Let me just start by saying that pretty much ever since he retired in 2004, when NBC has brought former anchor Tom Brokaw out to comment on election coverage or whatever other issue is deemed important enough to require his rich baritone, I’ve thought he might be drunk on the air.
It’s a comment I’ve made many times to anyone unfortunate enough to be sitting in the room with me. Sometimes I’ve been drunk when I noticed how drunk he seemed, which means he must have been acting really drunk. I’m not alone in this observation. Google it.
So I’m sure that’s what I would have suspected if I was sitting in the audience last weekend when Ole Tom delivered the commencement address at Ole Miss and started out with a jab at the University of Alabama. He said, “Let me also say at the beginning, I’m so relieved to be speaking to a graduating class from Ole Miss. If I were speaking at Alabama, I would have to use smaller words and shorter sentences.”
Give him points for knowing his audience. Plenty of guffaws. But he also had to know such a comment wouldn’t go unchallenged by U of A graduates as well as the legions of people who wish they had enrolled there to watch football games. I just hope Tom doesn’t have any nice trees in his yard.
I don’t have a dog in this fight. I grew up in Mississippi, didn’t attend either school and always thought Peter Jennings was a better anchor, even if he did say “out” like a Canadian and pronounce “Nicaragua” like he grew up in Managua. And I’m a newspaper guy, so hearing a TV anchor making a joke inferring he might have to tone down his expansive vocabulary for a particular audience gives me a chance to look down my journalistic nose and belly laugh, which is exciting.
That said, I know the ire elicited by Tom’s snide comments is particularly intense because it steps on the well-traveled notion Mississippians are somehow even dumber than people from Alabama. I’ve heard plenty of Alabamians cackle “Thank God for Mississippi” every time someone is busted for having sex with livestock or another report places the mirror-image states 49th and 50th in education.
This still happens even as the governor, speaker of the house and chief justice of the state Supreme Court are all cuddled up in a legal hot tub. Add to that the fact Ole Miss has beaten Bama in football two years in a row and Brokaw might as well have gone and peed on Bear Bryant’s statue.
If there’s one thing that won’t be tolerated in Alabama it’s any attempt to upend the pecking order of crappy Southern states. Alabama looks down on Mississippi. Mississippi looks down on Arkansas. Arkansas makes fun of Louisiana, and Tennessee and Kentucky have never quite figured out who sucks more. All of these states take comfort in thinking they’re better than someone else, and if things get really bad, West Virginia is always there like a poorly made safety blanket.
My guess is that in Tom’s world the Southern states are all populated by total morons. After all, he went to the University of South Dakota — practically Ivy League, right? And every time he shows up on NBC they act like someone just defrosted Einstein. Brokaw is probably out of touch with what it’s like to speak to regular people and forgot those kinds of remarks are bound to have people screaming “Roll Tide Roll!” in his face at every airport he walks through for the rest of his life.
The university and its alums are going to have to settle for such childish methods now because whoever is heading the U of A’s Department of Snappy Comebacks may need a refresher course or two in the art of verbal jousting. The university’s lame response contained none of the satire and wit one would expect from a top school blasting a potentially drunk has-been anchor.
The school’s response was, “Thirty-six percent of the freshman class at the University of Alabama has an ACT score of 30 or higher. This places Alabama in the top 5 percent in the country. Our numbers speak for themselves.” Oooh, feel the burn, Brokaw!
First of all, everybody knows ACT scores are as juiced up as high school graduation rates, so Brokaw’s not going to be impressed by that. Secondly they missed the chance to put him in his place.
Something like this would have been far better: “Just because Mississippi is a longer word than Alabama shouldn’t impress Tom Brokaw more than the University of Alabama’s sterling academic reputation, 38 national football championships and attractive co-eds. Perhaps someone should count the bottles left in Mr. Brokaw’s mini-bar before he checks out.”
That’s just a rough draft. It might need some fine-tuning.
I like to think there were mitigating circumstances that caused Brokaw to say something so dumb and hurtful. He’s an anchorman, so maybe someone wrote the joke in his teleprompter and he just read it out loud, Ron Burgundy-style. Maybe he was regurgitating a joke he heard Henry Kissinger make about Yale while speaking to a group from Harvard and didn’t realize jokes like that don’t upset people from those schools because they’re already rich and going to be hired the second they graduate.
Perhaps he figured none of the students would have any idea who he was since he hasn’t been on the air regularly in 12 years and he was just trying to “mix it up” by hammering another SEC school. He probably should have picked a more docile one or saved that joke for his next speech at Vanderbilt. At least then it would have just been a statement of fact.
Hopefully the U of A faithful can take this insensitive joke in stride and recognize Brokaw probably didn’t mean to hurt anyone’s feelings. Knowing Alabama’s alumni and fans like I do, I have no doubt they’ll take the high road. In fact, I’m sure it won’t be long before Tom has a few Bama alums buying him drinks and taking him to sleep it off at Krystal.
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