Brokaw proposed creating a skilled service corps of Americans to work abroad. Photo credit: James McCourt

For most of his life one “big idea” after another united the country and created a better future, but the United States today is devoid of big ideas and visionary leaders, veteran newsman Tom Brokaw told an audience at the Drew Forum lecture series.

Four years ago Brokaw moderated a presidential debate between Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama, and two days before his Drew Forum lecture he appeared on NBC to critique the final debate of this election cycle. But during his appearance on campus Oct. 25 he avoided nearly all discussion of politics.

“As a political culture we seem to be stuck in neutral, if not in the past. We’re seeing it in this campaign as well,” he said. “I thought this would be a big election, with big ideas. So far, it has not been.”

Instead Brokaw, 72, reflected on his life, talking fondly about his humble roots in South Dakota, family and career (which resulted in what he called “anchorman hubris” by age 36). He and his wife, Meredith, to whom he has been married 50 years, have three daughters and four grandchildren. He is the author of several books, most notably The Greatest Generation (1998), describing the generation that suffered through the Great Depression and went on to fight in World War II.

Brokaw reviewed many of the historic events he witnessed or covered, beginning with the nation’s swift mobilization after the attack on Pearl Harbor. He provided a catalog of big ideas that then transformed America: the passage of the G.I. Bill, John F. Kennedy’s quest to put a man on the moon, the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, Richard Nixon’s opening of relations with China, Ronald Reagan’s decision to work with Mikhail Gorbachev and end the Cold War, and the rise of information technology.

If our country is to have a bright future, people must discover their common ground and “re-enlist” as citizens, Brokaw said. They should also spend time teaching younger people the obligations of citizenship. “They don’t trust our institutions,” he said.

Brokaw said Americans must also open their arms to veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan and help them find training and jobs. Ignoring them is “not just unjust, but immoral.”

He also threw out one big idea of his own—“public service academies” to train technicians and professionals, in all occupations, for service abroad. Brokaw said he envisioned them being designed like the military academies, but run by private companies. Said Brokaw, “We have to put a new face on America.”—Mary Jo Patterson

Video Interview

Watch Ted Johnsen’s video interview with Tom Brokaw.