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Liberty + Leadership Podcast – Richard Benedetto

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For 25 years, Richard Benedetto served as White House and national political correspondent for USA Today and teaches journalism at American University as well as for TFAS at George Mason University. Richard is a graduate of Utica College of Syracuse University, earned a masters in journalism from Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Public Communications and also taught journalism at the University of Colorado and St. Bonaventure University.

In this week’s Liberty and Leadership Podcast, Roger and Richard discuss how journalism has evolved over the past 50 years, writing the first front-page cover story for USA Today, covering 5 presidencies, the politicization of the media, the power of optimism and how his Italian grandfather taught him to respect the presidency – no matter who was in office.

The Liberty + Leadership Podcast is hosted by TFAS President Roger Ream ’76 and produced by kglobal. If you have a comment or question for the show, please drop us an email at podcast@TFAS.org.

 


Episode Transcript

The transcript below is lightly edited for clarity.

Roger Ream [00:00:00] Hello and welcome. I’m Roger Ream and this is the Liberty and Leadership Podcast, a conversation with TFAS alumni who are making a real impact in politics, public policy, government, business, philanthropy, law, and the media. Today, I’m excited to be joined by Richard Benedetto. Richard is a longtime journalist, including many years with USA Today and a reporter for other newspapers as well in the Gannett family. He is a professor of journalism teaching courses at American University and for The Fund for American Studies at George Mason University. Today, Richard will talk with me about his career as a journalist, news media, as well as his work with students as a journalism professor. Richard, thanks for joining me today.

Richard Benedetto [00:00:52] Nice to be with you, Roger.

Roger Ream [00:00:54] Well, Richard, it’s wonderful having you as a professor in our programs at TFAS. So many students over the years who take our journalism program have benefited from learning from a master at reporting. And so I’d love to get into talking about the media, but first, tell us where you’re from. Where were you born and about your education?

Richard Benedetto [00:01:15] I was born in upstate New York, central New York. Utica, New York is my hometown. I was raised there, went to high school there, went to the early part of my college career there. But I came to be a journalist in an early age when I didn’t know I was being a journalist myself. My grandmother, I used to come home from the Saturday matinee movies and she asked me to tell her about the movie I saw. And I would tell her the story and she’d say, you know, you ought to be a writer because you tell the story so well. So journalism is telling stories and that’s one of the things I like to do.

Roger Ream [00:01:56] Yeah, that’s great. I was talking to a prominent journalist the other day who said he’s convinced after many years in journalism that being a good writer and like a good storyteller, I guess is probably more genetic than something that can be taught. He said some people at least just have a natural instinct for storytelling and writing, and it’s difficult to teach it. And that’s great to hear because you evidently had that natural ability.

Richard Benedetto [00:02:23] There’s that creative part that is innate, you know, and then there’s the part of being a mechanic and the mechanic part you can teach better. And you know, in the name of the game is to communicate with people and make their writing clear.

Roger Ream [00:02:36] So you attended Utica College at Syracuse and then got a journalism degree at Syracuse University. Tell me that was many years ago. I know. But what was the journalism school like for you?

Richard Benedetto [00:02:49] Well, it was a lot different than what it is today. I’ll tell you. There was a lot of rigor involved. I remember in graduate school, the dean of the college standing on stage, talking to the new students, saying, you’re going to go into the news business. Your job is to give people good information. Their job is to figure out what to do with it. In other words, what he was saying to us is, you don’t have to lead people by the news. Just tell them what you know and let them decide for themselves what it means.

Roger Ream [00:03:18] Yeah, that is a change from today. At least the stories I hear of journalism schools that are really pushing an agenda. Let me ask this. Have students that come to our programs, that you teach at other universities and see in audiences when you go around the country speaking, do they still have that kind of passion for telling stories and reporting the facts? Or do you find with young journalists today, young journalism students, that they are coming at it from a political, ideological point of view?

Richard Benedetto [00:03:50] I see a lot more of the political than the ideological point of view of people who are attracted to the business, not because they want to tell stories, but they want to change the world. And, you know, journalism, you can change the world with information. But the fact is that you don’t have to be an advocate. You can just tell the story straight and you can bring to light the things that are out there that people don’t know is a way of changing the world. But the fact is that by doing it, by preparing the way you say, I want to change the world this way. That’s a different thing than just trying to change the world.

