MIDDLEBURY — Longtime National Public Radio journalist John Hockenberry at a Tuesday appearance in a Middlebury College lecture room ordered everyone to empty their pockets of change.
“Look at what you’re holding in your hand,” he said, encouraging everyone to take a good, hard look at the pennies.
“What you are holding in your hand,” he continued, “is one of the most powerful, historical ironies in American history.”
This little history lesson was the centerpiece of Hockenberry’s talk to a full house in Bicentennial Hall as part of the “Meet the Press” series. In it he drew comparisons between today’s Tea Party and the Copperhead radicals of the 1860s, and also gave insights into the role of journalists in American society.
President Lincoln, Hockenberry explained in the lecture, would have understood having his face imprinted on a copper coin as an insult, and rightly so.
The penny, in the 1860s, was a point around which radical members of the Democratic Party rallied. These radicals, the Copperheads, took their nickname from the small coin that in their day featured the head of Lady Liberty.
“The Copperheads created a movement that opposed the Civil War — it opposed Lincoln,” explained Hockenberry.
He went on to point out that Copperhead talking points included reclaiming American democracy and the kind of suspicion of government that you find familiar today.
“So let’s make a direct comparison to the Copperheads of the 1860s and the Tea Party of the 2010s,” Hockenberry proposed.
According to Hockenberry, making connections and comparisons is one of the most important roles of the journalist today.
“Making comparisons and making sure that the moments of history that are transpiring in the present, the big ones and the little ones, need to be set in context and need to be understood as an outgrowth of historical narratives and outgrowths,” he said. “These matter as we try to understand movements which we may critique and be very frustrated by.”
Both the Copperheads and the Tea Party, he said, are perfect examples of this.
“Even if we disagree with them we should understand their familiarity.”
In the 1860s, the Copperheads were gaining in momentum. Lincoln might have lost the election of 1864 had Atlanta not fallen to the Union army that same year. But Atlanta did fall, and so did the Copperheads, and with them, they also managed to destroy the Democratic Party.
“The Copperheads’ challenge to Lincoln and their failure to succeed in the 1864 elections took down the Democratic party to a degree that has never been duplicated in partisan history,” he said.
Apply this lesson to 2010, Hockenberry said, and you might just learn quite a bit about the Tea Party.
“The Copperheads in many, many ways directly echo the Tea Party of today,” he said. “You can take these comparisons with a grain of salt, but it’s important to understand that the character of this particular kind of passionate, seemingly irrational opposition to existing government in Washington comes directly on two really important narratives in American democracy.”
Though irrational, Hockenberry said, the Tea Party still poses a threat to Obama, just as the Copperheads nearly brought down Lincoln. In order to win a second term, he said, Obama will need his own “Fall of Atlanta” moment.
“It may turn out that he doesn’t need one,” he said. But if the Tea Party’s fantasy of “going back” to a “simpler time” continues to gain in momentum, they may be a force to be reckoned with, just at the Copperheads were in 1864.
“Does he need a ‘Fall of Atlanta’ moment?” Hockenberry asked. “Perhaps the fall of Atlanta deprived America of seeing the turnout of this political narrative.”
2012, he said, will definitely be the conclusion of a story that Lincoln “knew so well.”
ROLE OF A JOURNALIST
Hockenberry, who has worked for MSNBC, NBC News and ABC News, and has hosted multiple shows on NPR, has been reporting on politics for around 30 years. Journalism, though, was never something that he intended to do.
“Journalism was never something that I had a traditional, dogged passion for,” he said.
“For me, there’s something classic and universal about curiosity, storytelling and the need to be civically engaged,” he said. “If you value your own vote, you need to know what’s going on.”
Hockenberry admitted that when he went overseas as a war correspondent in the ’90s, he did it because it seemed glamorous.
“Journalism, for me, was a way to go to places that were intrinsically exciting,” he said. “Some of those places were far away, and some of those places were conflict zones, and before I had a nuanced sense of ‘why cover war, what is the story that you tell here,’ I was very much involved in the story of me.”
But sometime during his coverage in the Middle East or Somalia, things changed for Hockenberry.
“I certainly came away from it with a much different sense of why it was worth doing than when I went into it,” he said.
And journalism in general — though it doesn’t promise to pay much — is still worth doing, he told the aspiring reporters in the crowd.
“If you have a clear sense of why you’re curious, what you’re curious about, the means for satisfying your curiosity and the voice for telling the stories you want to tell, you’re in a position to choose a lot of different institutions, few of which will allow you to do what your investment banker friends are doing in their 20s, but nevertheless you are embarked on an historic path in journalism today,” he said.
Though they won’t get wealthy doing it, up-and-coming journalists today have a real opportunity to shape the direction of new journalism, according to Hockenberry.
“You’re in a position to define what that language will be,” he said, “Which is even more revolutionary, and for me, more exciting.”
Tamara Hilmes is at [email protected]