TIM RUSSERT, HOST: Welcome again.
As the anchorman for “NBC Nightly News” he brought us the big events over the last several decades. He now has written a new book about the ‘60s.
“Boom!” is the title, “Voice of the Sixties.” The author and our guest and my friend, Tom Brokaw.
TOM BROKAW, JOURNALIST: Tim, good to be here.
RUSSERT: I’m intrigued by the title, “Boom!”
BROKAW: Well, titles are tough to come up with. When I settled on “The Greatest Generation,” a lot of people—“Oh, god. I don’t know if you want to go there or not.” And it’s not become part of the language.
Just when I had a lot of different angles. And finally I decided that “Boom,” a play on baby boomers, obviously. But also, if you lived through that time, it seemed like every other day it was “Boom!” The world was changing.
“Boom!” We had the civil rights movement. “Boom!” We had Lyndon Johnson dropping out of the presidential race.
“Boom!” Dr. King is murdered. “Boom!” Bobby Kennedy is assassinated.
“Boom!” Chicago comes along.
There are also some felicitous events. “Boom!” We send men to the moon in the 1960s. People forgot about that. And on Christmas Eve, 1968, we had our first rendezvous with the moon and we saw the Earth rise.
RUSSERT: Why did you right it?
BROKAW: I lived through it. It was such a convulsive time in my own life. I was a child of the ‘50s. I had been raised by the World War II generation, the greatest generation.
Crewcut, Boy Scout, “Pledge of Allegiance” kind of childhood.
You know, it’s all raising. I had a tough time the first couple of years at college, but it was never about pushing back against parental authority or taking on the institution.
RUSSERT: You were on the six-year plan, weren’t you?
BROKAW: Yes. I was certainly on the six-year plan to get—as a freshman. You know, I’ve got a lot of honorary degrees, and my old mentor finally wrote to me and said, “We thought your first degree was (INAUDIBLE).”
BROKAW: But it was not. It was not rebellion against society.
And then I get to California, life is good. Meredith and I are married, we’re having children. I’m making a good salary. And the world around me begins to change profoundly.
The kids got long hair. I came out of the crewcut generation. Rock ‘n’ roll, hard rock ‘n’ roll and the Beatles, that replaces Elvis.
There’s a huge pushback against the war in Vietnam. The civil rights movement has the country in some turmoil. It goes from Dr. Martin Luther King and nonviolence to H. Rap Brown and Stokely Carmichael and black power.
Those were convulsive times. And we had a sitting president who had been elected in a landslide in ‘64, forced to step down in 1968. Bobby Kennedy, who was the president’s—the martyred president’s brother, he gets killed. Dr. King gets murdered.
Think about this.
Overseas, the Russians invade Czechoslovakia. This is all just 1968.
The drug (ph) culture takes hold in America. People are wearing T-shirts that say “America sucks,” a swastika over the American flag, holding up pictures of Ho Chi Minh and carrying Viet Cong flags through the streets over a war over there. Think of students now carrying al Qaeda flags through the streets.
So it was a complicated time. Very emotional.
Then you had another part of society going to that war. You had another part of that society wearing hard hats and saying, “America, love it or leave it.”
So it was, I believe, one of the really defining times of my life and I wanted to write about it.
RUSSERT: You talk about November 22, 1963, the assassination of John Kennedy as the beginning of our loss of innocence.
Talk about that.
BROKAW: Well, I remember the day, as we all do so vividly. I was working in a newsroom, the bells began to ring on the wire machine.
I went over and read the bulletins, got them on the air in Omaha because the network was not yet on. And then I race out to the Strategic Air Command headquarters to see if they were on alert or if I could get on the base at all.
And I was at that time 23 years old. And thought, my God, this doesn’t happen in our country. I had not lived through an assassination.
It had been—my life had been defined by triumphs. We won World War II, and the 50s, when there was great prosperity. And suddenly this romantic, idealistic young president, in our eyes, this completely different kind of figure, is brutally murdered in the streets of Texas.
And I do remember thinking this will change us. I don’t know how, but it will.
It leads to Lyndon Johnson. It leads to an escalation of Vietnam. It leads to a lot of cynicism, I think, in the way people began to react to institutional authority. And it leads to the resurrection of Richard Nixon, who had been defeated by John Kennedy and then defeated by Pat Brown in ‘62, when he had said, you won’t have me to kick around anymore.
By 1968, he’s elected president of the United States. That starts something else altogether. You know, a deeper involvement in Vietnam, eventually Watergate, a great constitutional crisis, and the first president forced to resign in disgrace.
