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EXTRA! Tom Brokaw

Sunday Morning / Jane Pauley
The Truth Network Radio
November 17, 2019 12:17 pm

EXTRA! Tom Brokaw

Sunday Morning / Jane Pauley

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November 17, 2019 12:17 pm

An extended version of Jane Pauley’s conversation with her old friend and colleague Tom Brokaw.

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Life is for living. Let's partner for all of it. Learn more at Hi, I'm Jane Pauley, and this is our Sunday Morning Extra, our podcast featuring a memorable story from our most recent show. It's a conversation that offers insights beyond the broadcast. On this episode, I'll catch up with my former colleague and friend, one of America's most trusted voices, Tom Brokaw. I was a 25-year-old rookie when Tom and I first met.

He was at only 35, a seasoned veteran, a White House correspondent during the Nixon administration. We sat side by side at NBC's Today Show. Tom went on to anchor the nightly news, and over all those years, there have been highs and lows. We talked about it all.

Tom Brokaw, you look great. Yeah, people say that to me. I was sick two years ago. When I was diagnosed, and I tried to keep it out of the public eye, I went from having a difficult summer, a difficult spring. I had this terrible backache, and it wouldn't go away. And my friends were saying, what's going on? I had, you know, ice cubes that I was carrying around in my car. And then I got diagnosed at the Mayo Clinic with multiple myeloma.

I barely knew what it was. And then it was a steep roll downhill. This cancer goes right to your bones. It turns out I had a hole in my pelvis. I had four fractures in my spine, and I had another hole right on my waistline.

And they had all kicked in at the same time. And so thank God I got to the Mayo Clinic and just, whatever you got, pump me up, folks. I mean, put needles in me, whatever it takes.

Because I want to get out of this. The diagnosis itself had to have been a blow. Well, it was startling, Jane, because I just didn't see it coming. I kept thinking, they're going to tell me I've got some kind of a parasite, because I would pick those up in Africa when I was traveling. And at the end, the oncologist, he said, you have a cancer. It's called multiple myeloma. You know people who've died from this.

Geraldine Farrow, the woman who ran for vice president died from a Frank Reynolds. This is his opening line to me. And I'm sitting there, and I'm in two kind of worlds. One world is very personal.

The other world is journalistic. I'm thinking, what do I need to know about multiple myeloma? I've never heard of that before. Am I going to die? But I got very cool very quickly. And I said, what does this mean for me? How long? And the guy's next answer was, he said, well, officially five years. But you're in otherwise good health.

I think we can beat that. We want to run some more tests. And we'll go from there. And I later talked to the oncologist. I said, where was your bedside manner? He said, look, it was you.

You're a journalist. And we had to move fast. So I just had to put it out there for you. And I knew you could handle it. And he was right.

I could handle it. But it was very unsettling. And there wasn't any good news. No, and I didn't tell anybody.

They did some more tests that night. I had a very, very hard flight back to Montana. Meredith picked me up at the airport. I had not told her. And I didn't want to tell her. We live on a really wild road. And it was late at night.

I didn't want to tell her on that road. So we got back to the ranch. And I fixed a big drink. And I sat on the side of the bed. And I said, our magic life has made a bad turn. I get emotional. And it was hard because I just didn't know where it was going to go. And Meredith being Meredith just sat and looked at me and said, tell me more.

What do I need to know? And I said, this is about as much as I know at this point. I think I'm going to get through it.

But there's no guarantee. This was how many years ago? It'll be six years this fall.

You have already exceeded that five year. I was a good patient. I took whatever they told me to take.

So that helped. And right away, I came back to Sloan Kettering. And there were choices that you could do stem cells that they would extract from you. And then they would reintroduce them to your system. And you would have to be in isolation for three to five months. And a friend of mine who also had this said, well, at our age, I'm not sure we want to do that because it takes away what life we have.

And they say that you can beat it without doing it. So I conferred with some other people. And they said, you're in otherwise good health.

I think you don't have to do stem cell transplants. And I didn't. It was a risk. But I thought, I'm willing to run the risk.

It's so much saying yes when yes was the right answer and saying no when no was the right answer. Well, the other thing is I was in very gifted hands. I talked to the best people in this field.

