Brokaw airs a generational analysis

Be good citizens, former anchor encourages

By
Tuesday, April 22, 2008

What do Tufts, Princeton, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Brown have in common? Having lectured at those universities in recent weeks, Tom Brokaw says he would not have been accepted into any of them.

But the former NBC News anchor didn’t joke for long with his audience in Salomon 101 Monday, as he addressed the legacy of the 1960s in context of today’s political environment.

Brokaw said he wanted to create a “conversation” with the audience about the state of American society as a political system by contrasting the current climate with the racial, economic and political issues of the 1960s.

Before beginning his lecture, Brokaw asked the audience to “take stock of what our individual dreams and hopes are,” so that by the end of the lecture, “we will think more robustly about what our role is in this particular time.” Throughout the lecture, Brokaw continued to ask the audience to consider their role in the Iraq War and the upcoming elections.

The lecture, which he titled “The Call of Citizenship,” drew a diverse crowd of Brown students and Providence residents.

Brokaw’s lecture maintained a story-telling quality as he led the audience through the turmoil of the Vietnam War and Martin Luther King Jr.’s marches against segregation. Beginning his lecture during the time of Lyndon Johnson’s presidency in the wake of the Tet Offensive, Brokaw described the hopelessness that many Americans were feeling.

“The psychological effects on this country were electrifying,” Brokaw said. “It was a year in which 16,000 young Americans died in Vietnam, and the Tet Offensive seemed to say there is no hope.”

In the aftermath of the Tet Offensive, the baby boomers were coming of age and their counter-culture was sweeping the nation, “rejecting everything their parents stood for,” Brokaw said. “They challenged the marriage contract, institutional loyalty and they were disdainful of the idea of the military service.”

Brokaw interwove the untimely assassinations of King and then-presidential candidate Robert Kennedy, saying, “The stage was set for a titanic clash, and it came in August of that year (1968) in the streets of Chicago” when hundreds of protesters flooded the city’s streets. The event polarized the Democratic party and allowed Richard Nixon to win the presidential election.

Brokaw then fast-forwarded 40 years to the present day, asking the audience to “take stock of what’s worth keeping since 1968 and what’s not.” Such a reflection is especially necessary because this election is the “most important” since 1968, he said.

Brokaw, who became one of the country’s most recognizable television news anchors, called attention to the fact that the soldiers fighting in Iraq come mainly from working-class families and small towns.

“We are two societies: civilian and uniform,” Brokaw said. “This is unacceptable in a democratic republic. You can hate this war for every good reason, but you cannot dishonor those who have served at the ground level.”

A journalist for many years, Brokaw said the most memorable people he interviewed were not named Kennedy, Golda Meir or Michael Jordan. Instead, they were average Americans, such as a doctor from Tulsa who saved a Somali child from shrapnel and a young black woman who marched with King despite her fear of being killed.

“These are the people, for me as a journalist and just a member of humankind, who leave the most lasting impression on me,” he said.

Brokaw ended his lecture with a hopeful story: that of the first trip to the moon, and his belief that “what’s more important is what unites us, not what divides us.”

“I believe in my heart and my mind that we have no greater obligation than to re-enlist as citizens in this country,” he said, “to leave our mark this year and beyond, so that 100 years from now historians can say that this, too, was a great generation,” he concluded.

Brokaw received a standing ovation from the crowd and drew praise from attendees of all ages.

“I thought it was really good and really inspiring,” Scott Warren ’09 said. “He connects with an older generation, but at the same time his message connected with the youth.”

Warren said he appreciated Brokaw’s call to action. “I’m involved in a lot of movements and I liked to hear someone tell us about a time when people were more involved and ask us to get involved,” he added.

Henry Sharpe ’45, a former Herald editor, said he thought the lecture was “wonderful.”

“It’s a reminder that your generation has a hell of a challenge in front of them,” he said.