Roger Ream [00:04:25] So you’d argue that to be a good journalist, you have to be a good reporter. How odd that is to hear that.

Richard Benedetto [00:04:31] Yeah. You know, I would say reporting is easy. You go places other people don’t go. You come back and you tell them what you saw and heard.

Roger Ream [00:04:39] Just like talking to your grandmother about the movies.

Richard Benedetto [00:04:42] But today, editors will say to the reporter, don’t tell me what you saw and heard. Tell me what I want to hear. And that’s entirely different thing.

Roger Ream [00:04:51] Yeah, that’s a problem. Well, you wrote the story for the front page of the first issue of USA Today covering the White House at that time, right?

Richard Benedetto [00:05:04] Well, actually, we weren’t covering the White House. The paper hadn’t didn’t exist. And so we didn’t have beats yet. But the story was a sort of a demographic story, and it was political in its way because it was talking about how the population had shifted from the northeast to the south and that the problems of the Northeast were following them. So the population to the south and the new cities in the Sun Belt were having the same kinds of problems that cities in the Northeast are having.

Roger Ream [00:05:33] That stories very still could be written today and have relevance from people leaving New York and California bringing problems with them. Well, let me ask you a little bit about your work covering presidents. So that means you probably covered presidents from Jimmy Carter to I’ll say till today, because you still write columns, you know, as a freelancer, not as a reporter for USA Today. But you got any interesting stories to share from some of those from Jimmy Carter or Ronald Reagan?

Richard Benedetto [00:06:08] I didn’t cover Jimmy Carter. I covered Ronald Reagan and then Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Those are the four presidents that I covered pretty directly, and all of them were unique in their own way. And then a lot of them had their good stories. What I remember about Ronald Reagan the most was, you know, how well he filled the role of being president. When you saw Ronald Reagan, you knew this was the president of United States. And what I remember very, very vividly is the farewell that the military gave to Ronald Reagan when he was leaving office. They had a military review in the hangar at Andrews Air Force Base, and that hangar was brand new. It was a big, new, empty hangar for the new Air Force One that had been on order but hadn’t been delivered yet. It was a new 747 model of Air Force One, but the hangar was brand new and empty and the floor had been freshly painted and the smell of the paint was still filled in the place. And they had a typical military review farewell ceremony. And I remember Reagan standing there and I was in the press pool. So I was standing probably about ten feet away from him during the entire service. And I remember the Marine band coming in front of him at the end of the ceremony and marching up to the front of him and the drum major saluting the president. Reagan salutes him back and then the band plays Auld Lang Syne. And it just brought tears to my eyes. It brought tears to Reagan’s eyes. And it brought tears to the drum major’s eyes. I could see it because I was that close. And it’s just a memory that sticks in my mind so vividly. Ronald Reagan played the role of president so well.

Roger Ream [00:08:00] Yeah, yeah.

Richard Benedetto [00:08:02] That meant a lot to the public. The public wants to look up and respect their president. And Ronald Reagan played that role well.

Roger Ream [00:08:10] Yeah, no, that’s been a problem since then with some of our presidents, at least. And of course, it seems much more partisan. Do you think our country has become much more divided and partisan like we hear all the time? Or, you know, certainly as someone who also remembers the Reagan years, there were bitter divides back then, too. What’s your thoughts about that?

Richard Benedetto [00:08:31] The partisanship has become more vehement. You know, I think back to when I was in college. When I was in college, the Vietnam War was on and there was a lot of division on that campus.

Roger Ream [00:08:45] Yeah and violence.

Richard Benedetto [00:08:46] Yeah, there was a lot of division on campus and yet people who were on one side of the war and the other side of the war were we’re still friends with one another. That wouldn’t happen today. If you disagree politically with another person in college, they’re not friends. They won’t. A Republican would never date a Democrat and a Democrat would never date a Republican. But we weren’t that way, you know, even though there were people who were strongly anti-war during the Vietnam War, strongly, you know, for the war, it didn’t affect friendships in the way that it does today.

