For many broadcasters and other journalists of my generation, Tom Brokaw represented what we aspired to be: He was level-headed and cool, but had the intensity and intellect to go one-on-one with the world’s top news-makers.
Brokaw, best-known for his 20-plus years behind the anchor desk of NBC Nightly News, got his start in the early 1960s, reporting in smaller markets like Sioux City, Iowa and Omaha, Neb., before moving to Atlanta in 1965 to cover the civil rights movement. His distinguished career at NBC News began in 1966 when he served as reporter and anchor in Los Angeles. Following his ‘retirement’ in 2004, Brokaw continues to serve the network as a special correspondent. He also is the author of several books, including his latest, The Time of Our Lives.
I recently had a conversation with Mr. Brokaw in advance of his St. Louis visit next month. He will appear as part of Maryville University’s St. Louis Speakers Series on Tuesday, May 1, at Powell Symphony Hall.
LN: I have to begin by saying that you broke many hearts—including mine— when you retired from the anchor desk in December 2004.
TB:You’re very sweet to say that, thanks.
LN: It was also about the same time when Dan Rather left CBS and ABC’s Peter Jennings passed away. As a young journalist, it felt like the end of an era to me. Did it seem like that for you, as well?
TB: I made the call to leave first, and then it all unraveled in unexpected fashion. The three of us were hotly competitive but we had enormous respect for each other. Peter’s lung cancer—that was stunning. And Dan was having problems with CBS. It came to an end in a fashion that I don’t think any of us would have liked; but time was moving on, with the role of the Internet and cable—all that was changing. In many ways, we had the best of times, but the times were changing.
LN: But the word ‘retirement’ obviously means something different for you?
TB: Retirement was always the wrong word. I like to refer to it as ‘shifting gears.’ I’ve written books, worked on documentaries, specials for Nightly News and The Today Show, as well as for cable. I’m continuing to work at my own pace.
LN: You’ve also written books, most of them mainly about who you call ‘the greatest generation.’ What is your fascination with this generation of Americans?
TB: I’m a product of it. I don’t think we had been paying much attention to what our parents and grandparents went through. You think this recent economic downturn was difficult? It was nothing compared to what they had. They had the Depression, two world wars, and everyone at home doing something for the war effort. Then after the war, they went to college, built homes, and became industrialists, doctors, lawyers, journalists, etc. But they never talked about those difficult experiences. I found them at a stage where they were prepared to share. And the baby boomers— they were stunned by what their parents and grandparents had to say.
LN: The books almost feel like your love letter to them?
TB: My first memories of life were the war. I wore a helmet every day to class. Everyone was going to war around me. Then, when that went away, I caught the wave of the ’50s when everything was possible. And it seemed that everyone forgot about the legacy of their parents and grandparents.
LN: In your latest book, The Time of Our Lives, you talk about restoring that greatness. Based on what you’ve learned, is there a formula for making that work?
TB: There is a formula if we acknowledge what the challenges are. We are the beneficiaries of all those sacrifices. When we look at our children and grandchildren, what is our legacy? We have the largest bulge of Social Security and Medicare payments. Somebody has to pay for that. And what obligation to country do we leave behind? Besides the military, should there be another way to perform public service in America?
LN: Along those lines, the last time you were in St. Louis, it was for a fundraiser for The Mission Continues, which was founded by Eric Greitens, a military veteran who has made it his life’s work to encourage other veterans to commit to public service.
TB: In addition to his organization, Eric as an individual is an absolute model. He’s in my book. He’s doing the kinds of things that we need to be thinking about. He’s the perfect example of what you can do. LN: So since you’ve retired from being a newsman, what are some big stories that have come up that made you think, Oh I wish I were still covering the news?
TB: I miss going to the heat of the big ones, but I don’t miss the routine. I went to the Middle East after the Arab Spring. I was in Beijing for the Olympics, and I’m going to the London Olympics. I continue to stay active, but I don’t have to be somewhere at 6:30 every night.
LN: You’ve covered every president since Lyndon Johnson. Who has fascinated you the most?
TB: I can’t say that about one person. You don’t get to be president by accident. It takes a special will and a vision. I’ve gotten to know almost all of them pretty well personally. Ronald Reagan obviously played a large role in our history. He was an extraordinary public performer, but he was extremely reserved and private. Bill Clinton—for all his personal flaws—had the most political tools than anyone. One of the most underrated presidents is George H.W. Bush. He managed the end of the Cold War, and put together a successful alliance to get Desert Storm accomplished. His son was an easy guy to be around personally.
LN: The elections are approaching…Do you still get that itch, having covered presidential elections since 1968?
TB: I’m looking forward to having a big election. We need to get beyond the intramural fight in the Republican Party. It will likely be Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. I hope that their debates will address the big issues, like the future of education and the direction we need to take America in the 21st century.
LN: What should the media be focusing on in this election year?
TB: The economy is issue one through 10. There have been some harsh lessons. We need to be talking about economic justice and fairness. The phrase that I’ve been using is, It’s time for us to re-enlist as citizens. We have obligations. We need to think about how we can contribute.