“It turned out to be a hell of a book title.”
Tom Brokaw, former NBC News anchor and productive author, was talking, with his usual modesty, about The Greatest Generation.
It is the title of his 1998 best-selling book and the identification of the Americans who, after serving in World War II, came home to lead our country through an era of progress and prosperity.
Last week, 16 years after the book’s publication, Brokaw talked about it with author Roger Rosenblatt at Chautauqua Institution in New York State, where I was on vacation.
In his book, Brokaw explained how his passion for this generation developed.
“In the spring of 1984, I went to the northwest of France, to Normandy, to prepare an NBC documentary on the fortieth anniversary of D-Day. There, I underwent a life-changing experience. As I walked the beaches with the American veterans who had returned for this anniversary, men in their sixties and seventies, and listened to their stories, I was deeply moved and profoundly grateful for all they had done. Ten years later, I returned to Normandy for the fiftieth anniversary of the invasion, and by then I had come to understand what this generation of Americans meant to history. It is, I believe, the greatest generation any society has ever produced.”
With the seventieth anniversary of D-Day just past, there are few survivors of the Greatest Generation. Those still with us are pushing into their nineties.
Brokaw is fighting a life-threatening illness. At 74, he is older than most of the veterans he met on the Normandy beaches in 1984 and whom he characterized then as reaching the twilight of their years. So, as the Greatest Generation passes on and Brokaw reaches his own twilight time of life, his reflections take on a somber poignancy.
Brokaw holds to his book’s classic description of the World War II vets: “A grateful nation made it possible for more of them to attend college than any society had ever educated, anywhere. They gave the world new science, literature, art, industry, and economic strength unparalleled in the long curve of history.”
Even more moving for me were his words last week about his father who, like other members of the Greatest Generation, also fought poverty and the challenges of the Great Depression. His father grew up in hardscrabble circumstances, “essentially turned out when he was 10 years old.” Although he had a learning disability, he could fix engines and he worked hard.
Brokaw used a story about legendary right-wing radio broadcaster Paul Harvey to describe his father’s place in the Greatest Generation and Brokaw’s heart.
His father was a Paul Harvey fan and would sometimes send Brokaw into a rage by suggesting Harvey would be a good role model.
At his father’s funeral, when friends were telling him about how he had fixed their cars and been such a presence in their lives, one of them said he had been listening to Paul Harvey.
Brokaw was dismissive until he heard what Harvey said. “Take a moment and remember Anthony ‘Red’ Brokaw being buried today in South Dakota, a longtime construction worker, a master of heavy machinery, and his son Tom will begin ‘Nightly News’ next week, but how proud his dad must have been that his working-class life would produce someone like Tom Brokaw.”
Brokaw did not know Paul Harvey but called to ask, “What motivated you?”
Harvey replied, “I saw it on the broadcast wire and I just thought about his life growing up in the depression, during the war a construction worker, and then you have the success that you had and you know that is the American dream, and your dad deserved a lot of the credit.”
Brokaw then told Harvey, “If you ever need anything in life, Mr. Harvey, you call me.”