Due Respect

As the unflappable anchorman of NBC’s Nightly News, Tom Brokaw has spent the last 16 years talking the nation coolly through controversy, triumph and tragedy. But when he appeared on CNBC’s Tim Russert show last month to discuss The Greatest Generation, his book on the men and women who came of age during the Depression and World War II, Brokaw’s eyes filled with tears. “This whole thing has been very emotional for me,” he said, his voice breaking. “I learned from my father the importance of honest hard work. There was this constant in my parents’ life about family and values and doing the right thing.” Though Anthony “Red” Brokaw died in 1982, his widow, Jean, 81, called her son after watching at home in California. “She told me,” Brokaw recalls with a chuckle, “to stop crying.”

And he did. Yet Brokaw, 58, isn’t the only American who feels touched by the sacrifices of the generation that preceded his own. Published last month, Generation, a collection of some 50 profiles of men and women, rose quickly to the top of the New York Times bestseller list. A documentary based on the book will air on NBC on Jan. 15. And though Brokaw includes a few familiar faces (such as Bob Dole, Julia Child and Art Buchwald) among his subjects, he believes the challenges the “World War II generation faced—a depression, a world war and the birth of modern America—transformed even ordinary people into extraordinary achievers and heroes. “This generation had impact well beyond their own shores and their own interests,” Brokaw says. “It was a privilege to tell their stories.”

Brokaw’s labor of love—his first book—is also adding luster to his own reputation. Smart, handsome and still able to radiate the plain-spoken values of his South Dakota boyhood, Brokaw has spent nearly four decades ascending the TV news ladder—overcoming his occasionally sloppy diction (“If I’m tired or if I’m rushing, I’ll drop the l,” he admits), years of shaky ratings and a threatened libel lawsuit from wrongly accused Atlanta Olympics bombing suspect Richard Jewell—to become one of the most trusted faces in TV journalism. “He’s morally centered and decent,” says Brokaw’s friend, writer-director Nora Ephron. “If Jimmy Stewart were an anchorman, he’d be Tom Brokaw.”

When Brokaw went to Normandy in 1984 to cover the 40th anniversary of D-Day, his conversations with veterans revealed tales of heroism that transcended anything he’d imagined. Brokaw’s eyes shine as, sitting in the kitchen of his expansive Manhattan apartment, he recalls people like Leonard “Bud” Lomell, a U.S. Army Ranger who led a squad of men up a cliff at Pointe-du-Hoc on D-Day and was wounded three times during the war. “I was emotionally brought to my knees,” Brokaw says. “I felt a kind of missionary zeal for the men and women of World War II, [for] spreading the word of their remarkable lives.”

Brokaw’s respect for his parents’ generation goes far beyond their wartime sacrifices. James Dowling, for example, who is profiled in the book, came home to Smithtown, N.Y., and not only started his own seafood-trucking business but also set up a hugely successful Little League. Then, after being elected the town’s superintendent of highways, he oversaw the modernization of roads in his rapidly growing part of Long Island. “From Norman Lear all the way across the political spectrum to Bob Dole,” Brokaw observes, “they would say it was important to honor your country and feel a sense of duty and responsibility not just for yourself, but for your family and your community. You took pride in the strengths of the country.” That ideal of self-sacrifice resonated for Brokaw. After all, it was exactly how his parents had lived their lives.

The eldest of three boys born to Red, a construction-equipment operator, and Jean, a homemaker who also held retail and postal jobs over the years, Brokaw (eventually joined by brothers Bill, now 56, and Mike, 55) spent his early years in a cabin on an Army base in the tiny town of Igloo, S.Dak., where his father kept the machinery running. Two years after the war ended, the family moved to Pickstown, on the Yankton Sioux reservation, where Red worked as a foreman on government projects while his eldest son spent hours on the Missouri River and in the nearby hills hunting, fishing and camping. When the family moved to the relatively cosmopolitan town of Yankton in 1955, Brokaw enrolled at Yankton High, where he took up football, basketball and track, jumped into student government and earned a place on the honor roll.

