Tom Brokaw on Marriage, Drugs and His Favorite People

NBC News

Julia Reed sits down with Tom Brokaw to discuss his new book Boom! and more.

Though Tom Brokaw retired after 21 years as the anchor of NBC Nightly News four years ago, he is still among the hardest-working men in television. In the wake of the death of his friend Tim Russert, he has taken on the host duties at “Meet the Press”; he moderated the presidential debate in Oxford, MS, and he has provided some of the best commentary throughout this seemingly endless campaign that comes to an end tomorrow.

“I didn’t think I’d be wearing quite as many uniforms for the home team as it were,” he told me in a recent chat. “I think like the rest of the country, I want this campaign to be over so we can move on to solving the problems that face us.”

Though he laughs about his “UFO theory,” referring to the rollercoaster ride of a campaign season in which “a complete surprise” happened “every eight days,” he does not see a surprise scenario where McCain pulls off a victory. He does, however, predict that no matter what happens, we have not seen the last of Sarah Palin.

“We’ll hear from her again,” he says. “She is not gone with this cycle. I’ll be interested to know how much of a taste she has for this — she seems to enjoy it quite a lot. Having ambition is a big part of being successful in politics and there’s nothing wrong with that. She’s demonstrated she can go out there and fill up the arenas. They haven’t knocked her off her feet completely. She could run for the senate, she could run for president in four years. A lot of people shake their heads at that, but I saw [“Saturday Night Live” producer] Lorne Michaels the other night and he told me that when Tina Fey walks into the studio just dressed up like her the whole place goes nuts. That tells you everything you need to know. Even her impersonator brings down the house.

“There are a lot of women I know in the American West and out in the Great Plains who get her. She’s a product of a male-dominated state and she has done really well for herself there. Does that mean they agree with her politically or want her to be vice president? Not necessarily. But it does mean they want her to be taken seriously. It makes traditional feminists crazy when I say it, but her place on the ticket is a tribute to the whole women’s movement. The movement ought not to look at women through a single prism.”

Still, he adds, “I don’t think she’s equipped to be a heartbeat away from the presidency. I’m just calling balls and strikes here. The fact is that there are a half dozen senators I can name who are a lot dumber. I talked to Bill Clinton a few weeks ago, and he said, ‘You know, Tom, she’s going to do real well in those small towns where you hang out.’ And he’s right; she does connect with hockey moms, she does connect with women who have their own businesses.”

As soon as the political season is over, Brokaw will head back to his favorite small town, Livingston, MT, just north of where he and Meredith, his wife of 46 years, have a place they love. He tells me that one of the reasons he left the “Nightly News” was his desire to spend a lot more time there. His great passions include fishing and hunting Hungarian partridge and grouse. “It’s a birthright,” he says unapologetically. “I grew up in South Dakota. If you couldn’t shoot, you were kicked out of the state.”

His friend the novelist Carl Hiaasen recently bought a place nearby, and another close friend, novelist Tom McGuane, has been a neighbor for years. McGuane, a former counterculture hero and now a justly revered gentleman of letters, also makes an appearance in Brokaw’s book Boom!: Talking About the Sixties: What Happened, How It Shaped Today, Lessons for Tomorrow published in hardcover last fall and now out in paperback from Random House. In it, the author casts himself as class president of a “virtual reunion” of “graduates” of the ’60s, a memorable group of folks who tell about what they did then, how they’ve fared since and how they feel about that tumultuous decade. It is a fascinating read, which I highly recommend to all our readers. Buy the book, and in the meantime, check out some of the questions, below, that I asked him specifically about Boom!

In the book, you describe Meredith as the love of your life. And, as you point out, you got married in 1962, before the ’60s were really the ’60s. A girdle was part of her trousseau — you had never spent a night together. Do you think we’ve lost something important in losing that old-fashioned courtship that went out the window with the advent of “free love” and the pill? Or does it matter?

I’m not sure that sexual freedom does affect the basics of love and marriage. Our two married daughters grew up in a different time and yet their courtships and marriages were not unlike ours — except, of course, for the sex-before-marriage part.

JULIA: To what do you attribute your long and happy marriage?

