Tom Brokaw

October 11, 2010

First there was the Duel in Davis. Then the Fracas in Fresno. And now comes the Brokaw Brawl.

The former NBC News anchor will be the third conspicuous presence in the match-up on Tuesday at Dominican University between Jerry Brown and Meg Whitman. The substance, tone and texture of the debate will be entirely decided by Tom Brokaw who, despite having no intimate knowledge about the race for governor, has a facility for asking candidates questions that probe the thinking beneath their talking points.

For Gandalf, that should not be much of a problem: it doesn’t take much to get him to talk about the philosophical underpinnings of his political ideas. His only risk is letting loose a verbal arabesque that references G.K. Chesterton, St. Ignatius and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and leaves listeners asking, “WTF is he talking about?”

But we have no idea how eMeg will handle the challenge because as far as we know she’s never submitted to an interview where her political ontology has been revealed. She’s a smart woman with an accomplished business resume but she didn’t even vote for 28 years before she woke up one day and decided she just couldn’t let California fail.

In the 2008 presidential debate between Barack Obama and John McCain, Brokaw took time between questions from the audience and the interwebs to ask questions like:

– “Quick discussion: Is health care in America a privilege, a right, or a responsibility?”

– “Should we fund a Manhattan-like project that develops a nuclear bomb to deal with global energy and alternative energy or should we fund 100,000 garages across America, the kind of industry and innovation that developed Silicon Valley?”

– “Let’s see if we can establish tonight the Obama doctrine and the McCain doctrine for the use of United States combat forces in situations where there’s a humanitarian crisis, but it does not affect our national security.”

– “This requires only a yes or a no. Ronald Reagan famously said that the Soviet Union was the evil empire. Do you think that Russia under Vladimir Putin is an evil empire?”

Of course, a well-trained seal candidate can revert to talking points, even in the face of a thoughtful question. But at the risk of looking like a shallow evader – especially if the moderator or the opponent points out that he or she never answered the question.

Consider the possibilities. In a moving 2006 commencement address to Stanford’s undergraduates, Brokaw spoke of a world of perpetual contradictions, unintended consequences and unexpected realities, and he described how he admires most people who gave up comfort and convention to make a difference.

He said he could hobnob with elites anywhere in the world but that he never felt so intellectually alive as the time he heard a young nomadic tribesman in Mongolia describe riding his horse 20 miles through freezing temperatures just for the chance to vote.

Will he use the passion he has about commitment and participation to ask Whitman why she never voted for all those years? Or to ask Brown why, if he’s genuinely committed to democracy, doesn’t he advocate a majority vote for passing taxes?

Just because Brokaw is in charge, however, doesn’t mean the candidates won’t have their own debate strategies. Brown, believing he is leading in the polls, has no reason to attack and every reason to project himself as an elder statesman who does not have to wrestle in the dirt. Voters know he’s got what it takes to be governor; they just want to know he’ll keep his hands off their money.

But if Whitman believes she’s behind (as she apparently did going into the Univision debate), she will want to make Brown bleed and pressure him to make an error. She’ll want him on defense (which is not that hard if you attack his record). But as we’ve seen, Brown is a consummate counter-puncher and is not afraid of breaking the conventions of TV format if he has to. So if Whitman comes at him, it’s a move that carries risks, especially when her No. 1 challenge is to demonstrate that she has the skill, knowledge and temperament to be a governor.

In an interview with comrade Joe Garofoli of the Chronicle back in August, Brokaw, who said he won’t be a “patsy,” even though he has been following California politics from Montana. “The big issues obviously are spending and taxes and special interests and the referendum procedure. These are all critical issues for California,” he said. “The large issue for California is, ‘Are the golden years over?’ Or, is there a new era for California? And if there is, how do we get to it and bring everybody on board?”

Let’s hope he doesn’t ask vapid questions like that because he’ll just get the same drivel the candidates spew on the stump.

Tuesday’s debate may serve as a pivot point for the rest of the campaign. We’re not sure when Whitman will make her next move against Brown on TV: Will it be before the debate or after? Will she put something up that she wants Brokaw to ask about, or will it be something she’d rather not have brought up in the debate?

Most consultants we’ve talked to in the past few days are predicting that Whitman will throw whatever’s left of the kitchen sink at Brown in the next weeks. Some think she’ll just hammer him further about taxes and spending – since the Armies of eMeg believe that’s his weak spot.

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