It's not every night you can sit at home and watch Peter Jennings on ABC as he watches Tom Brokaw on NBC. But this was not a night like all nights.
"Well, the time is here," Brokaw said ominously last night as he began the farewell remarks that ended his nearly 23-year reign as anchor of "NBC Nightly News."
"We've been through a lot together," Brokaw said chummily to viewers, "through dark days and nights, and seasons of hope and joy." Early in his remarks he paid tribute to the NBC News staff members who toil behind the scenes as well as in front of the cameras, "in places of grave danger and personal hardship. And they're family to me."
Seldom one to let his emotions show through a stoical exterior on the air, Brokaw had become teary-eyed during one of the "Today" show's umpteen tributes to him that have been airing daily for what seems like weeks, or maybe months. Brokaw also took two hours of prime time to reminisce about the world and his place in it since donning the anchor's cape.
Brokaw's exit is indeed significant, though probably not for any of the reasons fawning and toadying NBC personalities have stated.
With Dan Rather, anchor of "The CBS Evening News," set to follow Brokaw out the door next spring, abdicating a job he once said was the most important at any network, the whole idea of the anchor as a network's top gun and flag-bearer is looking shaky and frail, and perhaps irrelevant. Jennings will be the only veteran in an anchor chair after Rather leaves, and instead of the earth shuddering at that prospect, there's a disheartening aura of "so what?"
Sources of news have gone through a population explosion since Brokaw plunked himself down in the anchor chair those roughly two decades ago, and though the broadcast networks' evening news shows still draw large audiences and make big profits, the days when they could stomp and swagger and make people of power cower seem to be irreversibly over.
Brokaw, who has been making a reported $7 million a year in the job (vs. $7 million for Rather and an estimated $10 million for Jennings), went out on a personal note, talking about what years of anchordom had meant to him.
"What have I learned here? More than we have time to recount this evening," he said. "But the enduring lessons through the decades are these: It's not the questions that get us in trouble, it's the answers. And, just as important, no one person has all the answers." Brokaw then launched into another plug for "The Greatest Generation," not so much the best-selling book by that title, which he wrote to considerable acclaim, as to the generation itself and the qualities he thinks it symbolizes.
Among the attributes of the generation that survived the Great Depression and won World War II was that "they did not give up on the idea that we're all in this together," Brokaw said. "We still are, and it is in that spirit that I say thanks for all that I have learned from you. That's been my richest reward."
His still somehow boyish baritone quivered slightly at that point. "That's 'Nightly News' for this Wednesday night. I'm Tom Brokaw. You'll see Brian Williams here tomorrow night. And I'll see you along the way." The camera stayed on Brokaw as the studio lights dimmed and he turned into a stately silhouette.
Williams, who has been groomed very publicly for Brokaw's job and will take over tonight, contributed a moving report to Brokaw's last broadcast — a visit to Ward 57 of Walter Reed Army Medical Center, where men and women severely injured in Iraq are put back together again. One young man, a doctor, talked about how he was able to apply a tourniquet to one of his own badly injured legs, though the other was later amputated.
Closing the report, Williams said, "And with that — one last time, Tom: Back to you." Brokaw, smiling, told Williams, "Don't go far, because we have plans for you."
Over on ABC, anchor Jennings said he was watching Brokaw's swan song out of the corner of one eye. "Yes, we all keep an eye on one another," Jennings said. "Friends we are, but compete we do."
Jennings said he had spoken to Brokaw on the telephone that morning and listed among his virtues, "Tom has demonstrated time and time again that he does not favor power" even though he has rubbed elbows with a lot of powerful people.
"The business has changed a lot on our watch, and it will continue to do so," Jennings said, "but Brokaw sure earned his place. And now the sign on his door will say, 'Gone Fishin'.' Not bad."
On CBS, Rather also saluted Brokaw for his years of devotion to the craft and responsibilities of broadcast journalism. "For more than 30 years, I have known Tom as friend and competitor who has earned the respect of his audience and his colleagues, myself included. Good night, Tom."
Then Rather acknowledged a coming-in as well as a going-out: "And to my young friend Brian Williams, welcome to the neighborhood."
It's a neighborhood that, as Jennings acknowledged, is changing — maybe soon to the point where Edward R. Murrow and David Brinkley and other members of TV's "Greatest Generation" may barely recognize it anymore. Brokaw was saying goodbye to more than a job last night.