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Tom Brokaw Visits UT's Cox Auditorium

The athletic-looking fellow sitting next to me was talking with friends about fraternity initiations, when he turned his attention to the matter at hand.

"Now, what did this guy write?"

"I don't remember."

He studied his program. "Oh, yeah. The Greatest Generation. Once our entire school had to read that, and no one did."

Kids grow up so fast. When Tom Brokaw was last anchor of the NBC Nightly News, most UT freshmen were just 8 or 9, and perhaps preferred Shrek 2 on DVD, or another round of Grand Theft Auto to the evening news. But they're here, so they're trying to catch up.  

As he was puzzling over the unfamiliar speaker's resume, he may not have recognized Brokaw, who was visible in the wings. The 73-year-old looked gaunt and drawn, reportedly in pain due to a chronic back problem. When the time came he climbed the steps onto the Cox Auditorium stage and walked stiffly to center stage. The crowd that rose to give him a warm standing ovation included the undergrads who weren't altogether clear about who he was.

The event planned by the Baker Center for Public Policy as part of the Baker Distinguished Lecture Series was this afternoon at the Cox Auditorium in the old Alumni building on the side of the Hill.

Shedding his grimace as he got on stage, Brokaw sat on a stool prepared for him, and speaking entirely without notes, opened with the customary flattery. "This institution has a national reputation, and with good reason," he said. Brokaw, who was briefly a newsman for an Atlanta's WSB almost 50 years ago, said he was glad he was at UT, and not at the University of Georgia. "I'd have to speak more slowly, and use shorter words." The standing-room-only crowd applauded graciously, almost as if they'd never heard that one, and maybe some hadn't.

He'd been speaking for about two minutes, when a latecomer arrived in a wheelchair. From the stage Brokaw greeted "a member of the Greatest Generation," his old friend Howard Baker, former senator, ambassador, and presidential chief of staff, who got a fresh standing ovation.  Brokaw, who made a few gestures about the hard-core partisan rancor in Washington, hailed Baker as the kind of statesman "that we too long took for granted."

Most of his speech was a sort of appreciative chronology of the "Big Ideas" of his own lifetime:  the cooperation that resulted in winning World War II, the GI Bill, the moon shot, the civil-rights movement. One of the few personal memories he shared was of being a young reporter in an unnamed Southern place and seeing passively resistant demonstrators being beaten without fighting back. Then he mentioned feminism, quoting his chum Warren Buffett ("Look how far we've come with only half the brainpower we've been using"), and describing his wife's efforts to start an woman-led tomato-canning business in Malawi. (Hearing Brokaw pronounce "Malawi" was worth the walk over the Hill.) Then he got to Richard Nixon. "He had some bad big ideas," he said, throwing in a dependable laugh line, but extolled the importance of Nixon's legacy with opening relations with China. Next was Silicon Valley, and the whole digital revolution, about which he offered some fatherly advice. Everything you put out there is there forever, he said, and anybody might have access to it. Criticizing the anonymous meanness of much Internet chatter, he didn't blame that overtly for his main concern: the uncivil and dysfunctional polarization of 21st-century Washington.

His talk's main emphasis was the next Big Idea, which he called the Brokaw Idea. He mentioned that in contrast to the World War II spirit, today only 1 percent of Americans serve in the military. The Brokaw Idea is to start a new sort of branch of the service, a public-private partnership involving both education and some years of public service in peacetime. He mentioned some potential examples: John Deere Fellows in agriculture, Johnson & Johnson Fellows in medicine, GE Fellows in power systems, involving a couple of years of field work in the public interest. It's an idea he's been pushing for about three years, and outlined in his 2011 book, The Time of Our Lives.

He spoke for about 30 minutes and didn't take questions. Just after his talk, Baker Center director Matt Murray proposed a round of Happy Birthday for Sen. Baker, but waited for someone in the audience to lead it. Brokaw, who'd said he had to leave quickly to get back to a tribute to Mayor Bloomberg in New York, took the opportunity to get off the stage. Still miked, perhaps an unfair advantage over the other thousand singers in the room, Brokaw didn't join in the chorus.

However, Brokaw spoke briefly afterward with the former Sen. Baker, who was grinning every time we glimpsed him through the crowd, and Baker's wife Nancy Kassebaum, herself the former senator from Kansas.

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