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24 December 1998

Minor mishaps #2: Tom says the darnedest things, also!

Synopsis: Even Tom Brokaw starts to say naughty things when he shows up with Chris to play Hardball.

Commentary by Tom Brokaw
Hardball, CNBC, 12/21/98

We’ve seen before the Svengali-like power a tabloid talker sometimes has on his guests. But now, even Tom Brokaw starts to say naughty things when he shows up for an evening of Hardball!

The natty anchor was promoting his book, in praise of the World War II generation. But it didn’t take long before Big Dog Tom uncorked a classic howler. First question:

MATTHEWS: It seems to me that one of President Clinton’s problems coming into office was that he was not of the generation, the World War II generation, which had run the country and the presidency from Ike all the way through George Bush, and therefore never really had the legitimacy of that generation.

When Tom replied, he brought the analysts right out of their seats, reciting the highlighted groaner:

BROKAW: Well I think it was some of that, but an awful lot of that generation was sympathetic to him as well because they came to not believe in Vietnam and many of the positions he had taken...So I think there was a well-defined knot of that generation that could never accept him because, not just of the way he got out of the draft, but because he used that phrase, “I loathed the military.” He seemed to be emblematic of the slickness of the Baby Boomer generation...

The analysts fell back in their swivel chairs, shaking their heads, as Brokaw moved on with his musings. But we’ll ask you, the reader, to be the judge of who has been slick on this score. Clinton, of course, never used the phrase that Brokaw now attributed to him. But a concerted spin-effort, carried on through the years, had persuaded millions of folks that he had, so that even the natty--not nattering--Brokaw was convinced it was what Bill had said.

In December 1969, Clinton had written Colonel Eugene Holmes of the University of Arkansas ROTC, to thank him “not just for saving me from the draft, but for being so kind and decent to me last summer, when I was as low as I ever have been.” The polite tone of that opening remark characterized Clinton’s letter throughout, and when he had finished discussing the “anguish” he’d experienced in trying to decide how to deal with the draft, he wrote this passage (his closing paragraph), summarizing why he had written:

CLINTON: And that is where I am right now, writing to you because you have been good to me and have a right to know what I think and feel. I am writing this too in the hope that my telling this one story will help you understand more clearly how so many fine people have come to find themselves still loving their country but loathing the military, to which you and other good men have devoted years, lifetimes, of the best service you could give...

It isn’t exactly “Off the pig”--and it does not say, “I loathe the military.” It says, with a persistent tone of regret, that many fine people, in 1968, had come to loathe the military. Making that statement, in 1968, was like saying the sky is blue and the grass is green; only a fool could have disputed the accuracy of what young Clinton was saying. The tone throughout is extremely respectful of the service that Colonel Holmes and others had provided; and Clinton stresses that those to whom he refers still do “love their country.”

These are hardly the words of the Weather Underground, manning barricades and burning down buildings. Clinton closes with these provocations:

CLINTON: Forgive the length of this letter. There was much to say. There is still a lot to be said, but it can wait. Please say hello to Col. Jones for me. Merry Christmas. Sincerely, Bill Clinton

In Clinton’s letter, he tells Col. Holmes that he had come to “oppose and despise [the Vietnam War] with a depth of feeling I had reserved solely for racism in America before Vietnam.” In a more balanced time, we might even appreciate the feelings of a young man who was able to care about such matters so deeply. It could even occur to us that we might be well served, in later years, by a young man who could express his views in such measured ways--not letting his hatred for a particular war obscure his respect for those who had served in the military.

But when Candidate Clinton came on the scene, we were not living in balanced times. And life in this celebrity press corps meant always finding ways to tweak stories. Polemicists found, in Clinton’s one phrase, words they could spin to create an impression. And Brokaw, misquoting, seven years later, gives us a portrait of our age--shows us how the best and brightest can end up reciting the scripts of the people who spin.

No, Virginia. President Clinton, as a young man, did not write: “I loathe the military.” He thanked Colonel Holmes for his years of service. We observe now the thanks that he gets.

Exegetically correct: Young Clinton did go on, in the sentence following the first passage quoted, to make the following comment:

CLINTON [continuing from above]: which you and other good men have devoted years, lifetimes, of the best service you could give. To many of us, it is no longer clear what is service and what is disservice, or if it is clear, the conclusion is likely to be illegal. Forgive the length of this letter...

One can read Clinton’s text so the phrase “many of us” implies that he is one who “loathes the military.” But considering how we all hate “lawyerly parsing,” we’re sure no one would want to do that.

Our view?: A major official, on a controversial matter, has a right to be quoted exactly. A sympathetic reading would be too much to ask. But Brokaw should repeat the words right.