Mo Rocca

Inventiveness as Creed

Air Date: May 23, 2015

CBS Sunday Morning Correspondent Mo Rocca considers the imagination of American innovators, from politics to technology, from Model-T creator Henry Ford to the only non-consecutively serving two-term President Grover Cleveland.

READ FULL TRANSCRIPT

I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. In one of my first Open Mind programs, we welcomed best-selling comedian Baratunde Thurston and considered humor not only as temporary comic relief but as an ongoing civics lesson for an America whose government constantly falls short of her aspirations.

Over a laugh-getting career of thoughtfully crafted jokes, tirades and wisecracks, presidential quizmaster-turned-CBS Sunday Morning Correspondent, Mo Rocca has offered the gold standard of political satire…turning the grief of our political dysfunction into more than a few momentary grins.
Rocca was one of the first contributors to The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and later joined CNN as a comic observer during their coverage of political conventions. In addition to his Sunday morning reports, Rocca recently launched a new CBS series the Henry Ford’s Innovation Nation.

This show is billed as “a weekly celebration of the inventor’s spirit…from historic scientific pioneers throughout past centuries to the forward looking visionaries of today…our exploration with this well versed conversationalist will veer across corners of invention and inventiveness, from the ideas shaping our technological future to those that inform our historical past.

As The New York Times recently profiled, Rocca’s Greenwich Village home boasts an impressively sizable bust of Grover Cleveland, the only non-consecutive two term President. So, let me first ask Mo Rocca what aura of innovation the presidency inspires in him? Something that he’s tracked uniquely over the course of his distinguished comic career. Mo, thanks so much for being here.

ROCCA: Thanks. And by the way, is this were the movie “Gravity” was shot? That’s what I feel like.

HEFFNER: (Laugh)

ROCCA: It’s really great, I love it.

HEFFNER: It’s a throw back, it’s a throw back …

ROCCA: It’s good, you can get lost in it. I … what, what innovation does my interest in the Presidency …

HEFFNER: Do you see your current work with technology and looking at the origins of the digital revolution, looking at Thomas Edison and others …

ROCCA: True …

HEFFNER: … as connected to what I found so funny when you were on CNN and Larry King Live thinking about the Presidents, thinking about the …

ROCCA: No, it’s a great question because, you know, this show … one of the shows that I’m doing (laugh) on CBS on Saturday mornings, “Innovation Nation”, looks at the history of innovation and sort of the, the contemporary analogs, the people who are innovating today … inspired by the innovators of the past and we end each episode saying, “Dream big and don’t quit” and I think that that’s something that our most successful Presidents have done, which is they’ve had big vision and they pushed through … a word that I think, that if it’s not in the dictionary needs to be in there … “stick-to-itiveness”. They, they’ve kept the vision in mind and they’ve pushed through.

You know it’s, it’s a tall order and we rarely get it, but until you asked that question I hadn’t thought of it. But I think that that’s something that great innovators share with great Presidents and I suppose that’s something called “leadership.”

HEFFNER: Well, that’s a great point. Because a lot of people clamber for that innovative model, “We need a business person, we need a Tim Cook, we need a Steve Jobs in the Oval Office.”

ROCCA: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: I mean just as much we need the comic levity to bring about, you know, a more livable routine.

ROCCA: Absolutely (laugh) I’d like to think so, I’d like to hope that I have some useful skill set, but I’m … yeah, I think so, I think that maybe the most popular Presidents have captured our imagination with big themes. And often times there are themes that a lot of the time much of the population doesn’t agree with, but they respect big ideas.

But again they have to be big ideas, I think, well, with follow-through. I’m thinking … I’m actually thinking … I think part of maybe the appeal, I’m going to venture into dangerous waters here … you know George W. Bush, I think when he ran for office appealed to a lot of people because he did have some big ideas about compassionate conservatism and then, I remember also this idea that we were not going to engage in national building. And then, of course, granted major events changed course, but there wasn’t a lot of follow through on both those ideas.

HEFFNER: And what about the personality when you look at contemporary inventions, a lot of people say, well, they’re just sort of being built to make life for those who already have convenient rituals, more convenient.

ROCCA: You know, (laugh) one of the things about the, the … about the digital revolution … I think that may make inspiring innovators of the future more difficult is that you can’t see the mechanics of it a lot. And also … with the digital revolution advancements are happening almost faster than you can dream new ones up. So, I do worry I guess that in the past, you know, Igor Sikorsky could read a Jules Verne novel, as a young boy in Russia and Jules Verne wrote about a rotor propelled aircraft … he basically had dreamed up the helicopter … it didn’t exist. And then Igor Sikorsky was, was “infected” or inspired (laugh) by that image and he came to America and he worked on it for 30 years. And it was something that you could see the progress of it in a very tangible way.

