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Will Tom Brokaw ask the culture question?

October 7, 2008 |  5:30 am

As predicted, U.S. cultural policy did not come up as a topic in the first presidential debate. There's no particular reason to think it will in the two broadcasts that remain -- although if, by surprise, it were to pop up, then Tuesday night's Tennessee debate would be the most likely time and place.

It's not because Nashville bills itself as "The Athens of the South." Nor is it because the evening's town hall format allows for the possibility that someone in the audience might be curious about cultural issues, foreign and domestic, in American life. Instead, the reason is that Tom Brokaw, the evening's moderator, at least knows such issues exist. In addition to being a celebrity journalist, Brokaw has been a trustee of Pasadena's Norton Simon Museum of Art for more than 30 years.

Tom Brokaw Of all the museums in Los Angeles, the Simon has always had the most celebrity-laden board. Past and present trustees have included Billy Wilder (a prominent Modern art collector); Dorothy McGuire (whose husband, John Swope, was a Life magazine photographer and whose son, Mark Swope, is a photographer shown by Craig Krull Gallery); Cary Grant (who gave the museum his great 1941 Diego Rivera painting, "The Flower Vendor," in 1980) and Candice Bergen (a former photojournalist). Simon's widow, Academy Award-winning actress Jennifer Jones, is trustee emeritus.

Brokaw joined the museum board after Simon's controversial 1974 takeover of the bankrupt Pasadena Art Museum. Simon, whose multinational corporation included Hunt-Wesson Foods and Avis car rental, had begun serious art collecting with Impressionist painting and sculpture in the 1950s. His 1964 acquisition of the inventory of New York's Duveen Bros., once the nation's most powerful (and occasionally scurrilous) Old Master gallery, for a bargain-basement $4 million was a shrewd move. And his passion for Southeast Asian art merged an eye for stunning quality with a nose for a deal, since prices were modest compared with European art. By the time he was done (Simon died in 1993), he had evolved into the greatest American collector of the 20th century's second half.

In her indispensable history, "Odd Man In: Norton Simon and the Pursuit of Culture," my Times colleague Suzanne Muchnic recounted the corporate-raider tactics the industrialist brought to his Pasadena Museum takeover. Simon relied, he always said, on a combination of "power, publicity and paranoia" to get what he wanted. At least one, and perhaps two of those "three-P's" is where Brokaw came in.

Brokaw had been a local newscaster at KNBC-TV Channel 4. He anchored NBC's Saturday night news starting in 1974 and the "Today Show" starting in 1976. With Simon's tightly controlled private art foundation assuming control of a widely admired public art museum, the collector needed -- for tax purposes -- to open up his board of trustees to include more so-called "public members." Adding a celebrity TV newsman helped.

It also came in handy for Simon's lavish 1992 farewell gala. At an 85th birthday celebration held at the museum, which the frail art collector attended in a wheelchair, Brokaw served as master of ceremonies. He was stationed at the podium beneath a great Venetian ceiling painting -- Tiepolo's celestial morality play, "The Triumph of Virtue and Nobility Over Ignorance." Since we could use some of that particular triumph now in the White House, perhaps Brokaw will evoke its memory during Tuesday's emcee duties with Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama.

But then again, probably not.

Candice B    Cary Grant Billy Wilder

-- Christopher Knight

Photos: Tom Brokaw, Getty Images for "Meet the Press"; Candice Bergen, Associated Press; Cary Grant, Associated Press; Billy Wilder, Los Angeles Times