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Tom Brokaw joins us to talk recapturing the American dream.
Big-time NBC news anchor and American observer Tom Brokaw has been watching this country for a long time. As a kid in South Dakota in the middle of the American Century. As a news titan when network news really mattered.
As a chronicler of American generations, “greatest” and boomer and more. Now, Tom Brokaw is a grandpa. With four grandkids. And looking out on a country uncertain about its future, their future. He’s been listening. And he’s got some suggestions. Pretty urgent suggestions.
This hour On Point: Tom Brokaw on recapturing the American dream.
Tom Brokaw, a Special Correspondent for NBC News. He was anchor and managing editor of NBC Nightly News from 1982 to 2004. His latest book is The Time of Our Lives: A Conversation About America.
From Tom's Reading List
Reason Magazine "Suppose the current widespread longing for a 2012 presidential candidate who isn’t now in the race were met by a candidate with near-universal name-recognition, who is handsome and good enough on television to be a network anchorman. Suppose the candidate already had a reservoir of goodwill with the national news media, who consider him one of them."
NPR "A recent New York Times/CBS News poll showed barely 10 percent of the public trusts the government. But it doesn't stop there: Trust in public institutions like corporations, banks, courts, the media and universities is at an all-time low; the military is one of the few exceptions."
New York Magazine "We have a Polish audio technician with whom I have worked all over the world for years. He makes a killer home-brew lemon vodka. We have shared shots with Gorbachev, and toasted the fall of the Berlin Wall, the visit of Pope John Paul to Warsaw, the release of Nelson Mandela, and most of the historic events of the last 30 years. I want to be buried with a milk bottle of Majik's lemon vodka."
What happened to the America I thought I knew? Have we simply wandered off course, but only temporarily? Or have we allowed ourselves to be so divided that we’re easy prey for hijackers who could steer us onto a path to a crash landing?
These were not questions I was asking in August 1962, when I was a newlywed and a rookie journalist. America was investing in a new generation of leadership and promise. John F. Kennedy was in the White House. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was on the march in the South. Astronauts with the right stuff pointed their aspirations toward the heavens. Women were stepping out from behind their aprons and questioning their assigned roles. Young artists were giving new voice to music, ﬁlm, and literature.
I couldn’t wait to be a part of it all.
A half century later it is a much different world, and I am a weathered survivor of the rearranged American landscape, a familiar territory for me in my personal and professional life. Wherever I go I am asked, “What has happened to us? Have we lost our way?”
One often repeated question is the most troubling of all, because it challenges an American belief so fundamental it might as well be carved in stone on a Washington monument: “Will our children and grandchildren have better lives than us?”
Is that essential part of the American Dream disappearing? There are no simple, reassuring answers, and as a citizen, father, and grandfather, I am not immune to the worries that prompt the question. I believe it is time for an American conversation about legacy and destiny.
I am not a sociologist or a psychologist. I am a journalist, an observer, and a synthesizer— a man who has explored a lot of the world and been a witness to recent history. I have seen what enlightened leadership can accomplish, whether it is on a family, community, national, or world level. I’ve also been astonished by our capacity to make the same mistakes in one form or another again and again.
I have made my own share of mistakes, as we all have. They’ve yet to invent a GPS system for the best road to a secure and worthwhile future, but I do have some thoughts, original and inspired by others, for our journey into the heart of a new century. To begin, isn’t it time to reﬂect on where we have been and how we are going to move forward together, and to do it with more listening and less shouting?
There is a good deal of debate these days about American exceptionalism— about who believes in it and who may have doubts. I have no doubts. But I also believe that the unique character of America is very much like my deﬁnition of patriotism: Love your country but always believe it can be improved.
That was the unspoken way I was raised by a family of patriots and mentors who represented a broad spectrum of political and cultural notions but shared a common belief in the American Dream and a determination to constantly renew America’s promise. Those indelible lessons from family and friends are still with me, and I hope you will ﬁnd them familiar and worth renewing as they play out across the chapters that follow.
What I know for sure is that many feel America is adrift, and the time to build the future is now. We will be judged not simply by the cacophony of those on the left and right with access to a cable system or a blog but rather by the tangible legacy we leave behind.
This immigrant nation— this destination for those looking for economic opportunity, political freedom, and the realization of dreams— has confronted great trials in the past and prevailed. We can draw on those experiences and ﬁnd new ways to address the challenges that await us now.
As I learned in the ﬁrst decade of this new century, there are daring new ideas being tested in the laboratories of everyday life by bold and unconventional thinkers and doers. You’ll hear their voices and learn their ideas in the pages that follow.
