Tom Brokaw didn’t retire, he shifted gears


The day he was scheduled to retire from his job as a foreman for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Yankton, S.D., Tom Brokaw’s father, known as Red, called his son. “I can’t retire,” he told the NBC anchor, in an uncharacteristic burst of emotion. “I just want to plow one more snowstorm.”

“There’s some of my dad in me,” Brokaw said on a recent morning, back in his NBC News office after a two-week reporting sprint that included stops in El Paso, Little Rock, Ark., and two visits to Vancouver, British Columbia, for the Winter Olympics.

It’s a typical workload for the veteran NBC newsman, who hasn’t slowed down much since handing off the “NBC Nightly News” anchor job to Brian Williams in December 2004. After logging 44 years at NBC, Brokaw remains a center of gravity in the news division. He’s a regular presence on “Today,” “Nightly News” and MSNBC. And he’s done 11 documentaries, including one about the baby boomers that premieres Thursday at 6 p.m. PST on CNBC.

“We let the word ‘retirement’ get out there in an inappropriate way,” Brokaw said of his departure from “Nightly News.” “The idea was to shift gears.”

He traveled across Highway 50 last year for a USA Network documentary that spotlighted the personal effect of the recession. For NBC Sports’ Olympics coverage last week, he did a 30-minute piece about how the town of Gander, Newfoundland, rallied around airline passengers diverted there after the Sept. 11 attacks.

“We keep joking that they’re going to revoke his AARP card at this rate,” said NBC News President Steve Capus.

The newsman’s latest documentary, “BOOMER$!,” examines the economic challenges facing the aging baby boomer generation.

Brokaw, who turned 70 on Feb. 6, has come to be seen as an authority on generational cultures, something he says is an accidental product of “The Greatest Generation,” his bestselling 1998 book about World War II veterans.

“Of all the things I’ve done professionally in my life, that’s probably the one that’s going to linger the longest and will have the greatest impact in many ways,” he said.

The longtime broadcaster is now “noodling” with the idea of writing about the rapidly changing world today’s children face.

“The metaphor I’ve been using is my grandchildren, especially, are watching the creation of a second universe,” he said, seated behind an oversized wooden desk, fiddling with a chunk of granite chipped off the Berlin Wall.

“I call it the second Big Bang. You’ve got these big planets out there colliding into each other, some getting too close to the sun and burning up, others trying to figure out which ones can support life.”

One of those threatened planets is journalism, and Brokaw calls the changes wrenching traditional media “one of the most vexing questions of my lifetime.”

“We made a huge mistake in allowing the canard ‘Information is free’ to exist for a long time. It’s not free,” he said, noting the costs of getting staff to Chile this week to cover the aftermath of the massive earthquake there.

Brokaw’s opinion carries heavy weight inside the news division.

During the 2008 race, he argued to NBC executives that it was inappropriate for MSNBC’s opinionated hosts Keith Olbermann and Chris Matthews to also serve as news anchors.

He stepped in to moderate “Meet the Press” for six months after the sudden death of Tim Russert, a close friend, and quietly encouraged his successor, David Gregory, behind the scenes. (He’s filling in for Gregory on March 14.)

Capus speaks to him several times a week to solicit his perspective, which remains grounded in his Midwestern upbringing.

“It won’t surprise you to hear that Tom thinks that the more we can keep our focus outside the Northeast corridor, the better off we’ll be,” he said.

Brokaw’s influence is such that he reportedly made President Obama’s list of potential running mates, a notion he shrugs off with some embarrassment.

“ Caroline Kennedy said I was on the list, but I think it was this long,” he said, stretching his arms apart. “The idea that I would be a vice presidential candidate would have sunk the ticket.”

Politics doesn’t interest Brokaw, who said that in the last year he’s finally figured out the right mix of work and pleasure. Now that he’s no longer on “Nightly,” he has time for pheasant hunting and fly fishing, two of his favorite activities. He’s taking two weeks off in March to go bicycling in New Zealand, and in June he and his wife plan to sail off the coast of Turkey.

Still, Brokaw said he’s adopted his friend Andy Rooney’s response to questions about when he is going to retire.

“He said, ‘Retire from what, life?’ ” Brokaw recounted with a grin. “I’ll probably shift gears again, but am I going to go sit on a porch somewhere and just rock the day away? No.”