Trying to explain Tom Brokaw’s significance isn’t easy.
You don’t just say, ‘This was a guy who used to be the evening news anchor for NBC.’ That doesn’t really do justice to his cultural importance. You have to explain how information and news used to be shared in the 20th century.
Back before the Internet and 3,000-plus cable channels, there weren’t countless choices for learning about what was happening in the world. If there was a civil uprising in the Arab world, you wouldn’t go to Twitter for the whole story. When there was breaking news about the U.S. presidential election, you didn’t jump between Gawker and CNN and HuffPo and CSPAN and the Drudge Report and the Daily Show to stay informed. You watched one of three networks, and three anchors: Peter Jennings, Dan Rather, and fronting the desk for the NBC Nightly News between 1982 and 2004, Tom Brokaw.
You can call George Clooney the next Spencer Tracy, because they basically do the same thing. But can there ever be another Tom Brokaw? That job doesn’t exist anymore. There are still news anchors, but there aren’t anchors that the entire country watches to stay informed. When the Berlin Wall came down, and the Space Shuttle Challenger fell apart, and Nelson Mandela left prison, and planes flew into the Twin Towers, he was the man we watched to find out what the hell just happened.
In 2013, Brokaw was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a rare form of cancer of the bone marrow; incurable, but still treatable. Last year, he announced that he was in remission and released a remarkable book about his fight with cancer, A Lucky Life Interrupted: A Memoir of Hope. We called our favorite veteran anchor, now 76 and sounding stronger than ever, to talk about bad news, dirty jokes, dodging German fire hoses, and why the Greatest Generation still deserve to ruin your Thanksgiving.
There’s something about your voice that’s instantly calming. Do you get that a lot?
All the time. I can hide under a baseball cap and wear sunglasses, and nobody recognizes me. But as soon as I open my mouth, every head turns. They’re all like, “That voice! I know that voice!”
There’s no mistaking it for anybody else.
I don’t think it’s unusual in my craft, whether it’s Walter Cronkite or Dan (Rather) or Peter (Jennings) or any of us who were there for so many of the defining events of people’s lives. The voices stick with them.
You seem mythical to a lot of us. Talking to you is like talking to a movie character. It’s like having a conversation with Bruce Wayne.
Well, television has a way of bloating one’s appearance of importance. When I started in this business fifty years ago—
Wait, it’s been fifty years?
It has. I got my first job at NBC in 1966. I was making so little money that on Sunday mornings, I would go down to the local cafeteria and figure out how much I could afford for breakfast with the $3 I had left in my pocket. As I was standing outside, studying the menu, these two very well dressed couples came out, and obviously they didn’t have to worry about their budget. They saw me and got so excited, because they’d seen me on television.
Did that strike you as ironic?
It struck me that there’s a value to being recognizable.
You’ve been on both the giving and receiving end of bad news—as a news anchor, you explained 9/11 to us as it was happening, and as a patient, you got some of the worst medical news a person can get. What’s the secret to telling somebody news that’s going to make them unhappy?
It’s about finding the right balance between being factually correct and having just the right amount of empathy.
What’s the right amount?
I try not to be too conscious of it. You don’t want to overplay it or underplay it. Then it becomes acting. I never tried to insert my personality into it. I just had the general understanding that people were looking to me not just facts but for reassurance.
We need that from doctors, too.
We absolutely do. When I got my diagnosis, I wanted to know the facts, but I also needed to feel like I was getting those facts from a human being that cared about the outcome.
One thing that really surprised us about A Lucky Life Interrupted was your sense of humor.
[fusion_builder_container hundred_percent=”yes” overflow=”visible”][fusion_builder_row][fusion_builder_column type=”1_1″ background_position=”left top” background_color=”” border_size=”” border_color=”” border_style=”solid” spacing=”yes” background_image=”” background_repeat=”no-repeat” padding=”” margin_top=”0px” margin_bottom=”0px” class=”” id=”” animation_type=”” animation_speed=”0.3″ animation_direction=”left” hide_on_mobile=”no” center_content=”no” min_height=”none”][Laughs.] That surprised you?
Well, given the subject. A book about cancer is not usually something where you think, “Oh man, this is going to be hi-lar-ious.”
Well, humor has always been a big component of my life. My oldest daughter, who’s a doctor, has a great saying. “I have two criteria in life; to have faithful friends and to always have a sense of humor.”
That’s easy to say when life is going well. But when you’re sick, and your wife has to help you urinate, and the whole process is agonizing and dehumanizing and awful, it takes a special perspective to describe the experience, as you did in your book, as “tai chi pee.”
I think that just comes from being a journalist.
Really? How so?
Journalists see too much of the absurdity of life, and we’re not afraid to acknowledge it. That happens a lot with writers as well. My friend Jim Harrison, the poet and author, he died recently. He had an outrageous sense of humor, and he didn’t mask it. He’d been in poor health for some time, and a couple of years ago, I got him into the Mayo Clinic. The first message I got from him was, “Dear Tom. It comes as a great surprise to me that you’re not allowed to smoke in your rooms at the Mayo Clinic.” [Laughs.] Only Harrison could come up with something like that.
Would you tell us a joke?
What kind of joke?
