Tom Brokaw, liberal Democrat

In the introduction to Did You Ever See a Dream Walking?, the anthology of conservative thought he edited for publication in 1970, William F. Buckley memorably declared: “Blindfold me, spin me about like a top, and I will walk up to the single liberal in the room without zig or zag and find him even if he is hiding behind a flower pot.” Which reminds me.

As a young lawyer new to private practice but fresh from a clerkship on the Eighth Circuit, I was asked to work with South Dakota attorney Larry Piersol as local counsel on an appeal pending for one of Larry’s clients in that court. Larry worked in private practice in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and was a South Dakotan through and through.

In late 1981 or early 1982 Larry came to town for the oral argument of the appeal in St. Paul. We had Larry over for dinner and got to talking about matters political. Larry had served in the South Dakota House of Representatives as Democratic minority whip and even for a term as majority leader. His success in politics was no accident; he was both likable and intelligent. Indeed, his legal skills and political service resulted in his appointment to the bench as a district judge by Bill Clinton in 1993. (Judge Piersol took senior status in 2009.)

In the course of our conversation Larry told me that he was an old friend of South Dakota native Tom Brokaw. Brokaw, he confided, is an interesting guy. You really can’t get a good handle on his politics, he told me.

I disagreed. “He’s a liberal,” I asserted.

“You really can’t tell,” Larry responded.

“I can tell,” I said. “He’s a liberal.”

How could I tell? I can’t remember. I’m not bragging; it’s not hard to tell. Bill Buckley would not have had to exert his great analytical powers to find Brokaw out. You can just tell.

If you’ve heard any of Brokaw’s brief commentaries served up in recent years as An American Story, or heard him opining on any of the NBC/MSNBC gabfests, you know he’s a liberal, and an earnest one at that.

I love the tagline he uses for his American Story commentaries. “This is Tom Brokaw reporting,” he says. He’s still deep under cover. It’s almost funny.

Reading Brokaw’s New York Times column yesterday about the opportunity he was offered to serve as President Nixon’s press secretary in late 1969, I thought back to my conversation with Larry. Brokaw writes in the Times column:

White House press secretary to Richard Nixon? I had been raised in a family of Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman Democrats. My parents were skeptical about John F. Kennedy, but my wife and I were generational enthusiasts.

I worked hard at keeping personal beliefs out of my work, but there were limits. My first job, in a deeply conservative Omaha newsroom, was a test. Most of my colleagues thought I was a crazed liberal for supporting Medicare and the voting rights and civil rights bills.

Not a crazed liberal, Tom, just a liberal. A decent liberal, a patriotic liberal, but a liberal nevertheless, of the Democrat variety.

This is Scott Johnson reporting.

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