Tom Brokaw is back—in print. The author of The Greatest Generation plays both reporter and eyewitness as he explores the pivotal decade of the baby boom era in his new book, Boom!: Voices of the Sixties Personal Reflections on the '60s and Today. Brokaw covered the Bobby Kennedy assassination, served as NBC's White House correspondent during Watergate, and went on to become the anchor of NBC Nightly News, a seat he held for 21 years. But before all that, he was a Boy Scout with a crew cut from conservative, small-town South Dakota. Then came the countercultural revolution today known simply as the '60s. Using his own life as a backdrop, Brokaw trolls for insights into that still-controversial decade by talking with the artists, activists, and politicians who helped shape it. Recently, he spoke to U.S. News about his impressions. Excerpts:
If the World War II generation was the "greatest generation," what is the Vietnam War generation?
I don't think the full judgment of history is in yet. There is certainly greatness in the '60s generation. They changed our attitudes about race in America, which was long overdue. They didn't just stand up and salute when told to go to war. Women finally began to realize a more equal place in our society. At the same time, they left behind a drug culture. They left behind not just skepticism for a lot of institutions but disdain. So it's very mixed.
How did being a journalist and conventional Midwesterner shape your experience of the '60s?
I worked hard as a reporter to try to get it right. It's hard to have separation from the movement so you're not sucked in. I did have some colleagues who dove right into the counterculture. They just went along for the ride. Suddenly, you had the sexual revolution; it was ok to use drugs recreationally. A real permissiveness comes into play. It was irresistible to a lot of people. I think it helped me that I had a foundation. I am confident I emerged intact, and most of my values from South Dakota are still there.
Your own life provides a loose narrative for this book. Is this akin to a memoir for you?
To a greater degree than I expected. It was a nostalgia trip. It reminded me of what I'd seen, where I had come from, how much I had changed, how much I hadn't changed. It was emotional a couple times when thinking about those days in Atlanta and California, when our children were being born, when we lost a friend in Vietnam.
You spoke with conservatives like Karl Rove and liberal revolutionaries like Gloria Steinem. Does either side claim to have won the culture war?
On the left, what struck me was the acknowledgment that they didn't have the staying power they should have. On the conservative side, they saw their opportunities and took them. They organized around their ideology with think tanks and publications. Now a lot of people acknowledge they are succumbing to the same kind of hubris that brought down the left. There's been no greater critic than Newt Gingrich.
If the ideological battles of the '60s are still with us, where's the outrage?
A lot of that so-called moral outrage went away when people realized they were not subject to be inducted into military service. A lot of people on the left are saying, "I can't believe we have this outrage over what's happening in Iraq, and we just go home at the end of the day and worry about getting our kids in the right schools." What you're seeing on the right is a fraying, if not dissolving, of the old Reagan revolution. People are beginning to doubt the moral certitude of people on the right, especially the far right.
Your book is loaded with famous figures. Why did you also interview many people from the supporting cast of history, such as Tom Turnipseed, Gov. George Wallace's campaign manager?
I met Turnipseed when he worked for Wallace. I found him interesting, and I watched his conversion [from segregationist to civil rights advocate] from a distance. It was kind of an ad hoc process because it was something of a reunion. I wasn't trying to make it the defining history of the '60s.
What were you trying to make it?
I was trying to make it a catalyst for a national discussion about that time, its effect on us, and how we make the decisions of what is worth keeping and what should be discarded.
Did you come to your own conclusions?
I think obviously we need to work harder at extending the women's movement. How do women who have prepared for careers and have a child get back to the workplace and still fulfill maternal roles? In race, we need to work harder to deal with it outside the boundaries of the politically correct and distorting language we use now. We need to deal with the bottom of the economic ladder.
If Americans are still divided on the legacy, can anything be said of the '60s definitively?
The most enduring legacy about which there is consensus is the music. I would say that we have not completely cracked the code of the '60s. We are still finding our way through that time.