The dirtiest, most inappropriate joke you know.
I don’t think so.
Come on! You don’t have a filthy joke in your back pocket?
Oh, I have plenty.
Pretend we’re out fishing. We’re in Montana, on the Big Horn River or wherever. It’s a beautiful day, you’re with friends, and on your fourth beer. What joke do you tell?
There is no way I’m going to tell you.
First of all, I’m not going to give up my best material.
You think we’re going to steal your joke?
I know how journalists think.
Oh come on, Tom!
A lot of the stories that we tell while fishing are inappropriate, but highly hilarious, and certainly nothing you’d want the outside world to know you’re laughing at.
It’s not like you’re tweeting it.
That’s exactly it. People have forgotten that there is a time and place for everything. There are jokes so filthy and inappropriate that you only tell them to your fishing buddies. You don’t share them with the world. And that way, you’re not doing society any damage.
Other than getting your cancer diagnosis, has there been a moment in your life where you’ve thought, ‘This is it? This is how I’m going to die?’
A few times. When I was younger, around 1970, I was in a terrible white-water accident in Idaho’s Salmon River where I lost a friend. And I was in a helicopter accident in southern California a long time ago where I probably should have died. I’ve been lucky.
Nothing as a reporter?
Not really, no.
What about that letter filled with anthrax that was sent to you right after 9/11?
Oh yeah. That was scary.
Scary? That sounds like an understatement.
I think it was scarier for my assistant. She’s the one who opened the letter.
Yeah, but you were the target. The letter was addressed to you. Not Dan Rather or Peter Jennings. He wanted to hurt you. That didn’t worry you?
Well, yeah, I did think about that for a little bit. But you can’t go around living your life in a cocoon of fear.
What about when you interviewed Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987? You were the first U.S. journalist to interview a Soviet leader.
Was I worried? Nah!
We were still in the Cold War. Couldn’t the Kremlin have made you disappear?
I had a very good relationship with his staff.
But the Gulags, Tom. What about the Gulags?
Never entered my mind. I still have a good relationship with Gorbachev. I see him whenever he comes to New York.
When you were reporting on the fall of the Berlin Wall, weren’t there East German police behind you with fire hoses?
Yeah, but I didn’t see it. I had my back to them. It was only the people watching from our studio in New York who were worried about it. They saw what was happening, and they were worried I was going to get drenched before we got on the air. But it never happened.
But you were in legitimate danger, even if you didn’t know it.
Perhaps. Maybe that’s the secret. It’s not about being lucky. You just keep looking straight ahead. Don’t worry about what’s going on behind you.
You got the scoop on the Berlin Wall coming down. You were there as it was happening, and the competition knew nothing about it. That seems impossible today. With Twitter and social media, TV networks don’t break the big stories anymore.
It’s definitely harder. What a lot of people don’t know, with the Berlin Wall, in those days you had to book the satellite in advance. These days, you can just order up a satellite in a moment’s notice. So we had the only satellite path out of Berlin when it was all happening. Not even German television could do what we were able to do that night. CNN wasn’t there, and that was our big international competitor at that time.
Is it a good thing that the Internet has made everybody a journalist? Anybody with a Wi-Fi signal and a Twitter account is basically reporting the news.
I think that’s using the term loosely.
Which one? Journalist?
They’re not journalists. These are just guys in their underwear, sitting in their basement, who couldn’t get a date for the prom, and they’re going to get even with the world by broadcasting in a digital way. All they do is broadcast their outrage.
Your objection is that they don’t wear pants?
No, it’s the lack of ambition. You want to be an actual journalist, somebody with credibility who reports on the news, you can’t be a couch potato. And that’s a problem with the consumers of news as well. You have to be aggressive about who you watch and what you read and what you take seriously as a news source.
Aggressive? In what way aggressive?
We should be as aggressive about our news as you would be about buying a new car or a new television set or a home or any other big purchase. The news you consume helps to define our lives, and you can’t just take it as fact because you saw it on a screen.
We’ll never become the next Greatest Generation by believing everything we read.
Speaking of, since you’re an authority on the Greatest Generation—you wrote the definitive book on them in 1998—will there ever be another Greatest Generation? Is that even possible? What’s greater than Greatest?
Well, the generation that I wrote about had challenges that we don’t have today. It was a different time. It was a different set of conditions that I hope we don’t have to duplicate.
But you do know that you’ve made a lot of people’s grandfathers insufferable, right?
They have a right to be.
Have you ever spent a Thanksgiving with somebody who served in World War II? We get it, you stopped Hitler, you’re the greatest.
They had some unique challenges, beginning with the Great Depression, the economic dislocation of this country that was unprecedented. And then, the greatest war in the history of mankind.
So how do we become the next Greatest Generation? The Greatest-er Generation?
You know what was really special about them? They were asked to go win a war, and do it on short notice. Then they came home and made the America that we all enjoy today. They did all of that without once saying, “Me, me, me. You owe me because of what I did. Why am I not being treated like something special?”
So what you’re saying is, try not to act like a guy in his underwear with a chip on his shoulder and a social media account?
That’s a good start.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in the June 2016 issue of Men’s Health.)[/fusion_builder_column][/fusion_builder_row][/fusion_builder_container]