CHARLOTTE, NC — September 4, 2012 — For today’s special daily edition of “Meet the Press” PRESS Pass, David Gregory sat down with Tom Brokaw — who has covered every presidential election since 1968 — to reflect on how the political gatherings have changed over the years, Bill Clinton’s star power, as well as President Obama’s journey and the challenges that lay ahead.
On how conventions have changed since 1968:
BROKAW: My first convention as a correspondent was 1968 in Chicago, and there’s never been anything quite like that again, and that’s part of the reason they do scrub them and sanitize them now; they don’t want it to get out of control as it did in Chicago. … And it was that convention actually that forced the reforms for 1972 that opened up the party in a different way.
Same year, in 1968, I was in Miami for the nomination of Richard Nixon. … The most stunning moment at that convention was the announcement that his vice presidential candidate would be Spiro Agnew — someone almost no one had heard of at that point. I remember the Baltimore bureau chief in Washington coming in looking like he had been electric shocked, that this guy was going to be the Vice President of the United States. Completely unknown, one heartbeat away from the presidency. And then we know what happened to him in the final analysis.
On what Obama needs to do in Charlotte
BROKAW: I always thought Jack Kennedy was most successful when he would say to audiences — this aristocratic, extraordinarily wealthy young man — ‘I need your help.’ And I think if the President finds a way to say to the American public, ‘My journey is not complete. The work is not yet done. I need your help. We need to get home together. We all got in this together, we’re only going to get out of it together’ — in some form.
A full transcript is below and embeddable video of the complete interview is online here: http://nbcnews.to/UpHQ76
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Full Transcript: PRESS Pass: Tom Brokaw
Mandatory Credit: NBC News
GREGORY: I’m David Gregory, this is PRESS Pass, your all-access pass to an extra Meet the Press conversation. And this week, I’m with Tom Brokaw, as both parties try to put their best foot forward at their own conventions. Probably no better person to talk to about the history and impact of these gatherings, Tom: We live in an age when these are infomercials, they are highly scripted affairs. You believe in the utility of them, just not so much of them, right?
BROKAW: I do, I really think that it’s time to really rewrite the script. I think that we should reduce it to one day; have the president, the presidential candidate, and his vice presidential candidate — or her vice presidential candidate, of the future — appear in prime time in a kind of family-like setting, because that’s part of it — we introduce them to the family. And they can take two days before that to do all the fundraising and all the corporate stuff and all the platform settlement, but not have to have it on television. Do that one big night and then have that by satellite transmitted around the country to football stadiums in Chicago, and Denver, and Seattle, and have big get-out-the-vote rallies. The reason I say that is that I think that we have to re-involve the American people in this process. It’s now a closed process. If you’re out there in Wichita, or if you’re in Walla Walla, Washington — I’m gonna run out of W’s here in a minute — and any of those cities where you’re not directly tied to the big Republican or Democratic establishment, you don’t see — what’s going on in television seems not to have any connection to your life whatsoever. So, how do we re-involve people, in a kind of 19th Century way, in their parties and in the idea — this is the most important year in their lives, every four years — about who we’re gonna nominate and who we’re gonna elect as our leaders.
GREGORY: See, I’m still young enough to ask you, what was it like – you know, in a day when there was real business.
BROKAW: It was great. I mean my first convention as a correspondent was 1968 in Chicago, and there’s never been anything quite like that again, and that’s part of the reason they do scrub them and sanitize them now; they don’t want it to get out of control as it did in Chicago. And I remember being just off the floor and Julian Bond was leading the Georgia delegation — I had known him in Atlanta — and they were trying to nominate him as vice president and he was not yet old enough to be qualified for the office. And we exchanged a few words and he was going on to the floor to challenge the establishment about the Georgia delegation who would be seated. I also remember the mayor of Chicago, who was Richard Daley, the elder, flanked by two sons. And because of the chaos and derision that was visited upon the Daley family in those days, and what was going on in the streets, I looked at those two sons, Bill Daley and Rich Daley, and thought ‘We’ll never hear from them again.’ I’ve told Bill and Rich both the stories. One became the long-time mayor of the city of Chicago; Bill Daley obviously became a big political force. So everything rises and falls. And it was that convention actually that forced the reforms for 1972 that opened up the party in a different way.
Same year, in 1968, I was in Miami for the nomination of Richard Nixon. And the California delegation — we flew out with them, the press was on the same plane with them — they got off the plane, I remember this vividly, eating mouths full of grapes, because there was a grape boycott on led by Ceasar Chavez and the farm workers, and these Republican delegates were going to stick it to the farm workers as they got off the airplane. Can you imagine that? And then the big story that week was Ronald Reagan had only been in office two years, was making a kind of stealth run against Richard Nixon. He didn’t get very far because didn’t quite know how to pull it off; he had a lot of money behind him and a lot of other things, but Nixon had that whole place so buttoned up. But the most stunning moment at that convention was the announcement that his vice presidential candidate would be Spiro Agnew — someone almost no one had heard of at that point. I remember the Baltimore bureau chief in Washington coming in looking like he had been electric shocked, that this guy was going to be the Vice President of the United States. Completely unknown, one heartbeat away from the presidency. And then we know what happened to him in the final analysis. They went out of there and they put together the new Republican Coalition, which is that they took the South away from the Democrats. Richard Nixon was very smart about capitalizing on what he called ‘the silent majority,’ which really did exist. These were working-class Democrats, who wore hard hats and carried lunch buckets, who were fed up with what they were seeing on the Democratic side. When I went home from Chicago to my home in South Dakota, on my way back to California — my dad was a life-long working-class Democrat. He was what they’d call a ‘Blue Dog Democrat’ now; he always wore a hard hat and carried a lunch box, he grew up under FDR and that was his god, and I thought he would be very much on the side of the anti-war protestors; he had real doubts about Vietnam. He was so outraged by how those anti-war protestors had conducted themselves and how they had — in his judgment – how they’d had no respect for law and order. He was just in a rage. And my wife remembers that my father and I had the greatest argument that she could ever remember; it was really very difficult. And I woke up the next day and thought, ‘This is not good news for the Democratic Party. If they’ve lost my dad, they’re not going to be able to pull this off in the Fall.’
