Midwest Today, February 1995
Tom Brokaw, who was born and raised in South Dakota, is equally at ease covering the convulsive changes in world capitals and monitoring the heartbeat of America in the small towns and inner cities. Called away frequently from his anchor desk at NBC news headquarters in New York, it is not unusual for him to spend a week in Russia reporting on the Clinton-Yeltsin summit, then find himself in California a few days later reporting from the scene of a devastating earthquake.
Brokaw has an extensive history of "firsts" with world leaders and world events. He conducted the first exclusive one-on-one interview with Mikhail Gorbachev, which won the Alfred 1. Dupont Award. He was the only anchor on the scene the night the Berlin Wall fell.
He was the first American anchor to report on human-rights abuses in Tibet and to conduct an exclusive interview with the Dalai Lama.
He has anchored "Nightly News" from the White House lawn (where he reported on the signing of the historic Middle East peace agreement); rooftops in Beirut; the Great Wall in China; the streets of Kuwait during Operation Desert Storm; Soweto in South Africa; and from Somalia when American troops landed on the shore. Sole anchor of "Nightly News" since 1983, Tom has been anchor of NBC News' "Today" show from 1976 to 1982. An acclaimed political reporter (he was his network's White House correspondent during the Watergate era), he has covered every Presidential election since 1968.
In addition to his duties as a news anchor, Tom Brokaw has co-anchored "Now with Tom Brokaw & Katie Couric." He has also headed a series of prime-time specials that examined some of the crucial problems facing the nation.
During his journalistic stint he has received numerous awards for his work, including an Emmy for the special, "China in Crisis." In 1990 he was the recipient of the National Headliner Award from the National Conference of Christians and Jews for advancing the understanding of religion, race and ethnicity. Complementing his distinguished journalistic career, Brokaw has written articles, essays and commentary for several national publications.
He is also a member of the Board of Trustees of the Norton Simon Museum, and an adviser to The Asia Society.
Tom's parents, Anthony ("Red") and Jean Brokaw, were poor, hard-working people with three sons. The family moved around a lot, finally settling in Yankton, where Tom attended high school.
While still in school, Tom got a job at a new radio station in Yankton, KYNT, where he played his favorite Fats Domino and Elvis records. It was here that an amusing incident occurred.
Tom had been dating a pretty girl whom he later married, named Meredith Auld, who won the title of Miss South Dakota. Tom interviewed her on the air, and after he finished, he was so excited he accidentally left his microphone on. When he told her he loved her, it went out over the air for all to hear!
Tom attended the University of Iowa for awhile, though his academic performance was less than stellar. He transferred to the University of South Dakota, where in his senior year he began working for KTIV-TV in Sioux City
After graduation he and Meredith got married, and Tom went to work at KMTV in Omaha. Brokaw told one interviewer: "They initially offered me $90 a week, but I turned them down after having begged for the job. I was the first college graduate in my family, just married, with a doctor father-in-law a bit unsure about his new son-in-law's future. I needed $100. They finally agreed on the condition that I never be given a raise.
And I never was."
At 54, Tom Brokaw retains his boyish good looks, with more salt than pepper in his hair these days. In person he has a surprisingly deep, resonant voice - much lower than what he projects when delivering the news.
In an exclusive interview with Midwest Today, Tom Brokaw covered a wide range of topics.
We'd like to begin by talking about your early years growing up in the Midwest. We understand you are from a little town called Bristol, in South Dakota?
Well, that's my father's hometown. I was born near there, and we moved in and out of there in the first only three years of my life. His family settled there; it's a little railroading town. My dad was a construction worker, so he was kind of on the road. And during the war years, we were in a place called Igloo, which is an army base out in western South Dakota. Then we went from there to the construction of a dam at Fort Randall, in the middle of South Dakota. And from there I went to high school in Yankton. So we moved around a little bit.