So there were lots of events that were triggered by the assassination of John Kennedy.
RUSSERT: It is ironic in this very same studio we sit in Washington on that day Daniel Patrick Moynihan was sitting with Mary McGrory, the great columnist for “The Washington Post,” having a conversation. And Mary McGrory said, “Pat, we’ll never laugh again.” And he said, “Oh, Mary, we’ll laugh again. We’ll never be young again.”
BROKAW: Yes. It was one of the best lines.
RUSSERT: It was transforming, wasn’t it?
BROKAW: It was one of the best lines, I thought, typically of Moynahan. I really do think it was transformative.
There was that brief promise, and “Camelot” was a word that came later. But it was—everything was possible.
Now, there were a lot of things about Kennedy we didn’t know at that time. We didn’t know about the womanizing. We didn’t know about the serious health issues that he had involved.
As I write in the book, we didn’t know that he had directed a surveillance of a military affairs correspondent for “The New York Times” who was getting very important information and publishing it. And he went after him in the same kind of way that Nixon later went after people, and it ended up being “The Plumbers Unit” and led to Watergate.
RUSSERT: “But when we saw a president shot dead in the streets of the United States, it was a seismic event. How could this happen here?”
BROKAW: It was—and it was not just the event itself. It was all that followed.
It was the event that made television news, the news of choice, I suppose, in this country, because Reuven Frank, the wonderful late producer of “Huntley-Brinkley,” always had the best line about television news . “We transmit experience,” he said. And we should never lose sight of that.
And that time the country was drawn together by television news across the board, CBS and NBC primarily. ABC was not yet the major player it became later. And we were—we were pulled together in grief and in bewilderment about where we go now.
The country, people forget, was deeply divided at that time. Barry Goldwater was rising in the West, getting ready to run against John Kennedy. Adlai Stevenson had had a very hostile reception in Texas a few weeks before President Kennedy went there and had reservations about him going there.
There was a lot of animated, strong feeling in this country. And it left—it led, I think, to a kind of disquieting time in our culture.
We felt unsettled. We didn’t know what was coming next. And hovering all of this, obviously, is the Cold War.
The Russians were a peak strength in those days. They had launched Sputnik, after all. They had these big ICBMs that were pointed at us.
Those were, in many ways, difficult times.
RUSSERT: We’re going to take a quick break.
We are talking to Tom Brokaw. He is the author of “The Greatest Generation.” He has a new book called “Boom!: Voices of The Sixties.”
And we’re going to continue our conversation with Tom right after this.
RUSSERT: And we are back talking to Tom Brokaw.
His new book is “Boom!: Voice of The Sixties.”
You have an interesting approach in the book, Tom. You take two people, Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich, and there really is an interesting similarity the way they grew up.
BROKAW: Well, I felt for a long time they were separated at birth. Here they came from dysfunctional families in the South, both prematurely gray. Both gray, gregarious and gabby.
Both keen students of the American political culture. Both with flawed personal records. And then becoming two of the great political adversaries of our time. Newt Gingrich with the Contract With America taking over the Congress, while Bill Clinton is the president of the United States.
And I describe in a variety of ways in there I think that they—you know, Bill Clinton, if you look at it in athletic terms, have this kind of wide-open offense. You know, he was improvising constantly and was great at it. He could scramble better than almost anyone I had ever seen.
And Newt Gingrich believed very strongly that the best offense was a great defense. He was there constantly, wherever Bill Clinton showed up. They had somebody in front of him, in his face, so to speak. Developed words that Republicans should use to describe Democrats—defeatism, and constantly using the word “liberal.”
And they spiral up to this confrontation that is the closing of the government, obviously. That—one of the side-effects of that is—that’s when the president meets Monica Lewinsky.
Gingrich overplays his hand. He is forced out as the speaker, in effect, and resigns Congress. It turns out he’s having a personal relationship with somebody on the Hill. And then Clinton goes off. And here they are still at it.
They both have Web sites. They still have a lot to say about what’s going on. And in this feudal (ph) way, both of them are very smart.
RUSSERT: And both true products of the ‘60s.
BROKAW: True products of the ‘60s. Clinton dodged the draft. And New Gingrich, who grew up in a military family, married his high school teacher and then became a professor and ran as a moderate Republican twice for Congress in Georgia. Got defeated, and then he decided to make a turn to the right and become a power player, if you will, in the new conservative movement.
RUSSERT: It’s also interesting—when you think of the ‘60s, you don’t think of Dick Cheney.
BROKAW: No. No.