GREGORY: It’s interesting that you talk about that, because this is still a big problem– and maybe, difficult to quantify it — but it’s certainly a big problem; the white, working-class man, today for President Obama.
BROKAW: They still are, they’re still out there for him. And it’s inherently hard to know exactly why, in some cases. I think that there’s no question to some degree that race plays a part in all that. We’re still a country that is still sorting our way through a lot of racial issues. But I also think that what a lot of them believe is that, you know, ‘We can get these things done on our own, we don’t need the government help, and we’ll see where it goes from there.’
GREGORY: What about star power? I think about Bill Clinton, a horrible speech in 1988 at the convention, right?
BROKAW: Yeah I remember that. I avoided him the next day. I saw him in the hallway and he said ‘Hey, Tom!’ and I went the other way, I didn’t know what to say to him. But it was — we learned a lot about Clinton. He gave that terrible speech and when he said ‘in conclusion,’ the place went up, ‘thank God, we’re in conclusion!’ He went on Johnny Carson, he handled it in the Clinton — and he was trying to track me down to explain himself, and I just didn’t know what to say to him, it had been so embarrassing.
GREGORY: And then four years later, he ushers in this new era of leveraging Hollywood, personal biography, and opening your heart to deal with a negative public image in a brilliant way.
BROKAW: Well, he went on Arsenio Hall. That was a critical time in the run-up to his nomination, and he went on Arsenio Hall, put on sunglasses, and played his sax. And people saw him in an entirely different way. That was that really spontaneous, authentic moment about who he was, and people could identify with this rogue from Arkansas, who was whip-smart, no question about that, and he represented his generation. This was a breakthrough. We had not had a boomer at that point; everybody else had come out of the World War II generation. And Bill Clinton, I think, gave voice, and certainly imagery, to how a lot of them felt.
GREGORY: Isn’t it interesting, in 2008 he speaks — we were looking at the tape — a thunderous applause. And he finally says, ‘I’m gonna run out of time if you don’t stop cheering for me,’ and then he pulls back and he says ‘I love this.’ So that’s in 2008, after he had been so critical of Obama — and here he is, he’ll play a huge role again in 2012, trying to sell the President’s economic visions, so he’s very much around.
BROKAW: One of the most conservative people I know in America– hugely successful guy, a real Libertarian, not just a Republican and a conservative, but a real Libertarian – says, ‘Clinton would get elected with 85% of the vote in this election.’ He said, ‘I’d vote for him.’ Because I think a lot of people feel that he was nimble enough to work across the political spectrum, and identify with what the needs are, and not get hung up on ideology, but move swiftly, as he did — I thought one of the most important things he did as president was welfare reform. He went against the liberal wing of his party, and said ‘We’ve got to eliminate what we’re doing now, dependency, and make it work-fare.’ And I also happen to think it was exactly the right decision at the right time. But he could see that and made that move very quickly.
GREGORY: Which brings us to the President. And the kind of political figure he is now, does he suit where the country is?
BROKAW: I think he’s learned a lot. He had a lot to learn in four years. I was criticized for going on Charlie Rose four years ago, right before he took office, and saying ‘There’s a lot about him that we still don’t know.’ Charlie said, ‘Is there a lot about this President that we don’t know yet?’ And I said there is. What I meant by that is that we really don’t know what his China policies are, we don’t know exactly what he’s going to do in Russia, or in the Middle East for that matter. And the right erupted, saying, ‘Well see, they got him elected but they didn’t know who he was.’ But the fact is that he came in on a wave; his timing was perfect four years ago. The country was ready for a change after eight years of Bush, and wars. An African-American Harvard Law graduate, he pulled in independents. And then when he got there, the job, I think fair to say, was probably not bigger than he thought it would be, but it was probably bigger than his capacity and his experience equipped him for. So it was a very tough on-the-job learning experience. I remember on that heady inaugural day, someone saying, ‘When is he going to know when he’s President?’ And whoever was in the studio with me said, ‘Oh, when the valet comes in in the morning, says, “Mr. President, it’s time for you to be up”‘ and so on. I said, ‘I think he’s going to know when he’s President when he goes to the Oval Office and they put the daily intel brief before him and the daily economic numbers before him. ‘Now you’re in charge, Mr. President. And what are you going to do about it?’ That’s when you get to know that you’re President. And — this is not just retro, I felt at the time — he didn’t bring in enough people from the real world. He didn’t have enough business experience hands-on. They were all very smart, but they came primarily from the political and academic world.
GREGORY: So, as we leave the Democratic Convention, it will be a success if he does what?
BROKAW: Well, I think if he is able to persuade the American people that, ‘This has been a tough four years, and I’ve learned a lot and I know that you’ve been through a lot of difficulty. I’ve tried very hard to reach across the aisle and get them to help all of us through this as well, and they haven’t been able to do that. We’re not just entirely on our own, but I know there are a lot of you out there who are not wedded to one party or another. I need your help.’ I always thought Jack Kennedy was most successful when he would say to audiences, this aristocratic, extraordinarily wealthy young man, ‘I need your help.’ And I think if the President finds a way to say to the American public, ‘My journey is not complete. The work is not yet done. I need your help. We need to get home together. We all got in this together, we’re only going to get out of it together’ — in some form.
GREGORY: Thanks, Tom. I appreciate it.
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