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A Conversation With Judy Woodruff

May 2013

By Marta Perez Drake

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The veteran broadcast journalist—and annual meeting keynote speaker—shares her observations, ranging from the current partisan national leadership to the impact of a distinctly different younger generation.

A broadcast journalist who has covered politics and other news for more than three decades, Judy Woodruff was certainly in her element during the presidential election year of 2012. In fact, she made television history when she and Gwen Ifill became the first all-female team to coanchor a TV network’s live coverage of both the two national conventions and election night.

Woodruff says those attracted to power “tend to be interesting people with multiple dimensions. Some are incredibly generous, egalitarian, and open in what they do. Others are secretive and want all the credit for themselves. I’ve seen both ends of the spectrum and everything in between.

“Clearly, what they all have in common is a drive and ambition to be at a decision making central point where they can affect change, where they can get other people to follow their advice. They want to be leaders. Beyond that, how they wield power can differ. Some of them are organized, and some are not so well organized. Some of them are articulate and are able to verbalize and inspire beautifully. Others have a harder time verbalizing; they gain their leadership skills more by example and by personal one-on-one relationships.

“They are people who are smart, who are driven, who have a passion for whatever issues brought them to leadership. It’s a question of who has all those qualities. Who’s able to touch and inspire an immediate circle of individuals who will look to them and work to support them? Do they follow up on what they’ve promised? Do they state clear goals and do they keep repeating those goals? It requires constant cajoling, persuading, making the case, making the argument. It’s a combination of all those skills that makes leadership fascinating.”

Woodruff will share her perspective on leadership and the political landscape as a keynote speaker at the NACUBO 2013 Annual Meeting, July 13–16, in Indianapolis. These days she coanchors the PBS NewsHour and she also anchors a monthly program for Bloomberg Television, Conversations With Judy Woodruff. Over the years she has served as White House correspondent for NBC News, anchor and senior correspondent for CNN’s Inside Politics, and chief Washington correspondent for the PBS MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour.

The Historic Back Story

Is there a news story she really wanted to cover but didn’t get to?

“I covered the election of 2000 and I did cover 9/11,” Woodruff says, “so it would have to be a historical event—maybe the writing of the Constitution or the Founding Fathers. There are a lot of questions I would have loved to have asked them. And, by the way, where were the founding mothers? Of course, at the time women didn’t even have the right to vote.

“I would have loved to have interviewed Abigail Adams, because, when you read John and Abigail’s letters, you realize how smart she was, what she brought to that relationship, and what he learned from her. There were so many other women in that era whose views were not recorded, or that are scattered in writings that we have available now.”

Woodruff would like to know what the Founding Fathers might think if they could see how divided a country the United States is today. “Was it their intention that the two parties be so divided that they don’t even talk to each other? What could they have done as they wrote that document to prevent this from happening? Is there some language they would have changed? Were they happy with the balance of power between the federal government and the states? There are a lot of things I’d like to talk to them about.”

The Roots of Divisiveness

The unbending partisanship of recent years concerns Woodruff. “Our political leadership can’t come together and work together in a collaborative way,” she says. “I’ve never seen it as divided as it is.”

From her years of covering politics, she has a theory about how divisiveness might have evolved. “I think it really started to happen back in the 1990s. With the 1992 election of President Clinton, I thought there was an unusually strong reaction on the part of Republicans, many of whom I heard say they didn’t think he was a legitimate president—that he didn’t have a distinguished record as governor of Arkansas and he didn’t deserve to be president. There was a surprising amount of lack of respect, which is so interesting today, because many Republicans now cite President Clinton as an example of somebody they could work with.” 

Another presidential election in 2000 brought the Bush-Gore standoff and “the historic division that lasted over the 38 days of the unsettled election and the Supreme Court ruling. The Democrats came out of that election saying many of the same things I heard Republicans say 10 years earlier about President Clinton. There was so much bitterness at the time. So I think the divisions that started in the ’90s grew worse in the decade of the 2000s. 