Roger Ream [00:09:22] Yeah. You know, one observation about it comes from this summer and I’ll see if this is a sense you have. But I noticed this summer our students seemed very serious. Not that in past years they weren’t. But one morning I was having breakfast with a small group of our students and I asked them, Have you guys been having really heated arguments at night in the dorms about, say, recent Supreme Court decisions and the Dobbs decision to just come out? I forgot what other issues were hot, but there were some really hot issues going on at the time. And I was almost, you know, knocked out of my seat when the answer from the students was, no, no, no. We aren’t really arguing. We’re just listening to each other and trying to appreciate each other’s different perspectives. And I view that as partly a reflection of the work we do at orientation to try to tell students and you reinforce this, that it’s important to have friends who have different viewpoints and to have coffee with people who don’t agree with you and to listen to other perspectives. You can defend yours better if you’ve heard the other perspective, and it also might come to respect someone having a differing viewpoint. So I hope that’s changing.

Richard Benedetto [00:10:29] And I think, you know, I teach at American University.

Roger Ream [00:10:34] Yes.

Richard Benedetto [00:10:34] Which is a Washington based university. Students come from all over the country to go to school there, but they almost all think the same politically. They’re almost all very liberal. And so, therefore, it’s hard to get a conversation going among the students with a different viewpoint. So sometimes I have to inject it to try to get it going. And you know what’s interesting to me is I teach both journalism students and I teach political science. Two different colleges within the university. The journalism students are the more partisan ones, at least in the way outwardly they express. They feel more comfortable expressing their partisan views than the political. The political science students are a little bit more introspective, and they will resist. They’ll talk a little bit about it more intellectually, whereas it’s not doctrinaire.

Roger Ream [00:11:32] Well, from reading things you’ve written, I’ve learned that, I’ll call it bias in the media or media agenda driven media can have impacts in various ways. Obviously, you can write bias into a story and not give a fair account of something. But also you’ve written sometimes about story selection having a big impact that, you know, several major events happen in a particular day and the media emphasizes one because it furthers their agenda and ignores others. That seems to happen a lot, doesn’t it?

Richard Benedetto [00:12:09] You know, journalism is a set of choices. You know, and editors make choices every day as to what’s going to be. There’s a meeting to this just for the front page. What’s going to be today on the front page? Well, you know, it’s print days, now the front pages everywhere, you know, because the website is the front page. But there’s the meeting, what’s going to be in front page. And everybody would come in from a different department saying, I’ve got this story, I’ve got this story. And then there would be a discussion among those editors. What is the most important? I don’t know how those discussions take place. I’m not in the newsroom today, but I don’t think there are those kinds of discussions on a formal basis, take place like that anymore so that everybody gets a chance to kick in with their viewpoint in which way the story could go because that’s also. Well we kicked it around and maybe you should take this angle or maybe you should get more information on that. I just don’t think that that’s happening now. Reporters write a story in fact, I just was talking to a person from USA Today a couple of days ago, two days ago, and she was telling me that she hasn’t been in the office for two years.

Roger Ream [00:13:14] Oh, yeah. COVID’s impacted this even further.

Richard Benedetto [00:13:17] But they don’t even know that, that interchange between reporters is important to discuss things and kick them around and hear different viewpoints. But that’s not going on at all.

Roger Ream [00:13:32] Yeah, I’m reminded my middle daughter Kelly was in high school here in Northern Virginia and she was editor of her school paper. So at the time we were getting The Washington Times, which is more conservative, and The Washington Post at our house more liberal. And she would look at both papers every morning and she’d point out to us the same story. But the headline was the opposite in each paper. And, you know, it was deficit reduced and the other one was record deficit, you know, so both were accurate. That’s not the best example. But yeah, they might have both been accurate headlines technically, but a different spin on the same story. Do you see much hope for change? Or we can get back to at least the news reporting pages being a little more of the storytelling, reporting the facts and leaving it up to the readers to make judgments.

Richard Benedetto [00:14:30] I hope, they said it can change. All I can do as a professor is light the candles that I can light. And that’s it. But there’s got to be some kind of a movement where we get back to objective journalism, which was really important. As the Dean said, your job is to give people good information. Their job is to figure out what to do with it.

Roger Ream [00:14:57] Well, you’re certainly having impact and you’ve had impact on all these students that you have taught. I know that’s true for our programs because they come back to us and tell us how important your course was for them.

Richard Benedetto [00:15:07] Well, I find that the students from TFAS who are coming in from all parts of the country and attending different colleges are much more open minded than students who are at one particular university, like, say, American University or George Mason, where they’ve come from other places, but they still seem to have been indoctrinated some way. Whether there’s a groupthink that I see that it’s hard to break through. And it’s disturbing. I don’t know what the answer to the problem is.