Academics tell us that centuries and decades are imperfect ways to measure the long curve of history. Perhaps, but for me every decade of my life, beginning with the forties, had a bold punctuation mark, so I had more than a little curiosity about what a new century might mean to us. The deﬁning events of the ﬁrst sixty years of my life were about to recede. What should we all expect next?
What follows are the observations, hopes, memories, and suggestions of a child of the twentieth century who had big dreams fulﬁlled beyond his boyhood fantasies. I am now a man of the twenty- ﬁrst century, with some observations on how we might realize the great promise of a future that would beneﬁ t us all.
It was a New Year’s Eve unlike any other in my lifetime, and possibly yours.
On December 31, 1999, I stood on the top- ﬂoor terrace of the Renaissance Hotel, high above Times Square in New York City, looking down on the revelers jammed onto every square millimeter of sidewalk, curb, gutter, and street— an estimated two million who were giddily anticipating the beginning of a new century and a new millennium. We were part of a vast global gathering witnessing the turn of the clock from the momentous events of the twentieth century— what had been called the American century— to the unknown events of a new calendar. There was a rolling wave of euphoria about the moment and apprehension about the unknown as the clock struck midnight around the world.
I was ﬁ fty- nine years old, a long way from my heartland roots, immersed in journalism, successful in my marriage and professional life, and a relatively new grandfather. I had reported on most of the major events of the previous four decades, from the triumphs, tragedies, and turmoil of the sixties in America through the resignation of a U.S. president, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the emergence of China as a political and economic force, wars in the Middle East and Central America, the birth of twenty- four- hour cable news, the still- evolving and transformative effect of cyberspace, and, at the time, a cheerful celebration of prosperity in ever more layers of American life.
While I tried to offer our audience some perspective on what this new, twenty- ﬁrst century might bring, it was, in retrospect, a modest effort.
My friend and competitor Peter Jennings was across the way, anchoring an impressive and much more ambitious ABC News production on the turn of the century, as he demonstrated one of the marvels of our new age: communication by satellite and via Internet, which allowed him to instantly call up colleagues in China, Australia, Africa, and elsewhere, and bring the global party to his glassy studio in midtown Manhattan.
The airwaves that night were ﬁlled with commentators in every language on every medium, grasping for the phrase that might put two thousand years in perspective and prepare their audience for the next two thousand.
The biggest concern at the time was Y2K, shorthand for the year 2000. Would all the computers that formed the central nervous system of the world’s ﬁnancial markets, transportation systems, and communication networks— and were vital to commerce, medicine, law enforcement, and even entertainment— recognize the changeover from years beginning with “19” to “20”?
They did, and the dancing in the streets continued uninterrupted.
A few exceptionally prescient ﬂags were raised. Writing in The New York Times, Louis Uchitelle warned about the likely possibility of a big downturn in an economy so dependent on a booming stock market. He cited the “wealth effect,” when a rising market encourages consumers to spend more and borrow more. “A market sell- off,” he wrote, “would throw the effect into reverse. The spenders would pull way back. Companies would, too, in response. Job growth would halt; the unemployment rate would rise and incomes would fall. But debt would not.”
Eight years later that warning became reality as the sharpest, longest downturn in the American economy since the Great Depression knocked over our house of cards and spread around the world. It was nothing less than a Great Recession, a deeply painful time and a cautionary tale, the lessons of which should be attached to every birth certiﬁcate and all new citizenship papers for the next century.
That 1999 New York Times analysis laid out with commonsense clarity the inherent structural weaknesses of America’s spending and debt binge. It was one of the few exceptions to the otherwise conventional wisdom dispensed during the millennium festivities. But on such an occasion, who noticed?
I admit that I didn’t. Nor could I fully grasp the personal effect of moving past middle age and becoming a grandparent. My wife, Meredith, is now known as Nan, and I am Grandpa Tom, or sometimes just Tom. Beyond the nomenclature, grand-parenthood brought with it wonders and worries about the world my descendants will inherit. Will their future be deﬁ ned more by constraints than by expansion? No one that New Year’s Eve foresaw the attacks of 9/11 on America or their monumental consequences, including the two longest wars in our history.
What to make of all this? Of the time gone by, of the America that my parents’ generation and my generation knew, and of America’s present and future— its promise for our children and grandchildren? My ideas about the times my family lived through and the lessons we can take from them were still unformed that night, when the chime of history’s clock signaled that the twenty- ﬁrst century had begun.
Excerpted from THE TIME OF OUR LIVES by Tom Brokaw Copyright © 2011 by Tom Brokaw Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
This program aired on November 3, 2011.
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