Journalist Tom Brokaw

The award-winning journalist, out with the new text The Time of Our Lives, discusses the end of the Iraq War and the future of public service in the U.S.

Tom Brokaw is one of America's most respected journalists. The former NBC Nightly News anchor-managing editor has earned most of the major broadcasting awards, including two Peabodys and several Emmys. A South Dakota native, he began his career in Iowa and joined NBC in '66. Brokaw is also a best-selling author. Since leaving the anchor chair in '04, he continues to provide his expertise to NBC News and works on documentaries on American culture. His latest projects are the documentary Bridging the Divide, which looks at the years since the civil rights movement, and the new book The Time of Our Lives.


Tavis: Always pleased to welcome Tom Brokaw to this program. The award-winning journalist and former “NBC Nightly News” anchor is of course a perennial “New York Times” best-selling author.

His latest text is called “The Time of Our Lives: A Conversation about America.” He joins us tonight from New York City. Tom Brokaw, as always, a delight to have you on this program, sir.

Tom Brokaw: It’s always a pleasure for me to be with you, Tavis.

Tavis: Let me start by asking about some news of the day, because it seems to me that if the time of our lives is going to be defined by anything, it will largely be defined, I suspect, by the war in Iraq, the war in Afghanistan.

So yesterday, President Obama gives a talk to the troops at Ft. Bragg, signaling the end, we are told, of the Iraq war. How do you think in history this time in our lives is going to be defined vis-à-vis the war?

Brokaw: Well, I think there’s still some sorting out to do. I think that there’s generally a conclusion now that we went to war in Iraq on a false premise that there were weapons of mass destruction. Even President Clinton believed that there were weapons of mass destruction. That turned out not to be the case.

Did we have our priorities right? Should we have spent more time and gone harder earlier in Afghanistan? We had Iraq pretty much in a box at that point, and then decided how we could more effectively rearrange Iraq and position it for what we would hope would be a more democratic Middle East.

This will be debated in our lifetime and beyond, Tavis. But what I do think is that at this juncture, now that it’s coming to an end, that domestically at least we all have to remember that we fought these two longest wars in our history with less than 1 percent of our population – almost all working class and lower middle class volunteers from every region of the country, but mostly from those working class neighborhoods, who paid the greatest sacrifice. Nothing was asked of the rest of us.


So I think that’s one of the enduring lessons – if we ever go to war again, that everyone has to make some kind of a sacrifice at home as well as in uniform.

Tavis: This book, “The Time of Our Lives: A Conversation about America,” really gets to trying to answer one central question, and that is what our children, what our grandchildren have better lives than we have had or are having, and one of the things that you call for in the book “Into the Future,” to your point now, Tom, is public service.

I don’t know that by that you mean necessarily signing up to engage militarily, so when you say that we ought to have mandatory public service into the future, what do you mean by that, exactly?

Brokaw: Well, what I mean by that is – and I don’t think we’ll ever have mandatory draft again, military drafts. For men like me, when I was 18, I had a draft card and I thought I was going into the service.

It turns out I had a kind of funny physical anomaly, just flat feet, and they didn’t take me. A year later, Vietnam had really heated up and they were taking everyone. The military really does not want to return to the draft. They like a highly motivated, voluntary force.

But that does not excuse the rest of us from some form of public service. So I proposed in the book public service academies, six of them across the country, to train young people to fill the needs abroad and also at home.

The new wrinkle here is we make it a public-private partnership. You develop the Johnson & Johnson fellows in medicine, both physicians, nurse practitioners, healthcare technicians, the Caterpillar fellow in construction, everything from engineers to the operators of these new, more sophisticated big pieces of equipment.

You have the John Deere fellow in agriculture, for example, because that’s going to be a big component in how we deal with emerging nations and continue in this country to get more productivity out of our farmlands. Three years in public service, then two years back in the home office to prove yourself up.

I think it’s a win-win for the country and for those private companies. They get somebody at the end of three years who may have lived in the world, has a language and has learned management skills well beyond their years.

Tavis: I want to get back in a moment, Tom, to more of the specifics, that is, that you lay out in the book for ideas into the future, but let me just back up for a second to your larger question here, whether or not our kids and grandkids will have better lives.

I cited a report, a study that came out some months ago, I think it was called the Rasmussen Report, that found that just slightly a majority of Americans think that our best days as a nation are behind us. One doesn’t have to read that report to feel that as you move around the country. For a lot of us, that feeling is palpable, that people really are concerned about the direction of this country and many believe that our best days as a nation are already behind us.

On the large question of whether or not the best is in front or behind, what did you hear in your travels?

Brokaw: Well, as I go around the country, I hear that a lot, Tavis, and I think it’s driven a lot by the characteristics and the nature of this economic downturn. We were told in 2009 that the recession was officially over, and then yet as late as this month in 2011, we’ve continued to learn that if Greece or Spain or Portugal gets a head cold, we’re in danger of getting pneumonia. That’s how the world has changed.

These are conditions that no one in this country has had to deal with in the past, and they keep on coming at us. So I think it’s the unexpected and the new, the unconventional characteristics of our economy that has so unsettled people. What I try to do is turn the answer to that question. Let’s not make it a quantitative answer – will my kids make more money or have a larger house or more toys or travel more. There’s a finite capacity for all of that.