And I was willing to take a certain amount of risk because I did feel I had kind of an inherent strength that I could try to get through this. And then they discovered the fractures in my back, like in December. And they went in and fixed those. Went in and fixed those was a very difficult surgery, I'm guessing. Well, it was called kyploplasty.

They go into your spine and they shoot it with a kind of cement to fix the hole in your spine. And when I went in, they didn't tell me the consequences of it. When I went in, I said something to Meredith. And when I came out of this, she looked at me and said, how tall are you? And I said, I'm six feet. She said, you're now 5'8 because of the treatment.

You get compressed like that. And I'm not so much aware of it now, but right away I was because I'd have my picture taken with everybody. I'd be the shortest guy. And I used to be one of the guys who was kind of the right size. When did you decide then to not keep it to yourself, but also instead to broadcast it?

It wasn't my idea. It got out in March. I was diagnosed in late August, early September. And then it was March. It got out. I'm not sure how. I think it might have been leaked by a health care worker of some kind. Anyhow, it was out there. Meredith and I put out a statement saying, we appreciate the attention. This is a family matter. We're doing well with it.

And we'd like to just be allowed to treat it as cancer within our family. The Tom Brokaw I worked with for decades was known and is still known as Duncan. The Wonder Horse. Duncan, the Wonder Horse, because nobody in the industry had your stamina. You were famous for, you know, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Famous for his stamina and robust, good health, climbing mountains, not metaphorically climbing mountains. So now you, two things, forced to maybe slow down. Not maybe. I have slowed down, yeah. But you've still applied that Brokaw, Duncan the Wonder horse-ed-ness to the project of getting the most out of what energy and health you've got and still running slower, but rings around the rest of us still. Well, it's been an adjustment.

There's no question about that. But at the same time, what has always driven me when I knew you and before that and before that was that I grew up in a working class family in South Dakota. And I had big ambitions and big dreams. And then they suddenly started to get fulfilled. And I wanted to take advantage of every one of them at every opportunity. And people would be willing to say, hey, would you like to climb a mountain out?

My friend Yvon Chouinard from Patagonia took me up the Grand Teton on a very difficult route, my first time on rocks. So I thought, yeah, I'm going to try that. I was trying everything. Now I have to dial down. I mean, I can still, I don't ride bikes the same way I can ride them, but I don't ride them at length. I swim a lot more. And I'm also 79. And I think I would have dialed down a little bit anyway at this age.

You definitely are a better looking, a younger looking man than you were just a couple of years ago. That's true. I'm in remission and I've also learned how to live with it, frankly.

That has something to do with it. But I say, you're going to be 80 years old. I was also known as the boy wonder at one point because I was the youngest guy in NBC who had all those big jobs. And I just can't believe it.

But I'm still very, very lucky because of Meredith and the family and the opportunities that I've had, the jobs that I've had, the places that we've been able to go that were the fulfillment of the kid who lived in a working class house in South Dakota. I don't dwell on the fact that I've got this cancer. And I don't think it's going to beat me. I think that people have said to me in the health fields, you know, we think that you'll live a longer life and it won't be multiple while longer. You'll just live with it.

I don't think it's going to beat me. You and Meredith were married in 1962. I was invited to your 50th wedding anniversary, which means you've got a 60th coming up in 2022.

Not a doubt in my mind you're going to make 60th, 60th wedding anniversary. We went to high school in South Dakota and she was all everything. You know, she was brighter than hell and she was a head cheerleader and we had the leads in the play and she was Girls Nation. I was Boys State and all that. But we never dated, frankly.

We were pals. And then when we got together, we were perfect partners for each other because I wanted to have an adventurous life and she was up for it. I mean, she's climbed. She's been on places where I haven't been. She's been in northern Pakistan on glacier treks, for example, and she's been in Bhutan on a trek. She's fearless about it.

And when she decided to take up horseback riding at age 50, she became an expert rider right away. So we were meant for each other in ways that we didn't know at the time. And we often, even now, after all these years, look at each other and the success that we've had and what comes with it. You know, the ability to get your kids through school and have a comfortable life financially and travel.

We look at each other and say, boy, how did that happen? You know, but it's been great. For you to tell a wonderful story, the two of you kids heading off, you get a big new job in Los Angeles.

So you're heading from the Midwest with your young bride and lamenting, you're just too late. All the big stories have been done. No more news.