RUSSERT: But he, too, went through the ‘60s.
BROKAW: He did. And I wanted to tell that story for a long time.
Cheney and I grew up in the same part of the country at about the same time. And we have very similar backgrounds.
We both had a very serious stumble coming out of high school, going to college. I like to point out to him his stumble lasted longer than mine by about a year or two.
He recovered, he gets married. He’s a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin at the height of the ‘60s. And Wisconsin was a very radical campus.
The vice president was a wonkish graduate student down there in the data center running his punch cards, doing this research on congressional voting patterns when Joe Tydings, a liberal senator from Maryland, a good friend of the Kennedy family, comes out to Wisconsin looking for a fellow in his father’s name to join the American Political Association as an intern in Washington for the next year. And the Wisconsin political science department said, boy, there’s this really bright young guy from Wyoming here.
Cheney goes and hears Joe Tydings recruit students for the Bobby Kennedy campaign in Indiana. He has a beer with Joe Tydings later. Tydings says, you’re our guy, and that’s how Dick Cheney got to Washington. And it was the beginning of this long meritorious career that is extraordinarily controversial as well at this stage in his life.
Cheney goes back to Maryland later, according to his biographer, Stephen Hayes. I didn’t know this part. And he’s giving a speech as the vice president of the United States sees Joe Tydings and says, thank you very much. And Tydings says, what was that all about? And then he remembered that he was the one who got him.
RUSSERT: He had recruited...
BROKER: He had recruited Dick Cheney.
RUSSERT: And during this period, Dick Cheney received five deferments from the—from the war in Vietnam...
BROKAW: Right, he did.
RUSSERT: ... from military service.
BROKAW: And he...
RUSSERT: Saying later on that he had other priorities at the time.
BROKAW: He had other priorities. And he also says that the draft call in his part of the country, in Wyoming, was not very high because kids were volunteering. They were filling their quota constantly.
And then he was in graduate school when he was 26, 27 years old. He was actually 27 in 1968. He and Lynne had the two daughters by then, and so he was continuing to get deferments.
It’s clear talking to him that Vietnam was not on his radar screen. He just wasn’t thinking about it very much. He had heard some—overheard some discussions about it from Mel Laird, who was a Wisconsin congressman who came back to have a conversation with Governor Knowles, who was a Republican governor of Wisconsin. Cheney was working for him at the time.
And Laird warned Knowles, don’t get too deeply involved in this Vietnam debate. But he just didn’t think about it very much.
RUSSERT: Someone who was deeply involved, Senator John McCain.
BROKAW: John McCain was deeply involved in it. I went back to Vietnam with Jim Webb, the new senator from Virginia, and we went to the Hanoi Hilton where McCain was. Also went to a lake where he was shot down and they pulled him off the bottom. He barely got back to the surface, pretty badly beaten up.
And they’ve dressed it up a lot, the Hanoi Hilton. They’ve got a picture of prisoners of war with bowls of fruit and Christmas cards and little trees saying, “Here it is, one more Christmas in Hanoi. And aren’t we having a wonderful time?”
We know that it was a far different set of circumstances. And when you stand there and think about five years in the Hanoi Hilton and getting tortured, and your arm is badly broken as it is, the emotional and psychological wear on you, and how those prisoners organized themselves by rank and kept each other going—and John has written about this very eloquently, about he almost broke the code of honor it was a low point of his life.
And his fellow prisoners, quoting Bud Day, a University of South Dakota graduate who got to the Medal of Honor, was there at the time as well, how they got each other through that time and came back after five, five and a half years in captivity, under the worst possible circumstances, America had changed profoundly. You know, 1967, John said, “I think we were probably doing very well in Vietnam. Then I’m in jail and I get out in 1974. I can’t believe all that has happened at that time.”
And in typical McCain fashion, I said, “What did you notice? What’s the big...?” He said, “Well, I like the miniskirts.”
RUSSERT: We’re going to take a quick break.
We’re talking to Tom Brokaw. His book, “Boom!: Voice of the Sixties.” The war in Vietnam and Woodstock going on at the same time.
We’re going to come back and talk about that and more.
RUSSERT: And we are back talking to author Tom Brokaw. His new book is “Boom!”
It’s so interesting, Tom, looking at the politicians who grew up in the ‘60s. You mentioned Jim Webb, the Democratic senator from Virginia, leading the fight about potential intervention in Iran, outspoken about the war in Iraq.
You have Republican Chuck Hagel, someone who was hawkish earlier in his career and now having a profound change on that. John Kerry, the Democratic senator. But then Dick Cheney on the other side.
