Tom Brokaw for President?

The veteran journalist could mount a serious third party challenge.


Suppose the current widespread longing for a 2012 presidential candidate who isn't now in the race were met by a candidate with near-universal name-recognition, who is handsome and good enough on television to be a network anchorman. Suppose the candidate already had a reservoir of goodwill with the national news media, who consider him one of them.

Then add an inspiring personal story. Neither of his parents attended college. His mother grew up in a house without indoor plumbing, and she worked nights as a waitress. His wife made her entire college wardrobe at her Singer sewing machine. Yet eventually he made millions of dollars a year.

The candidate's issues-based campaign platform includes getting tough on public employee unions, expanding charter schools, privatizing public toll roads, and means-testing Medicare.

Oh—and the candidate has a new book out from Random House—The Time of Our Lives: A Conversation About America, by Tom Brokaw.

Whether Mr. Brokaw ends up as a third-party political candidate is anybody's guess, but if there's a case for the candidacy, it is to be found in his new book. As campaign books tend to be, it's a combination of biographical details and policy points.

President Obama's "failure to aggressively attack unemployment" and his decision "to concentrate instead on a massive and complex health care reform law troubled even his most ardent supporters," Mr. Brokaw writes.

Sounding a bit like Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum in the best-selling That Used To Be Us, Mr. Brokaw advises getting tough on over-generous benefits to public employees. He writes: "Republicans and Democrats alike treated public treasuries as bottomless ATMs, scattering cash across pet projects and buying off public employees unions and special interest groups with sweetheart deals, especially when it came to pensions." He cites a Los Angeles Times article reporting that 10 retired city employees will draw pension payments of between $200,000 and $317,000 "annually until they die."

He touts, by comparison, "stupendous" savings and efficiencies that can be wrought by having private contractors do things like operate the Chicago Skyway toll road, a 157-mile stretch of highway in Indiana, or wastewater treatment in Sioux City, Iowa.

Mr. Brokaw praises Mayor Bloomberg and his schools commissioner, Joel Klein, for getting the New York state legislature to lift the cap on the number of charter schools, despite resistance from "old-line New York politicians, many of them closely aligned with the teachers' unions."

He'd extend the school year to 11 months, consolidate state colleges and universities so that not every state has its own graduate school of everything, and staple green cards to the diplomas of graduating science students at American universities.

Like the Republican chairman of the House Budget Committee, Paul Ryan, Mr. Brokaw would "apply greater means-testing to Medicare," or, as Brokaw puts it, "The more you have, the less you should get from the government in the way of entitlements."

He'd like to do more to help severely wounded veterans, and he's negative on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, preferring instead a "Peace Corps Plus" or "Diplomatic Special Forces" of noncombatants stationed in forward operating bases as physicians, educators, and agriculture experts to win the "hearts and mind" mission. They might be trained at newly created "public service academies" that Mr. Brokaw suggests might be corporate-funded—"a Johnson and Johnson fellowship in Third World medicine," a "Caterpillar fellowship in road construction," a "GE fellowship in power generators or clean-water systems."

It suggests Mr. Brokaw isn't hostile to American business, if perhaps, too, that he's less than fully alert to the conflicts of interest that such relationships might entail.

On the cultural front, Mr. Brokaw comes out for a "dialogue on the public use of language," asking, "When did the F-word become acceptable outside the locker room or barroom?"

He also emphasizes thrift. In a chapter headlined "Church of Thrift," Mr. Brokaw writes "we had gotten hooked on expensive cars, rooms full of new electronic toys, Las Vegas vacations, cruise lines, dining out, and the biggest buy of all, a house." Later, he writes that he, the chief federal judge in South Dakota, a state supreme court justice in South Dakota, a college astronomy professor, the former attorney general of South Dakota, a former second baseman for the Oakland A's, and the proprietor of the busiest restaurant in his hometown of Yankton, South Dakota, all grew up in houses with one bathroom.

It may be that Americans don't want to settle for turning back the clock to just one bathroom but would rather prefer growth and increased standards of living, or at least politicians who promise them. Mr. Brokaw will be 72 in 2012, the same age as John McCain was in 2008 and a year younger than Ronald Reagan was when he was re-elected in 1984.

But if the political-media establishment or the electorate are hungering for a candidate in 2012 who isn't Barack Obama, Rick Perry, Herman Cain, or Mitt Romney, and if Michael Bloomberg isn't going to run—well, let's just say the debates could be livelier next year if Mr. Brokaw participates not as a moderator but as a candidate. As Mr. Brokaw's book puts it: "It's now accepted that independent voters make up about thirty per cent of the American electorate, and with every new election they're proving to be a powerful swing vote."

Ira Stoll is editor of and of the just-launched