Though he turned over his anchor seat to Brian Williams in 2004, Tom Brokaw — one of the most famous faces in TV news — has remained highly visible. As NBC News special correspondent, he produces and reports his own documentaries — most recently on the 10-year anniversary of 9/11 — and provides commentary when there is important breaking news.
See also: Excerpt from The Time of Our Lives.
Photo by Audrey Hall/Courtesy of Random House
He also writes best-selling books, notably The Greatest Generation and Boom! Voices of the Sixties. His latest, The Time of Our Lives: A Conversation About America, is, by Brokaw's own description, "kind of quirky and very personal." In it he weaves together stories about his own extended family with musings on how to restore a sense of national purpose. "I'm really trying to provoke a conversation," he says. "That's my objective." Along the way, he also tells amusing stories about the boldface names he's befriended, from Warren Buffet to Ashton Kutcher.
Brokaw and his wife, Meredith, who have been married for 49 years, live in a New York apartment (they're in the process of moving to a new one) and at a ranch in Montana. The Brokaws have three grown daughters and four granddaughters. The Time of Our Lives is dedicated to those girls — Claire and Meredith, Vivian and Charlotte — as well as to "grandchildren everywhere."
He spoke with the AARP Bulletin about his new book.
Q. In your book you talk about a new model of grandparenting. What do you mean by that?
A. The gap between grandchildren and modern grandparents is a lot narrower than it was when I was growing up — in terms of interests, popular culture and lifestyle, which includes wardrobe. My generation and the boomers have more of an eye-level relationship with their grandchildren and less of a top down relationship.
Q. You say in the book that a couple of your grandkids actually call you Tom.
A. That happened in part because they saw me more on television at the beginning of their lives than in person. But I also write about how the new generation of grandparents is trying to find nomenclature that suits them.
Q. You have three grown daughters, in addition to your four granddaughters. What's it like to be surrounded by women?
A. It's been the most instructive experience of my life in many ways, living with these strong, modern women who are fearless, who've now taken their place in the world but haven't abandoned or compromised their role as mothers. They bring real sensibility to whatever they're doing. I'm kind of in awe of that.
Q. Different from your own childhood?
A. I grew up [with two brothers] in a family that was very male-dominated, although it was my mother who brought civility to us and kind of kept everything moving in the right direction. She's now 93, and we've all been talking about what an enormous influence she was on us. Mother brought great humor [to the family] and kind of rode with the waves easily.
Q. In the book, you talk about "the fundamental incivility that courses through Washington these days." The country itself seems very divided. Does that concern you, in terms of solving some of the problems we face?
A. I don't mean to underestimate the difficulty of the times. But we have faced much more difficult times, even in my life: World War II, when the fate of the world hung in the balance; 1968, when we were at war in Vietnam, Dr. King was assassinated, Bobby Kennedy was assassinated and we had riots in the streets of Chicago. [Everything] seemed to be unraveling, but we pulled together.
Q. And now?
A. There are differences now. We're living with more people, and we have competition [as a nation] that for too long was unanticipated: The Chinese, the Indians, the Brazilians, the Russians — they have their own ambitions and their own ability to compete in a world economy. We have not quite caught up to that. There's always been an assumption in America that because we're the United States with all our inherent powers, we'll be OK. So it's going to take imagination and a lot of hard work to get through this.
Q. And in World War II the country was mostly pulling together.
A. There's no question about that. There were a few people who didn't like the idea of going to war, but then they quickly got it after Pearl Harbor. And everybody made sacrifices: People saved their money, everybody was in on it.
We've become much more self-absorbed. Just take the current [economic] debate about who's going to give up what. Some sacrifice is going to have to be made. And people are going to have to step up to it.
Q. What do you think should be done with Social Security and Medicare?
A. We know what the arithmetic is. How do we deal with [the cost] in a way that it doesn't overrun us? We got in trouble in part because we didn't manage the excesses. [Now], it's just as critical that we carefully manage how we reorganize all that. And not just go in there with a broad ax and start cutting things without thinking about the consequences.
Q. What about means testing for the entitlement programs?
A. It's tough, but there are choices we're going to have to make. Medicare began, as I say in the book, to take care of people like my grandmother who was living on Social Security and didn't have any other protection. She was a survivor of the Depression. And she needed some underpinning at the end stage of her life.
