The University of South Dakota is located in Vermillion, on the state’s eastern prairies. In the 1950s, most of the students were kids from farms, small towns and Indian reservations. But this college did a lot with the raw material.
Consider the group studying there when John F. Kennedy was elected president. Larry Pressler became a U.S. senator. George Mickelson became governor. Pat O’Brien is a Hollywood television host. Gerald One Feather became tribal chairman of the Ogallala Sioux Nation. Bob Legvold is a distinguished Soviet scholar. Larry Piersol is a federal judge.
All had one thing in common: a strong mentor, William O. Farber. But “Doc” Farber’s most famous student was a kid from up the river at Yankton, Tom Brokaw.
Coming in, Brokaw showed promise. But, like a lot of us, Brokaw goofed off. Noticing the slump, Doc Farber told him to drop out: “Get it out of your system, then come back.”
“It was the best advice I ever got,” says Brokaw. When he returned, he quickly fixed on the idea of becoming a broadcast journalist. But it might never have happened. He called Farber one day saying, “There’s a job in Omaha but I can’t go for the interview. My car broke down.”
“Well, we’ll just have to go in my car,” Farber told him. Brokaw got the job and has never forgotten the favor. Doc Farber is 94 now, and they remain close friends.
From Omaha, Brokaw went to Atlanta where he covered the civil rights movement, on to Los Angeles where he watched the rise of Ronald Reagan. In the midst of Watergate, he joined NBC News as White House correspondent. Enter Brokaw, exit Nixon.
He then hosted the “Today Show” with Hoosier partner Jane Pauley and took over the anchor chair at “Nightly News” in 1983.
Brokaw remodeled the anchor job by continuing to report the news from wherever it happened. When the Berlin Wall came down, he was the only reporter broadcasting live. “If I’ve been there, I know what I’m talking about,” Brokaw says.
Farber recently saw his protégé reporting from a helicopter over Baghdad, and it worried him. “Goodness, think of Tom as a hostage,” Farber said. “What then?”
When Mikhail Gorbachev came to power, Brokaw was the first American journalist to interview the Soviet leader. “Gorbachev was not like the old communists, those men in cardboard suits who stood on Lenin’s tomb and never smiled,” he says. His interview was a revealing insight to the coming glasnost and perestroika.
Covering the 40th anniversary of D-Day, Brokaw studied the aging veterans who stormed the beaches and won the war. It made an emotional impression. “This generation grew up in the Depression, fought the greatest war mankind has ever known, built our democracy and the greatest industrial economy in history.” It took 10 years, but the books he produced have installed the phrase “Greatest Generation” into our language.
Brokaw has covered every campaign, election and presidency since 1968. He has reported as presidents grappled with international crises, scandals and impeachments. And he has told the story straight, never compromising his objectivity. Today, Tom Brokaw is probably the most believable person in American journalism.
So, two years ago, when Brokaw announced he was taking early retirement, some of his friends got a brainstorm: How about running for president in 2004?
Why Brokaw? Because he has been a firsthand witness to world history for the past 40 years. He is good on his feet, speaks well and has reported on every issue on the national agenda. His roots and values are genuine Midwestern. He has moderate views and a strong family, and his success is self-made. He’s handsome and emanates authority.
We even looked into running Brokaw as a write-in in New Hampshire. But he said, “No thanks. Politics is a noble calling but not for me.”
So Brokaw surrenders the anchor chair at NBC to make documentaries, climb mountains and do some fly-fishing. He will have time to think.
So think it over again, Tom. In 2008, you will still be much younger than Ronald Reagan when he was elected.
Ken Bode, a former NBC and CNN political analyst, is Pulliam Professor of Journalism at DePauw University