“Here we are 13 years later, and it’s gotten still worse,” she continues. “With President Obama’s election in 2008, there was an extraordinary level of vituperative animosity coming from the other party, and it really has not relented. In 2012, Obama won reelection by four percentage points, which is not close in modern-day politics. And he was the first president since Dwight Eisenhower to win 51 percent of the vote in both elections—so he’s accomplished something—and yet Republicans would argue that he’s practically an illegitimate president.

“Put all that together, and there’s not a lot of goodwill between the two parties. It affects everything else that goes on. Look at what’s happened with the sequester in the last few months, and before that the crazy fiscal cliff. Look at what the debt-limit fight in the summer of 2011 did for our economy. The nation’s bond rating was downgraded, as a result. Today, employers don’t know what the government’s going to do about taxes, about spending.” 

The fallout from the country’s divided leadership, the sequester, and a fragile economy has consequences across the board, says Woodruff. “It’s not just a sideshow here in Washington. It has serious implications. If you run a university or a college, your students are going to be affected by it, from their parents’ income to whether they can get a job coming out of college. 

“I think many Americans are increasingly fed up with it, but until people are prepared to say, ‘Enough, you guys have got to work together,’ it won’t happen. Maybe we’re going to see a breakthrough. But, the animosity runs deep and the whole country is hurt until they can figure out a way to work together.”  

A Study of the Next Generation

Speaking of college students, Judy Woodruff has a special interest in that generation. In 2007, she completed an extensive project on the views of young Americans called Generation Next: Speak Up, Be Heard that aired on PBS stations, along with a series of special reports discussed on PBS’s The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer, NPR, and in USA Today.

The goal of the project was to look in-depth at the generation born after 1980, sometimes called Millennials, Generation Y, or the 9/11 Generation. “They truly are a different cohort,” Woodruff says. “They’re not just a continuation of their predecessors. They were born in a different era and raised by parents within a different environment. 

“The first thing I was struck by was how diverse they are—the most diverse generation in American history. One in every five of them has a parent born outside of the United States. One in every eight of them was himself or herself born outside of the United States.”

And they are comfortable with their diversity, she says. “They are used to going to school with people who don’t look like them, who are of a different race, a different religion, different beliefs, with different political views. And, they don’t really think very much about it. It’s interesting politically to see how their views are impacting the views of their parents and even their grandparents. Their views are more open on a range of subjects. 

“The second thing that I think is striking is how close they are to their parents. Unlike any previous generation we’ve been able to identify, their parents have nurtured them and hovered over them. By now we all know the term ‘helicopter parents.’ There is even the term ‘Black Hawk parents,’ named after the highly effective military chopper … those who are very, very focused on raising their children.”

Members of the younger generation are not only “close to their parents, their parents are there for them. In many ways, they view their parents as friends as well as their parents, and vice versa. Their parents feel they need to know more about the lives of their kids. Thanks to technology, they’re able to stay in very frequent touch with their kids, with cell phones and texting and e-mail and Facebook. All of that has facilitated a closer relationship.”

Parenting style has helped shape Generation Next, in Woodruff’s view. Based on interviews with psychologists and other specialists, she says, “We found that this was the generation whose parents came along when there was an explosion of child psychology books. Suddenly, in the bookstores, there were entire sections on raising children: how to raise a happy child, how to raise a well-adjusted child, how to raise a genius—everything from their intellect to their happiness to their self-confidence. Parents decided, ‘Oh, I can make a child exactly like the child I want. And, so I’m going to take him to piano lessons. I’m going to make sure she goes to soccer practice.’ 

“Not only that, many in this generation were told by their parents that they were practically perfect. They were told that it doesn’t really matter whether you make straight A’s in school, as long as you give it your best. And, the same thing on the soccer field—you don’t have to score a goal, as long as you’re just out there giving it your all. So, the idea of serious competition was not introduced to many of them until they hit college or hit the real working world.”