You were quoted somewhere as reflecting that one of the advantages of a South Dakota childhood is that "there is so little around you intellectually that you reach out for broader source material."
I didn't mean to suggest that there were not bright people around, it's just that because we were out on a prairie in a relatively isolated state, you know, you were constantly casting your eyes over the horizon to see what else was going on in the world. I do think it helps - or it certainly did in my case - to raise my curiosity level a lot.
We note from your biography that it says your first professional job on TV was in Sioux City, IA., but you were actually on network TV some years earlier, weren't you - as a teen - on that "Two for the Money" comedy quiz show? Do you think that maybe instilled your desire to someday pursue a career in broadcasting?
[Chuckling]. Well, curiously enough I was walking to work this morning through the streets of New York and remembering that time. I'm not sure that it instilled in me a desire; I was already working in radio in high school in Yankton. I think that I was kind of wide-eyed about the whole experience. I'm not sure I thought "I'm going to come back and take this town someday," or anything like that. [laughing]
You also attended the University of Iowa in Iowa City for awhile. Is there anything about that time that sticks out in your mind?
Well ya, a couple of things. I made a lot of wonderful friends and I disappointed a lot of friends of my parents because I spent a lot of time majoring in beer and coeds, I'm afraid, my freshman year. But I retain my ties to Iowa. It was my first real experience outside the confines of South Dakota over an extended length of time. And I began to appreciate how much wider the world is. I made friends from a lot of different places, even though it was just one state over. It was a big university with lots of resources, so I have the fondest memory of it.
We read somewhere that you went through a couple of years of uncertainty during that period.
I did, ya. I was kind of a high school whiz, and everybody had these very high hopes for me and I went off to the University of Iowa and spent a lot time, as I say, on matters other than in a classroom. In the next couple of years, I was kind of adrift. I didn't know quite what I wanted to do, and I wasn't ready to apply myself as I needed to in the classroom, so it turns out it was a very instructive experience for me. It's better to have it at that age than have it later, I think.
Your future wife wrote you a "Dear Tom" letter that turned things around for you?
[Laughing] She sure did.
Do you still have that letter?
No I don't, unfortunately. It would come in handy from time to time. She was right in her assessment at the moment. And I went to another friend of mine, who I had a very high regard for... He knew us both well, we were both undergraduates, and he read the letter, and he said "I think she's right." So when I got his affirmation to her judgment, I thought I better straighten myself out here.
One of your earliest roles on television at the network level was when you co-hosted the "Today" show, and many would find that a very comfortable assignment. And yet you wanted to get involved in covering hard news. Why was that?
Well, you know, I'd gotten into this business to be a hard news reporter, and that's what I had been in Omaha and Atlanta and Los Angeles. I'd been the White House correspondent before I went to the "Today" program. I love the "Today" program for the period of time that I was there; it opened my mind to a lot of new experiences, and I made a lot of friends there. But I knew that the long curve in my life, the interest was in doing day-to-day news exclusively.
Of course people know you're the NBC anchor, but you also wear the title "managing editor." Can you tell us what that entails?
Pretty much what it says. I just had a long conversation with the executive producer of the program, and we, the two of us, kind of sort out how we're going to do it that day... both short-term and long-term about what the program ought to represent. So I'm in on the planning, in on the execution, in on the assigning, and then I do most of the writing and do the final editing.
Does this imply that you have to pretty well stay close to the office, you can't wander away for a long lunch and that sort of thing?
Lunch is almost never on my schedule. But this is a very strong organization here. We have a number of people who are at work out there right now. We're all tied together by a computer. I have two different work spaces. I have an office in which I do most of my personal and private stuff, and then I'm out on the rim where I have another work space with a computer. It's there that I go about 4:30 [EST] in the afternoon to make the final push, as it were, to get us on the air.
How do you feel about this new trend in some of the local TVmarkets around the country, such as Minneapolis, whereby stations have decided not to show violent scenes on their newscasts, and they have these "family-sensitive" newscasts?
