Brokaw: War Critics Believed Iraq Had WMD, Too Much PC in Race Talk

During an appearance on CNN's "Reliable Sources" on Sunday, former NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw pointed out that before the invasion of Iraq, even "people who were critical of the war" thought that Saddam Hussein "had weapons of mass destruction," as he responded to criticism that the media were not aggressive enough about challenging President Bush before the Iraq invasion. And while commenting on racial issues, giving his view that "we need to have a dialogue in this country" about race, Brokaw lamented the problems posed by "political correctness" which means "you're in danger of being a racist if you go against the merits of some issues and just try to look at it objectively." Brokaw added: "Within the black culture, there's a fear about speaking out, about what some people see as wrong, because they say, don't go there, you know, it will only hurt our people." (Transcript follows)

After a discussion of Brokaw's views on the Vietnam War, during which Brokaw recounted that he was "enraged" upon hearing tapes of Lyndon Johnson expressing "deep doubts" about the war even while the former President "kept pouring people in" as "he was protecting his political ass," CNN host Howard Kurtz turned the subject to the Iraq War. Kurtz: "In terms of the coverage, do you see certain parallels here to Iraq? Most people would say, and I would agree, that the media did a pretty poor job during the run-up to the Iraq War in terms of the way that President Bush was selling it, and now, of course, the coverage in recent years has been more critical."

Brokaw defended the media's coverage of the run-up to the invasion, pointing out that most skeptics believed at the time that Iraq had WMD, and contending that there was little opposition to the war expressed within the Democratic Party at the time. Brokaw: "The one thing I would disagree with you about, a lot of what happened on the run-up was unknowable. People did believe he had weapons of mass destruction. People who were critical of the war and the idea of going to war did, in fact, think that he had weapons of mass destruction, which was one of the bases for-"

After conceding to Kurtz his view that "on the war plan [the media] should have been a lot more skeptical," Brokaw continued: "Yeah, but you have to remember the opposition voices were not that many in this town, for example, in Washington. There just weren't that many. We put Brent Scowcroft on 'Nightly News.' I did a two-way with him. And I was one of the few places where he would go where he would do that. We did have Senator Bob Byrd on the air and Ted Kennedy on the air, but it passed by a pretty considerable margin."

Regarding the current news of the diminishing violence in Iraq, Brokaw acknowledged that for the media, "it's time to take a look at it again," and that the media should "take notice of the fact that the attacks are down," but he also poured water on the positive news by contending that "these are small signs of some progress four years later," and that recent developments "won't solve the political issue about whether Iraq can handle its own destiny."

Later on, after Kurtz brought up the controversy over Don Imus making racist comments about the Rutgers women's basketball team, Brokaw recounted that he had hoped something positive would come out of the affair in the form of a "dialogue in this country" about race. He contended that in general there is too much "political correctness" and "danger of being [called] a racist" when expressing disagreement on a racial issue. Brokaw: "I think that we do need to have a dialogue in this country. We don't have language for dealing with race. Everybody hides behind political correctness or a certain mythology. No one wants to offend, no one wants to get at the facts of it. You're in danger of being a racist if you go against the merits of some issues and just try to look at it objectively. That goes on across the racial spectrum, by the way. Within the black culture, there's a fear about speaking out, about what some people see as wrong, because they say, don't go there, you know, it will only hurt our people. So I do, we used to talk about race with a lot more candor than we do now."

Below is a transcript of relevant portions of the Sunday November 25 "Reliable Sources" on CNN:

HOWARD KURTZ: Vietnam, one of your friends from the University of South Dakota went there, did not come back. You write that you were disillusioned with the deceptions of Johnson and Nixon. Talk a little bit about that.

TOM BROKAW: Well, Johnson tapes just enraged me when I read them later, the private conversations he was having very early on with Richard Russell.

KURTZ: His own doubts about the war that he was prosecuting.

BROKAW: His own deep doubts about the war. And the man that he really counted on in the Senate to be his military affairs expert, Richard Russell, said he just doesn't believe that this makes any sense at all, that he at one point says it will all be settled with missiles if it's settled at all. And, but Johnson keeps pouring people in. He was terrified, obviously, the political effect that it might have if the right would come after him. He even talks in one exchange about impeachment. He was protecting his political ass, excuse my language, but that's what he was doing while young people were dying over there.

