Former MSNBC host Chris Matthews addresses students at Fulbright University Vietnam in December 2019 (Courtesy)
April marks the 46th anniversary of the last Americans’ desperate escape from Saigon. The helicopter used to prosecute what the Vietnamese call the “American War” became the iconic vehicle of our ultimate retreat, as it ferried diplomatic and military personnel off the roof of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), escaping the North Vietnamese in 1975.
I have been honored, along with many colleagues from my “Hardball” years, to be engaged in recent weeks in a very different endeavor in Vietnam. It’s to tell the young people of that country what we can about our democracy. My new role is that of a Visiting Professor at Fulbright University Vietnam. The topic of my recent series of lectures is “American political communication.”
Many of you may be aware of the much treasured and coveted Fulbright grants for Americans to study abroad. The late Senator William J. Fulbright of Arkansas was an early skeptic of the Vietnam War who took on his own party’s president, Lyndon Johnson, to use the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to reveal the mess U.S. intervention had become.
Fulbright Vietnam University is based in Ho Chi Minh City and is the nation’s first nonprofit, independent college. As Barack Obama put it in 2016, “Students, scholars, researchers will focus on public policy and management and business; on engineering and computer science; and liberal arts—everything from the poetry of Nguyen Du, to the philosophy of Phan Chu Trinh, to the mathematics of Ngo Bao Chau.”
Teaching this wide-ranging class by Zoom has given me the chance to bring together a broad array of well-known U.S. professionals whose words comprise our country’s 24/7 conversation. This is not an exercise in memory or contrition. Vietnam is a huge country, bigger than most Americans realize. Its population approaches 100 million, far greater than Germany, Iran, or South Korea. Our two countries need to understand each other not only because of our shared past but because of the present and the future, where an assertive China raises challenges to us both.
The group of guest lecturers has included reporters, opinion columnists, TV commentators, ad writers, speechwriters, pollsters, and political show producers. Most of them are familiar voices on political discussion programs. Each of them has joined the Fulbright class to describe what they do, how they do it—and why.
What’s struck me most these weeks has been the generosity of my guest lecturers, most of whom became my colleagues during my twenty-plus years hosting “Hardball.”
Just as impressive has been the curiosity the Vietnamese students have shown toward what these Americans have had to share with them, how a vibrant democracy like ours actually functions.
I have been surprised again and again by how attuned the students are to American topics. One wanted to know more about why James Bennet was removed as editorial page editor by the New York Times for running a column by Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton. (Frankly, I do, too.) Another student raised the Times’s “1619 Project” that places America’s founding at the introduction of African slaves in Virginia rather than at the Declaration of Independence in 1776.
Heading up the lectures, it quickly became clear to me that members of my class were keeping up with the U.S. on a steady, real-time basis and not just cramming before class. Several wanted to know what I and my guest lecturers thought about Twitter’s decision to ban Donald Trump. Many had concerns about stories of violence against Asian Americans.
I had one goal from my first meeting with the class: There was to be no pro-American propaganda. We were to tell what we knew of American democracy the same way Abraham Lincoln wanted his story told: warts and all. And on the other side, I was glad that the course wasn’t punctured by Communist agitprop. The truth was that the students, most of whom were born 20 years after the end of the “American War,” had no interest in relitigating it. They wanted to understand America not as a mortal enemy or cause of a deep national scar, but as what is still the most powerful nation on earth.
It’s for this reason that I chose as our first lecture the American emotional reaction to the events of January 6 rather than some stars-and-stripes boast of how great we are. Here I was following the Bobby Kennedy rule to “hang a lantern on your problem.” It would offer an honest picture of our country’s democratic vulnerable condition, maybe our own equivalent to the helicopter on the roof as our leaders like Mike Pence and Nancy Pelosi had to be rushed to safety. I wanted to do that by showing a pair of journalists’ deeply personal feelings as they watched the U.S. Capitol being invaded.
For this reason, I picked Howard Fineman and Margaret Carlson to serve as guest lecturers. I thought they would do the best job, as magazine writers, to get across the national emotion of that day, the mix of shock and sadness that, even after the Trump years, they, like the rest of us, didn’t have the tragic imagination to see coming.
What I loved most about the course at Fulbright University Vietnam, which was founded with the strong backing of veterans of the war John Kerry, John McCain, Bob Kerrey, and others, was the chance to bring Americans along as guest lecturers.