I think it's up to them. I think that the medium of television has so many parts to it that not everybody has to converge on the same part at the same time with the same style or the same format. I do believe that there has been, in some instances, too much exploitation of gratuitous violence. And if they choose to say that "We're gonna diminish the kind of graphic violence that we show on the air, and we're going to talk to you about other things that are going on in the community," I think if the audience is aware of that, that's fine. But it doesn't mean that they can ignore new trends, unsettling trends that are going on, both in terms of cultural and societal violence or new trends in politics and so on.
You and the other evening news shows are locked in a fierce competition for ratings, and have been for some time. Is that still a day-to-day concern?
That's something we look at all the time, I'm sure, because first of all, we're very competitive and it's just like you looking at your circulation numbers. My guess is that every month you're examining how did we do, why are they down, why are they up? And we do the same thing.
The era of Michael Gartner was a rather controversial one. Do you have any comments on that period?
I really don't. I think Michael was given a very difficult brief here. He was brought in here to reorganize the place financially, and that became I thought, kind of, if you will his whole raison detre, and that was a problem. The problem was that we were downsizing but not looking for enough opportunities to grow. And Michael would be the first to tell you that he lacked certain social skills. He is a shy man and it was hard for him to have personal relationships with people. When you're going through a difficult period like that, and then you're not able to make people feel good about it, or at least understand it, I think it only deepens the sense that something is really wrong.
You seem very calm and imperturbable on the air. We've never seen you tell Barbara Walters to be quiet [as Peter Jennings once did] or get into a verbal wrestling match with a Presidential candidate [as Dan Rather did with George Bush]. Yet have there been any moments that you've found funny, or slip-ups that you remember?
Oh, I have over the years. I mean, there hasn't been anything of late. I had one just recently on election night I was trying to explain who Bernedette Castro was, and I had about a thousand things running through my mind. She was the Senate candidate from New York, who lost to Pat Moynihan. And I started to say that "she could now return to her convertible sofa empire," which is what she did, and with all these other things going through my mind - Tim Russert, I thought was going to get hysterical off to my side - I said "She can now return to her sofa convertible em-, em-, empire [stutters]." I finally got it all out. I just turned to Tim and said, "Okay, smart guy, you try to say that."
How would you describe your journalistic style? Your wife calls you "the most confrontational man" that she's ever met - in interviews presumably.
I am aggressive. My journalistic style is to be turning over rocks all day long to find out what's beneath them, what's wrong, what's right, why we're doing the things that we're doing. So I have an enormous amount of energy and curiosity about the world. While I remain pretty calm, I think at the center it doesn't mean that I don't have strong feelings, or strong passions about a lot of areas. So I'm intrigued right now about this sea change that we have had in Washington, and across the country, and how that will play out, and what kind of signal that is sending not just to members of the Democratic party but also sending to us as well.
The Newt Gingrich interview comes to mind that you did recently. You weren't content to just sit there and ask questions - you asked follow-ups, and challenged some of his responses. it was a very good exchange.
Uhuh. The fact is, I think he enjoyed it. [Laughs]
How would you assess Bill Clinton from your close-up perspective?
I think that Bill Clinton, the problem is he is so gregarious and has so much curiosity about so many subjects, and such a desire to please, I think that people don't have a clear idea of what he believes in. And don't have a keen sense of just where it is that he wants to lead the country, and I think that's hurt him.
You travel a lot. You're out there on the front lines, you've been in some danger zones, like Kuwait. Tell us about some of those experiences.
Between Beirut, Sarajevo and Kuwait, even parts of Africa, you kind of develop a sixth instinct about your own personal safety and you don't do anything dumb, just to draw attention to yourself. It comes with the territory. My camera crews that I work very closely with - they're really from all over the world, from Frankfurt and Johannesburg and Hong Kong, and different places - they're the ones who are much more exposed than the correspondents and I worry about their safety a lot.