BROKAW: Nixon made more of an effort to try to find peace in Vietnam. He did make several overtures to the north. But he kept pouring people in there as well because he believed he was the last person who should lose a war and that he thought it was important to stand up to the communists. He came into office if not actually saying, "I have a secret plan for making peace"-

KURTZ: Right.

BROKAW: -giving the impression that he could bring the war to an end.

KURTZ: In terms of the coverage, do you see certain parallels here to Iraq? Most people would say, and I would agree, that the media did a pretty poor job during the run-up to the Iraq War in terms of the way that President Bush was selling it, and now, of course, the coverage in recent years has been more critical.

BROKAW: Yeah, the one thing I would disagree with you about, a lot of what happened on the run-up was unknowable. People did believe he had weapons of mass destruction. People who were critical of the war and the idea of going to war did, in fact, think that he had weapons of mass destruction, which was one of the bases for-

KURTZ: But shouldn't journalists have been more skeptical toward the line the administration was selling, even if they couldn't disprove it-

BROKAW: I think on the war plan they should have been a lot more skeptical.

KURTZ: And given more space, more air time to opposition voices? There was a feeling-

BROKAW: Yeah, but you have to remember the opposition voices were not that many in this town, for example, in Washington. There just weren't that many. We put Brent Scowcroft on "Nightly News." I did a two-way with him. And I was one of the few places where he would go where he would do that. We did have Senator Bob Byrd on the air and Ted Kennedy on the air, but it passed by a pretty considerable margin.

KURTZ: Oh, within the Democratic Party there weren't that many anti-war voices.

BROKAW: Yeah, that's right.

KURTZ: There were some outside. In recent months, though, casualties are down in Iraq. Some would say that the surge is having some modest success. Yet conservatives say that's not getting enough coverage. Is that because of Iraq fatigue? Is that because only bad news is news?

BROKAW: No, I think it's time to take a look at it again. You know what, Howie? These are small signs of some progress four years later.

KURTZ: Sure.

BROKAW: And the Iraqi government still doesn't have it together. And after four years, if the Iraqis can't take care of themselves with all of the money that has been poured in there, all of the help that they've been given, that's a truer measurement, I think, of what's going on in Iraq. It does not mean that we ought not to take notice of the fact that the attacks are down, that the insurgency has been hurt. I had a briefing the other day about what's going on with IEDs. After billions of dollars, we have finally found a way to be more effective at protecting our troops from them and detonating them early. But it's taken a long time. That won't solve the political issue about whether Iraq can handle its own destiny.

...

KURTZ: Don Imus comes up in your book. He goes back on the air, on the radio, next week. You told him when he was going though his difficult time after the insult of the Rutgers women's basketball players and when CBS Radio dumped him and MSNBC dumped him as well that you hoped that what he was going through, painful as it was, would lead to an elevated racial dialogue in the country. What did he say to you?

BROKAW: He said, "Call me at the ranch when that happens," because he didn't expect it to happen, and he was right. It hasn't happened. And it's one of the things that I address directly in the book. I think that we do need to have a dialogue in this country. We don't have language for dealing with race. Everybody hides behind political correctness or a certain mythology. No one wants to offend, no one wants to get at the facts of it. You're in danger of being a racist if you go against the merits of some issues and just try to look at it objectively. That goes on across the racial spectrum, by the way. Within the black culture, there's a fear about speaking out, about what some people see as wrong, because they say, don't go there, you know, it will only hurt our people. So I do, we used to talk about race with a lot more candor than we do now.

KURTZ: Do you think that Imus can make a successful comeback? And would you go back on the show?

BROKAW: You know, what I've said is that, let's hear what he has to say. I think we owe him that. I believe in redemption. I think Don's a very smart guy. I know that that meeting that he had with the students from Rutgers, with the basketball players, was one of the most important moments in his life, a deeply emotional and moving time, I think, for both parties. So let's hear what he has to say.