Q. Medicare is more ambitious today.
A. Now it's such a massive program that covers so many areas and it's so uneven in its application. You know the numbers about how much a Medicare patient in Oregon or North Dakota costs versus a Medicare patient in Southern California or mid-Florida. It's a big swing. We have to get it more structured.
I do believe there should be more means testing. It doesn't make sense for me personally, given the good fortune I've had in terms of income, that I have the same benefits as my brother who's a retired telephone company crew worker, or my other brother who was a restaurant host and in the real estate business. I should be able to pay some more and have a different menu of choices.
Q. So how could means testing work?
A. There would be a base system to take care of fundamental needs, and if you wanted additional help you would be paying more for it. President George W. Bush, well intentioned, had prescription drug coverage benefits added to Medicare. We're in a trillion-dollar deficit [now]. We just can't keep adding on without people having to pay for it.
Q. And Social Security?
A. I think it's just a no-brainer to raise the retirement age. Look, I'm 71 years old, I'm working, I'm in the prime of my life in many ways. I was with some friends recently whom I went to high school with. They're successful lawyers and physicians and university administrators and businessmen, and all of us are still very active. We were back in our hometown [Yankton, S.D.]. I said, When we were growing up here how many men did you know who were 71 or 72? And we couldn't think of anybody! But here we are in our 70s and still pedaling hard.
Q. Are you ever tempted to stop working? Do you think about that?
A. No. The fact is, I do work hard when I work, but I work on my own terms. I get to pick and choose [what I do]. Next week, I'm going pheasant-hunting in South Dakota. It's an annual ritual for me. And then I'm going to go out on this book tour for a while. I had a great summer: I worked very hard, I edited three documentaries, and yet I spent a lot of time fishing and traveling. So my guess is that I'll keep this checkerboard going as long as I possibly can.
Q. From 1983 to 2004, you were the sole anchor of the NBC Nightly News. But 10 years from now, will there be a televised evening news show as we know it today?
A. My guess is that there will be; I don't know how large the audience will be because with every evolving generation there's less interest. [But] the numbers are still very big. [And] we find that when there's a national crisis, a natural disaster or a big political story, people come to the evening news.
Cable is a huge player but it still has much smaller numbers. Bill O'Reilly is very popular on cable, no question about it. But he would be kind of a distant fourth if he were measured against Diane [Sawyer on ABC] and Scott [Pelley on CBS] and Brian [Williams on NBC] in the evening news.
Q. Do you see the format of the evening news changing at all?
A. In a half hour it's very tough. I would hope that in the next 10 years — it's been a longtime hope of mine, so far unrealized — that we would get to an hour on the evening news and maybe even [put it] in prime time.
Q. Are you concerned about the future of serious journalism?
A. There's more of it [now] than you realize. A lot of your readers — present company included — remember a time when you could just be a couch potato. You could get up in the morning, pick up the paper from the front porch, watch the Today show, go to work, come home and check the evening news. And you were going to be in pretty good shape.
Q. But that was before the Internet.
A. It's a much more complicated world now. There are thousands more choices on the Internet and on cable TV. You have to work harder at determining where you're going to get your news and how much of it you can trust. But that's the role of an active citizen.
Q. So how have things changed for the "couch potato" you were just describing?
A. I grew up in South Dakota when television was in its infancy, but if I were back there now, I could get up in the morning, read Politico online or one of the other political websites, I could read the Financial Times of London, check out the New York Times, and read some of the think-tank publications from the Brookings Institution or the Council on Foreign Relations.
Q. What about investigative journalism?
A. Look at Pro Publica. When Paul Steiger left the Wall Street Journal [in 2007], he went out and started this investigative journalism website … and they've won two Pulitzers! There's very good work that's being done.
Journalism will not go out of fashion. It's just being reinvented in terms of its form. We're in the middle of the second big bang. We're just not sure which of these planets is going to survive and support a life form.
Q. You mentioned in a recent TV interview with Stephen Colbert that you practice yoga at home. Are you still doing that?
A. I just did this morning. I don't want your readers to get the impression that I'm a yoga master or aficionado. But I do find it helps start the day. At this age [there are] aches and pains, and I'm trying to deal with them.
Q. What other kinds of exercise do you do?
A. I'm big on bicycling. Right after this interview, I'm going to go biking. [When I'm in New York] I bike in Central Park. Then, if I really want to get my heart started, I get out of the park and go onto Madison Avenue or Park Avenue and try to ride like a New York bicycle messenger. That's terrifying, worse than going to a war zone.
Evelyn Renold is based in New York.