Matalin and Carville Talk Politics
The battle of the sexes met the battle for the White House in Tuesday’s opening session as political gurus Mary Matalin and James Carville entertained attendees with personal anecdotes and insights on the presidential campaign. The husband-and-wife team epitomizes the axiom “Politics makes strange bedfellows” with their famously divergent political views.
“You are living in the midst of stunning political history!” exclaimed Carville, a Democratic strategist who managed Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign. In his signature Louisiana drawl, Carville pointed to the robust television ratings for political events so far in the campaign, saying: “So much for the fact that Americans don’t care about politics.”
Matalin, well known as a Republican campaign advisor, directed President George Bush’s 1992 re-election campaign and served as counselor to Vice President Dick Cheney. She discussed the presidential campaign, which was still underway at the time. She gave her opinion of each of the candidates. She said Obama should have spent more time unifying his base after a long, hard-fought primary battle with Hillary Clinton. McCain, on the other hand, started unifying his party immediately, Matalin said.
She called McCain’s surprise choice of Sarah Palin as his vice presidential pick “the big game changer,” but warned that “it’s not over. In the end, this is a 50/50 country,” Matalin said. “Each side knows what they have to do.”
Carville spoke about the election more generally, touching only briefly on the candidates. He called Obama “a little prickly” and cited age as one of the 72-year-old McCain’s biggest weaknesses. “McCain, he’s old, there’s no other way to put it,” Carville said, “and he gets confused.”
Both predicted that the election likely would depend on something that had not yet happened. The economic crisis proved them right.
Brokaw Speaks of Service
For more than two decades, NBC’s Tom Brokaw enjoyed membership in one of the world’s most exclusive clubs—national news anchors who get to witness history and share each day’s events with millions of Americans gathered around their household televisions. Despite that high perch, Brokaw shared a stirringly intimate perspective on 45 years of the American experience during Wednesday’s keynote address.
Fresh from trips to cover the Summer Olympics in Beijing and the country’s two major political conventions in Denver and St. Paul, Minnesota, Brokaw contrasted the plainclothes, almost transparent security of the Olympics with the fences, riot gear, and vehicle barriers of the two U.S. convention cities.
“In this country, we’re still struggling to find the balance between freedom and the new security considerations. Both in Denver at the Democratic convention and at St. Paul at the Republican convention, it looked for a time as if we might all be living in some kind of a police state. And I do think, when it comes to that kind of security at least, our government and civic officials have to reconsider how we pose our security in public places,” Brokaw said.
Brokaw went on to recount the little-known story of the days preceding the government’s acknowledgement of the 2001 anthrax attack. Two members of Brokaw’s NBC staff were infected, and Brokaw struggled for nearly two weeks, with little effect, to raise alarm among federal officials. At one point, federal law enforcement officers told Brokaw that one of his colleagues had probably suffered a spider bite.
“We were all on an emotional roller-coaster that was heightened by the fact that we had no systems in place to detect a biological attack of any kind,” Brokaw said.
Has progress been made? “Things have gotten a lot better in your companies and in those areas that you represent,” he stated. But Brokaw also noted that a recent search of the term “anthrax” on the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Web site yielded nine speeches agency officials had delivered about the attack, and they contained “very little useful information.”
He added, “You know as well as I do that we still have miles to go.”
Another issue is cybersecurity. Brokaw recounted a night spent at the home of Microsoft chairman Bill Gates. In his guest room, Brokaw tried to connect to the Internet using an NBC laptop, but to no avail. With a phone call, Brokaw said “about 26” technicians appeared, followed by Gates himself. “What we decided was that the GE firewall was fighting with the Bill Gates firewall, and it was a draw. These are the kind of realities we’re all dealing with today.”
Not surprisingly, Brokaw said he’s most often asked by fans and acquaintances about the most memorable events and interviews of his career. He responds not with tales of the moon landing or his 1987 one-on-one interview with then new Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev, the first conducted by an American journalist. Instead, he flashes back to 1965, soon after he was hired by WSB-TV, coincidentally in Atlanta, and assigned to cover the Civil Rights Movement. One night in Americus, Georgia, African-American residents congregated in a local church, deliberating whether to march on downtown in support of desegregation. Brokaw saw pickup trucks lining the town’s main street and white residents armed with guns threatening to kill any blacks they saw.
When the church emptied, Brokaw approached a black teenage girl and asked what they had decided. When she said they planned to march, Brokaw reminded her of the danger and asked her why she would take such a risk. Her response, Brokaw said, “‘Because I have no choice.’”
The topic of selfless action led Brokaw to discuss the work for which he’s known nearly as well as broadcasting, his 1998 book The Greatest Generation, which is about the Americans who fought in World War II and returned home to spurn accolades and build their country into a world superpower.
Brokaw recounted how decorated World War II veteran and former Sen. Bob Dole, who is featured in the book, approached him with one last anecdote after the book had already gone to press. Critically wounded in Italy, Dole explained to Brokaw that he convalesced at Michigan’s Battle Creek Sanitarium, sharing a room with two other seriously wounded veterans. One, the son of interred Japanese immigrants, lost an arm fighting with an all-Japanese-American infantry unit in Europe and won the Congressional Medal of Honor. The other, a Georgetown-educated lawyer who could have avoided service, was wounded landing at Normandy on D-Day.
Discussing their futures, the three agreed that public service was the highest calling and the one each would pursue. The other two men were Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-HI) and the late Sen. Philip Hart of Michigan.
Flashing forward to the present day, Brokaw said that every day he dwells on the burdens borne by the country’s fighting men and women, both those in harm’s way and those back home, many critically and permanently disabled.
Brokaw recalled a trip to his hometown of Yankton, South Dakota. Three members of a National Guard unit based in Yankton were killed on a recent deployment to Iraq, while a fourth, Sgt. Corey Briest, returned home blind, confined to a wheelchair.
Briest and his wife live in the house Brokaw’s parents built. When Brokaw offered to pay for construction of a new, wheelchair-accessible home for the family, the local leaders told Brokaw they would accept a donation, but they insisted on matching it.
“That small town in southeastern South Dakota understood instantly that Corey will be a part of their lives forever and that they will measure up to it,” Brokaw said. “For the rest of their lives in this small town, they’ll have an acute reminder of the price of war, how little was asked of most of them, and how much was asked of Corey and his family. And they’ll take care of them.”
“These young men and young American women have volunteered for this duty. They get paid modest wages, but they pay a very high price,” Brokaw said. “However you feel about this war, about the wisdom of this war…they cannot be long removed from our thoughts on a daily basis. I hope that when you leave here and go home, you’ll find a way in your community or your workplace, your culture, your travel, to have a real connection to those families.”