After a nearly 40-year career as an observer of politics, Thomas Fiedler will volunteer for the presidential campaign of Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) once he leaves the deanship of the BU College of Communication, which he has led for the past 11 years, on June 30.
Fiedler (COM’71) revealed his decision recently in an exclusive interview with BU journalism students in the Art of the Interview class taught by Andrea Kremer, a COM lecturer. In discussing his plans, he referenced a speech given by Theodore Roosevelt in 1910 that came to be known as “The Man in the Arena” speech.
“The words begin, ‘All credit goes to the man who’s actually in the arena, whose face is covered with mud and sweat and blood,’” Fiedler said. “What [Roosevelt] was talking about is that it’s the people who take a risk to do something, to try to accomplish something, that really deserve credit, not the people who tend to criticize those who are making that effort.”
As a journalist who spent decades covering politics and presidential campaigns and won two Pulitzer Prizes—in 1991 as part of a Miami Herald team of reporters who produced a series on a religious cult, and two years later when the paper earned a Pulitzer for coverage of Hurricane Andrew–Fiedler will soon step directly into what he calls an arena of change. By framing his decision in these terms, he pointed to a fundamental journalistic principle: the role of the reporter is to observe and report impartially on the events that she/he witnesses. Fiedler acknowledged that it’s one of the hardest but most critical parts of a journalist’s job and that this change in perspective and position was “unknown territory” for him.
“I feel a gamble in that in some ways being a journalist is a safe space; you can always claim objectivity or neutrality. So I’m crossing that line,” he said. “But at the same time, I also think it’s liberating. I will be able to say: this is what I believe. This is what I feel.”
The field of Democratic candidates running for president was already crowded when Fiedler told the COM class his plans late last month. He wanted to support a candidate whose personal views were aligned with his own, he said.
“I think [Booker] embodies all the qualities of the candidate that I’m looking for,” he said. “What I was not looking for in this race was to work for a candidate who I think has enjoyed all the privileges of being a white male.” White men “don’t need my help. Society has helped them well enough along the way.”
Fiedler is drawn to Booker’s intelligence and outstanding credentials extending into two disparate worlds. On one hand are his academic achievements, with degrees from Stanford, Yale, and as a Rhodes Scholar, from Oxford University. As impressive, he said, is Booker’s credibility among his constituents. He “walks the talk,” living in a subsidized housing project in Newark, N.J. According to Fiedler, it is Booker’s way to genuinely understand and stay connected to the issues he is committed to solving. He believes Booker is a rare politician who is leveraging his robust education and networks inside the arena of change.
“I like the fact that he has lived a life of trying to understand what it’s like to be struggling and to be challenged and then to be in a position to try to make change for those challenges,” Fiedler said.
Although the specifics of his role with the Booker campaign have yet to be determined, the outgoing dean anticipates that he could contribute as a writer and in the area of media relations. But in this age of heightened media scrutiny, he also brings valuable experience, possibly enabling him to help guide a candidate. His Miami Herald reporting revealed 1988 Democratic front-runner Gary Hart’s affair with Donna Rice, which led to Hart’s withdrawal from the presidential campaign.
“Personal conduct, even in comparison to 1987, which was when the Gary Hart scandal broke, is so much more important,” Fiedler cautioned. “In this era of social media, the spotlight is never off, and it can grow intensely and very, very hot very, very quickly, much more than it would have back in that time. So the idea of the importance of comporting yourself, I think, with dignity and appropriately is extremely high.”
In the course of the interview, Fiedler identified the issues he believes to be an important part of the presidential campaign.
“I do think that the overriding issue is climate change,” he said. “I do believe that healthcare should be a right, not a privilege. We should not, in this country, have a situation where people are having to choose between eating and medicine.”
He also reflected on his years as dean, and contemplating what his mark on the College of Communication might be, he called to mind one of the greatest athletes of all time, hockey Hall of Famer Wayne Gretzky. Rather than skate to where the puck was, he said, Gretzky always skated to where the puck was going.
“If we’re going to be a great College of Communication, we don’t do it by being very good at what’s happening in communication today,” Fiedler pointed out. “We do it by anticipating what communication is going to be in the future.”
Graduate student Rachel Rock (COM) can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.