What was it about that Vietnam experience that put people with such disparate political views?
John McCain versus John Kerry.
BROKAW: A lot of it has to do with, I think, the execution of the war and whether the government was telling the truth. And whether they were—and also, they know firsthand Hagel had a very bloody time for a full year in Vietnam and came back a defender and fought with his brother, who was there in the same squad with him. They saved each other twice. And I think between them they have five Purple Hearts.
And then Hagel began to hear the LBJ tapes when he was talking to Dick Russell, the senator from Georgia, and had grave doubts early on about whether this was ever going to be winnable. And he hollered, “What is my government about?” What are they sending off our greatest treasury, young men and women, now to these war zones if we’re not telling the truth to the American people?”
And in Hagel’s case as well, what are they objecting to here? That’s certainly the case with Jim Webb. What is it that we can accomplish? What can we realistically expect to get out of it?
Webb is a key military analyst and also has a very strong geopolitical point of view. He spent a lot of his life—a lot of people think of him just writing novels and so on, but he went out to the Pacific and looked at security considerations there. He had been secretary of the Navy.
The Vietnam veterans in this book, I think, are the most totally realized people that I know. And they don’t all agree on issues of war and peace in the same way, but at a very formative time in their lives they went through the trial of combat.
They came back to a hostile country in which they were told to change immediately into civilian clothing or they would be spit upon in San Francisco. And they ran into very difficult times.
They worked their way through it, many of them, not all of them. And they’re now public citizens. And they’re Republicans and Democrats alike. And they get along because they’re used to getting the issues out and dealing with them in a forthright fashion. And I think it’s a result of their early training in the military.
RUSSERT: But it’s interesting. Their views really do manifest the two lessons of Vietnam. One school is, if you’re going to win the war, put in everything...
RUSSERT: ... so that you can win it militarily and show strength always. The other is, be careful about the military situations you get involved in.
BROKAW: That’s right, a big—that’s a big piece of it. And there’s a little mini debate in here between Bob Kerrey and Bill Bradley, his friend.
Bill Bradley has written that this is the worst thing that we’ve ever done, Iraq. And Bob Kerrey says, no, Vietnam is still worse.
Richard Holbrooke, the ambassador who was in Vietnam early on, and then at the peace talks in 1968, says it is the worst thing that we’ve ever gotten involved in. So that generation is working its way through, which I think is healthy, that we ought to get this all out on the table, learn the lessons of Vietnam, which we’re not—I don’t think is fully learned as they ought to have been in making decision about Iraq. But Iraq was triggered by an attack on this country in a way that Vietnam was not. So there was a different emotional component to going into Iraq.
RUSSERT: Does Vietnam still hover over our foreign policy?
BROKAW: I think it does. And, you know, everybody from Bill Daley (ph) to John McCain to Bob Kerrey said to me, as long as our generation is still alive, Vietnam will be hovering over us.
Iraq, according to Holbrooke, and his reflections, he says, “I think Iraq will replace Vietnam.” But I think that the residue of Vietnam will be with us for the rest of my life.
RUSSERT: George W. Bush served in the National Guard during the Vietnam War. Any reflections about him in this from people?
BROKAW: No. I think that most people have dealt with that. And an awful lot of people who would like to condemn George Bush for serving in the National Guard during Vietnam, liberals, a lot of them, found their own way to get out of Vietnam. So they’re not about to raise their hand and say, oh, look what he did, he dodged duty. And they were coming up with physical excuses and student deferments and using family influence to get out on their own.
RUSSERT: You did talk to Karl Rove.
BROKAW: I did talk to Karl Rove. And Karl Rove, interestingly enough, was a high school senior in 1968, and he was going down because of a civics teacher to the Mormon Tabernacle auditorium in Salt Lake City and hearing all the candidates. He said he was quite taken with Bobby Kennedy. He thought he was an unconventional candidate.
He liked Nelson Rockefeller because he wanted to have a voluntary military. And he believed strongly that the Republicans will continue to do well because they’re on the right side of the cultural issues.
RUSSERT: We’re going to take another quick break.
We are talking to Tom Brokaw. His new book, “Boom!: Voices of the Sixties.”
Tom went out and talked to the leading political, military, cultural, theatrical, musical leaders of our country to reflect on the ‘60s.
We’re going to come back and talk to him about that and a whole lot more right after this.
RUSSERT: And we are back.
We are talking to Tom Brokaw, anchorman of NBC for two decades, co-host of “The Today Show,” author of “The Greatest Generation.” He now has a new book. It’s called “Boom!: Voices of the Sixties.” An extraordinary compilation of capturing the mood and the voices of an extraordinary time in our nation’s history.