And, and to begin working on it, he didn’t need to … he didn’t need to have an advanced degree already. So, it was something he could tinker with. And it took him 30 years and he ended up working on other things in the meantime, on conventional aircraft in the meantime and it took 30 years and eventually, you know, the world’s first helicopter, functioning helicopter which hangs in the Henry Ford Museum in the Dearborn, Michigan was, was created.

So, I do wonder if you’re a little kid right now, obviously the argument can be made that you’re playing with smart phones and you’re becoming digitally adept from an early age and, you know, these kids, I’m sure are thinking of new things that can be done with it. But, putting myself in their shoes it’s not as tangible, it’s not as tinkering …

HEFFNER: Also, when are we going to break ground, I mean what is, what is not ground breaking?

ROCCA: Or, or do you mean what, what ground is left to break or …

HEFFNER: Yeah, that, too.

ROCCA: Yeah.

HEFFNER: I mean, you know, I think you could ask the question both ways, what is not ground breaking and what, what actually would break new ground in that we would, we would be inside the process, because when we have these interfaces with the devices, everything seems to be this sort of one-sided, user friendly approach, but in terms of the coding, in terms of all of the processes that are at work to make it happen … the young person that you’re mentioning is disconnected from it.

ROCCA: Right. Exactly. I don’t …

HEFFNER: The back end … you know they talk about the front end and the back end …

ROCCA: That’s a good point.

HEFFNER: … so the innovation happening today …

ROCCA: Yeah, that’s a great point. I mean I don’t know and I really don’t know but that a 9 year old is going to take apart an iPhone and go, “Wait, I’m going to try this, I’m going to try that …” whereas …

HEFFNER: Is there something about sort of the spirit of innovation today that you can’t take it apart as much, that’s so interesting.

ROCCA: Yeah, I mean that may just be my own brain that hardened and I really mean that. You know a 9 year old might walk in here and say, “You’re wrong, I could take that iPhone and I could … by looking at it and tinkering with it … and maybe playing with the apps, or I don’t know … this … I’m showing my age here, you know, I can think of a, of a new exciting thing that could help, you know … you know clean water … (laugh) or desalinate water for millions of people. So …

HEFFNER: To turn tables a little bit … you, you are someone who’s made me and my contemporaries laugh and laugh and what’s the evolution been in our comic tradition?

ROCCA: Haaa …

HEFFNER: Since you started. Because really you’ve been from the Daily Show to Larry King Live to your, you know, hosts of multiple programs now.

ROCCA: I want to be careful not to not to, to sort of … not to be too be too short-sighted, not to have too short a memory here. For me the Daily Show was obviously very formative. An exciting show, you know, led by a guy who I think has had a pretty big impact on comedy and contemporary life … Jon Stewart … and, you know, the Daily Show didn’t invent political satire, obviously … Will Rogers didn’t. Maybe it was Aristophanes, maybe he did. You know the play about the women who won’t sleep with their husbands, you know, what’s the one … you know, so they’ll stop going to battle ….

HEFFNER: MmmHmm.

ROCCA: …which is a really smart idea. The … I mean there are a couple of things that I think have happened … I think shows like The Daily Show have become trusted checks, even sources of news, but checks on the quote/unquote mainstream media.

I think some of the serious interviews he, he’s done, I’m thinking about interviews of, you know, Kathleen Siebelius or Jim Kramer after the financial crash … I mean those were taken very, very seriously, as well they should be.

And I also think that and this … I want to be very careful how I say this … I think that there has been a blurring of news and entertainment that I think a lot of people think is terrible and in some ways it is … but in other ways, I think it’s more honest and maybe it was always there.

I know that when I do an interview and I used to do musical theater (snicker … da da da … ) if you could see my feet, you could see I’m doing a soft shoe right now.

Ah, the … ahem … I look at it all as performative. I think a good interview is like a scene, there’s a relationship that develops, maybe … you know and at its best it kind of evolves over the course of the interview. And I think that’s the way to keep people engaged. I forgot what the Latin root of entertain means … but it is a kind of engagement, and it’s not a bad thing.