Let’s make it a qualitative answer. How do we have more economic justice in the country? How do we fix the education system so everyone is on the same playing field in terms of a skill set that we’re going to require for the modern economy? How do we have more tolerance in the world?

Most of all, how do we learn to listen in our political culture, as well as to shout?

Tavis: Let me take a few of those and pick them apart right quick, or give you a chance, put a better way, to unpack them for me.

When you mention education, you can’t talk about the time of our lives and the future of this country without talking about education, and yet the talk that we’re getting most these days, certainly from the Republican primary candidates, is that they want to abolish, many of them want to abolish the Department of Education. Your thoughts about education in the future?

Brokaw: I think that’s a mistake. I think you do have to have national standards and a mechanism to enforce it. It’s not perfect now. Arne Duncan has changed it a lot by saying, for example, on both no child behind and Race to the Top, okay, states, you decide what works best for you, we’ll send the money to you.

We’d like to have, obviously, some overarching rules because we’re not going to go forward as a nation state by state, we’re going to go forward as a nation in a unified fashion. Because you can get a good education in South Dakota does not mean that you should excuse getting a good education in Kentucky.

Ronald Reagan came to Washington determined to eliminate the Department of Education. He wasn’t there before too long when a number of people said that would be a big mistake. So we have to have national standards, and there are ways of providing federal money to some states that don’t have as many resources as others do.

But at the same time, every state has to determine what’s in its best interest and how best to educate its children. What encourages me now, frankly, Tavis, is it’s on the agenda. Every state is looking at education and what they can do about it.

What discourages me is that so many of the states are in economic difficulty and the first place that they’re looking is to cut. So much of what made California what it is today was that great university system. Now it’s in the crosshairs because they’ve got a $15 billion deficit in California, and the first thing that they’re talking about is cutting back on education and the UC system. That’s not a prescription for going forward boldly into the future.

Tavis: One to the other things to your point, Tom, that’s now on the agenda, not being talked about ever as much as it ought, but at least it’s on the agenda now, and that is the issue of poverty.

Thanks to Occupy Wall Street and so many other persons, and I certainly have talked about everything about poverty as much as I could on this program this year, indeed taking a poverty tour.

But the issue now at least is on the agenda. The problem is that the new poor in this country are the former middle class. So you take the perennially poor, you take the new poor, people falling out of the middle class, you can’t talk, again, about the time of our lives without talking about poverty. How do we ever get traction on that issue, maybe even a conversation about how to eradicate it in the coming years?

Brokaw: It’s a huge and complicated issue, and what I’ve made clear in this book is that we all got into this together and we’re not going to get out of it unless we all work together. That goes to the core of a lot of the anxiety in this country is that the middle class not only has lost its way, but it’s slipping back into another economic strata.

We have more people on food stamps, for example, more children who are living in cars in the Southeast and in other places. That’s a terrible commentary on a great and wealthy nation like the United States.

It doesn’t mean you just write a check and hand it out, but we have to find new ways to create those economic opportunities and jobs for the people who lost the manufacturing base, for example.

Forty percent of our economy now, 40 percent of our GDP is made up of financial services. They don’t make anything. What they do is they create instruments for churning money. Even people on Wall Street understand you’ve got to get back to making some things and providing jobs for people who want to be able to use their hands and their legs as well as their minds to build this country again.

Tavis: “The Time of Our Lives.” Are we making the wisest uses of the Internet and social networking?

Brokaw: I think in some ways we are. I actually think it’s a mixed bag. What I say to a lot of young people who are still teaching their parents how to drive when it comes to the new technology, as transformative as it is, I said, you’re not going to solve global climate warming by hitting delete.

You’re not going to be able to solve, for example, personal responsibility by hiding the escape button. The line that seems to resonate most of all with them, I say, “I don’t care how many text messages you send to your sweetheart, that will never, ever replace the first kiss.” (Laughter) “I don’t want to hear a lyric of a song that goes, ‘A tweet is just a tweet as time goes by.'” (Laughter)

So I want them to think about how to use it more productively, and I think we should have that dialogue because there is extraordinary work being done on the Internet in terms of medical research and commerce and communication, academic research.

With a keystroke you can access so many sites. It is a hugely important part of our future, and we just have to make sure that we keep advancing the best use of it.

Tavis: Got just a few seconds here to go, Tom. You have obviously in the past been one of the most esteemed moderators of these presidential debates. With regard to the text and the issues raised in it, what is it that you’d like to see Mr. Obama and whoever his opponent will be talk about that isn’t getting any traction at the moment?

Brokaw: Well, I think what I would like them to talk about is the big economic challenges that are not getting enough attention at the debates, or for that matter, from the White House alone, is how you rebuild the economic infrastructure of this country. How we do provide the jobs to the people that you and I were just talking about.

I would like to see these presidential debates go for two hours and have the moderators be less moderators than just there to kind of steer it, and let them go after each other a little more.

Tavis: The book is called “The Time of Our Lives: A Conversation about America,” written by the former anchor of the “NBC Nightly News” and perennial best-selling author, Tom Brokaw.

Tom Brokaw, always a delight to have you on this program. Thank you, sir.

Brokaw: It’s great to be back with you, my friend.

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Last modified: January 2, 2012 at 10:42 am