Brokaw on Brokaw
Former NBC anchor talks "Greatest Generation," reflects on storied career
CHICAGO -- For someone who has interviewed the likes of Martin Luther King Jr., Ronald Reagan, Nelson Mandela and Mikhail Gorbachev, Tom Brokaw does a pretty good job of telling his own story. The former NBC Nightly News anchor and author of The Greatest Generation--a New York Times bestseller that told the stories of those who fought in World War II--addressed attendees at the 2011 NACS Show's closing session, relating his stories of broadcast news legend Walter Cronkite to his own appeal for volunteerism in uncertain times.
Recalling a story with Cronkite being in line at a gift shop, Brokaw said a woman tapped the former CBS news anchor on the shoulder and said, "Do you know you look like Walter Cronkite before he died?"
She followed the comment by asking, "Walter Cronkite is dead, isn't he?"
Then Cronkite's wife, Betsy, who was also in line said, "If he isn't by now, the old S.O.B. ought to be."
But Brokaw also got serious. The country believes in "every succeeding generation doing better than the last; it's the roots of the American dream," he told the audience gathered in Chicago. "I'm worried that our children will not have the life we had."
Noting how he gives several college-graduation speeches a year, he said in the last two years many of those young people have had a parent or parents lose their jobs. Many no longer believe that a college education will lead to stable employment. And for a significant number, their family homes may be worth less than the mortgages on them.
Bringing up The Greatest Generation, he described that population of Americans as one that grew up in the deprivation and sacrifice of the Great Depression, only to be asked to take arms against two of the most developed military forces in history. "And yet they never stopped re-enlisting as citizens," he said, pointing out how that generation came home to obtain college degrees, spawn the largest generation of Americans in the Baby Boomers and put the county on the path of economic domination.
Brokaw spoke of today's veterans coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan, telling a story about a unit from South Dakota that lost three men with a fourth sustaining head injuries. With Brokaw being from that area, he said he would help the surviving soldier on his road to recovery, but was met with the response: The community needed to step up first.
"We have to take that experience and expand upon it," he said, noting that he was still able to personally help out with monetary donations and time. "We have to do more to help veterans. They're part of the American family. We have to train them for this economy. Our next great phase is the integration of these warriors into society."
What surprised him about writing the book, he said, was that the stories had not been told. The Greatest Generation and Steve Spielberg's highly successful 1998 film Saving Private Ryan, in a way, gave permission for them to talk. Mention post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to a World War II veteran and "he'd tell you 'I cried on the floor with my wife'," Brokaw said.
Beyond talk of the military, he said the larger responsibility is to the reinvention of the nation and its place on the global stage. As an example, China is aggressively setting up businesses in of all places, Rwanda. People he knows there say America "is not present in the same way," adding that America needs a different image overseas--and not just that of a military uniform.
Despite the fact that he has interviewed political heavyweights, corporate giants and some of the most famous celebrities in Hollywood, Brokaw said the most moving encounters he has had were with average people making remarkable sacrifices. He mentioned an American doctor in Somalia pulling shrapnel fragments from a little child who told him, "I thought I owed the world something," and a soldier who reenlisted for another tour in Afghanistan who said, "I'm so rich compared to the people I'm helping."