The book is dedicated to Captain Gene Kimmel. And I know this is emotional for you because he was a real buddy of yours from way back when, but tell us his story.
BROKAW: Well, Gene Kimmel grew up in a working class family in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. And when he graduated from college, he went right into the 101st Airborne and banged up his knee after three years. And when I met him at the University of South Dakota, he came and he was this appealing daredevil guy, very, very bright, could write extremely well. But he was a political science major and we became fast friends pretty quickly.
He married one of Meredith’s college roommates. And when I left the university, Gene continued to get his Masters. And then he called me and he said, “I really want to be a Marine flyer.” And he said, “I got this banged up knee. Do you know any Marine recruiters who would kind of look the other way?”
And I did. It was the same guy who recruited my brother Mike.
So Bill Chase (ph) recruited Gene. Gene went in the Marine aviation program. And—but we didn’t know about Vietnam in those days. You know, it was kind of a blip on the radar screen in ‘64.
I remember I was—Meredith and I were living in Omaha and he called me and said, “I’m doing my first cross-country solo. I’m flying into Strategic Air Command headquarters.”
I said, “I’ll go out and pick you up. We’re having some people over tonight.”
So he came over to the house in his orange flight suit and his helmet under his arm. And, you know, Gene Kimmel and the whole thing. And we had started this party. And in those days you always try to think of a new drinking game, and the drinking game was who could get in and out of his flight suit quicker?
And we had a stopwatch on it. And we had stopwatch on it. And it gets—after a few beers, it’s pretty tough to get in and out of a flight suit, it turns out.
He goes over and he flies 110 combat missions in Vietnam. He comes back after getting burned up in the flight line, and I went down to Camp Pendleton with Meredith to have an evening with him. And he said, “They’ve got a new, very aeronautically challenging airplane called OB10. They’d like me to be in the first squadron.”
It was a gunship that flew over the battlefield. And I said, “Don’t do this.” He had real reservations politically about how the war was being executed. And I said, “Gene, you don’t need to do this.”
And he said, “No, no. Look, I’m—I dodged a bullet. I’ll be OK.”
That fall in 1968 his wife was coming up to stay with us because they were going to have R&R in Hawaii, and that morning we got a call and he had been shot down and killed. I flew back to South Dakota for the funeral, and I was living in the epicenter of the antiwar protest movement in California in those days. And when I got back to South Dakota, we had all been out of college only six years at that point. And our careers were beginning to kind of develop a trajectory, if you will—the lawyers in the state and the doctors and so on.
I was so struck by there was not the same passion in the state in an antiwar sense that I had left behind in California. And we buried him that day in October. It was the middle of hunting season, which had been his favorite time of the year.
It was very hard for me. It still is.
I went back a few weeks ago to do some taping at his gravesite for a documentary that we’re doing, and I looked down and I thought, what a life I’ve had. And he would have had a great life. But he didn’t.
His wife, I’m happy to say, and their kids have had a good life. And they’re still very proud of him. But how many times is that story repeated? Fifty-seven thousand times, Tim.
RUSSERT: And when you trace your fingers against those names on the wall...
RUSSERT: ... do you think...
BROKAW: They come alive.
RUSSERT: They come alive. Do you think that men of our generation who did not go to Vietnam are haunted by that?
BROKAW: Yes, I do. I do. I think they really are haunted by it. And if you press a little bit, they are.
And, you know, I didn’t go as a correspondent. I tried to enlist in the Navy in the OCS program. I had flat feet in ‘62. They didn’t need people, so they didn’t take me.
But I think people are haunted. It doesn’t mean they endorse the idea of the war. It doesn’t mean that they believe that they were wrong—I mean, wrong then and now they’re having second thoughts about that. I think what they believe is that from a generational point of view, that there was a deep division.
Jim Webb feels very strongly about this. This was the time, first time in American history, in which the elite class didn’t go to war or didn’t have to go into uniform.
My brother was in Vietnam and my dad called me in a rage about student deferments. And I said, “Well, Dad, you have to understand...” And I got about 20 seconds in and I realized how wrong I was.
Bobby Kennedy went around from campus to campus...
RUSSERT: Creighton University, Omaha, Nebraska.
RUSSERT: Bobby Kennedy stood up and said, “We need to eliminate student deferments.”
BROKAW: Right, exactly. It was—it was—you don’t hear that anymore. And that was part of what made him so appealing in that campaign.
