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Tom Brokaw's Boom!: Voices of the Sixties

Journalism icon Tom Brokaw reflects on his Midwestern roots, 1960s gender politics and the death of JFK.
 
 
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The following is an excerpt from Tom Brokaw's latest book, Boom!: Voices of the Sixties, Personal Reflections on the 60s and Today.

In 1962, I had an entry-level reporter's job at an Omaha television station. I had bargained to get a salary of one hundred dollars a week, because I didn't feel I could tell Meredith's doctor father I was making less. Meredith, who had a superior college record, couldn't find any work because, as one personnel director after another told her, "You're a young bride. If we hire you, you'll just get pregnant before long and want maternity leave."

In retrospect, the political and cultural climate in the early Sixties seems both a time of innocence and also like a sultry, still summer day in the Midwest: an unsettling calm before a ferocious storm over Vietnam, which was not yet an American war. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was confronting racism in the South and getting a good deal of exposure on The Huntley-Brinkley Report on NBC and The CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite , the two primary network newscasts, each just fifteen minutes long.

In the fall of 1963, first CBS and then, shortly after, NBC expanded those signature news broadcasts to a half hour. As a sign of the importance of the expansion, Cronkite and Huntley and Brinkley were granted lengthy exclusive interviews with President Kennedy. ABC wouldn't be a player in the news major leagues until the 1970s, when Roone Arledge brought to ABC News the energy and programming approach he had applied to ABC Sports. Kennedy, America's first truly telegenic president, was a master of the medium, fully appreciating its power to reach into the living rooms of America from sea to shining sea.

During our time in Omaha, John F. Kennedy was not a local favorite. The city's deeply conservative culture remained immune to Kennedy's charms and to his arguments for social changes, such as civil rights and the introduction of government-subsidized medical care for the elderly. I'm sure many of my conservative friends at the time thought I was a card short of being a member of the Communist Party because I regularly championed the need for enforced racial equality and Medicare.

One of the most popular speakers to come through Omaha in those days was a familiar figure from my childhood, when kids in small towns on the Great Plains spent Saturday afternoons in movie theaters watching westerns. Ronald Reagan looked just like he did on the big screen. He was kind of a local boy who had made good, starting out as a radio star next door in Iowa and moving on to Hollywood, before becoming a television fixture as host of General Electric Theater.

Reagan's Omaha appearances were part of his arrangement with GE, which allowed him to be an old-fashioned circuit-riding preacher, warning against the evils of big government and Communism, while praising the virtues of big business and the free market. He was every inch a star, impeccably dressed and groomed. But those of us who shared his Midwestern roots were a bit surprised to find that although he was completely cordial, he was not noticeably warm. That part of his personality remained an enigma even to his closest friends and advisers throughout his historically successful political career.

In Omaha the only time he lightened up in my presence was when I noticed he was wearing contact lenses and I asked him about them. He got genuinely excited as he described how they were a new soft model, not like the hard ones that could irritate the eyes. He even wrote down the name of his California optometrist so Meredith could order a pair for herself. (Later, when he became president, I often thought, "He's not only a great politician, he's a helluva contact lens salesman.")

President Kennedy also passed through Omaha, but only for a brief stop at the Strategic Air Command headquarters there. In those days, SAC was an instantly recognized acronym because the bombers it comprised -- some of which we could see because they were always in the air ready to respond in case of an attack -- were a central component of America's Cold War military strategy.

More memorable for me was a visit to SAC by the president's brother Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. The younger Kennedy was a striking contrast to the president, who had been smiling and chatty with the local press and even more impressive in person than on television. Unlike the president, who was always meticulously and elegantly dressed, the attorney general was wearing a rumpled suit, and the collar on his blue button-down shirt was frayed. He was plainly impatient, and his mood did not improve when I asked for a reaction to Alabama governor George Wallace's demand that JFK resign the presidency because of his stance on school desegregation. Bobby fixed those icy blue eyes on me and said, as if I were to blame for the governor's statement, "I have no comment on anything Governor Wallace has to say."

I was on duty in the newsroom a few weeks later when the United Press International wire-service machine began to sound its bulletin bells. I walked over casually and began to read a series of sentences breaking in staccato fashion down the page:

Three shots were fired at president Kennedy's motorcade in downtown Dallas . . . Flash -- Kennedy seriously wounded, perhaps fatally by assassin's bullet ... President John F. Kennedy died at approximately 1:00 pm (CST).

John F. Kennedy, the man I had thought would define the political ideal for the rest of my days, was suddenly gone in the senseless violence of a single moment. In ways we could not have known then, the gunshots in Dealey Plaza triggered a series of historic changes: the quagmire of Vietnam that led to the fall of Lyndon Johnson as president; the death of Robert Kennedy in pursuit of the presidency; and the comeback, presidency, and subsequent disgrace of Richard Nixon.

On that beautiful late autumn November morning, however, my immediate concern was to get this story on the air. I rushed the news onto our noon broadcast, and as I was running back to the newsroom, one of the station's Kennedy haters said, "What's up?"

I responded, "Kennedy's been shot."

He said, "It's about time someone got the son of a bitch."

Given the gauzy shades of popular memory, the invocations of Camelot and JFK as our nation's prince, it may be surprising to younger Americans to know that President Kennedy was not universally beloved.

Now Kennedy was gone, and this man was glad. I lunged toward him, but another co-worker pulled me away.

Copyright © 2007 Tom Brokaw from the book Boom! by Tom Brokaw Published by Random House; November 2007;$28.95US/$34.95CAN; 978-1-4000-6457-1

Tom Brokaw is the author of four bestsellers: The Greatest Generation, The Greatest Generation Speaks, An Album of Memories, and A Long Way from Home. From 1976 to 1981 he anchored Today on NBC. He was the sole anchor and managing editor of NBC Nightly News with Tom Brokaw from 1983 to 2004.