Roger Ream [00:15:42] Yeah, I think that’s true. There is a lot of groupthink. You’ve also talked or written in the past about when media plays gotcha. You know, instead of I think a column you wrote once was when the Romney Obama campaign was underway. And you may not remember this particular column, of course, but you showed example after example of where the media wanted to play gotcha with Romney because they didn’t want him to win instead of, you know, providing more objective reporting. And that game of gotcha, I guess, contributes to this.

Richard Benedetto [00:16:17] That particular campaign I remember pretty well. At the time that would be the to 2000. What, 14, 2012 campaign? 2012 campaign. You know, that was, you know, 2008 campaign was kind of a watershed in that, you know, it was a first campaign. It was run with social media benefactor all of a sudden and hadn’t been up until that time. You know, we didn’t have smartphones until 2007. So 2008 campaign was really where Obama learned how to use social media well very quickly. And he had people who were sharp enough to know how to use social media. Romney didn’t use it as well. So they were really ganging up on him using social media and Romney didn’t know how to combat it. And the press, which was covering the campaign was, you know coming into social media and wanting to play it. So they were paying a lot of attention to what the campaign was putting out on social media, and it was just amplifying it. And it became a wild situation. And I remember saying during that 2012 campaign, I could never cover a campaign, I would go crazy. It was just too cacophonous.

Roger Ream [00:17:37] Well, that you’ve raised a whole new topic there, the role of social media and whether that is going to have a very negative impact on newspapers. It seems like young people today, more often than not, are getting their news from social media. They aren’t reading newspapers even online. What do you think the future of the printed newspaper is? I mean, is there a future there?

Richard Benedetto [00:18:04] It doesn’t, it looks pretty bleak. The printed newspaper, I mean, I get three papers delivered to my house every day, The Washington Post, The Washington Times and The Wall Street Journal. And I pretty much get most of my news off of the newspapers. It’s the old way.

Roger Ream [00:18:23] I do, too.

Richard Benedetto [00:18:24] But I know that most people are not doing that. And I just don’t know where the older folks, people who are my age, who grew up on newspapers, who now don’t read newspapers because they’re expensive. They don’t subscribe. I don’t know what they do. I don’t know what they’re getting, where they’re getting their information. Television news, I think, is probably the most and I just don’t think that people are just as well informed because you just can’t get that kind of good, solid political information by just using social media. It’s just bound to be slanted.

Roger Ream [00:19:07] Shallow and slanted. Yeah.

Richard Benedetto [00:19:09] And depending on the site, not even reliable. You know, before everybody got you know, they listened to the radio, they listened to the network news, and then they read a newspaper. And people knew pretty well what was going on. And now it’s kind of a mishmash.

Roger Ream [00:19:30] Well, I had a recent guest on The Liberty Leadership Podcast, Elliot Kaufman, who is with The Wall Street Journal Editorial Pages. Edits the letters to the editor. And I confessed to him something my brother said I shouldn’t have confessed on the air. And that was that I get the print copy of the Wall Street Journal, but before I get in the shower every morning, I flip their app on and they have a bot, I guess and it reads the opinion pieces and the editorials to me while I’m in the shower, which saves me some time. But I don’t know what you would say how I get my news, but I get it read to me.

Richard Benedetto [00:20:08] That’s from print anyway.

Roger Ream [00:20:10] Yes. You got the depth that way. And if you hear something that you know especially you can then reread it in the paper that day to get it to retain it. So in teaching journalism students, talk a little bit about your course for journalism students at TFAS and how you approach it, what kinds of assignments you might make or I’d love to hear more about that.