And he did this wherever he went. You know, how many of you, you know, have student deferments? Well, if my son can get out, that’s not right.
RUSSERT: An extraordinary couple in your book, Tom and Nellie Coakley.
BROKAW: Tom and Nellie.
RUSSERT: Tell us about them.
BROKAW: Well, I met Tom and Nellie Coakley—they were surprised I remembered it—when they were building the Vietnam Wall in New York for Vietnam veterans. And I went to the Vietnam Veterans Association of New York and there were a lot of guys who had been drinking and they were, you know, kind of loud and boisterous about their Vietnam experience.
And this really handsome couple sitting in the corner, a man and a wife—and most of the guys were there without their wives, or without their girlfriends—I said, “Well, who is that?” And they said, “That’s Tom Coakley. He’s the president of the association.”
He was this really modest guy. A Brown hockey star, came from a prominent Upstate New York family. Thought about going on to college in Canada, continue playing hockey. And then other people said, well, we can get you in the Reserves.
His dad said, “You know, Tom, if you don’t go, somebody will go in your place. And you have to think about that.” His dad had been in World War II.
He went. He went as an enlisted man. And he lost a leg.
And Nellie, his wife, who he met later, was the offspring of an Army officer. She always wanted to be an Army nurse. She volunteered to go.
There’s a haunting story in here about her in a hospital in Vietnam and seeing a young man who had just died on a gurney. And she read his name, Richard Burns (ph), and she looked out. It was a beautiful day, and she thought, I know he’s dead before his mother does.
Tom and Nellie meet at Walter Reed, lots of things happen. They fall in love. They get married. They have a great life in Upstate New York at St. Lawrence University.
And Nellie gets very interested in how he got involved in Vietnam, starts reading everything. And then she starts thinking about Richard Burns (ph). And she finds him family, and she has a reunion with his mother in Las Vegas.
And she’s able to tell the mother that she had touched her son’s face shortly after he died, which meant so much to the mother. And then the brother of Richard Burns (ph) got in touch with her and they went to the wall together, as the brother does every year on Richard’s birthday.
Two cans of Budweiser. Drinks one and he lives one behind.
They are an amazing couple, Tom and Nellie Coakley, because I think out of all the turmoil in their early lives, are these fully formed citizens. And they’re very actively involved now in helping Iraq veterans with psychological difficulties.
I went to Walter Reed with Tom and Nellie, both. And Tom was talking to a young amputee on the treadmill. And as only one amputee can say to another, Tom said, “How’s your family dealing with this?”
And the guy said, “Not so well.” And he said, “See, that’s our job. We’ve got to make our families comfortable with it. We’re going to have a life, and they need to do know that.”
And then he said, “What’s this industrial work?” He said, “You guys”—and Tom had his leg all wrapped up in an ace bandage kind of thing, so to cover up all the hardware. The thing about the Iraqi veterans, they want the hardware look.
So, you know, they’re not afraid of it. And it’s all stainless steel and a new prosthesis and everything. And it was just a posing of a generational gap.
These two Vietnam veterans, Tom and Nellie, helping these new kids.
RUSSERT: Tom and Nellie Coakley. What a wonderful couple. What a great story.
RUSSERT: We’re going to take a quick a break.
“Boom!” A lot more stories like that, “Voices of the Sixties.”
Tom Brokaw’s new book right after this.
RUSSERT: And we’re back talking to Tom Brokaw. His new book is “Boom!: Voices of the Sixties.”
And you covered the civil rights movement here in America. We know of John Lewis and Martin Luther King, some of the extraordinary names.
Dr. Ruth Simmons. Tell me about her.
BROKAW: She’s now the president of Brown, the first African-American woman to be the president of a major Ivy League institution. She grew up in a very poor family in Houston. Really bright and bookish.
An all-black school. And the teachers, as they often did in those all-black schools who were black teachers, would find one or two and say, let’s save this one. And sent her off to a college in New Orleans, where she became a French major.
And she was very taken with black power. She had a big afro, she says, out to here in those days. She was a contrarian.
She was a Fulbright scholar. She went off to France on a Fulbright scholarship. And she was there on a camping trip when she heard about Dr. King and came back and entered academia and was an early pioneer in African studies programs at a number of institutions. And then worked her way up to the fact that she is now the president of Brown.
She has a very, I think, eloquent description in there about what goes on in the inner city now. And when you say, well, let’s get these kids in schools, she says, stop and think about this for a minute. You have a child in a neighborhood who has a single mother who may be working or may be in trouble of some kind, daddy’s in jail, and we’re asking that child to walk to school every day to get through this neighborhood, to get to school and understand what that means, and then get home at the end of the day, where there may or may not be a meal on the table.
