Remember the days when network news anchors had the credibility of a trusted doctor or a wise historian? There was a time when Walter Cronkite was the most trusted man in America. Later came the era of Peter Jennings, Ted Koppel, Dan Rather and Tom Brokaw — all considered beacons of truth.
But over the course of the past decade or so, trust in many institutions, including the news media, has eroded significantly. The reasons are too many and too complex to list here. In spite of that shift, Tom Brokaw remains a symbol of journalism in America. Perhaps it’s the way he tells stories. Maybe it’s his authoritative yet soothing voice. Or it could be the lasting impact of his bestseller The Greatest Generation.
Part of what makes Brokaw a singular figure is rooted in his Midwestern upbringing. He was born in Webster, South Dakota, and started his television career at KTIV in Sioux City, Iowa. His life story is one of hard work, adversity, mistakes and massive success.
To sit with Mr. Brokaw in his office at the world-famous 30 Rock was a privilege. To listen to him talk about his childhood, his marriage and the early days of his career was a pleasure.
Despite being diagnosed in 2013 with multiple myeloma — a disease he still deals with — Brokaw remains active as an author and a senior correspondent for NBC News. At age 79, he speaks lovingly and reverently about his wife of 57 years, Meredith. His office is filled with family photos, awards and keepsakes from his career.
Hearing Brokaw tell tales about his life is like taking a trip through modern American history. And what a journey he’s been on.
How would you describe your upbringing in the Midwest?
I was born in Webster, South Dakota, and raised all over South Dakota. My father’s family built a little railroad hotel out in the middle of nowhere. It was a really hard life. They had no money. He was the last of 10 children. He dropped out of school at 10 and went to work for this Swedish homesteader. Think about that, then think about where I am in life. But he became a genius at doing mechanical things, and it gave him a great life.
He stopped education in the third grade, but he was smart enough to marry my mother, who was at the opposite end of that. She was beautiful, came from an Irish family and graduated from high school at 15. And he bet somebody 50 cents he could get a date with her. They had never met, but he was well-known in town. Everybody knew about Red Brokaw. He went to ask her out, left the car running and the lights on, knocked on the door, and asked, “Would you like to go to the movies tonight?” [laughs] I can’t imagine. She knew who he was and turned to her dad, who said, “He has a really good reputation as a worker, so, yeah, it’s OK.”
I often asked them over the course of our lives together, “How did that happen?” My mother understood that he had such an abusive childhood that he had really great manners. He was always working hard at changing his public reputation. He was not the person people thought he was. He had real aspirations about what he wanted to do with his life, but he was raised on the streets of this small town, frankly.
It sounds like all of those things — your dad, your mom, the Heartland — really molded you.
Huge impression. What you got was what you earned. No one gave you anything, and hard work was rewarded. I got a lot of attention at a young age because I was the gabby kid and was very active in school and athletics. My parents always had a way of keeping that in perspective; I think my dad saw me play one basketball game, because that wasn’t important to him. On Friday nights when I was playing, he was home working on something. When I became Boys State governor, which was a big deal in that part of the country, he got up at 5 in the morning to drive to hear my inaugural address, because that counted. That was not just recreational; that was a real achievement.
My dad and I had this fantastic relationship, but we were two completely different people. He worked with his hands. I think he had difficulty learning when he was a young man, because he didn’t read very well. And here I come along, this gabby kid who’s writing stuff. I wanted my mother, and she and I had all these great jokes between us.
A quick story: My dad died 10 days before I took over Nightly News. He was my second call. Dan [Rather], Peter [Jennings] and I were all starting together, and the media was writing about our salaries. And my dad called and asked, “Is that true what they’re saying about how much you’re gonna get paid?” And I said, “Dad, we’ve never talked about that before. Why would we start now?” And he said, “I’ll tell you why. As long as I’ve known you, you’ve always run a little short at the end of the year. I need to know how much to set aside for you.” We both had this huge laugh. Five days later, he died. But we had a great last conversation.