Richard Benedetto [00:20:35] I sort of break it down into coverage of the presidency, coverage of Congress and coverage of foreign affairs, major issues. And a little bit about polling. I try to give them a smattering of how to be a sophisticated poll reader, which are the reliable polls and which are not the reliable polls. And one of the things I talk about is how the press goes about covering the White House and how it used to be and how it is today and give them a flavor of that. But there’s the common thread that runs through all of that, that I try to string through all of that. Is fairness, telling both sides of the story, trying to be as neutral as possible as you narrate information to people, you’re not there to persuade them of anything. You’re there to tell them what’s going on. And I think the students respond to that fairly well. And sometimes it’s an eye opener to them because they’re not getting into other courses that they take back home. But I think that being a professor in Washington at a college, that colleges that are based in the Washington area and seeing those students and seeing the students from TFAS who come in from other parts of the country going to other colleges, it’s very different. It’s very different. The students in what they go to school here in Washington from other places, they become very politicized very quickly. And I don’t know if they were that political when they were in high school, but probably because they chose to come to Washington, they must have had some. But they become very politicized very quickly. Whereas I find that the TFAS students are much more open and willing to listen to the other side.

Roger Ream [00:22:30] Yeah. I’m sure that you don’t have to be here long before, you know, I sometimes I used to say the local news in Washington, D.C. is the national news. And, you know, obviously there are exceptions to that. But it’s a very political town. And the kids get Potomac fever and drink politics all the time. I was going to say, do you touch on now the Supreme Court or covering the Supreme Court now that that’s become such a big thing?

Richard Benedetto [00:23:00] Obviously, the court has become a political. Politicization of the court really came alive with the Clarence Thomas hearings or the Bork hearings even before that. And it’s become politicized ever since. I mean, I’m old enough. I remember, I was there when George H.W. Bush appointed Clarence Thomas to the court. It’s now about four years ago. But, you know, he did it up in Kennebunkport, as I recall. And at the time, you know, I remember him. Nobody knew anything about Clarence Thomas, really. And all of a sudden, you know.

Roger Ream [00:23:46] Nominated.

Richard Benedetto [00:23:47] He was nominated. And along comes the hearings and along comes the accusations against him of a sexual acts.

Roger Ream [00:23:57] So you covered that?

Richard Benedetto [00:23:58] Yes. And I still remember Clarence Thomas standing there and Kenny Barnes, friend of George H.W. Bush’s home in Kennebunkport and the 4th of July weekend, I believe it was. And in announcing that he was nominating Clarence Thomas to the court. But it’s become quite changed. But I noticed that the last Supreme Court nomination of Justice Jackson. Has been less politicized. I don’t know if it’s because everybody’s afraid to tackle a black woman and get  into a battle with it. But it was less politicized than had been the recent ones have been. I mean, to think back to the two, the most recent Republican nominees that the fighting went on.

Roger Ream [00:24:56] Yeah, it does. It seems, I don’t follow the court closely, but that the Republican nominees are in for a rougher treatment generally than the Democratic nominees. But maybe it depends on who’s in the majority in the Senate at the time. But of course, we know what happened with Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination and even Amy Coney Barrett was seemed more highly charged hearing than with either Sotomayor or Kagan. But I may not have that right, but that must’ve been interesting to be there in Kennebunkport and to cover that. What is the status now of USA Today? Pardon my ignorance here.

Richard Benedetto [00:25:36] USA Today. Well, the print edition still goes up, but I don’t know. You know, I don’t see much of it at all. I do subscribe to it online and read it, but I find that I get more of my news from the print newspapers that I get in in my home every day. Wall Street Journal. Washington Post. The Washington Times. I went to three of those because they run the spectrum. You got Washington Times, which is the conservative paper, The Post, which is the liberal paper, and the Wall Street Journal. Wall Street Journal’s reporting is very, very good. And it’s editorial pages, conservative.  But I would say it’s less conservative than the Washington Post’s editorial page is liberal. They’re really far left. You consider them far left today.

Roger Ream [00:26:31] Well, I brought with me a column you wrote recently, which I wanted to reference. Queen Elizabeth’s reign spans 14 U.S. presidents. That is amazing. Just the headline grabbed it and she had quite a reign 70 some years. And I don’t know that she met every president, but probably. But what was interesting in this piece is you talked about how much the world had changed, our lives had changed in the 70 some years. You talked about your grade school. You listened to her coronation on the radio because TV couldn’t broadcast across the Atlantic at the time. That’s great. Kind of say something about this piece and kind of what prompted you to write it?

Richard Benedetto [00:27:20] Well, I remember when she died, I quickly remembered sitting in my fifth grade classroom and listening to it on the radio. I remember going home and in the evening news did have some film because they were able to fly the film across the ocean and get it to New York. And so the evening news had some film of the coronation, but the only thing they were getting on TV during  the day when the coronation was taking place in the morning, in our morning was wire service photographs that were being put on the screen, still photographs of it. But what prompted me is that how much the world had changed over that period of time. We’ve had all how many presidents I say we had?

