coalition of Western states, the South and the â�?�?Silent Majority,â�? Brokaw said. Nixon pledged to bring Americans together, â�?�?but the nation became deeply divided over the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal that almost brought down the presidency itself,â�? Brokaw said. Meanwhile, America was undergoing great cultural changes, including the civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King, Brokaw said. Nearly four decades later, the impact remains felt in the 2008 presidential race, Brokaw said. Democrat Obama could not have run as a black candidate without the civil rights movement, and Republican Sarah Palin could not have run as the GOP vice presidential candidate without the womenâ�?�?s movement, he said. But the 1960s and 1970s also sowed the seeds of division that remain today, Brokaw said. â�?�?There has developed a narrow interest where Republicans feel they have to be anti-abortion, pro-gun and against big government and taxes,â�? he said. â�?�?And Democrats feel they have to be against guns, pro-choice and look to government as the first place they turn to for solutions.â�? As a result, American are split â�?�?with half on each side of the room,â�? he said. However, Brokaw pointed to a movement of political healing led by many states. For example, South Dakota has elected Republican governors and Democratic U.S. senators, he said. â�?�?(People) are interested in solutions,â�? he said. In that respect, Brokaw pointed to the achievements of Democrat George McGovern and Republican Bob Dole, both World War II veterans who served in the Senate and now work together on a school lunch program in the Third World and in Islamic countries. Part of the national divide comes from the wide range of cable television networks, Internet and blogs, Brokaw said. In contrast, Brokaw noted he grew up with two television networks and his local daily newspaper, the Yankton Press & Dakotan. Brokaw said he sees a younger generation that wants quick, short bits of information. â�?�?I am afraid we are raising a generation with no attention span,â�? he said. Obamaâ�?�?s huge Internet fund-raising ability â�?�? which has collected more money than Republican George W. Bush and Democrat John Kerry combined in the 2004 presidential race â�?�? will likely mean the end of public financing for campaigns, Brokaw said. Whoever wins next weekâ�?�?s presidential election will need to reach out to the other side, Brokaw said. â�?�?The campaign is a separate universe. You energize the base and keep your opponent off balance,â�? he said. â�?�?But you canâ�?�?t (run the country) with just one party.â�? The daunting issues â�?�? and likelihood of offending a major part of the nation â�?�? may mean the next president will serve only one term, Brokaw said. When he moderated the presidential debate, Brokaw said he couldnâ�?�?t get either McCain or Obama to prioritize their major issues. â�?�?They donâ�?�?t want to offend their constituency, but they will have to make choices and there will have to be consequences,â�? he said. The current intense scrutiny of candidates may drive many qualified persons from seeking public office, Brokaw said. â�?�?We make it way too hard to get into public life. Once you do, you are declared guilty as charged. â�?¦ You feel you are under a microscope,â�? he said. The nation will need to find its moral compass, particularly those in the finance industry who were reckless and greedy, Brokaw said. In many cases, the financiers didnâ�?�?t realize the magnitude of the problems, he said. In the meantime, taxpayers wonder why they do the right thing and then have to pony up for those who did wrong, Brokaw said. Amidst all the division and turmoil, Americans have shown their ability to rally around a common cause, Brokaw said. He pointed to the space race, using the example of the Apollo 8 flight which went to the moon. At first, the astronauts found themselves unable to see anything 240,000 miles in space, Brokaw said. Then, with the help of retro rockets, they saw the back side of the lunar surface. â�?�?It was gray and lifeless, not the harvest moon but the reality of deep space,â�? he said. â�?�?But when they emerged, they saw this precious little orb â�?�? the Earth. It was this precious planet Earth.â�? The astronautsâ�?�? ability to put their view of Earth behind their thumb put the vastness of space into perspective, Brokaw said. The astronauts then read Genesis 1-10, â�?�?In the beginning…â�? ending with â�?�?God saw it was good.â�? That sense of awe can be recaptured by the nation, Brokaw said. â�?�?We could do good things if we work together,â�? he said.