That’s amazing. Speaking of your career, so you’re in your late twenties, working in Los Angeles and a man about town with the likes of Lauren Bacall, Cary Grant and Frank Sinatra. What was that time in your life like?
Well, it certainly wasn’t that I was a member of the Rat Pack. I started anchoring in Los Angeles when I was 26 years old — I think, “My God, how did that happen?” — and I preceded Johnny Carson. Everybody in town wanted to watch Johnny, including the Hollywood people: Betty Bacall, Roz Russell, Jack Lemmon, Ronald Reagan. And to see Johnny, they had to watch this kid at 11 o’clock.
Now, Meredith is stunningly beautiful. We were at a party one night, and Roz Russell came up to me, introduced herself and asked, “Is that beautiful young woman your wife?” And I said, “That’s right.” And she said, “Well, my husband and I are having a party for our 30th wedding anniversary. We don’t have any young people attending. Would you come?” I said, “Sure.” She asked, “Do you have a tuxedo?” I said, “No.” “Rent one,” she said.
The next day, she sent a telegram to our house to remind us. So we went to the party, and it was Greg Peck, Jimmy Stewart, that whole crowd. I sat at a table with Jack Lemmon. Roz handed out scarves for the women and caps for the men. As she walked by me, she winked; I couldn’t figure out what that was about.
Then I walked up and saw Meredith being led onto the dance floor by Ronald Reagan, who was just six months into his governorship. He was a great-looking guy, and he was a great dancer. And Meredith was a great dancer. Within two minutes, everybody stopped to watch Meredith and Ronnie Reagan out there cutting a rug. When the music stopped, Meredith started to walk off the dance floor, and he said, “No, we’re doing this again.” Two beats into the next dance, Nancy was right there saying, “Ronnie, there’s a question I can’t answer. Can you come over here to the table?”
But then we went home at the end of the night. We were flattered to be included. We liked the people we met. But we were there as tourists in effect.
I noticed you said “Greg Peck.” Were you on a first-name basis? I think I would have had to call him Gregory if I’d gotten the chance to meet him.
They were a great crowd. They were the last stars who knew they were stars and never went anywhere without being stars. They were always dressed to the nines. They liked to show up at events like this one. They were very pleasant with their fans and would stop to talk to them. It was like a fraternity and a sorority; they all knew each other.
One night at a party, a director asked, “My God, who is that woman?” He was looking over my shoulder at Meredith, and Shirley MacLaine said, “That’s his wife.” That was the kind of familiarity they had with us. Meredith and I grew up together, so I sort of took for granted what a showstopper she was, but that’s happened wherever we’ve gone. Same thing when we went to Washington; everyone wanted to know who she was, so Town & Country featured her as a new woman in Washington.
Your career spans so much history with so many amazing highs. When you look back, what stands out in your mind?
A friend of mine called it the Brokaw luck story. He said, “I’ve never known anybody who was just at the right place at the right time like you were.” And that’s true. I moved to Yankton from this little working-class town. I worked at the radio station, which gave me a real lift — to be in this larger town with real standing in the state of South Dakota. That raised my visibility, I suppose. I don’t believe I had this coming because I am who I am; I was a lucky guy a lot of the time.
I went to the University of Iowa, which was a big deal, and I went off the rails. I dropped out after a year, went back to South Dakota, dropped out there after a year. I was completely afloat. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I wasn’t interested in going to class every day, and I was trying to figure out what the hell I was about.
Meredith ran into my mother, who was befuddled by what I was going through. And Meredith got so pissed off that I had put my mother in this position that she wrote me a devastating letter saying, “I don’t want to see you again. I don’t want to hear from you again. I don’t know what you’re doing with your life and neither do your friends, so don’t bother to call.” That was a big wake-up call.
So I did a big turnaround. I was working full-time at a television station in Sioux City, Iowa, which was in commuting distance of the University of South Dakota. So I was getting up at 5 in the morning, driving up to the university and going to class from 8 in the morning until 1 in the afternoon, racing back to the television station, working until midnight, getting up, and doing it all over again.