She said this is not just the obligation of the black community. This is an obligation of all of us.
I don’t hear of people talking about, well, the white-haired people have to take care of the white-haired people. And I hear that a lot from the veterans of that time.
There’s—Andy Young says Dr. King would be amazed at how much progress has been made, especially in the financial area in terms of the black middle class and the upper middle class. But he would be greatly dismayed about what’s going on in the lower end of the black culture and the black neighborhoods. Bill Cosby has talked about that, about the need to break that cycle.
Too many drugs. Too many males in jail. Too many kids in the inner city who happen to be African-American who disdain the idea of education. They think the way out is become a hip-hop star of some kind.
And that’s the real challenge for the members of that generation who are now, you know, in their ‘60s and early ‘70s saying, we didn’t work that hard at that time and take as many risks as we did to have it squandered in this fashion. But it’s the obligation of everybody to go to work on this.
RUSSERT: It is extraordinary, Tom, when you read this, “Boom,” that teenagers today I think would have a very hard time realizing that their parents, when they were teenagers, lived in a country where blacks could not vote, could not get a meal at a counter, couldn’t ride on the same bus, couldn’t drink at the same fountain. That’s 40 years ago. It’s recent history.
BROKAW: Yes. Yes. No, it’s—it goes on.
I was talking to a friend of mine recently who took a black friend of his home to South Dakota for Thanksgiving weekend. It caused a real stir in the hometown because it just wasn’t done. And that was in Yankton, South Dakota. Now think about what it was like in the South with separate water fountains and the conditioning that was required.
John Lewis talks about his parents saying don’t get in the way. And then he decided to get in the way, as he put it.
And the parents were really worried about personal safety. The kids could just disappear, or they could be thrown in jail to the slightest or even the most imagined provocation of some kind.
RUSSERT: John Lewis got in the way of the clubs, the fire hoses and the dogs.
BROKAW: Yes. He was—he was arrested more than anybody at Fisk University in Nashville. And then he was in this—you know, in the front ranks of the Selma march. He was beaten up there.
I knew him in those days. Julian Bond and John Lewis were my age. I was living in Atlanta in 1965, and it was for me an enduring lesson.
These two young, exactly my age—these two young men exactly my age, and the courage that they showed, and the constraints on their life that I didn’t have—I had been hired by the Atlanta television station from Omaha, Nebraska, to be their 11:00 newscaster. And a big cosmopolitan city.
We didn’t have any black employees at the station who were on the year. And yet, this was a really progressive television station by the times of the day. And a very enlightened city, relatively speaking in the context of the times.
RUSSERT: Does racial divide still exist?
BROKAW: Of course it does, Tim. We go through it all the time. You know, I use Don Imus as an example about we don’t have language anymore.
We don’t—I think that we were—we had more common language about dealing with race in those days than we do now. I think people are afraid to take it on. I think even among friends are afraid to have real candid conversations about race. You’re afraid of being called a racist. Or, you know, if you’re on the other side of the racial equation, you have a hard time defending the hip-hop language, and so you don’t want to go there.
I think we have to work harder at it. I really—I really think it will be one of the defining issues of our time, is how we emerge from this in terms of race.
RUSSERT: We’re going to take another quick break and come back and talk to Tom Brokaw about “Boom!: Voices of the Sixties,” personal reflections on the ‘60s and today, right after this.
RUSSERT: We’re back.
Tom Brokaw, his new book is “Boom!”
We can’t talk about the ‘60s without talking about music. You did. You talked to James Taylor, Paul Simon, Judy Collins, Arlo Guthrie, Joan Baez, Don McLean—“American Pie”—Kris Kristofferson.
Music defined that generation.
BROKAW: It’s probably the consensus enduring legacy of the ‘60s. However you feel politically or culturally or otherwise, people say, God, the music was great. And I think there were two or three seminal developments in the music.
As Paul Simon says, “We went from the piano to the guitar because of Bob Dylan and the Beatles.” And as Judy says, “It was really interesting. People wanted to hear the stories of our lives, and those were the stories that we were telling in our songs.” And those twin pillars of that music have endured.
These artists are still very popular. They fill up concert arenas around the country. And yet, it was 40 years ago.
And I said to one of them recently, gosh, in 1968, if you had gone back 40 years, where would you have been? And they did the quick calculation and said, “Oh my God. It would have been 1928.”
And I said, “Can you imagine an artist popular in 1928 still being popular in 1968? That’s a great tribute to you.”
