To call Tom Brokaw a great storyteller would be a vast understatement—a cliche, even. It wasn't surprising that the veteran journalist told tale after tale at an event, “Great Americans: Conversations with History Makers,” at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History last week. Brokaw was presented with the museum's new Great Americans medal, which previously had been given to Colin Powell and Madeline Albright. Throughout the evening, the audience alternated between raucous laughter, murmurs of agreement and pin-drop silence with eyes transfixed on the former NBC Nightly News anchor.
One of his best stories came impromptu. Brokaw had just received a tribute gift from the museum. It was a replica of an important artifact in the museum’s collections—the compass carried by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark when they set off May 14, 1804 on their expedition to chart the North American continent.
Brokaw took a few minutes to reflect on what the gift meant to him. He recounted a tale of a particularly treacherous leg of the Lewis and Clark exploration along the Missouri River near a region in South Dakota where the journalist had grown up. Accepting a replica of a compass that might have helped them on that trip meant a lot to him, he told the rapt crowd.
“I can’t tell you how many times that I would go down to walk along there to imagine what it was like,” he said. He then launched into a riveting four-minute retelling of that expedition, down to the exact message of the note Lewis left for Clark letting him know that he was in danger after the two men had split up.
Before then, though, the former NBC Nightly News anchor had signed over his own donations to the Smithsonian’s collections: two pieces of the Berlin Wall his camera crew had scavenged while reporting on its fall in 1989, and a presentation saber he had received from West Point in honor of his work serving his country, an award given to a select few like Dwight Eisenhower and Walter Cronkite. Quick to break the solemnity of the moment, Brokaw smiled and joked that he wished he was donating something he thought was even more impressive, like the first computer ever made.
Smithsonian Board of Regents member David Rubenstein spoke with Brokaw, encouraging reminisces about his 50-year journalism career and how a small-town rookie reporter became a household name.
There in South Dakota, he told about how his family moved from town to town before settling in Yankton. In high school, he met Meredith Lynn Auld, who was the leader of Girls Nation while he led Boys State. She was a cheerleader; he was a jock. He didn’t think she would go for him, and his friends didn’t, either. But the audience erupted into applause when he pointed her out in the audience. They’ve been married for 45 years. Meredith, former Miss South Dakota and author of the Penny Whistle children’s books, had been present at his side all night.
She was there when Brokaw took his first job at a local station in Omaha, Nebraska. He said that he begged for it, and the news director agreed because he had a good handle on political coverage. He later took a job as the 11 p.m. news anchor in Atlanta, Georgia in 1968, when “all hell was breaking loose.”
The Civil Rights Movement was in full swing, and Brokaw’s national news appearances out of Atlanta soon garnered a job offer from an NBC affiliate station in Los Angeles. He and Meredith were happy there, he said—they had even purchased with every last dime they had a beachfront home. Then NBC offered him a White House correspondent job and he had to bite.
He came to Washington, D.C. in 1973, during the Watergate crisis that would lead to President Richard Nixon’s resignation. The hardest part, he said, was making sense of the information that press secretaries lobbed at the correspondents. “What was clear every day was that the stories were not adding up coming out of the White House,” he said.
All the while, he had his eyes on landing the coveted position: the anchor of the Nightly News. But executives told him that the stepping stone to that job was co-anchor of the Today Show, so he took the position in 1976. He loved the early mornings and living in New York; Meredith even opened the Penny Whistle toy store in Manhattan. At long last in 1981, he landed the Nightly News position and not a moment too soon.
“God, I don’t want to be interviewing Cher for the rest of my life,” he remembered thinking.
One of the guiding philosophies of his career, he said, was simple: if there’s a story somewhere, it’s always a mistake not to go in person. This paid off in a huge way, culminating in what he considers one of the most important nights of his career. It was November 1989 when he followed a tip to go to Germany. He remembered being at a press conference in East Berlin when a Germany party boss got a note that the wall separating East from West was now an open border. He and his camera crew sped to the scene to film the bewildered crowd gathering there in disbelief. That night, as the wall came down, Brokaw was the only American journalist there to cover it live on the air.
