Tom Brokaw: Yesterday, "Today" and tomorrow

CBSNews

If you want to know about Tom Brokaw (says his former "Today" show colleague Jane Pauley), a good place to start is Big Sky Country, even when the sky is about to open up. "I love Montana because of the wildness of it all," Brokaw said while fly fishing. "Everything is big, including the thunder!"

"I think we'd be crazy to stand out here a whole lot longer," Pauley said.

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Jane Pauley gets some tips in fly fishing from Tom Brokaw.  CBS News

"Even though I don't have much sense, I know enough to get out of the rain!" he laughed.

Pauley has known Brokaw for more than 40 years, beginning at NBC's "Today" show. She was the 25-year-old rookie; he was only 35, but already a seasoned veteran, the network White House correspondent during the Nixon administration. 

Pauley said, "I was about to join you on the 'Today' show, watching you interview the new Miss America, and this poor woman, in my memory, being grilled within an inch of her life!"

Brokaw: "Over the weekend you said you were opposed to the use of drugs, smoking, abortion, and you weren't even certain about the ERA. Do you think, then, that you're representative of this generation of young women in America?"Dorothy Benham, crowned Miss America 1977: "I'm going to try to be a very good representative."

"I did everything but ask her, 'Who paid for the cupcakes? Was that your swimsuit or did you steal it from somebody?'" he laughed. "I had this Watergate attitude about doing the 'Today' show."

The team really hit their stride, according to Brokaw, in 1981 during the week of coverage of the royal wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana. "The marriage wasn't so hot, but the time for Jane and Tom was fantastic," he said. 

Not long after the two hit that stride, Brokaw began what would become a more than 20-year stint as anchor of "NBC Nightly News." 

Pauley asked, "Who's had a better career in broadcasting than you have?"

"No, I think I was in the right place at the right time. Caught a lot of good waves," he replied.

"But everywhere you went was the right place to be. I mean, who will not remember the Berlin Wall? The night of Tiananmen Square? We now know how hideously dangerous that turned out to be, the massacre that it became. But Tom Brokaw's riding a bike [in Tiananmen Square]?"

He recalled, "A cameraman rode ahead of me, and only one Chinese figured it out. He reached in and he tickled the lens of the camera that he could see through the cardboard box."

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Tom Brokaw's hidden camera is sussed out in Tiananmen Square. NBC News

"But I think, Jane, of all those things that I went through, nothing was like 9/11."

Brokaw on September 11, 2001: "It is a new day in America, a day of grieving and shock and anger. Obviously this is not just an isolated incident in our lives; this is one that will be a marker in our history."

"That's what anchormen are supposed to do. And that day, NBC was operating on all cylinders, but so was CBS, and so was ABC, and so was CNN. And that was a service to the country, quite honestly."

Then, just three years later, with an audience of 16 million, Brokaw signed off as the most-watched of the big-three network news anchors. 

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Tom Brokaw with Jane Pauley. CBS News

But his legacy is a book, "The Greatest Generation," in 1998. "That's the most important thing I've ever done, because this is permanent. You know, people will pick this up two generations from now, I hope!"

Pauley said, "You, in two words, recast how we looked at the men and women who before had been known as the 'G.I. Generation,' and everyone said, 'Well, yeah.'"

"Well, they raised me," Brokaw said. "My first memory of life was, I was living on an Army base. And everybody was going to war or coming home from war. Everybody was a veteran. 

"But they all came back, and they all had can-do attitudes. They did everything in town. And no one talked about the war. No one mentioned the war."

But Brokaw is a storyteller. His own life has had a storybook quality. "We're not fanatic about keeping memorabilia. I have chunks of the Berlin Wall. But I try not to have the house become a museum for Tom Brokaw."

The oldest son of a post office clerk and a construction foreman, he left small-town Yankton, South Dakota in the 1960s with a beautiful wife and big dreams. 

Pauley said, "The Tom Brokaw I worked with for decades was known, and is still known, as 'Duncan, the Wonder Horse.' Because nobody in the industry had your stamina. You were famous for 24 hours a day, seven days a week. You could broadcast, you could then get on an airplane and do anything at any time."

That is, until six years ago, when Brokaw had devastating news to share with Meredith, his wife of nearly 60 years.

"I sat on the side of the bed and I said, 'Our magic life has made a bad turn,'" he said. "I got emotional, and it was hard. Because I just didn't know where it was gonna go."

He'd been diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a cancer in the bone marrow.  "I could barely move [for] the pain, because this cancer goes right to your bones. Turns out I had a hole in my pelvis. I had four fractures in my spine, and I had another hole right in my waistline. And they had all kicked in at the same time. And so, thank God I got to the Mayo Clinic and just, 'Whatever you got, pump me up, folks. I mean, put needles in me, whatever it takes, 'cause I want to get out of this.'"

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Random House

And it's taken a lot, including a difficult surgery: "It's called kyphoplasty. They go into your spine, and they shoot it with a kind of cement to fix the hole in your spine. And when I went in, they didn't tell me the consequences of it."

This time Meredith broke the news. He recalled, "When I came out of this, she looked at me and said, 'How tall are you?' And I said, 'I'm 6 feet.' She said, 'You're now 5'8",' because of the treatment."

Pauley said, "You definitely are a younger-looking man than you were just a couple of years ago."

"I'm in remission, and I've also learned how to live with it, frankly," he said. 

Ever the Wonder Horse, Tom Brokaw at 79 is still chasing the news, though he admits he has "slowed down."

"And still running slower but rings around the rest of us, still," said Pauley

"Well, it's been an adjustment, there's no question about that."

So, he savors time with family, and an old friend. He told Pauley, "I've had this great, great life. And I've been married to Meredith. And we have these wonderful children, and we live beyond any expectation that we could have had when we left Yankton on August 17th, 1962. Way beyond."

PODCAST: Listen to an extended interview between Jane Pauley and Tom Brokaw

      For more info:

"The Fall of Richard Nixon: A Reporter Remembers Watergate" by Tom Brokaw (Random House), in Hardcover, eBook, and Audio formats, available via Amazon"The Greatest Generation" by Tom Brokaw (Random House), in Hardcover, Trade Paperback, eBook and Audio formats, available via AmazonFollow @tombrokaw on Twitter

       Story produced by Mary Raffalli. 

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