Seriously. That's how I felt. I remember I was just writing about the Kennedy assassination recently. And I was in Omaha when that happened. And I remember thinking at that time, my God, this doesn't happen, but it'll probably be the last big story of my life. And we got to California.

I was 26 years old. And right away, the world was changing rapidly. Ronald Reagan was running for president.

Vietnam was going full bore. And I got involved in the Reagan campaign as a reporter immediately because a lot of the smart people said, oh, he's not going anywhere. So that was a big break for me.

And I was able to cover him right away. And that was a huge deal when Ronald Reagan got elected governor of California and then later president of the United States. And I was on the air on election night in Los Angeles in the studio reporting back to New York about how he was doing. And I hear this kid, kid.

I turn around. There was two guys standing at the stage door and they said, how's Reagan doing? And I said, oh, he's going to win. And they said, kid, are you sure?

And I said, yes, Mr. Hope and Mr. Crosby, he's going to win. I was in Yankton, South Dakota two days ago. Now I'm telling Bob Hope and Bing Crosby about what's going on.

Then you go to, you know, Washington. And this is back in the days when the network would have had, you know, one White House correspondent, not a, but one White House correspondent and you were Watergate. Yeah, I was, I was White House correspondent. I arrived and Watergate was underway at that point. We didn't know how it was going to turn out.

And we had a great life in California. It was not easy to leave, but I knew this was a big political story. And I knew, I knew a lot of the Nixon team.

I knew Bob Haldeman from California and Ron Ziegler and others. So I was kind of connected. And then I got there. And from the moment that I arrived, all hell started breaking loose. I mean, Agnew had to resign and we had the Saturday Night Massacre and we had the war in the Middle East and all this stuff was just flying out. And I was on the air seven days a week.

I don't think I had a time off of any kind. And then we were on airplanes because Nixon was going to prove he was still the president. So we're going to Russia, we're going to the Middle East, we're going all over America to prove that he's still the president and then keeping track of the very complicated legal situation that was going on. Were they going to be able to impeach him? Could they put together enough evidence for it?

Could he escape that? And it turns out, I asked him the last question that was asked in a press conference because I'd been working on what I thought was the right thing, that he kept saying that he had executive privilege. That was part of the presidential thing. So we started checking with legal scholars and one of them was Alexander Bickel was a very conservative legal scholar. He said, except in cases of impeachment, then you don't have executive privilege.

So I had that question. That was the last question that he took in a news conference. When I raised it with him, I said, the fact is Mr. President, when you say that you are not liable for this, executive privilege has no application in an impeachment proceeding. Aren't you misleading the American public? Ron Ziegler said, oh, you have no right. I said, he's the president. I get to ask him.

I want to ask him. Those were heady days. And I had, there were great colleagues all around me, the old Washington press corps, Peter Wissigore and others who'd been around were generous to me. Dan Rather was there for CBS and he was one tough competitor, obviously. And there were others as well. So it was a real kind of fraternity and sorority of people. Helen Thomas, I had a great friend by the name of Fred Zimmerman who worked for the Wall Street Journal. He was a print guy and a chess master. And I was a broadcaster and I didn't like chess, but we saw the world in the same way.

So we all kind of protected each other. I do not remember television entering our house. It was always there. You on the other hand, must have a very specific memory of when a television first arrived in the Brokaw household. Yeah, we didn't see it until I was 15. I lived in a really remote part of South Dakota and a friend's mother would drive us 75 miles at World Series time to stand in front of a department store and watch the World Series on television.

True story. We drive to Sioux Falls, South Dakota or Sioux City, Iowa. We didn't have television. We had radio. So we get to Yankton, we finally got a television set. And it was for me, Nirvana and the other fortuitous part of it, it was the beginning of Huntly Brinkley.

And that was a whole new form of telling the news. And they became kind of my idols and I watched them. And I made the decision, I remember this vividly, I was kind of, I was not in college, I was in and out. I was hanging around. I was chasing girls and drinking and having a good time. And I wasn't really as focused as I need to be. But on the election night in 1960, I sat down at six o'clock at night to watch the returns.

And as you remember, it was a long night and it was very close. And at eight o'clock in the morning, I went to bed and I thought, that's what I want to do. I want to be a correspondent and cover politics.