You’re, you’re telling a story and I can’t tell you exactly how the Daily Show and my work with political satire influenced that, but I, I feel pretty confident in saying now that the best interviews I do, the best stories I tell on CBS Sunday Morning features, you know, anywhere from four to nine minutes, are stories that are well told … the best ones … hopefully are well told, and there is a performative quality about it. So, I wonder if, if, if, if comedy in use has helped to break down that wall also … and, you know … does that make sense?

HEFFNER: No, it, it does. Because those are two different camps and typically I think, Mo, people, people blast the idea of “info-tainment”, but, but you bring a different approach to it. Because, I don’t know if you view this as your mission, but you really want to engage and, I mean, you care about people’s literacy.

ROCCA: Does the audience really, really … they may say, but do they really want someone sitting there just sort of reading questions and being neutral and, and occasionally asking a follow-up. We know that they say they want follow-up, but if you really have that sort of personality-less questioner … I mean it might as well be North Korean State TV or something.

HEFFNER: Right.

ROCCA: I mean at least style wise and it’s not going to engage people and I’ll just say that what, what you said to me brings to mind what the challenge was for me doing a documentary for PBS on voting in America, on the history of voting in America.

And I’ll tell you, it was a documentary called “Electoral Dysfunction”, it aired right before the 2012 election and I think it’s being re-aired quite a bit right now on member stations because, because of the mid-terms. And because of voter ID laws and, and the continuing controversy over those.

When the filmmakers came to me and asked me to do a documentary, to host a documentary, to be sort of the point of identification, the central character going across America, learning about what it’s like to vote in America and how complicated it is, one of the reasons I said “Yes” to it is I said “Shows and documentaries about voting are often times as, as entertaining as watching paint dry …

HEFFNER: Brutal.

ROCCA: … brutal … brutal, let’s just say it … like eating cardboard. I thought this is a really great creative challenge … how can I be a part of making this palatable and engaging and yes, entertaining? And, I think, I hope, we largely succeeded and, and just largely (laugh) due to the filmmakers because that’s … it’s, it’s … man … giving birth to a documentary, that’s hard. That is hard. But anyway, so, so I’m pro-engagement, even entertainment when it comes to news and information.

HEFFNER: And I think even the mainstream news anchors have identified that this veil of objectivity was never really there …

ROCCA: Right.

HEFFNER: … everything has been subjective and you’re almost being dishonest if you don’t start from that premise, right?

ROCCA: You can’t be neutral over the shape of the earth. I mean, it’s round, there’s no other, it’s not flat …

HEFFNER: Right.

ROCCA: … there’s no other side to that debate.

HEFFNER: The hard core folks will say … in, in terms of objectivity … “Well, there’s fact and then there’s opinion”. But the, the design of the earth is a question of fact … you know, the earth’s relevance in the, in the, you know, larger stratosphere … well, you know, that’s, that’s opinion.

ROCCA: Sure, and by the way, I want to emphasize that when I say entertaining and engaging that doesn’t necessarily mean funny. And one of the things that I have to check against myself is “How can I use my talents to help engage people and tell a story without stepping all over it.” You know, and a lot of the time that means just like, like stepping back …

HEFFNER: Right.

ROCCA: … and not, you know, doing a tap dance in the middle of, of what should be a moment when the person being interviewed is telling his or her story. So, how can I facilitate it? And, you know we had, we, we went to a public elementary school in New York to explain the Electoral College to a group of fourth graders because kids have … are very … are fair-minded … you know, before they’re corrupted, they’re, pretty good barometers of, of fairness and we set up an election between colored pencils and magic markers and colored pencils … magic markers won the popular vote, but then we split the kids into tables, like states, I don’t want to make this too complicated, but we rigged it so that colored pencils would win the electoral vote.

And one of the kids, and you can’t, you can’t direct this, you can’t script this … one of the kids “lost it”, was furious and I just let him go in front of the camera and I think he spoke for a lot of people who said “Wait a minute the Electoral College is kind of a silly system”.

So, those are moments I’m proud of, when I can use my talent to help set up a moment like that.

HEFFNER: It reminds me of that very famous documentary where “blue eyes” … it might have been eyes or hair … but it was a teacher in a rural district in, in the Midwest, it may have been Iowa, where … to imitate what was going on socially outside of the classroom, in terms of discrimination against people of color … it was all White kids … and if you had a certain color eye or hair you were a second class citizen in that, in that room …

ROCCA: Interesting.

HEFFNER: Piece of it reminded me …

ROCCA: Yeah.

