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Jewish World Review March 9, 2004 / 16 Adar, 5764

John H. Fund

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A JFK-NBC Ticket? If Kerry wants to make things interesting, he'll consider Tom Brokaw for veep | It's easy to overstate the importance of a vice-presidential nominee. The truth is that few people vote for a ticket based on the No. 2 candidate. Geraldine Ferraro failed to attract enough female voters to carry even two states, and Dan Quayle alleged dimness didn't keep George H.W. Bush from winning a resounding victory. But the veep choice can matter on the margins, which is why I'll make two guesses as to what John Kerry will do. If he thinks in conventional political terms, the safe bet is Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri. If he wants to make a bold choice, he will offer the job to retiring NBC anchorman Tom Brokaw. One prominent Republican says the idea of Mr. Brokaw on the Democratic ticket "worries me a lot."

I know the chattering classes, which became enamored of Sen. John Edwards's weepy "Two Americas" speech, are promoting a Kerry-Edwards ticket. But Mr. Edwards has a weak image in his home state of North Carolina and would be unlikely to help Mr. Kerry carry it. Having turned out the lights on Mr. Edwards's insurgent candidacy, the vain Mr. Kerry isn't likely to help turn a media spotlight back on him by offering him the vice presidency.

Sen. Bob Graham of Florida would be an obvious choice, hailing from the ultimate battleground state. But the 67-year-old Mr. Graham ran a haphazard campaign for president, invites ridicule for his obsessive habit of recording everything he does during his waking hours, and may not help all that much with Florida's many new voters, since he hasn't been on a ballot in Florida for six years.

Mr. Gephardt, the former House minority leader, is a safe choice. Charlie Cook of National Journal notes that Missouri is the most evenly divided state in the union; it is also the country's most reliable bellwether, having gone with the victor in every presidential election since 1956. Mr. Gephardt's "presence of the ticket would most likely tip its 11 electoral votes," says Mr. Cook. His strong ties to unions could also help Mr. Kerry boost voter turnout in key industrial states such as Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania.

Mr. Kerry may decide the way to shake up the race is to make a truly unconventional choice, as Walter Mondale tried to do when he picked Ms. Ferraro, the first-ever woman on a national ticket, in 1984. This year the equivalent choice to pick up the "in" demographic group would be New Mexico's Gov. Bill Richardson, who is Latino.

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But there is an even bolder move. At the end of this year, the 63-year-old Mr. Brokaw is retiring after two decades as the anchor of the top-rated "NBC Nightly News," and he could probably be persuaded to leave the anchor desk a few months early. Surely his many friends in the national news media would give him an ethics pass on such a departure.

Last year, the New York Observer reported that an ad hoc committee of his media friends, including executives Barry Diller and Howard Stringer along with writers Nora Ephron and Kurt Andersen, "weren't taking no for an answer" when it came to promoting a Brokaw candidacy for president. "He simply is the greatest draft choice you could ever possibly imagine," said Mr. Diller. "He's such a natural on so many levels that I can't imagine how you could create it otherwise. Of course it's absurd, but there it is." Ms. Ephron predicted last year that if Mr. Brokaw changed his mind, "$20 million would come pouring in in about a week." Mr. Brokaw demurred, saying through a spokesman: "I'm not running for anything." But Mickey Kaus of Slate reported last year that Mr. Brokaw remains intensely interested in politics and has thought about running for president.

John Thune, the Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in Mr. Brokaw's home state of South Dakota, agrees. He says Mr. Brokaw has been intrigued by politics ever since his days at the University of South Dakota. "It would be a fascinating out of the box choice," he told me. A South Dakota Democratic state legislator assures me that Mr. Brokaw would be a good ideological fit for Mr. Kerry, with the added advantage that "no one thinks of him as a liberal."

Most Americans have respect, even affection, for Mr. Brokaw. More than one TV critic commented on his performance as moderator of a Democratic presidential debate last November by suggesting the debate would have been livened up if he had been one of the candidates. The Weekly Standard says he has mastered the technique of appearing on television as "a thoughtful fellow, caught in unhurried rumination." His book on World War II veterans, "The Greatest Generation," sold more than 4.1 million copies in 1999 and was followed up by three subsequent bestsellers. Even his ideological adversaries give him his due. Dennis Miller, the caustic comedian, dismisses Peter Jennings and Dan Rather as "Stepford anchors" but even before he landed his current show on CNBC opined that "Tom has many likable human qualities."

Even his adversaries acknowledge that Mr. Brokaw would shake up politics. "It would be a fascinating choice," says Wayne LaPierre, head of the National Rifle Association. Brent Bozell of the conservative Media Research Center, who in 2002 criticized Mr. Brokaw for saying he didn't wear an American flag pin in his lapel because it would suggest he endorsed Bush administration policies, admits that Mr. Brokaw's books enable him to "come across to most people as a patriot." Mr. Brokaw in turn has criticized Mr. Bozell's group for "making fine legal points everywhere every day" about NBC's media bias. "A lot of it just doesn't hold up. So much of it is that bias--like beauty--is in the eye of the beholder."

Were Mr. Kerry to consider Mr. Brokaw as a running mate, the risks of such a decision would have to be considered. It's unclear how voters would react to an anchorman on a national ticket, though the success of local anchors in running for office suggests their celebrity status and credibility are a net plus.

In addition, Mr. Brokaw has a surprisingly standoffish attitude toward coverage of himself. He is wary of media attention and has resisted entreaties to use the media to shape his image. In 2001, Newsday tried to confirm rumors that Mr. Brokaw is "all powerful" at NBC News and "responsible for the hiring and--ultimately--the firing of NBC News presidents." The Long Island, N.Y., newspaper couldn't come to any conclusions, but did unearth an anecdote in which one former NBC News president bellowed to a subordinate, "Tom Brokaw doesn't run NBC News. I do." Newsday noted that "of course, that president left years ago. Brokaw is still around."

I approached Mr. Brokaw last month after a media seminar to chat about California, where we both lived in the 1970s and whose politics fascinate him. We didn't chat about presidential politics; I hadn't yet heard the vice-presidential rumors. But he did confirm that it was he who introduced Arnold Schwarzenegger to Maria Shriver at a celebrity tennis tournament in 1977. That introduction changed political history; few people believe that Mr. Schwarzenegger could have become governor of California without Ms. Shriver's savvy support. If Mr. Brokaw resists entreaties to enter politics, perhaps Democrats will remind him he could balance off that unintended gift to the Republican Party by joining their own ticket this year.

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©2001, John H. Fund