After a while, though, Brokaw said his lifestyle of chasing stories around the globe started to take their toll. He remembered being with his family in a remote part of Montana and getting a late-night phone call that Princess Diana was injured in a car accident. He was at the Buckingham Palace by 10 the next morning wearing a cheap tie he had grabbed on the way, having left to catch an international flight from the Detroit airport as quickly as he could. He would stay in the position for a few more years, covering the terrorist attacks of 9/11, before he left the news anchor position in 2004. As Rubenstein noted, he was relatively young, but Brokaw knew it was the right decision. “I felt strongly that new generations should come along and get their shot as I did,” he said.
Apart from the Nightly News position, Brokaw became known for his celebrated 1998 book The Greatest Generation, about the men and women who fought on the battle fields and on the home front during World War II.
He said that they’ve inspired him during this time of political division, recalling a story about American soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division who would use “cricket” clickers to signal to each other from far away. Clicks signaled they were there and on their way to help. “We should all either realistically or symbolically, have one of these,” he said, reaching into his coat pocket and clicking one that he carries around. “When we are so divided in so many ways, I would like this to be a symbol of how we could get back together.”
Rubenstein asked what was he most proud of. Family, he said without skipping a beat, made him proudest. Meredith and he were “yin and yang,” especially in recent years as he has struggled with multiple myeloma. Then, he pivoted to his career.
“What I’m most proud of is that I got it mostly right,” he said. “And when I didn’t get it right, I was quick to acknowledge that we didn’t have it right and we needed to work harder at it.”
He paused. “If ever one person was meant to have one profession, it was me and journalism. I just love the craft.”
Smithsonian.com sat down with Tom Brokaw. His comments have been condensed for brevity and clarity.
Tell more about the objects you are donating. What was particularly significant about the Berlin Wall pieces?
The Berlin Wall, of all the big events that I’ve covered, was such a seminal event because it was a break from the Soviet Union. That was pretty hard to beat. And the saber award was a long ceremonial sword that West Point gave to me, primarily because of my work on the Greatest Generation. And I was one of only two journalists who ever got the saber award. The other one was Walter Cronkite. But people like Dwight Eisenhower, George Marshall and Henry Kissinger, that’s pretty good company.
Since we’re at the American History Museum, if you could have covered anything in U.S. history from the founding until now, what would it be?
Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. I think of all the events that there were, that is still what I call the American Hymnal. And as a schoolboy, I’d recite it. And I’ve been to Gettysburg. It was a pivotal time in the country’s history. And that very eloquent description of where we were and how we got there still resonates with me. I can still hear it in my mind. He looked out at the audience and said, “Four score and seven years ago, our forefathers brought forth, upon this continent, a new nation.” It was over in a matter of moments, and people didn’t know quite what to expect. But then you go back and people look at it, and every phrase has meaning. I’ve often thought that that would be a wonderful thing to have been at.
Which of your stories are you most proud of?
The single hardest day was 9/11. And I remember going back to look at the tapes, but my friends say, “That was your best hour, Tom.” It was doing all that coverage all day long. My colleagues at the other networks were doing a great job as well. I later said that being on air that day took everything I knew as a journalist, as a father, as a husband and as a citizen. It was an accumulation of all my experiences to get through that day and keep everything in context. At one point early mid-morning, I looked in the camera and said, “This will change us. We’re now at war.” I guess I was the first one to say that. A lot of people said, “That got my attention. I was just watching in horror at buildings coming down, but suddenly, you took us to a different level.” That’s what journalists are expected to do, quite honestly. I remember getting home at 1:30 or 2:00 in the morning. I made a big cocktail, and it went right through me. I thought, I’d better go to bed and try to get some sleep. It was like that from then on.
The Great Americans award program is supported by David M. Rubenstein, Chair of the Smithsonian Institution Board of Regents, and includes a conversation with the recipient and opportunities for the museum to add objects from the awardee to the national collections.