HEFFNER: … of, of that element of your documentary.

ROCCA: And that’s not funny, but it certainly sounds engaging.

HEFFNER: Yeah. Yeah. So, what’s next for Innovation Nation and your hopes for the series in terms of really kind of grappling with the emerging sector of technology.

ROCCA: You know, I keep going back to our tag, tagline of, of “dream big and don’t quit”. Because you can’t have one without the other and it does concern me. I don’t have kids, so maybe if I had kids I’d be even more concerned, or I’d be less concerned, maybe I’d say, “Ahhh, I’m … you know … kids are kids … whatever and they’ll always be the same”.

But it does, you know, it does worry me that “stick-to-it-iveness” (laugh) is not a virtue in our society that seems to be celebrated enough.

HEFFNER: What do you mean in terms of how students should be living or how we should be living as a “stick-to-it” society. Sticking to …

ROCCA: (Sigh) It seems to me and I have no data to support this, it seems to me that the amount of failure that goes into success is ignored in popular culture.

HEFFNER: MmmHmmm.

ROCCA: That it’s the people and there are all sorts of inspirational quotes, I can’t recall any right now, but that we, that we point to on the show … of great innovators who talked about how important failure was in their success.

And I worry that in a, an increasingly distracted society that that gets scrubbed out of the narrative, that gets scrubbed out of the story. And that people are … that the slam-dunk metaphorically is so celebrated in the culture that people are increasingly afraid to fail.

HEFFNER: MmmHmm.

ROCCA: And, and I have no data to support that. And maybe it’s my own, maybe there’s something else going on in my life that makes me neurotic about that. Maybe it’s my own fears about (laugh) … sorry … do you have a couch in here …

HEFFNER: (Laughter)

ROCCA: (Laughter) … I’ll just lie on the table … (laughter) but, but you know …

HEFFNER: No, it’s …

ROCCA: … I know when I’ve had my own professional failures things like Twitter … here, let me use that as an example … make what should be a formative experience and a constructive experience, a depressing one and it just … it becomes a downer. You know, I think that obviously there’s, there’s so many great things about social media and it’s a reality and it’s here …

HEFFNER: But those failures are exposed bare …

ROCCA: They’re exposed and you know, I did an interview with Bette Midler … wasn’t a very good interview … no one’s fault, I suppose … you know, it’s a chemistry thing.

And … but, I asked her … I don’t even know if it made it into the interview … but I was asking her what she thought about sort of “making it” today for young entertainers … you know, the people who aspire to be the next Bette Midler. And she said, “You know, on the one hand there’s a lot … there are a lot more avenues … all these little capillaries … right … instead of main arteries, by you know, via Twitter, Facebook, whatever social media. But on the other hand, you know, there’s so much noise it’s heard to break through.

But I also thought, she got her start by singling in a bathhouse …okay, on the Upper West Side … what’s the famous one that eventually became “Plato’s Retreat” … but it was in the basement of like … The Ansonia … do I have that right? Does anybody know …

HEFFNER: I think you have to tell us what a bathhouse is (laughter) …

ROCCA: Oh, okay … well, no, I mean it’s like a … this was a gay bathhouse where she started entertaining … entertainers … Barry Manilow used to play piano for her there … I mean before they were famous. And it was very …

HEFFNER: This is a pre-Twitter concept …

ROCCA: Yeah, yeah, yeah … no … it was, it was, it was … exactly … it was figuratively and literally underground. And, and then it eventually became a straight like swingers thing called “Plato’s Retreat” and then, you know, and then AIDS happened and then the whole thing got shut down.

I mean that’s the brief history of it, which may not even be entirely accurate. But let’s go with it.

But more importantly, I, I was thinking, she had this place where she could develop her craft and her persona without thousands of people going “I hate it, I like it, do this, do that”. And so, to me, it felt like … that must have been a great place to incubate …

HEFFNER: MmmHmm.

ROCCA: … a talent and … to incubate … and “persona” sounds superficial … but it’s not. And, you know, today I think people maybe more gun shy because you put something out there and immediately it gets validated or torn down. And it’s … I think it’s very important to have a protective, to have a little bit of a cocoon in anything you’re aspiring to do … and not just performance, not just show biz, but maybe you’re working on an invention, maybe you’re working on something that you want, that you think this could really help mankind and then you put out the prototype or, or a rough draft of it on Twitter and then, you know, at its best people like “Oh my God this is amazing.” But, you know … it’s, I guess what I’m saying is it’s not good to have a constant feedback system if you’re trying to develop something. You know I just said …

HEFFNER: No, that’s … that’s …

ROCCA: I got it out of my mouth ..