Tell us about being in Berlin.
Well, it was an amazing moment. I was just back, shortly before the fifth anniversary, and I felt very privileged to be there that night. It was partly a result of planning and partly as a result of luck, but I do remember thinking that night as we were live on the air with "Nightly News" and then with our subsequent specials: You know, you get very few chances like this in a journalistic career to be at one of the really watershed moments in the changing political dynamic of the world. And you ought to both enjoy it and absorb it but [chuckles] at the same time make sure that you're telling the public what is going on in a way that they can get the import of it, and have an appreciation of the historical context that we're talking about here.
Of all the travel, and all the important world leaders that you've interviewed who impressed you the most?
Oh, there have been so many of them. I get asked that a lot. But it's hard not to have been impressed by Gorbachev, for example, who is a wholly charismatic figure and was an electrifying new presence from that part of the world. Bobby Kennedy was always somebody that would walk into a room and you could almost feel the electrical charge when he was there. I covered Martin Luther King, in his days in the south. I think that Ronald Reagan, in his own way, was a man who did have enormous presence. I began covering him in 1966 when he first ran for Governor of California and I learned to take him seriously early on as a major force in American politics. And then I just recently did something here in New York with Margaret Thatcher on stage at a reading that she was doing from her new book, and she asked that I be interlocker as it were... She's always somebody that causes you to sit up and pay attention, and you almost always learn something from her. Now having said that, you know the people that stick out in my mind over more than 30 years of doing this all over the world are the small, brave people that you and I have never heard from again. They've shown enormous courage or they've been caught in circumstances not of their own choosing, and they've done the right thing morally and politically, and those are the people that I remember a lot.
It's been said that the job of network TV anchor carries with it influence and prestige, power, money, fame; you help set the national agenda. What are some of the plusses and minuses that you see in that job?
You know I think that all that you just ticked off is overstated. Ya, we are famous up to a point, I mean that is, we're recognized. We're paid extremely well; that's not why any of us got into it, but it's been a wonderful dividend I think for us. What I like about it is, you know, after having lived in this country, run all over the land, and traveled all over the world, I do think I have now a reasonable sense of what makes things go well, and why things are going wrong, and if I can help bring that to the attention of the American public, then I think that that's probably a pretty important public service. I still get excited about it.
The other parts of it, I said at a speech the day after the last election, this is one more example - the election results of how the liberal media have a stranglehold on America. Now that was said entirely in jest, because I think that the American public - very much to its credit - in any election year, is wholly independent. We don't sway them one way or the other. They take the material that we provide and make their own judgments, based on it.
We know that you were the NBC White House correspondent at one point. A gentleman for one of the other networks has come under fire in recent months for having expressed his own political views by writing articles in conservative publications, including one by Rush Limbaugh. That naturally tends to make people wonder if the so-called "news" he's reporting is not first put through his own political prism.
Do you think that's really a proper role for someone covering such an important [assignment]?
I think you have to be very careful about that, and one of the things that concerns me in Washington these days is that the line between reporting and commenting is pretty blurred. I mean, people are kind of wandering back and forth across the line all the time. And too many journalists are mostly interested in each other's opinion and not talking enough to policy makers and decision makers.
We live in the information age and yet according to recent studies there's a surprising ignorance, frankly, on the part of a lot of people about a vast array of subjects. [Some of them] don't even know who their own representatives are. Why is that?
Ya. [Sen.] Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.) said that a lot of people didn't understand that Medicare was a government program. I think there are lots of reasons for that. The art of politics has become so distanced from people's lives, and it has something to do with this electronic world in which we live. Most of the communication is done through television, and they no longer feel in touch with their representatives even at the state or city level. I think too, that they have a notion anymore that it doesn't make any difference whatever impact they can have on it. And I think ... that lots of our local news outlets, especially in television, are no longer in the business of covering the governing process. I think that's sad.
