The Ringling College Library Association Town Hall concluded its 2013 lecture series with an appearance by veteran TV newsman Tom Brokaw, Monday morning at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall. (Brokaw also appears tonight.)
Brokaw met first with a group of journalists backstage, feigning surprise at the number gathered there (“Good Lord, there must be nothing going on in Central Florida today,” he joked) before taking questions. Among them: “What stands out to you in your career?” (“That I’m still standing and breathing. Actually, that I got it mostly right and when I got it wrong acknowledged it quickly.”) “How has journalism changed?” (“For one thing, if I’d come to this [press briefing] when I started out, there would have been no women, all white guys, and two cameras.”) “What journalists inspired you?” (“Edward R. Murrow was king. And David Brinkley was a hero of mine who became a good friend. He had an astonishingly apt capacity for using just the right amount of words for what was going on onscreen.”) “What are the most important traits for a journalist?” (“Great curiosity, and a determination to be self-critical. And you can’t just announce the news; you have to tell people what it means. It’s the greatest job in the world.”)
Then Brokaw (who is currently at work on a television special for the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy) took the Van Wezel stage to address the sellout crowd. Eschewing the podium, he strolled about talking, without notes, in what he said he wanted to be a “conversation” with the audience. He began with remarks about former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who just passed away (“Every interview with her was a lesson in humility”) and then spoke movingly about the 40th anniversary of the storming of the Normandy beaches in World War II. Speaking with two veterans on that occasion and hearing their stories, he said, “By the end of that day my life had changed.”
Brokaw went on to stress his concerns about the divisions in Congress today, citing the examples of fellow World War II vets Bob Dole, Daniel Inouye and Philip Hart. Two were Democrats, one Republican, he said, but they often found “common cause,” as we must do today. “We are at our best when we’re united by big ideas, not divided by small ones,” Brokaw said, citing such examples as the post-World War II GI Bill, the Marshall Plan, the civil rights movement, strides in gender equality stemming from the 1960s, and the moon landing.
To that end of “common cause,” Brokaw suggested developing public service academies, which could be part of university or college systems and have corporate sponsors in a public-private partnership to train people in fields from agriculture to engineering. “We need to re-enlist as citizens,” he stressed, so that the duties and burdens Americans face today are shared by all, not just by the small percentage fighting in the military.
Prior to Brokaw’s talk, the series 2014 chairman, Jay Logan, announced next season’s speakers, which will include former President George W. Bush (whose daughter, Jenna, will be next year’s Platinum Dinner speaker), portrait photographer Platon, CBS news correspondent Lara Logan, author Wes Moore, and former Secretary of Defense and CIA director Leon Panetta.
Logan couldn’t yet announce one other speaker, but placed a “Big Gulp” soda cup on the podium, leaving the audience to guess whom that might suggest. (Perhaps a certain big-city mayor?)