This month former NBC Nightly News anchor Tom Brokaw will be honored at AARP's member event when he receives the Andrus Award, named after AARP's founder and recognizing individuals who have made significant contributions to society. The 67-year-old TV veteran was working on his fifth book, Boom!, about the 1960s and due in November, when he spoke with the AARP Bulletin.
Q. What have you been doing since signing off NBC Nightly News?
A. I've been keeping very busy. I'm sitting here with the book that I'm finishing on the aftereffects of the 1960s. I've produced eight documentaries on subjects ranging from the war on terror to the aftershocks of Katrina in the South. I just finished one on Hank Aaron for ESPN, and I did a two-hour documentary on global warming for the Discovery Channel.
Q. What is your new book about?
A. I was a young reporter during the '60s—during civil rights, Vietnam, the rise of the popular culture and the introduction of the drug culture. What I do is go back and trace what happened then and what we think about what's going on now. I'm calling it a virtual reunion.
Q. How is this book different from The Greatest Generation?
A. This one is more complicated. The Greatest Generation was more linear. There was a consensus view about that generation and all that they had achieved. The '60s—we're still working our way through that time, about what was good and what was not; what was helpful to society and what was destructive.
Q. Now that you're not in the anchor seat, do you miss network news?
A. I get a rush when there's a big story, but they're doing very well without me. When Katrina hit, I knew it was going to be a big story, so I was on the phone to my colleagues in New York, reviewing with them what their plans were and encouraging the entertainment people to make room in the evening for special reports. Somebody in New York said, "Do you want to go?" And I said, "I really can't. I got my grandchildren visiting, and I'm going to be riding horses with them tomorrow." And the next day when I was off riding my horses with my granddaughters, I thought, "I'd rather be here. I've done all those other things."
Q. You covered some of the world's biggest stories. What was your most memorable?
A. The most memorable was 9/11. That was the single hardest time I think any of us had ever been through. Dan (Rather), Peter (Jennings) and I talked about it, and 9/11 came at a time when I had a lot of experience both as a human being and as a journalist. I needed everything that I had learned over 61 years to get through that day. I suppose that history will judge the biggest single event during my journalistic career, in terms of the sweeping consequences of it, was the fall of communism.
Q. You, Dan Rather and Peter Jennings were once the Big Three in network news. Now, network news is losing some of its audience. Is it personality that draws viewers?
A. It has to do more with lifestyle and what you want and who you trust. Dan, Peter and I had been there for a long time, and it takes a long time to get absolutely connected to your audience. So I counsel patience with everyone.
Q. Do you think the high expectations for Katie Couric as anchor at CBS were unfair to her?
A. No, I don't. Katie went over there with her eyes wide open. It's a very competitive business, and they made a big investment in her and in the concept they wanted to put in place. And it has not achieved the results that she or CBS News would like to have. But that's the nature of the business. There are no free passes in television news.
Q. Where do you think network news is headed?
A. It'll still have a huge place, because there are lots of people who watch it, and it's accessible. I wouldn't be surprised in five years if you saw a network news program in the evening a little bit later, because entertainment [programming] has become so expensive for the networks. But it's very hard to have an extremely clear picture at the moment of what's going on, because we're rocketing into wilderness here. All of us are.
Q. You once said you had a hard time turning 50. How does it feel being 67?
A. I just can't believe it [laughs]. One of the things I'm keenly aware of is my dad died at 69, and my father-in-law died at 68, because they didn't have the lifestyle that I have. People in that generation were encouraged to grow old quickly—and I don't mean grow old in terms of aging—but if you were a bicyclist like I am or a mountain climber or somebody who got up everyday and worked out, you were thought of as slightly eccentric. Now, it's routine in my generation.
Q. What is it like being a grandfather?
A. It's great. Again, I think it's different being a grandfather in my generation than it was in my father's generation. We have more connective tissue between us. I talked to one of them yesterday about the Harry Potter books and the movie and whether it was any good, and got a review on it. When I was growing up, grandparents were lovable figures, but they didn't have the same connections to our lives. We have so many common points of reference now on television, or on the Internet or in big events like Harry Potter.