Meredith took notice and asked me to go for a cup of coffee. A year later, we were getting married, and the two most surprised groups in South Dakota were her friends and my friends. They didn’t see it coming. Somebody asked her, “Why Tom?” She said, “I don’t know that we’ll ever have any money, but it’s going to be a lot of fun and it’s going to be interesting.” It worked out.
It’s been pretty interesting. Your latest book is about the fall of Richard Nixon. What can we learn from our country’s political past?
I was just writing about this yesterday. I think the most extraordinarily powerful tool and the most destructive development in modern life is the current media. Everybody has a voice — and I think it’s great for people to have a voice — but there’s no way to verify what’s true and what’s not. It has no context; it’s just a 24/7 rage about what’s pissing people off across the board from the left to the right. It could be a unifying factor, but it’s a dividing factor, frankly. And that really troubles me as much as anything. I don’t know how we get beyond that. I don’t know what leader can come along and say, “Look, we’re all in this together. We’ve got to find a way to work together.”
Ronald Reagan was the best example of that in my lifetime. I was not a huge fan when he first started running, not for president but for governor of California. Then I saw how skilled he was as governor at putting together that big, big state. When he ran for president, I said, “Watch; he knows how to put people together.” He had a really core set of beliefs, but he also had an engaging way about him. He had been a movie star. He knew how you had to win people with your personality and how you went about your life. They would be for you or against you, and he had people for him. He also had the courage to have a really good staff. My friend Jim Baker was his chief of staff.
We don’t have a Reagan out there now who can pull it together. Bill Clinton also had that capability, by the way, but then he got tangled up with Monica, which took a fair amount out of his résumé. We need people who see the presidency as a coveted prize but who understand that the objective is to bring the country together for common goals and to outline those goals in a way so people can see why it’s important that we do this. And when we do it, everybody gets credit; everybody gets a part of it.
I’ve always recommended people read Reagan’s diaries; he recorded diaries every night. When you read them, you realize how intuitive he was. He once got in a big fight about tax cuts with Jack Kemp, who was a very strong conservative. And Reagan wrote in his diary that night, “I would rather get 75% of what I want than demand 100% and go down with the flags flying.” I’ve always thought that summed up who he was. He gets 75%, he can go forward. He holds out for 100%, they go under. And not enough people understood that about him. Baker and I have talked about this a lot because he was there every day.
The other thing about Reagan was that he came in every morning with a well-organized set of objectives that he would work toward that day. And he would listen to people if they’d say, “Mr. President, I don’t think that’s going to work.” He’d say, “Well, tell me why.” Then if they could make the case, fine. But if he felt strongly about something and they couldn’t make the case, he’d say, “Well, I’m sorry, guys; we’re going to go my way.” And as Baker has said, 90% of the time he was right.
How optimistic are you that there’s someone like that, man or woman, in our near future?
Well, this is obviously the most unsettling time I’ve ever experienced in national politics, and I’m not saying that just from an ideological point of view. I’m not saying that as a Democrat or a Republican. I’m saying that as a journalist and as a citizen and as a grandfather. If you strip away all the chaos that’s going on in Washington — I am all over this country, and the country still works. It is very instructive for me to spend the time I do in Montana, in South Dakota, in the middle of America.
They bump up against stuff. They’ve had terrible weather in South Dakota. The fields were frozen. They couldn’t get the crops in. And because of the president, they didn’t have the market in China they expected to have for soybeans. But they’re not down on their hands and knees pounding the turf and saying, “This is unfair.” They’re trying to figure out how they can get this done. They’re not looking to Washington to figure out what to do; they’re getting it done on their own.
When I was growing up, Sioux Falls was the biggest city in South Dakota, about 70,000 people. Now it’s more than 250,000 and a booming community. One of the big employers there was a meatpacking company. All my high-school football buddies and I would go there in the summertime and get jobs. They were terrible jobs, slaughtering all day long, moving the stuff. But it was a big, big employer.