Meredith and I have often talked about why our marriage has worked out so well. In a way, we won the emotional lottery because our early love matured at a rich, steady pace. Moreover, as we rocketed upward — from small town South Dakota to Atlanta, Los Angeles, Washington, DC, and New York — we were in the same cockpit, each moving at the same speed. Meredith always had an independent life and career, which made it more comfortable for her to deal with my more public life. When people would ask how Meredith adapted to my anchor status, I would laugh and say, “Hell, when I get home at night I’m just grateful she remembers what I do for a living.” Finally, we’ve always given each other a lot of space and concentrated on the big issues while letting the little disagreements die a natural death.

JULIA: In your section on Judith Rodin (the first female president of an Ivy League university, the University of Pennsylvania), you quote her as saying that women can have it all, just not all at the same time. Later you also talk about how Meredith did just that — spread out having it all by raising children first and then embarking on multiple careers. But when we talk about “having it all,” it’s almost always in the context of women. It’s implied that men already have it all. But don’t you think that’s misleading? As traditional chief breadwinners, men miss out on a lot of quality time with their young children. We talk so much about the cost of women’s choices and the struggle to find balance — and there is a lot of great discussion on this topic from so many of the featured voices in your book. Will you address your own life — the costs of your career and your own attempt at finding balance?

TOM: I think you’re right — we don’t pay much attention to the quality of life and balance in a man’s life. A few years ago our eldest daughter gave me a quiet lecture on those years when I was a White House correspondent racing around the world and later, as the chief correspondent for “Today.” It wasn’t a hostile dressing down. She just wanted me to know that my preoccupation with career didn’t go unnoticed.  I didn’t disagree with her and I took some comfort that our relationship was so strong she could raise that with me. I also reminded her I didn’t remember her complaining when the whole family would go to Vail at Christmas so I could cover President Ford’s holiday!

JULIA: There is, obviously, a lot of discussion about the women’s movement in the book. You speak very touchingly of how you and Meredith were kept in the dark by her male doctor about her own medical condition when she was pregnant with your first child. We have clearly come a long way from those bad old days, but Wall Street Journal columnist Dorothy Rabinowitz, for example, talks very passionately about what she sees as the excesses and mistakes of the women’s movement. Do you agree that there were some excesses and downsides of the movement all these years later, and, if so, what are they?

Sure, but that’s true in any movement. My patience was always tried by women who would put gender above all else, whatever the circumstances or consequences. But the far greater result of the women’s movement is that we’re a much richer, more productive, more just society as a result of the movement.

You told me that Sarah Palin is a direct result of the ’60s and the raised consciousness of that era. But her placement on the ticket has made so many feminists — particularly those active in the ’60s, many of whom, like Gloria Steinem, are in your book — go completely ballistic. Any ironies here?

Of course there are ironies. But I’ll leave it to the combatants to sort them out.

More than a couple of people in the book said they were lucky to have made it through the ’60s alive, referring, primarily, to the drug culture. You did not succumb to its excesses, but unlike our 42nd president you did admit you smoked the odd joint — and inhaled! What are your “drugs” of choice these days?

TOM: Good red wine, ice cold vodka and ibuprofen for my aching joints.

JULIA: Every election, we talk about how nasty campaigning has gotten, how much more bitter the tone is. You’ve been watching this for a long time. Do you really think it has gotten worse?

TOM: No, it is unfortunately a cancer we have to learn to endure. I do think the blogosphere expands the reach much more quickly.

JULIA: There is much talk in the book about the Vietnam War and the political idealism of the ’60s. We are again in the middle of an unpopular war and there is at least one candidate who portrays himself as an idealist, who even held the ’60s-sounding job of community organizer. And he’s running against a product, in just about the rawest sense, of the Vietnam War. Do you feel that this election, more than others in recent years, is being waged in at least a partial shadow of the ’60s?

TOM: I think this election will help determine what part of the ’60s we embrace and what part we leave behind.

JULIA: You have so many fascinating people in the book — from James Taylor and Joan Didion to Dick Gregory and Dick Cheney, and far too many others to name. Do you have favorites?

TOM: I was particularly taken with the journeys of James Webb, Stewart Brand, Judith Rodin and Cleveland Sellers. The arc of their lives from the ’60s to now is endlessly fascinating.

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