HEFFNER: No, you, you did and, and, as a creator that incubation period is essential.

ROCCA: It’s essential in anything. It really is essential.

HEFFNER: And there are apps being constructed to, to sort of emulate or create that incubation.

ROCCA: Igor Sikorsky … his, his first version of the helicopter probably 25 years before it actually worked … he didn’t … immediately, you know, videotape how it didn’t really work and throw it on Facebook (laughter) I mean because that might have really stopped and, and then the helicopter which is … has changed the world and saved lives … and which is first and foremost used to rescue people, you know.

HEFFNER: I really want to ask you, in terms of conceiving of the innovations that are going to drive our future, I mean … everyone said these flying cars, I mean … (laughter) and now everyone’s obsessed with Google piloting these, these vehicles where you can just sit back, relax … you know, throw one back and drive …

ROCCA: Right.

HEFFNER: … without driving. It, it doesn’t’ seem to me that the big picture of innovation is, is really in that spirit, what’s going to improve mankind?

ROCCA: Exactly. You know, the flying car is funny and fascinating because it’s been this obsession for a long time, I think probably since the invention of … the development of the car and the introduction of the airplane … the flying car has been this thing that people are fixed on and I did a piece, actually on, the future … we did a whole future theme episode for CBS Sunday Morning … and I talked to Jim Meggs who’s the editor of Popular Mechanics … great guy and he made a great point about the flying car. He said “We could actually have a flying car right now, prototypes have been developed. There’s a problem, it doesn’t drive very well and it doesn’t fly very well, and it’s extremely expensive.”

The point being that just because something is possible, doesn’t make it desirable.

HEFFNER: Right. And, and when did that become sort of the, the pinnacle of innovation … you know …

ROCCA: Since the Jetsons …

HEFFNER: Right.

ROCCA: I mean it’s a Jetsons thing.

HEFFNER: And, and I mean …

ROCCA: I’m more of a Flintstones person, by the way. I’m much more analog.

HEFFNER: Well, maybe the Flintstones were more, more interested in curing cancer or something. But didn’t …

ROCCA: Like, loving the Flintstones where they would have like animals as sort of a household appliances … Like Wilma Flintstone … you’re too young, but she would wash the dishes, but the hose would be the baby elephant’s trunk and they weren’t … no real animals were harmed. It was animated.

But then you’d … she would be like, “Fred, I’ll be right there” and then close up on the little elephant … and it would be like “It’s a living”. You know it would always say something really funny and schticky like that.

HEFFNER: And I mean there are no Jetsons vitamins … I mean the Flintstones …

ROCCA: Right.

HEFFNER: Pro-social vitamins.

ROCCA: Yeah. You know the most pro-social …

HEFFNER: You’re a pro-social comedian and reporter so I want to, want to pick your brain on that.

ROCCA: The, the thing that I wish I could do, and it’s not a device, it’s … it’s probably … it’s maybe another TV show, or it’s something that’s about narrative. I’d like to figure out a way to make Americans remember stuff from father back than last week. To make …I think one of the great things about this amazing country that we live in is that we’re always looking forward, but it’s not so such a great thing to do that at the absence of looking back.

I mean it’s, it constantly amazes me how short people’s memories are. And that’s not a virtue, it’s not a virtue to say, “That was yesterday, we’re moving ahead.” It’s just, you know, my brother, one of my brother’s lives in Europe and there is a real attitudinal difference and I wouldn’t want to live in Europe … sorry … and ah, because there are often times … always looking back and not looking ahead. It, it’s, it’s a different mindset … I’m generalizing, obviously, but I wish that people could remember. I mean I think so much of what’s happened with America and wars is due to people not remembering something that happened as recently as, oh, I don’t’ know, 2003 … or, you know, or not remembering, not remembering the Gulf of Tonkin incident. And not being skeptical enough because they don’t remember things that happened not that long ago.

HEFFNER: More than a fleeting flashback, in other words.

ROCCA: Yeah.

HEFFNER: Mo Rocca … it’s been such a treat to have you here.

ROCCA: Oh, thank you very much. Terrific. A lot of fun.

HEFFNER: Thanks. And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time…for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind.

Please visit the Open Mind Website at thirteen.org/openmind to view this program online or to access over 1,500 other Open Mind interviews. And check us out on Twitter & Facebook @OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.