The Brokaws also bought their first TV in Yankton and made a family ritual of watching the NBC news during dinner. It wasn’t long before Tom found his way to the other side of the camera. After impressing South Dakota war hero-governor Joe Foss with his knowledge of political history during an American Legion Boys’ State conference in 1957, the high schooler was invited by Foss to be his partner on a TV quiz show called Two for the Money, where the South Dakotans won $612 each. But after starting classes at the University of South Dakota the following year, Brokaw fell into slacker mode. “Lots of girlfriends, lots of good times, lots of missed classes,” he says ruefully. “I assumed that I would get what I wanted just by showing up.”

Taking a semester off to get himself together, Brokaw went home to Yankton, where his mother, a frustrated journalist herself, encouraged him to apply for work at a TV station in nearby Sioux City, Iowa. Sure enough, Brokaw landed a job as the station’s all-purpose announcer, doing everything from weather reports to a cooking show. Soon he abandoned his plan to become a lawyer and even after returning to college full-time kept his job on TV. “I was a poor kid from a remote place, and I thought, ‘This is going to get me out of here,’ ” he says.

After graduating in 1962, Brokaw married his high school palturned-college-sweetheart, Meredith Auld, and took a better job in Omaha, then moved up to WSB-TV in Atlanta in 1965. A year later he joined the news staff at KNBC in Los Angeles, where he eventually worked with sportscaster Bryant Gumbel. “A lot of us weren’t sure where we wanted to end up,” Gumbel recalls. “But Tom always knew what he wanted to do. He wanted to anchor the evening news.”

Brokaw made steady progress. In 1973, NBC tapped him to cover the White House, and three years later he took a seat on the Today show, where his poise and warmth earned him a loyal following that still includes cohost Jane Pauley. “On his feet, he’s simply the finest there is,” she says. Network bosses agreed, and in 1982 Brokaw became co-anchor (with Roger Mudd) of the Nightly News. Mudd departed a year later, and Brokaw has held the position ever since. It hasn’t always been easy, but as ratings have risen to the top in the past couple of years, so has his reputation. “When people watch him, they feel he isn’t just reading from a script,” says Gumbel, now at CBS. “They feel he knows what he’s talking about.”

Despite the accoutrements of his life in New York City—a swank Park Avenue duplex, a wine collection, a roster of friends that includes Robert Redford and Harrison Ford—Brokaw remains a dedicated outdoorsman who often escapes to the 4,000-acre spread he keeps near the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness Area in Montana. He and Meredith, 58, a writer and former owner of a chain of upscale toy stores, have three daughters: Jennifer, 32, an emergency-room doctor; Andie, 30, a record company producer; and Sarah, 28, a psychiatric social worker. Brokaw also has a group of pals dubbed the Phun Hogs, with whom he has kayaked in Siberia, fly-fished in Iceland and scaled an array of mountains, including Mount Rainier and Grand Teton. “He loves being in the outdoors so much, he could do it for the rest of his life,” says Patagonia sportswear head (and fellow Phun Hog) Yvon Chouinard. “But he likes being around important people and stuff too. He truly likes to do it all.”

That impulse tends to wreak havoc on Brokaw’s ability to sleep, often pulling him out of bed at 3:30 a.m., at which time he pads to his home gym for a weight-lifting session. He turned down President Clinton’s 1993 offer to run the National Park Service and now has a reported five-year, $35 million contract that will keep him in the NBC anchor chair until 2002. But Brokaw, sitting in his office at Rockefeller Center beneath shelves crammed with awards and photos of himself with leaders ranging from the Dalai Lama to Margaret Thatcher, says he yearns to work on projects with more “permanence” than the evening news. “I think he envies us,” says former Washington Post executive editor Ben Bradlee, whose wartime exploits became a part of The Greatest Generation. “He wishes he’d been born, at a time when he would have been called to do what we did.”

More likely, says Brokaw’s mother, another member of that great generation, her son couldn’t find his real challenge until he looked into his own heart and family. “I think he realizes that after everything he has seen all over the world,” says Jean Brokaw, “we did have values.”

Peter Ames Carlin

Eve Heyn in New York City

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