Roger Ream [00:28:11] 14.

Richard Benedetto [00:28:13] 14 presidents compared to one Queen.

Roger Ream [00:28:15] Yeah.

Richard Benedetto [00:28:16] And you know, the thing is that there’s a certain gentility about that and respect for the office that British seem to hold for a lot less respect for the presidency of the United States. We don’t hold the presidency in the kind of respect and all that we once did, and it’s kind of too bad, as I think I might have told this story before is that and it was 1952 and Harry Truman was in his final years as president. And he was unpopular, very unpopular. In fact, his job approval rating was 24%.

Roger Ream [00:28:56] Wow. Very low.

Richard Benedetto [00:28:58] But I would go to the Saturday matinee and the newsreel came on. And when Harry Truman came on the screen, some people in the theater booed. When I was a ten year old I was kind of  puzzled by the whole thing. And I came home and I said to my grandfather, you know, Grandpa, you know, I was at the theater today. And when President Truman came on the screen, he was booed. And he turned to me real quick. He put his finger in my face and said, You didn’t boo, did you? I said, No. He says, You don’t boo the president of the United States. When he said that, I thought he was giving me a law.

Roger Ream [00:29:38] You could go to jail. In some countries, that is a law.

Richard Benedetto [00:29:41] I knew nothing about politics. What he was telling me was there’s a respect that you have to maintain for the office. Now, he was an immigrant. He was Italian immigrant, came here as a 16-year-old boy. And by 18 he was in the war. He was in the United States Army in World War One. He was an enlisted. And that’s how he became a citizen through his service in the Army. And boy, you never saw a guy who was more proud to be an American citizen than he was. And he  fought in World War One in France. He was gassed and carried that gas, poison gas in his system the rest of his life, a cough that he still had from that. But, boy, there was never more a prouder American than he.

Roger Ream [00:30:33] Well that’s wonderful. That’s often the case with immigrants because they appreciate what this country offers.

Richard Benedetto [00:30:39] You don’t boo the President. And, you know, he never lived to see me as a White House correspondent. I wish he had because I know it would have been a meant a lot to him.

Roger Ream [00:30:51] Well, I just recently was listening to Ryan Holladay, who has written a book called Discipline, and he has a chapter in there on Queen Elizabeth the second. And one story he told was that in her 70 plus years reigning as the monarch, according to her staff, only once did she fall asleep at a public event. And that was sitting at a lecture on magnets. But imagine that, you know, I can’t say I’ve never fallen asleep at an event I’ve attended. But here’s this lady who ran into her nineties. And, you know, it’s been hours in the sun greeting people, shaking hands, and she sure performed that role well. Perhaps we’d have more respect for our president if many of them had performed a little better. But I think there’s more to it than that. And boy, we could talk for a while about why it is. I mean, to some extent, you know, I’m glad we don’t revere our elected officials as if they are, you know, messiahs and can do no wrong. And you know, the media certainly plays a role in that. While it’s said to be important have an adversary media that’s trying to keep a check on any corruption that might be taking place. They do seem in that, you know, gotcha mode of what can we find to tarnish this officeholder particularly if they don’t care for that person. So that diminishes the presidency a lot if it happens over and over again.

Richard Benedetto [00:32:18] And, you know, it puzzles me as to why reporters like writing negative stories more than they like writing positive stories. You can tell good stories, positive stories about things and have fun doing it and inform people. And, you know, when I would get more mail back in days, when people would actually write mail to you if you wrote a story, I would get more mail about positive stories that I wrote than about negative stories I wrote. People would say, Oh, it was nice that you wrote about this. Or nice that you talk about that person who did a good thing. A reporter will never risk telling a positive story about a politician anymore because they’re afraid they’re going to be considered soft or in the tank for that particular politician. So when Lamar Alexander, who was senator from Tennessee, when he retired from the Senate, I wrote a story about him because I had covered him. He was governor of Tennessee. Then he became president the University of Tennessee. Then he was a two time presidential candidate. Then he became secretary of education. And then he ran for the Senate and served three terms in the U.S. Senate. And in through all of that, you never read any story about him being involved in a scandal or anything, but you never knew he was there. He’d been in the Senate for 18 years, but you didn’t even know who he was. He chaired some of the big committees, but who knew who Lamar Alexander was? And he was a very self-deprecating guy himself. He always used to tell the joke, you know, he ran for president twice and he didn’t do very well. He used to always tell a story. He says, you know, I walked into some store one day and I said, I am Lamar Alexander, I’m running for president. And the guy said, Yeah, we were just standing around laughing about that.

