Uncommon Interview: Tom Brokaw

By Noah Weiland

Tom Brokaw was the only network anchor in Berlin when the Berlin Wall fell. He did the first American one-on-one interviews with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and current Russian President Vladimir Putin. He moderated a Presidential debate during President Obama’s first election. His book, The Greatest Generation, was a New York Times bestseller. And as host of NBC Nightly News for 22 years, Brokaw became known as one of the most revered anchors in television history. After moderating a UChicago Institute of Politics panel on gun control Tuesday night at the Logan Center, Brokaw sat down with the Maroon to discuss firearms legislation, his love of history, and how he maintains his iconic baritone voice.

Chicago Maroon: Is it important, or even possible, to reconcile the gun debate going on in metropolitan areas with the one going on nationally in the wake of the shooting in Newtown, Connecticut?

Tom Brokaw: It’s a cultural issue, and we tried to get at that some tonight. The problem with the debate is that it’s so polarized between big city liberals and Western, rural conservatives. I really think that we have to deal with this in a holistic way: it’s about the fabric of our lives, about whether we want to be a civil society and have sensible regulations and try to get the two groups to find some kind of common ground somewhere.

CM: Do you think that the current political climate will generate substantive firearms legislation?

TB: What’s important is that this not have a half-life of six months. It ought to become part of the woofing call of our political dialogue. By that I don’t mean we stand on opposite ends of the room just shouting at each other, but let’s try to find some things that work. Part of what we have to do is make it unacceptable for these kinds of events to happen. I’m not sure what motivated these men at Aurora and at Sandy Hook, but my worry is that some of it is nobody paying attention to them, and they just want to get some kind of crazy attention. I don’t know how many…saw this wonderful documentary last year about bullying in schools; it was going on off the radar. Not enough people were stepping up and saying, ‘That’s a bully. We’ve got to stand up for that young person.’ So this obviously disturbed young man in Newtown—[and] same thing with the guy in Aurora, Colorado— they’re out there kind of banging off the walls. People are seeing that, but people are kind of powerless to do anything about it. We have to have a better alert system.

CM: Do you think that television news is currently meeting the public’s need to stay informed?

TB: Here’s what I think, and this surprises a lot of people: You can no longer just be a couch potato. When I was little, you could just tune in to Walter Cronkite or David Brinkley. Now you’ve got the screen crowded with all these images. There are more pixels than I can count. As a news consumer, you have to work harder about what’s reliable, what’s credible, and what holds up over time. And if you’re proactive, you can be the best-informed citizen in the history of mankind, not even with just television, but now with the small screen as well.

CM: Is it the responsibility of television journalists to meet a certain kind of public need?

TB: The responsibility of TV journalists is to cover the news. There’s no civic responsibility, and it’s very uneven. Fox feels it’s fulfilling a civic responsibility, but so does Rachel Maddow. You’ve got two ends of the spectrum going on there, and that’s the way it ought to be.

CM: You dropped out of college and went on to study politics and journalism at another university. Did your work in college affect the kind of career you had and still maintain today?

TB: Here’s the short history of Tom Brokaw, which you don’t want to know a lot about: I came out of high school as a real whiz kid; everyone had the highest expectations for me; I was going to go knock the world on its tail. Then I went off to the University of Iowa, a Big Ten school, and I had never met all of these beautiful girls from the north shore of Chicago before, and I had a great time. I did not flunk out, nor did I distinguish myself. I went back to South Dakota, where they had a legendary political science professor, and I became one of Farber’s Boys [students of the late Doc Farber], as they were called. After another year, I was still not doing what I wanted to do, and he gave me the best advice: he told me to get out of here, get it out of your system, and come back when you can do some good. My mother always said, and I think she was right, that I was just so eager to get out into the real world that passing through the academy was not something that kept my interest until I realized that I needed to get that foundation if I really wanted to do well. So I made the turn, but I was always a political junkie, and I was always interested in what was going on with current affairs.

CM: Why did you become interested in writing about history?

TB: Because I lived it. I wrote about “The Greatest Generation” because I lived in an army base when I was three years old. That was my first memory as a kid. I was the beneficiary of all that that generation did for my generation, by giving us the opportunities that the ‘50s afforded us, and I went to Normandy for the 40th anniversary of D Day, and by then I was well-launched in my career. Then these humble men and women brought me to my knees emotionally because they looked like my high school coaches and my parents and my Sunday school teachers and everyone I had grown up with. It turns out that in fact they were; they were the same kind of people, and I realized we had never heard from them once they came home. So I went home and wrote the book, and I’ve been interested in writing about history ever since.

CM: Time to give us the secret: how do you keep that voice going for so many years?

TB: [Laughs] I was born with it, and it’s just always been there. I’ve always been a Chatty Cathy. From my earliest memories on, my friends and parents all said the same thing: I was fearless about talking and using my voice. Television news was built for me. I always liked writing and was reasonably good at it, but I was born for this medium.