For more than two decades, NBC’s Tom Brokaw enjoyed membership in one of the world’s most exclusive clubs, that of national news anchors who get to witness history and share each day’s events with millions of Americans gathered around their household televisions.
Despite that high perch, Brokaw shared a stirringly intimate perspective on 45 years of the American experience during Wednesday’s keynote address at the ASIS International 54th Annual Seminar and Exhibits in Atlanta.
Fresh from trips to cover the Summer Olympics in Beijing and the country’s two major political conventions in Denver and St. Paul, Minnesota, Brokaw contrasted the plainclothes, almost transparent security of the Olympics with the fences, riot gear, and vehicle barriers of the two U.S. convention cities.
“In this country we’re still struggling to find the balance between freedom and the new security considerations. Both in Denver at the Democratic convention and at St. Paul at the Republican convention, it looked for a time as if we might all be living in some kind of a police state. And I do think, when it comes to that kind of security at least, our government and civic officials have to reconsider how we pose our security in public places,” Brokaw said.
Brokaw went on to recount the little-known story of the days preceding the government’s acknowledgement of the 2001 anthrax attack. Two members of Brokaw’s NBC staff were infected, and Brokaw struggled for nearly two weeks, with little affect, to raise alarm among federal officials. At one point, federal officials told Brokaw that one of his colleagues had probably suffered a spider bite.
“We were all on an emotional roller-coaster that was heightened by the fact that we had no systems in place to detect a biological attack of any kind,” Brokaw said. “Things have gotten a lot better in your companies and in those areas that you represent.”
Yet Brokaw recounted a recent visit to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Web site, where he entered the search term “anthrax.” The site generated a list of nine speeches agency officials have delivered about the attack, “and very little useful information,” he said. “You know as well as I do that we still have miles to go.”
Sharing a security success story, Brokaw recounted a night spent at the home of Microsoft chairman Bill Gates. In his guest room, Brokaw tried to connect to the Internet using an NBC laptop, but to no avail. With a phone call, Brokaw said “about 26” technicians appeared, followed by Gates himself. “What we decided was that the GE firewall was fighting with the Bill Gates firewall, and it was a draw. These are the kind of realities we’re all dealing with today.”
Not surprisingly, Brokaw said he’s most often asked by fans and acquaintances about the most memorable events and interviews of his career. He responds not with tales of the moon landing or his 1987 one-on-one interview with new Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev, the first conducted by an American journalist.
Instead, he flashes back to 1965, soon after he was hired by WSB-TV, coincidentally in Atlanta, and assigned to cover the Civil Rights Movement. One night in Americus, Georgia, African-American residents congregated in a local church, deliberating whether to march on downtown in support of desegregation. Brokaw saw pickup trucks lining the town’s main street and white residents armed with guns threatening to kill any blacks they saw.
When the church emptied, Brokaw approached a black teenage girl and asked what they had decided. When she said they planned to march, Brokaw reminded her of the danger and asked her why she would take such a risk. Her response, Brokaw said, “‘Because I have no choice.’”
The topic of selfless action led Brokaw to discuss the work for which he’s known nearly as well as broadcasting, his 1998 book The Greatest Generation, about the Americans who fought in World War II and returned home to spurn accolades and build their country into the world’s lone superpower.
Brokaw recounted when decorated World War II veteran and former Senator Bob Dole, who featured in the book, approached him with one last anecdote after the book had already gone to press. Critically wounded in Italy, Dole explained to Brokaw that he convalesced at Michigan’s Battle Creek Sanitarium, sharing a room with two other seriously wounded veterans. One, the son of interned Japanese immigrants, lost an arm fighting with an all-Japanese-American infantry unit in Europe and won the Congressional Medal of Honor. The other, a Georgetown-educated lawyer who could have avoided service, was wounded landing at Normandy on D-Day.
Discussing their futures, the three agreed that public service is the highest calling and the one each would pursue. The other two men were Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-HI) and the late Sen. Philip Hart of Michigan.
Flashing forward to the present day, Brokaw said that every day he dwells on the burdens borne by the country’s fighting men and women, both those in harm’s way and those back home, many critically and permanently disabled.
Brokaw recalled a trip to his hometown of Yankton, South Dakota. Three members of a National Guard unit based in Yankton were killed on a recent deployment to Iraq, while a fourth, Sgt. Corey Briest, returned home blind, confined to a wheelchair.
Briest and his wife live in the house Brokaw’s parents built. When Brokaw offered to pay for construction of a new, wheelchair-accessible home for the family, the local leaders told Brokaw they would accept a donation, but insisted on matching it.
“That small town in southeastern South Dakota understood instantly that Corey will be a part of their lives forever and that they will measure up to it,” Brokaw said. “For the rest of their lives in this small town, they’ll have an acute reminder of the price of war, how little was asked of most of them, and how much was asked of Corey and his family. And they’ll take care of them.”
“These young men and young American women have volunteered for this duty. They get paid modest wages, but they pay a very high price,” Brokaw said. “However you feel about this war, about the wisdom of this war…they cannot be long removed from our thoughts on a daily basis. I hope that when you leave here and go home, you’ll find a way in your community or your workplace, your culture, your travel, to have a real connection to those families.”
For more coverage of the ASIS International 54th Annual Seminar and Exhibits, click here.