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The Hollow Rage of Tom Brokaw

The legendary journalist’s wounded response to accusations of sexual harassment reveals a lot about who is entitled to power.

Mike Coppola/Getty Images

I wonder if we’re tiring of #MeToo. I wonder if we’ll just reach a limit to how many of our idols we can bear to see lose their crowns. And I wonder if we’re still clinging to the hope that those who perpetrated abuse are somehow fundamentally bad people, instead of facing the more deeply disorienting possibility that our very ideals about what constitutes accomplishment—our reverence for power and confidence and, yes, aggression and entitlement—might promote or inculcate abusive behavior in nearly anybody. We still want to believe in the possibility of a “golden boy,” a man who still has it all: infinite power and infinite goodness.

I wonder all this because of the sexual harassment controversy surrounding Tom Brokaw, the former anchor at NBC who has since become the network’s eminence grise. In a 1,000-word email to friends and colleagues, Brokaw declared last Thursday, April 26, “the first day of my new life as an accused predator in the universe of American journalism.” He said he was “ambushed and then perp walked across the pages of The Washington Post.” He claimed that his accuser had taken him to the “guillotine,” unjustly “stripped him of any honor he has earned,” and even tried to destroy his “citizenship.”

On April 26, the Post had published the accusations of Linda Vester—a former Fulbright scholar in Egypt; a graduate of the Sorbonne; a foreign correspondent in Saudi Arabia, Haiti, Rwanda, and Somalia; a television anchor; and the funder of scholarships for girls and treatment for PTSD-afflicted veterans. She alleged that Brokaw had tried to kiss her uninvited, and groped her in front of her colleagues, when she was an intern for NBC in the 1990s. Another NBC employee told the Post Brokaw touched her breasts in the office.

In his 4 a.m. email the following morning, Brokaw wrote that Vester had “failed in her pursuit of stardom.” She “complained,” he said, “that I tickled her without permission (you read that right).” She “had limited success”; yet was “not frightened” and “eager for advice.” In other words, whatever efforts she made to overcome her mediocrity should convince us she would stop at nothing. Presumably to offset her so-called “failure,” Brokaw surmised, Vester “married a wealthy man”—but nevertheless, he reckoned, she hungered for fame by “portraying herself as [#MeToo’s] den mother [and its] ‘keeper of the flame.’” (A couple of allegations made to help a Post reporter describe a workplace culture, of course, constitute no such self-righteous portrayal: When Brokaw talks about positioning oneself as a “den mother” and “keeping the flame,” he is describing himself.)

This is the Bill Clinton, Clarence Thomas, and Bill Cosby playbook: Discredit the woman. Complain that she overreacted to a little fun. Accuse her simultaneously of career failure and of being too ambitious—her ambition a symbol of her voracious, smothering sexuality. Wildly overstate her own claims to make them appear ridiculous. And insist that any allegation against him, is, in essence, an attack on the notion that anything at all can be holy—an attack against America. Brokaw becomes, in his defense, a synecdoche for the proper success story, the ideal American man, the country itself and what is most precious in it.

It isn’t at all clear how a woman, in his telling, could be such a thing. His own family, Brokaw bragged, can boast of “considerable success.” Nonetheless, he warned the recipients of his email that Vester’s allegations sought to “destroy all that I have achieved.”

If bullying like this is the mark of a “successful” person, then I’ll take Vester’s “failure” any day. I shouldn’t have to note, of course, Vester’s resume items. Her claims would deserve equal attention if she were a janitor. But Brokaw’s entire defense rested on an account of achievement and of power: who deserves to have it, and to keep it.

So I was totally stunned when more than a hundred women, including Rachel Maddow and Mika Brzezinski, stepped forward immediately to boost Brokaw. This week, allegations emerged that some of the younger signers, according to The New York Post, “felt forced to sign the letter”: “The unspoken threat,” said an unnamed employee, “was that if your name was not on it, there would be some repercussion down the road. Execs are watching to see who signed and who didn’t. This was all about coming out in force to protect NBC’s golden boy.”

The allegation that NBC executives pressured young staffers to support their “golden boy” is incredibly dispiriting and deserved major media attention. It didn’t get it. It also doesn’t explain the knee-jerk support of more famous and, presumably, more insulated media personalities.

These women should know that it’s not easy to publicly accuse a power-broker of abuse. It’s not easy. It’s not the easiest way to fame and fortune, as Clinton’s and Cosby’s lawyers always liked to assert. Shouldn’t we have learned this by now? Isn’t this the primary thing, in the last six months, we should have learned?

When I was 21, I woke up, disoriented and naked, in the apartment of a writer at a top newspaper whose advice on breaking into journalism I had taken a train to New York to seek. The last thing I remembered was my second martini in a midtown bar ten miles from that apartment. Mentioning this experience to a few people recently, the overwhelming response I got is that if I mention this complex event publicly I would ruin the man’s career—and my own virginal reputation. The heavy weight of the implication that I have the power to singlehandedly destroy a person I actually have no wish to totally destroy has silenced me.

As I said, it’s not easy to accuse a power-broker of abuse. Not only out of fear—like the fear of executives keeping an eye on who’s a good employee and who isn’t. Also because of the fear of destroying our idols—the fear of ruining somebody we admired and longed to emulate. Asserting oneself against an idol, actually, may bring down not only a person, but greater ideas and hopes, too. And it’s not easy not least because we women know now, and hesitate before, the deadly power we are purported to hold.

Is it true that one woman’s allegation of sexual harassment could vitiate an entire career, as Brokaw laments? The claim is hysterical—and self-serving. Let’s not forget the 8,000 days he was privileged to spend as the beloved, untouchable dean of American journalism. Let’s not forget the 1,502 times Brokaw was mentioned, with no allegation of harassment, in the Post in the last 20 years. But Brokaw’s email is fascinatingly revealing insofar as it actually bolsters the case that maybe it should.

We don’t know the truth in Brokaw’s case yet, if we ever will. But the picture of a man who expects his extraordinary power to always be with him, and who reacts with fury if that power is questioned—not by a “guillotine,” but by another human being’s voice—makes it more comprehensible, not less, that Brokaw acted as thoughtlessly as his accuser contends. I find it very hard to feel sorry for the man who gathered the world’s most bountiful harvests of money and praise—yes, thanks to his labor, but thanks also to luck and to the hard work of his uncelebrated underlings—who then screams holy murder when the tax man shows up at his door. I’m even more deeply troubled that so many other high-profile media celebrities do feel sorry for him. I tend to suspect that the people who are telling the more difficult version of the truth are telling the truth. In my experience, too—and in our cultural experience, which, six months into the #MeToo movement, we don’t seem to be learning from, but turning away from—outsized outrage and fury tends not to distinguish those who are falsely accused, but those who know, deep down, they have done something wrong.