“Times have been very difficult during this downturn,” says the news veteran. “This is nothing compared to what they went through during the Great Depression”
When Tom Brokaw's father drove his family from South Dakota to California in a brand-new 1950 Chevrolet, 10-year-old Tom considered it "an adventure the likes of which I never thought I'd see in my lifetime."
The future news icon had badly underestimated how adventurous his life would be.
In the next six decades, Brokaw covered Vietnam, the fall of the Berlin Wall, wars in Somalia and Lebanon, and the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. When the World Trade Center was hit, he was at a yoga class his wife had ordered him to take. He raced to NBC headquarters, where he informed millions of viewers that the attacks were "a terrorist act of war against this country." Days later, he became one of the first targets of anthrax-laced letters that further terrorized America.
Brokaw looks back on his adventures – and the stories behind them – in a new show for Discovery's Military Channel. The tentatively titled "The Brokaw Files" debuts this fall.
Brokaw, who has also written books including "The Greatest Generation," served the anchor of NBC Nightly News from 1982 to 2004. He talked to TheWrap about President Obama's odds of re-election, his most dangerous moments on the job, and why today's problems don't begin to compare to those of The Greatest Generation.
TheWrap: You've documented so many other people's lives. Now that you're 72, is this show a way for you to document your own accomplishments and career?
Brokaw: This is a real mix. What's appealing about it to me is its generational — it's military and non-military. It has to do with events that changed our lives. Searing moments, everything from 9/11 to the 60th anniversary of D-Day and Ronald Reagan, who has become larger in life now. … I've always been interested in the place of people in shaping historic events. This gives us an opportunity to underline some of that.
You must have had stories you couldn't tell because you had to protect sources. Will you be able to share some of them now?
It wasn’t a matter of censorship. It was mostly a matter of having the time to do it. One of the things that has always been frustrating about television is it's so perishable. You put it on and if the audience has got something else to watch that night, or there's inclement weather or good weather and they're not there in front of their televisions, then it goes away. This gives us a chance to revisit what we think are some important television documentaries and examinations of people who shaped our lives.
I often make the case when I'm talking to journalism students that in television you've kind of got kind of one pass. … Because of new technology you do have a chance to Tivo stuff, or go to Hulu and see it. But that's an extra, added effort, and I don't think the country's completely conditioned to that yet. So this gives us a chance to expose an entirely new audience to stuff that we're really proud of.
Generations X and Y are similar to the Greatest Generation in that they're dealing with harsh financial times and war on multiple fronts. How do you think they compare to the Greatest Generation, and what can they learn from this show?
In my latest book, "The Time of Our Lives," I try to address those themes. I think what made the Greatest Generation so great is it was a common experience – two of them – that were deeply ingrained in their psyche. First of all the Great Depression. Times have been very difficult during this downturn. This is nothing compared to what they went through during the Great Depression. Banks were closing, farms were going away, people were losing not just their homes but their jobs. They were getting in caravans and driving from Oklahoma to California. We had the '29 collapse of the stock market in New York. It changed overnight the roaring '20s to the dirty '30s. And then coming out of that, just when they thought there was some hope, they had to put on uniforms, or go to work in shipyards and factories here at home, to fight the two greatest military machines that had ever been assembled, Japan and Germany, especially. I think younger generations now have no appreciation of how big that war was. A lot of historians have called it the single greatest event in the history of mankind.
The world was literally at stake. Hitler had consumed most of Europe. The Russians were deep, deep into the Communist revolution and fighting back for their very lives. Japan had invaded China and bombed us at Pearl Harbor. The consequences were enormous. And that generation went through all of that, emerged from it, and came back and didn't miss a beat. Just rebuilt the country. And enjoyed for the first time their real economic prosperity.
I'm a product of that generation. I remember what it was like in the 1950s in working class towns where I lived, where families were getting their first new car, for example. Nobody had had a new car. They'd always bought a used car. People were moving into new homes. They didn't have to rent them. I remember in 1950, my dad bought his first car. It was a 1950 Chevrolet. He loaded the entire family into it and we drove to California. It was an adventure the likes of which I never thought I'd see in my lifetime. And that was kind of the feel of the country at the moment.
Now, looking back, this generation, my generation, and the boomers, we've had so much, I think we have to put that in some kind of a context.
How do you feel today when you see people compare Obama to a socialist or a Nazi, or compare any of our problems today to the Great Depression?
This is all in the context of a political debate which is a little bit overheated. I don’t want to get into the politics of the moment, but a lot of what has been done in the last three years really was baked in in the preceding four or even eight years. People forget that the stimulus, the TARP program, was the product of the George Bush — 43 – administration. And we had never had anything like that in our contemporary lifetime, in which the government wrote big checks to banks and car companies and … financial institutions in order to keep them from going under. I'm mean, [then-NBC owner] General Electric was a beneficiary of that in the closing days of the Bush administration. And the unemployment that came out of all that really had started much earlier than Barack Obama raised his hand and took the oath of office. Did he deal with it perfectly? No. By no means. And that's what this election is going to be all about.
Story continues after video of Brokaw's historic 9/11 report:
There've been many times in your career when you've been in danger. I'm thinking most recently of the anthrax mailings after 9/11. How often did you feel endangered?
Well, you know, it rises and falls. I've never had in a combat situation what I would call a close call. I've been embedded with the Special Forces and the 10th Mountain Division. The most dangerous places I've ever been – two of them – one was Somalia and the other was Lebanon when the war was going on. There were no frontlines, you didn't know where you could go, the Israelis were bombing West Beirut. We were there covering. We had all these armed gangs in effect emerging from the rubble and wondering who we were, whether we were spies or part of the Israeli military complex. That was a very dangerous place, but again, I didn't get close to having any kind of serious wounds or anything. A couple of rocket-propelled grenades landed near me and we drove through some pretty harrowing exchanges of fire but I've been in more trouble, frankly, climbing mountains.