Roger Ream [00:34:10] I remember he wore the checkered shirts.

Richard Benedetto [00:34:12] Right. But I wrote this and I said, Danger. This is a positive story about a politician.

Roger Ream [00:34:18] Yeah.

Richard Benedetto [00:34:18] I gave them warning.

Roger Ream [00:34:20] Would you say it’s just that, you know, bad news is what sells papers? Plane crashes is what you want to read about, not the thousands of planes that land safely today. Someone once told me, this was some years ago and I don’t know if it’s true, but that there was a paper in Amsterdam, in the Netherlands, that decided they would only run good news and they only carried good stories. I don’t know if their circulation went off or not. They may not. I’m sure they’re not around anymore. But I think that’s an interesting observation that you get more comments from people when you write positive stories. You know, I’ll share another story. Just I went to a dinner just two weeks ago here in Washington, and it was foreign policy. I won’t even say who it was, but it was a prominent person who writes about foreign policy. And he gave a talk about making the argument in his after dinner speech that America is not in decline. And he was born in 1950 and he just went through all the times in his lifetime, in the past 72 years, where we were told America is in decline. And he argued that each time the people telling us that were wrong, you know, Sputnik was launched by the Soviet Union. We’re behind, we’re in decline. And then we land a man on the moon. You know, we had the Civil War riots. We had the Vietnam War unrest that you talked about. But we recovered and and we passed the Civil Rights Act. Lots of things changed. And then we had the Jimmy Carter years where we had inflation and lots of trouble then Reagan came in and the economy was booming in the eighties and continued forward to today. Just want one time after another, he said. America recovered and moved ahead and I left that dinner after hearing him saying, Wow, this is the first time in a while I’ve gone to a speech and it’s made me feel better when I left and I said, People do want to hear good news. And I think Reagan appealed to many people because he always had such a bright outlook on the future.

Richard Benedetto [00:36:24] Always optimistic.

Roger Ream [00:36:26] Morning in America, right?

Richard Benedetto [00:36:27] He’s always optimistic. And he never turned people down. You know, if there was something that he didn’t agree with, you would just go, oh, that’s him. You know, that’s this you know, he just had a way of projecting to the public. He just had a way of telling them that everything’s going to be all right, even though you might be feeling pretty bad. It was just a gift that some people have and some people don’t. And he certainly has.

Roger Ream [00:36:55] And we get so much negativity from the politicians because they’re always sniping at each other and, you know, they’re doing a terrible job and or they’re going to do a terrible job. You know, I think we need more of those kinds of approaches of positive. You know, we have problems. Yes. But we can solve them. You know, we can move on to greater days. And our children and grandchildren will live better lives than we did. And you’ve talked about, you know, your father having gone to fight in war as well as your grandfather and saying he did it so you wouldn’t have to.

Richard Benedetto [00:37:31] He used to say that all the time.

Roger Ream [00:37:32] Yeah. And I encourage people, if you Google Richard Benedetto and Father’s Day or fathers, you wrote a great column about fathers. And, you know, the fact that we too often say, oh, fathers today are doing such a better job because they share the responsibilities in the household.

Richard Benedetto [00:37:52] And they changed diapers.

Roger Ream [00:37:52] Trying to diminish the great work of your father’s generation.

Richard Benedetto [00:37:57] Right. They change diapers, therefore, they’re great. They’re great fathers because they’ve changed diapers. You know, a lot of fathers that I knew in my growing up were not able to do that because they weren’t home. They were working all the time.

Roger Ream [00:38:10] Yeah.

Richard Benedetto [00:38:11]  Some worked two jobs and didn’t have time to do those kinds of things. But when they did come home, they did do some of those things. But yeah, it’s somehow these other fathers that worked hard all the time but didn’t ever change a diaper were not good fathers. I could name many of them will were.

