The books, conceived after Brokaw went to Normandy to cover the 50th anniversary of D-Day, have helped cement Brokaw's credibility, Grossman and others say. "The people who are surprised that the Renaissance man became Tom didn't know him as well as we did," says MSNBC anchor Brian Williams, Brokaw's substitute anchor. The "clickety click [that] viewers heard" during NBC's coverage of John Glenn's return trip to space, Williams says, was Brokaw, during a pause in his duties, typing away on another chapter.
The fiercely competitive anchors have all written recent books, but it is Brokaw's that really struck a nerve. Some 3.5 million copies of "The Greatest Generation" are in print, and the December 1998 book is still topping its sequel volume of letters, "The Greatest Generation Speaks," on the best-seller charts.
The second book has gone into three printings for a total 1.15 million copies. Contrary to what you'd expect from books profiling the World War II generation, the tomes have attracted a multigenerational crowd; a recent reading and book-signing event at a Manhattan bookstore drew 200 people of all ages, including a Gen-Xer who wanted to know how her generation could acquire the same values as its predecessors.
How much longer Brokaw will stay in his job past his 2002 contract expiration is a question. Many colleagues see him giving it all up for a job doing occasional reports for "Dateline" or whatever else he wants. Although Brokaw has said at least since 1993 that he was ready to move on, this contract cycle "really has the feel of a victory lap," says one colleague who knows him well.
Brokaw does nothing to dismiss the speculation, noting that the books have been satisfying in ways he didn't expect. His office is filled with pictures of family and friends from climbing and fishing expeditions, and there are relatively few of him with famous people he's interviewed. Many of his friends from that world, he notes, "don't have television sets."
"I don't know how much longer I'll stay," he says. "When the snow is falling in the mountains or a friend calls and says the sea trout are running in Patagonia, I think, 'Oh my God, get me out of the harness.' " Then a big story hits, he says, and he's raring to go again.