GAMBIER — Family Weekend at Kenyon College always draws a crowd, and early risers turned out Saturday morning to see veteran journalist Martha Raddatz of ABC News. Her speaking engagement was scheduled for Higley Hall, but was moved to Rosse Hall because of overflow attendance. Once settled in, 600-plus people heard an engaging Raddatz address topics from presidential debates to the future of journalism, and from the Iraqi and Afghan Wars to Middle East peace.
Raddatz is well used to cameras, but stepped out of her comfort zone on Oct. 11, to moderate the Vice Presidential Debate between incumbent Joe Biden and Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan.
“When I got the call, it was like learning I had some dreaded disease,” Raddatz said. “Everything I’ve done pales in comparison to cramming for that debate. It was like mid-terms in front of millions. The first presidential debate left my head swimming with statistics, and I wanted the Biden-Ryan debate to be more user friendly. I was surprised how aggressive Biden was, and Congressman Ryan didn’t interject as much as I expected. It’s hard to get them off their talking points, but people aren’t stupid. They know when a question hasn’t been answered.”
Raddatz’ early career included local broadcasting and covering the Pentagon for National Public Radio. She moved to ABC in 1999 as State Department Correspondent, and in 2003 was named Senior National Security Correspondent. She reported extensively from Iraq and Afghanistan, was embedded with troops numerous times and flew missions in F-15 jets and Black Hawk helicopters. Even after being assigned to the White House for George W. Bush’s second term, she continued traveling to war zones.
“I insisted on it,” she said. “That administration was largely about the Iraq War, and being on the ground is the only way to stay truly informed. When you sleep in foxholes, you get to know how soldiers feel and what their vulnerabilities are.”
When President Barack Obama took office, Raddatz became ABC’s Senior Foreign Policy Correspondent, and last December she was on the last convoy out of Iraq. The tone of Raddatz’ comments demonstrated care to be nonpartisan, but there was no hiding her admiration for the military.
“I can never be objective about casualties,” she said. “I’ve had friends killed and wounded. They see horrible things, and yet they go back again and again. They are the most amazing kids I can imagine. Less than one percent of us are over there, and somehow our country doesn’t connect with the military. The least the rest of us can do is stay aware and think about them.”
Raddatz pointed out that one-in-five returning vets face emotional problems, that suicide rates are high and that “military people are the last ones to want war. Those are political decisions,” she said. “The military follows orders.” She said the final presidential debate tonight should include discussions of cyber warfare and drone strikes.
“Those are important topics. Can you imagine a cyber attack taking down the electric grid?” With reference to use of unmanned aircraft to attack terrorists, Raddatz said, “We’re not capturing many people, but we’re killing them in record numbers. We’ve had more than 50 of our people killed by so-called friendlies this year. We’ve announced our withdrawal from Afghanistan — and you do have to announce it at some point — but the Taliban will definitely take advantage of it. Is what we gain better than what we give up? I’m sure there’s a lot of soul searching going on.”
Regarding Middle East peace, Raddatz said the Obama administration, like previous ones, has been unable to advance the process. She reserved special concern for the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran and a possible pre-emptive strike by Israel. “No country that has really wanted nuclear weapons has ever failed,” Raddatz said. “At the United Nations, (Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin) Netanyahu was talking about next spring. Containment might work for the U.S., but it will never work for Israel, and I don’t know how anyone can solve that by spring. It’s incredibly complex.”
Another concern for the 63-year-old mother of two is the future of journalism. “I worry how the next generation will get its news,” she said. “We just learned that Newsweek is going out of print, and I can’t imagine losing great newspapers like the New York Times and Boston Globe. There are some great writers on the Internet, but websites change every 20 minutes and it’s hard to determine what the most important stories are. It’s easy to focus on dessert rather than entrees and vegetables. With a newspaper, you have a front page that reflects the most important stories.”
Raddatz’ son Jake is a sophomore football player at Kenyon. “We love the Kenyon community,” she said. “I try to fit Afghanistan in between games. After the debate in Kentucky, we got out of that crazy atmosphere and drove up for the game at Ohio Wesleyan. That didn’t work out too well (Kenyon lost 33-14), but it was a nice visit.” She acknowledged her family’s awareness of her profession’s dangers. “There have been times Jake has told me he didn’t want me to go. So I don’t do it frivolously: I do it because I think it matters.”
Saturday’s appearance by Raddatz was sponsored by Kenyon’s Center for Study of American Democracy.
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