A man came into Sioux Falls and built a hospital system, trying to rival Mayo Clinic. So the really good jobs were in the hospital system, and the meatpacking plant was in trouble. The city fathers recognized this and asked the State Department to help bring in workers to fill the jobs. So the State Department brought in 180 families from Eritrea and Somalia and all these distressed places to fill the jobs at the meatpacking plant.
And that’s really changed the city. The townspeople saw that people from other places share their same values. They have their own churches, their kids are really good soccer players at school, they’ve integrated into this very white-bread Midwestern town. That’s the rooting of America; that’s who we’ve always been. People have come here with little except an appetite for opportunity. We need the courage and the imagination to do that kind of thing, but it’s tough.
We live near a small town in Montana that’s the most conservative town in the state. And people tense up a bit when confronted with people who aren’t just like them. There’s still a lot of that rooted in the country, and I think it’s one of the great, great challenges of our time. We’re more than just a white Protestant society now, and it might have been overstated even back when we thought we were.
Have you thought about what you want your legacy to be?
Yeah, I have. What I’ve thought is, “He had many opportunities, and he didn’t screw them up.” [chuckles]
No, actually I don’t think about it a lot. I guess the most rewarding thing for me professionally is that I wrote The Greatest Generation at the end of the nineties and even today I cannot go anywhere in America without somebody coming up to me and saying, “The Greatest Generation is the most important book of my lifetime.” That’s what I think my legacy professionally will be.
Then personally, I hope that I was a caring person, that I tried to give back as much as I could to my community and that my wife has been tolerant of my excesses. I made mistakes along the way, and I like to think we worked things out. We have these fantastic children and grandchildren.
I’ll tell you a quick story about our two grandchildren who are now living in Geneva. They’re 12 and 14, and they’re so hip. So we were going to Morocco on a big family trip, and I said to the kids, “You have to watch Casablanca; it’s my favorite film of all time.” And they said, “Tom” — they call me Tom — “it’s in black and white.” And I said, “I know, but you’ve got to watch it.” They were absolutely bedazzled by it. So wherever we’d go in Morocco, they’d say, “Of all the gin joints in all the world, how did we end up in this gin joint?” We were all having a laugh and taking it in. So that gives me a real lift.
And you’re doing all this while battling cancer. What keeps you going?
Well, every day is a reward for me, given where I grew up and how I grew up, that we have the opportunities we do and that I’m surrounded by this fantastic family. It’s not my name above the title in the Brokaw family, it’s Meredith, then all the kids. I’m just part of the cast and crew, frankly.
I’ve often thought that my life would be a mess without Meredith. She is a whiz at putting together a house, figuring out what we’re going to do as a family together, what our plans are for the next year. She’s an expert horsewoman even though she didn’t start riding until she was 50. She’s a champion bridge player. And when I got sick, it was her job to live her life and to live my life as well. In the beginning, it was very, very difficult, but Meredith was just easygoing: “We’re going to get through this.” We’ve always had a sense of humor about it as well.
Bringing it back to the Heartland, finally, what is it about pheasant hunting that you love so much?
I grew up out on the prairie, with the rolling hills and the wild Missouri River. Hunting and fishing were part of the culture, and we were surrounded by it. In the wintertime or the summertime — it didn’t make any difference — you’d take your .22, go out in the woods, out in the hills and camp out. My friends and I talk about it now, about what we went through in those days. Some of them were physicians, some were lawyers, some were construction workers; we were all mixed together. But for the boys, that was the life to be down on the Missouri River.
Actually, I damn near drowned in it once. I was in the third grade, I think. We had been to Sunday school class, and we jumped off an uprooted cottonwood tree into a really swift current. The idea was to jump off one cottonwood tree then catch another. I missed the catch, and I was disappearing downstream when the Sunday school teacher dove in and grabbed me. And because of that, I became a really expert swimmer, a lifeguard and a water safety instructor, because I knew I had better get this figured out at some point. [laughs] It was a real Tom Sawyer childhood; it really was.