With all the experiences that you've had in your career, have you ever thought about writing a book like some of your colleagues?
Ya I have. I probably will at some point, but I don't want to write a glorified reflection of my own life. I'm trying to think what I want to write about the country, or the world.
Since you're so heavily involved in the news business, when you go home at night, can you leave the job at the office?
No, I don't think in this business you ever leave it. I have a computer at home, and I'm at it last thing at night and first thing in the morning, and watch the news before I go to bed. But I enjoy it, I don't feel like I'm a hostage to it.
What makes you happy?
Oh, a variety of things make me happy, beginning with my family. I happen to have had, I think, one of the great marriages in the history of that institution. I have an extraordinarily accomplished wife; we met when we were 15 years of age, we have grown together, I have learned so much from her and she doesn't take too seriously the business that her husband is on television and that's been very helpful to me... Between the two of us we've raised these exceptional daughters. We have three daughters, who are all doing well in their own careers. They too have no sense of awe about this job that I have [chuckles] and so they're quick to let the air out of me and they bring so much new wisdom now - they're all in their 20s - to our relationship, so that makes me happy.
What makes me happy is a job well done here on a daily basis. I felt very strongly that we had done a very good job going into the election. If you'd watched only the political reporting on "Nightly News" and nothing else - no commercials or anything else - you would have had a very strong sense of what was going to happen. We didn't set out with a political agenda, we just went out to find out what people were talking about. And wherever we went, you could see this kind of volcanic eruption building. So that made me happy.
And then I'm - as you may or may not know - very actively involved in the outdoors. I'm almost always happy when I am off the pavement and on a mountain or in a trout stream.
You fly fish, don't you?
And rock climb. That's pretty risky, though, isn't it?
Well, I don't want to overstate my rock climbing ability. I choose my routes pretty carefully and I always go with people who can catch me
How often do you get out to your home in Montana?
Well I get out there mostly in the summertime but we try to get out in the fall as well. But my wife spends a good deal of time out there and we're really devoted to it.
What kind of entertainment do you enjoy?
We're big theater buffs and we love film. We don't get to them as much as we like to, but we have a pretty extensive music collection. I'd say the theater is a big part of our life, film somewhat to a lesser degree. We have a daughter who's in the music business, who tries to keep us contemporary. My wife has season tickets to the opera. I go with her once a year [laughing]. No more than that. And we are great devotees of Garrison Killer. Have been from almost the moment he went on the air. He speaks to us in a language that we're so familiar with and about episodes and anecdotes that seem so familiar to us in our lives, And then over the years we've gotten to know him as well.
What is something about Tom Brokaw that people would be surprised if they knew?
Oh a couple of things. I think one is that I've not lost a lot of my childhood habits of klutzes and losing things. That I have, for all my appreciation for music if I begin to sing the walls collapse and the paint peels off the furniture [dryly].
Can you ever go off and be anonymous, and not have people come up to you?
It's not that it's a camouflage, it's just normally how I like to dress. I will go through life always thinking that a coat and tie are a uniform of some kind. It's never been something that I've taken to naturally. I think my most natural wardrobe would be running shoes or cowboy boots, jeans, a sweatshirt and a baseball cap, or a windbreaker of some kind. And when I show up like that, as I do a lot all around New York City or wherever I'm traveling, a lot of people don't spot me right off the bat. But I do have to say people are very kind and sensitive. I think those of us in the news business, they treat a little differently.
Is there anything you'd like to see in a story, that you wish people would write about - maybe something that we haven't talked about?
[Laughs] I'm still astonished that people think my job consists mostly of showing up here at about six o'clock at night, putting on make-up and reading out loud. I'm a pretty serious student of political and societal changes, both international and domestically. And the other thing is that I like to write, and I do a fair amount of it. That always catches people off-guard. I've written for The New York Times, Washington Post - I'm just doing something for Life magazine in a special edition now. And occasionally even friends will say "My God, I didn't know you could write."
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