[6 December 2007]
Like any good journalist, which he indisputably is, Tom Brokaw has a tough time with the word “I.”
Using “I” means talking about yourself, and saying what you think and feel and believe. It’s a great word for a talk-show host. Oprah, let’s say. It’s a terrible word for a veteran TV journalist who’s spent the past 40 years - with some degree of success - keeping onlookers out of the sanctum sanctorum inside his head.
There was that 2002 book of fond reminiscences, “A Long Way From Home,” but that pretty much stopped at age 20. Brokaw has carefully maintained a wall of privacy for the subsequent 47 years.
Because he’s not a first-person-singular type of guy by disposition, Brokaw typically resorts to talking about other people instead. There’s an inexhaustible supply of those stories, which have nourished his bestsellers, such as “The Greatest Generation” and, most recently, “Boom!,” his “reflections” on the `60s.
But that book and Sunday’s History Channel spin-off, “1968 With Tom Brokaw” (9 p.m. EST), are billed as “personal,” so even Brokaw can’t avoid the almighty “I.” Over dozens of interviews in recent weeks promoting both projects, he’s invariably asked about Tom Brokaw. You get the sense that it bugs him, but - damn - you just gotta ask anyway: What’s “retirement” been like? Did the `60s change you? Were they good for the country or bad? And wouldn’t your answer betray your political beliefs to a certain extent?
Oh, yeah, are you happy?
Happy. It’s another one of those words that sticks in Brokaw’s throat, as though his personal happiness and fulfillment have anything to do with anything. But gracious to the core of his South Dakota being, he answers anyway: His so-called “retirement” from “Nightly News” three years ago, he corrects, was actually “a shifting of gears. But the idea was not to shift to a higher gear.”
Like fourth gear, perhaps. He has had to plug away even harder because the talk shows that would typically serve as venues for a discussion of the book and broadcast have been on strike the last few weeks.
He and his wife, Meredith, also travel continuously, relentlessly and even (one wonders) compulsively. Recently, they were in Louisville, then Graceland, then on to Mississippi, and finally North Carolina. By the time you read these words, he’s most likely leveling buckshot at some grouse on the Montana high plains. That is God’s Country to Brokaw, and if you really wish to know what’s going on inside his head, imagine the view from Big Timber due west from Interstate 94. “I’m a big bird hunter, and while I was working on the History Channel and also a `Nightly News’ piece, I organized it all around ... the pheasant season. I’m pretty skilled at making the schedule,” he said.
Unlike “The Greatest Generation,” the book and TV project do take a look at how the decade and 1968 in particular changed him along with the rest of the world. But with its expansive embrace of the nation’s most turbulent decade since the 1930s, “Boom!” was conceived as a “cross section of the Sixties crowd,” Brokaw wrote in the foreword. But “for the most part, I am like the old class president at this reunion. I call on others and let them have their say.”
The same with “1968”: Weighing in at only two hours, it’s unburdened by a need to be comprehensive, even if we’re only talking about one year here. But what a year: The fulcrum of the decade, or more accurately, the abyss, it was ripped by two assassinations (Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy), the Chicago Democratic convention, race riots, the Tet Offensive and the resulting escalation of the war in Vietnam.
Brokaw talks to a wide spectrum of people, including Pat Buchanan, Arlo Guthrie, Bruce Springsteen, James Taylor, Tommy Smothers and Andrew Young. Gold medalist and Robert Kennedy aide Rafer Johnson, who was at the candidate’s side on the night of his assassination, tells Brokaw that he grabbed Sirhan Sirhan’s gun, then put it in his pocket - a discovery he wouldn’t make until the next morning.
There’s so much ground to cover and so little time, the broadcast leaves next to nothing for its star correspondent.
Nevertheless, one still learns a couple of surprising things about Brokaw. In the book, Brokaw fans will be shocked - shocked! - to learn that he smoked pot back in the `60s “and I inhaled.” (He doesn’t say how often he indulged.) He and Meredith, as young transplants to the Golden State, also had a brush with the swinging California scene of the time, but one senses that it repulsed them both. There was one party in particular during which everyone took off their clothes and jumped in the pool. The Brokaws, still smelling of South Dakota hay, quickly took their leave.
And this, from “1968”: He tried to enlist in the Army and Navy during Vietnam, but was rejected by both branches because his feet, he explains, “were flat.”
But the war touched him deeply, as it did millions of others. A close friend from home, Gene Kimmel, was on a second tour of duty when he was killed; Brokaw says how he “burst into tears” at the funeral, then adds: “I remember then how I was living in so many different Americas.”
One of the most different Americas, of course, was California. The young anchor was later to score a job with Los Angeles’ KNBC, which allowed him to explore, firsthand, a world that seemed out of control. Its excesses, nevertheless, cast a pall over the entire culture. “1968” spends a considerable amount of time exploring that.
“Living in California did liberate me a little bit,” Brokaw said in a phone interview last week. “I grew up in the Midwest as a classic `50s child, though I was a hell-raiser in college. I look back and think, what was I thinking - really fell off the tracks - but got myself together and got to California in 1966. ... We (he and Meredith) saw other possibilities and came to appreciate other lifestyles. I still have a California gene in me.
“One of the big themes” in both book and movie, he says, “is that the excesses on the left in 1968 opened the door to the modern conservative movement.”
He adds, “What I’ve said to my friends who have been gnashing their teeth, `Guess what? Conservatives organized.’ They sold their philosophy to this country while the left was continuing with its internecine feuds.”
So does this mean that Brokaw, like his “friends,” has been gnashing his teeth as well?
“I’m a working journalist. I think people turn to me not to hear about my own political philosophy ... Both sides have merit and I have very strong personal feelings about this, but I’ll keep them to myself.”
The next book? “It won’t be generational but more single-subject.”
And don’t (by the way) expect that subject to be Tom Brokaw.
Here’s how four well-known personalities recall the momentous year showcased in the History Channel’s “1968 With Tom Brokaw”:
BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN, 19, an aspiring musician living in Freehold, N.J.:
“I was a part of the culture and consciousness-raising both political and personal of the `60s, but I never did any drugs. I was sort of what we might call a faux hippie and I always had one leg deeply rooted in my little town.”
PAT BUCHANAN, 30, a speechwriter for Richard Nixon:
“I think 1968 was probably the worst year in this nation’s history.”
MICHELLE PHILLIPS, 24, a member of the Mamas and the Papas:
“I had a very good relationship with drugs. I used them, I had fun with them, I grew with them.”
LEWIS BLACK, 20, a college student:
“If it felt good, I probably did it.”