Jon Meacham spoke about the history of political communication from Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense” to today’s social media. He offered a good reminder that incendiary tracts aren’t something new. He had great stories of the Lincoln-Douglas debates in 1858 when reporters hit the railroad, then lucky if it went 30 mph, to get transcripts back to their papers.
Frank Fahrenkopf, who co-chairs the Commission on Presidential Debates, talked about the role modern presidential debates have played in our culture. In 1960, for the 100th anniversary of the Lincoln-Douglas presidential race, the debates were resurrected, and we’ve had them steadily since 1976. The idea of open jousting between candidates of different parties was a very American idea that the Vietnamese students devoured. Pollster Fred Yang told of how the debates can sway an election.
We had a great panel to discuss what constitutes “the news.” It included Joy Reid, Yamiche Alcindor, Jonathan Allen, and former “Hardball” executive producer Ann Klenk.
In Vietnam, this is decided by the government. How does it work in a democratic country? Why, for example, does the latest on the British royal family get top billing while little is reported on the horrors in Myanmar? One Vietnamese student suggested it was Americans’ interest in news from its “mother country” as opposed to that from “inferior, incomprehensible” cultures. There’s something to that, perhaps, but the attention lavished on Meghan and Harry also showed that we have the luxury of following every tidbit of gossip from the rich and glamorous.
Joe Scarborough talked about the nature of morning news programming. Charlie Cook explained how the Cook Report conducts its unique, essential work on elections.
Journalists Chuck Todd, Michael Schmidt, Heidi Przybyla, and Eli Stokols were excellent in a class on objective reporting. A student raised concern about politicians who make charges against “fake news.” “What can we do to restrain powerful leaders from using the same strategy, such as when Trump says that the media is lying or when Putin and Xi Jinping censor the media?” Keep telling the truth, they said, and I agree.
A number of students said our lectures encouraged them to be more critical in their reading of the news, better able to avoid buying into conspiracy theories. If that’s some of what they took away, I’m glad. The students seemed genuinely open-minded about what worked in our system and what didn’t.
I wanted to show how social media could be used positively in today’s politics. As an example, I had my Fulbright University teaching assistant, Katie Cunningham, describe Senator Edward Markey’s upset primary victory over Congressman Joe Kennedy III and how he used viral messages to become, as a septuagenarian, the cool candidate in the race.
To talk about political advertising itself, we had Steve McMahon, a noted Democratic media consultant, and Gerald Rafshoon, whose TV ads were credited with bringing Jimmy Carter to the White House. American TV political ads are the wild west, not only for countries like Vietnam but also in Europe where there’s much more regulation on how and when ads can be used, so the idea of the Daisy ad implying Barry Goldwater would drop a nuclear weapon or a spot introducing an unknown former Georgia governor to a national audience was new terrain for my students.
For a class on opinion, I assembled colleagues I knew to be outspoken commentators—Ron Reagan, Michael Steele, Donna Edwards, and Jonathan Capeheart. Ron was especially compelling when he described how he first realized he saw things differently than his famous presidential father. I tried to imagine Ho Chi Minh’s progeny turning to capitalism.
The historians Michael Beschloss and Douglas Brinkley joined me to discuss the lessons of history or the lack thereof. What did we learn—or fail to learn—from the American war in Vietnam? Why didn’t this protect us from the decision to invade Iraq? And were we the only ones with collective amnesia?
Why, after the disgrace of interning Japanese Americans in World War II, did an American president scapegoat the Chinese for the coronavirus? Asked and answered, I suppose. We’re still a country that can meet crises with prejudice as well as heroism.
We ended the month with speechwriting. Having been one myself, I wanted to discuss the role of speeches in directing American politics. We looked at Lincoln’s second inaugural, FDR’s “fear itself,” Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” and Barack Obama’s speech at the 2004 Democratic convention and the power of words, the elegant simplicity of a leader, and a microphone.
What are the tasks in writing a speech for a political leader? It’s not easy, even if it looks that way. For this, we had seasoned professionals. Rick Hertzberg (President Carter), Bob Shrum (Senator Edward Kennedy), Mary Kate Cary (President George H.W. Bush), and Washington Monthly Editor-in-Chief Paul Glastris (President Clinton). It was a real reminder to me that for all the changes and developments in American politics, fundraising, and micro-targeted media and data analysis, the speech still matters.
Teaching these classes to Vietnamese students, with fellow Americans, has been an education in itself. The great irony is that we were once at war. Today, we are engaged in a cause far more hopeful: to understand each other.