Defining Characteristics

As diverse as they are, members of Generation Next are exhibiting new patterns of thought about politics, says Woodruff. “They don’t like being labeled as one party or another. They are much more likely to self-identify as independent or, ‘Yes, I’m a little bit Republican on this, a little bit Democratic on that, or Libertarian on this.’ They are a generation that doesn’t like being pigeonholed, which I think makes them fascinating. 

“They’re a generation that has watched American politics, both the best of it and the worst of it. And, they’ve decided that there are many other ways to contribute. You don’t necessarily have to get involved in public service or run for office. But, you can contribute by volunteering. They are one of the most volunteering generations we have seen. They are doing Teach for America or soup kitchen work in the inner cities of the United States. Many have volunteered to do international charitable work, and have worked to build schools in Africa.

“But, the bottom line is they are a distinctly different generation,” she says. “And, I think that’s why I expect them to make a mark of their own as they reach adulthood. You already see it to some extent, but I think we’re going to see it much more in the next 10 to 20 years.”

Managing Generation Next as students has already had an impact on colleges and universities, particularly given that close tie to parents. “I’ve been hearing from university officials for a number of years about the separation difficulties of this generation when they come for orientation week, and trying to get the parents to leave campus,” Woodruff says. Campus officials find themselves “pleading with the parents not to call their children multiple times a day, and trying to urge the students to work out their own problems—if they have a problem in a dorm or with a professor or with a course, not to automatically turn to their parents, but to think about their own strategies for solving problems, that don’t involve calling home.” 

At the same time, she says, “We could say the hopeful side of this generation that holds so much promise is that they’re close to their parents. The more challenging side is that they are having a harder time separating and feeling confident in their own ability to make decisions.”

A Role for Higher Education

As an experienced political journalist, Woodruff noted the way higher education became an issue during the recent 2012 presidential election.

“It’s interesting how higher ed has gotten dragged into the whole debate about the economy,” she says. “Part of that, I think, is that the cost of higher education has risen so dramatically in the last decade. When I think about what it costs today versus what it cost when I went to college in the ’60s, it’s breathtaking. And, many parents are finding it overwhelming to think about how they are going to pay for one, much less two or three children, to get a good education after secondary school. 

“I think the cost is part of what’s driving this conversation. There is a sticker-shock effect, not only among the well-known private schools, but even among state schools and less well-known schools. There’s a perception that it’s gotten out of hand, and people want to understand what this money is going toward. President Obama even brought it up in his State of the Union address.”

Beyond the cost issue, Woodruff continues, “I would put in a somewhat different category this conversation about whether a college education is worth it. I don’t think anyone has argued that every single individual must have a college education. What I believe is that every person should have the opportunity to get as much education as they can, to allow them to do the work that they want to do, to be contributing members of society. For the welfare of our country, we’ve got to do a better job of providing educational opportunities. Does that mean a four-year college education for everyone? No, I think that’s unrealistic. 

“Separate from that,” she continues, “I would argue that we need to preserve the liberal arts education. Regarding whether a liberal arts education should even still be an option, I absolutely believe that. I think it’s important for the next generation, the one after that, and the one after that, to have leaders who are critical thinkers, who know history, who know literature, who can put great ideas together, and solve our biggest problems—come up with the next set of inventions, to move us on. 

“That doesn’t mean everybody’s got to have a Ph.D. or master’s degree, but what it does mean is we’ve got to continue to produce great teachers, great academic mentors for young people. To me, that is one of the great strengths of this country, that we have one of the best educational systems in the world. We must keep it.”

MARTA PEREZ DRAKE is vice president for professional development at NACUBO.

She fell in love with politics while in college because “I’m fascinated by the study of power—how people wield power and what kind of personalities are attracted to it.”

About the generation born after 1980: “They truly are a different cohort. They’re not just a continuation of their predecessors....The first thing I was struck by was how diverse they are—the most diverse generation in American history.”

—Judy Woodruff