RUSSERT: Some of them are very candid, Tom, about drugs.
RUSSERT: That they really do regret having flaunted and encouraged drug use.
BROKAW: Yes. And it’s a mixed picture.
James Taylor said, you know, “It was my own fault. I was self-destructive. On the other hand,” he said, “I do understand in some cases drugs became a form of an awakening for them.”
But Judy Collins had, you know, a difficult time with drugs. Said, you know, these artists would show up to a recording late and they were shot up with heroin. And you think of all the people who died of drugs or alcohol abuse, the Janis Joplins of the world and...
RUSSERT: Jimi Hendrix.
BROKAW: Jimi Hendrix.
RUSSERT: Jim Morrison. It just goes on.
BROKAW: Jim Morrison. It goes on and it’s a long list.
It was a big part of the time. And it wasn’t casual or recreational. It left behind a drug culture. And just like race, I don’t think we’ve done a very good job of dealing with that candidly.
But mostly these artists remember the joyful times, about how people would respond to their music. And, you know, your son Luke, what does he call it, geezer rock?
RUSSERT: And he’s now fully embraced it.
BROKAW: Right. Because, you know, the songs are still great.
RUSSERT: We go to—the families that go to concerts together sticks together. We go to concerts together.
BROKAW: I know. I went to a James Taylor concert recently and there was a man in front of me, honest to God, in a metal walker. And he had his children with him and his grandchildren.
RUSSERT: Kris Kristofferson, I had no idea...
RUSSERT: ... there’s a photograph of him in a military uniform.
BROKAW: Oh, he was an Army Ranger. And he almost ended up at West Point as an instructor.
Kris Kristofferson has always intrigued me. He was a Golden Gloves boxing champion in California. He was a Rhodes scholar.
He was an Army brat. He was a Ranger.
In 1968, at the beginning of that year, he was asking his buddies whether he should fly or go to Vietnam or not. And they said, no, this is more screwed up than Korea. Don’t do that.
So he was flying helicopters to oil drilling platforms in the Gulf of Mexico while living in Nashville trying to get started. And then, through a series of events, the withdrawal of Lyndon Johnson, reservations that he had about the Warren Commission on the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and all of it that was going on, as he puts it, “I did a 180.” And by the end of that year he was the Kris Kristofferson we know now.
In 1970, ‘71 -- 1970, I think—I saw him at the Troubadour in Los Angeles with Rita Coolidge. And I said to him, “You were one seriously screwed up guy that night.”
It was a riveting performance, but he came out, he was waving a bottle of Jack Daniels around, long hair and a beard. And it was—you know, it was the Kris Kristofferson that we’ve all come to know and love, whose great lyrics and those great songs—“Me and Bobby McGee” and “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down.” He lived his life out as a country western outlaw.
RUSSERT: That’s what you capture in “Boom!” People living their lives. And now they’re talking about it.
What’s, in your mind, the most lasting legacy of the “Boom!”? Of that generation?
BROKAW: I suppose that we—that you can lead the live that you want to lead, that you can be unconventional across the political spectrum. You can make these choices, that society is not just making them for you.
When I was coming of age, there was this unspoken expectation that I would get in line and that I would stay in line in a linear, vertical way and work my way up. And I would reflect absolutely the values of my parents’ generation. Now, I happen to believe in a lot of those values, but I also was going to take a few more chances than they were because I had the opportunities to do that.
So I think the lasting legacy of the ‘60s is that you can be different, you can take an unconventional approach. Sometimes the pendulum swings too far.
There was a line that came out of the ‘60s that “The personal is political.” I think it’s made this country divided up into very narrow personal interests. And they use that as a litmus test by which they measure everything else. And we need to get back to finding common ground and common approaches.
RUSSERT: Your friend Tom McLean (ph) has a view that—a little ego in there—that the boomers are the last generation where the parents will be cooler than the kids.
BROKAW: Yes. That’s right.
BROKER: I think there’s something to that. I do think that the boomers—and I was someone slightly older, but I obviously cash in on it—I think we were the luckiest generation. I think, you know, you think about the opportunities we had and the—you could buy a house for under $1 million if you were a boomer coming up.
You could—gas cost 25 cents a gallon. There were jobs for everyone. And it was a different time.
RUSSERT: And we stood on the soldiers of the greatest generation.
BROKAW: We did. And they made it possible for us.
RUSSERT: Tom Brokaw, you’ve done it again—“Boom!: Voices of the Sixties.”
Great to see you. Great to talk to you.
BROKAW: Thanks, Tim.
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