Roger Ream [00:38:32] Yeah. Well, looks like we’re coming up on the conclusion of this. I hate to cut it short, but this has been very enlightening. I wonder if you have any advice to a young person today who might be someone who would be in your class next summer or, you know, is trying to figure out what kind of career to pursue, maybe interested in journalism. You know, what are the key types of advice you’d offer to someone like that.

Richard Benedetto [00:39:04] The first advice I offered a young people is, you know, to be optimistic and do not fall victim to being pessimistic or thinking that everything is bad and is going to be worse. Being optimistic is a good thing. Looking ahead and my grandfather used to have a saying. You say domani, which means tomorrow. He used to say tomorrow’s another day. You feel bad today. Tomorrow you start all over again. So he would say that. But the thing is to be optimistic, insists try to find the good in people. There’s a lot of good people out there. And we don’t play them up very often as they say. It’s become kind of no, no, to write positive stories about politicians and there are positive stories to be written. So we aren’t even creating for the public any longer an accurate picture of what the world is really like. And that’s a bad thing. So my advice is optimism and looking for the good in people, trying to tell good stories that people need to know. You know, always remember, where you came from. This idea that, you know, you’ve risen above your upbringing. You’re not back there, you know, you’re somewhere else now. Where you came from shapes you.

Roger Ream [00:40:31] I remember at one of our closing ceremonies, you said you should do things. I remember you said to the students, stay who you are and value what you have.

Richard Benedetto [00:40:41] Yeah. You know, where you come from and is what is what you are.

Roger Ream [00:40:48] And you published a book of columns you wrote when you were working in Utica, your hometown, where you came from. For people and mostly, I guess in Utica. But anyone who wanted to read about it, that’s showing that truth of that advice there. Remember where you came from.

Richard Benedetto [00:41:07] The column I was writing, weekly column I was writing, I was covering city hall and politics. But  I wanted to write something else that wasn’t city hall or politics. And so I came up with this column idea that they went along with. I was writing this once a week column, a human interest column about people who are doing good things or just interesting places around town or new fashions or whatever. And they were quite popular. I got more mail and more people commenting on the columns than there was any politics I was writing five days a week. But it was fun because it was a break from the politics and it was a chance to highlight people who never get their names in the paper. And that was really a lot of fun.

Roger Ream [00:41:51] Well, last thing I want to ask you. I know you’re a baseball fan. You go with students to Nationals baseball games. This is going to air after the World Series is over. So your prediction will be known to be right or wrong. But do you have a prediction on Phillies or Astros?

Richard Benedetto [00:42:07] The Phillies as we speak, they’re off to a good start. Two to one lead in the series. And I’m rooting for the Phillies because I grew up a Yankees fan, but I become a Nats fan. But I’m rooting for the Phillies for two reasons. One, I always liked Bryce Harper.

Roger Ream [00:42:26] Former Nationals.

Richard Benedetto [00:42:27] And the other thing is that I’ve always held against Houston their cheating scandals, so those two reasons I’m Phillies.

Roger Ream [00:42:37] Okay, we’ll know when this airs if your rooting interest was successful but they are up two to one so we’ll hope for the best for them. But very good to be with you tonight, Richard. Thanks so much for joining me.

Richard Benedetto [00:42:51] Nice to be with you Roger.

Roger Ream [00:42:53] Thank you for listening to the Liberty and Leadership Podcast. Please don’t forget to subscribe, download, like or share the show on Apple, Spotify or YouTube or wherever you listen to your podcasts. If you like this episode, I ask you to rate and review it. And if you have a comment or question for the show, please drop us an email at podcast@TFAS.org. The Liberty and Leadership Podcast is produced at kglobal Studios in Washington, D.C. I’m your host Roger Ream and until next time show courage in things large and small.


About the Podcast

TFAS has reached more than 46,000 students and professionals through academic programs, fellowships and seminars. Representing more than 140 countries, TFAS alumni are courageous leaders throughout the world forging careers in politics, government, public policy, business, philanthropy, law and the media.

Join TFAS President Roger Ream ’76 as he reconnects with these outstanding alumni to share experiences, swap career stories, and find out what makes their leadership journey unique. With prominent congressmen, judges and journalists among the mix, each episode is sure to excite your interest in what makes TFAS special.

If you have a comment or question for the show, please email podcast@TFAS.org.

View future episodes and subscribe at TFAS.org/podcast.

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