I was a political junkie anyway, but that's what I want to do. Could I get there possibly? So in writing this book, I was reminded that I get to California quickly.

I went to Omaha and then I went to Atlanta. And by the time I'm 26, I'm in Los Angeles covering Reagan and a lot of national politics. And Brinkley comes out to do the news. And what was like, God came into the newsroom. And they said, we want you to brief Brinkley on Ronald Reagan, put together a reel and tell him about what's going on.

And she said, okay. So David came in, he was very cordial, but he was David. He talked kind of in clip tones. So he said to me, so how has Reagan changed since he became a candidate? And I said, well, Mr. Brinkley, he used to be seen around town. He'd have a sports jacket and slacks and loafers, but when he became a candidate, they dressed him only in blue suits and with serious ties and with serious shoes. And he said, okay. So that night on, not like Brinkley, David opens up and says, good evening, California, where Ronald Reagan, who used to be seen around town in loafers and slacks, now is appearing only in blue. So I was like, geez, what else did I say to him?

What else did I tell him? But it was Brinkley because that was, you know, that was insight, frankly. I mean, and it made an impression on me about how you, you connect with people by telling them the stuff that is really insightful about the character change or whatever. This is how, how research has done the day, but you Google Tom Brokaw, what comes up is anthrax. Yeah.

That's what comes up. Single most terrifying thing I've ever been through. Tell me. Well, it was right after 9-11 and I had this fantastic secretary and an assistant and Aaron O'Connor, wife of a cop. And she really organized the office and she was very alert to the dangers without bothering me because the community was, you know, on edge. And she was keeping stacks of letters that were coming in that were threatening. And when she said, you should take a look at this one. So I looked at it and it was misspelling and everything.

And by, you know, you're a traitor to your country and all that. And I picked it up and I said, I don't think that. Then she said, I got to tell you, I got a letter yesterday and I emptied it out because it had stuff in it. And we sent it to the police lab and it turns out it was benign, but it really troubled me. And then about four days later, she said, I've got this kind of rash thing.

I don't know what's going on. And her friends came to me and said, you know, that looks a little more serious than we thought. And I went and I said, Erin, because I was so busy on the air and she didn't want to bond.

I said, Erin, what's going on? And she said, I know I got this rash thing. So we sent her to a dermatologist and they said it was a brown reclusive spider bite. That was the diagnosis we got like three times. She said, I haven't been out in the country.

Why would I get a spider bite? Then it spread a little bit and it looked worse. And she came back to work. She was feeling better because we had Cipro, a drug that was dealing with it. She said, I'm feeling a little better.

But her girlfriends went in the bathroom with her and came out and said to me, oh my God, this looks terrible. We had a friend in town who was a great, great exotic disease guy, Kevin Cahill. He's a doctor. He did third world medicine and I'd used him when I'd gone off to Africa and he'd been away. And he knew Erin because she was Erin O'Connor and Kevin.

They have a great Irish connection. So I called him. I said, I've got my assistance, got this thing going on. We don't know what it is.

And I sent her up there. And Kevin said, I can't rule it out. He was the only one that we knew who had ever seen an anthrax scab of some kind. So then we made arrangements to send a sample to the CDC in Atlanta and also to Fort McEtrick in Maryland where they did the secret stuff on that kind of thing. And they said, well, we don't think it's anthrax. And two days later, I got a call at 7 o'clock in the morning from Bernie Kerik, who was the New York police commissioner. And he said, you have a secretary by the name of Erin O'Connor? And I said, don't tell me. He said, yeah, she's got anthrax.

They just made the match. The world changed. I mean, it was just terrifying. It was like a movie of some kind. I called her.

She had a two-year-old, took her a while to have a daughter. And she was terrified. They were in the car on the way to Kevin's to see what treatments they should be getting. And they were in panic with good reason. I was in a panic.

I ran almost all the way to 30 Rock. We had a meeting up on the 50th floor of 30 Rockefeller Plaza with the FBI, the mayor, on the phone, the CDC. What the hell do we do now? We've got a whole building. We've got a whole end. And they said, well, we don't know. We think it's been too long. They didn't have much of a clue. And I went down to our office, and everybody was caught in the headlamps.

I said, anybody who wants to go see their doctor can go right now. We don't know whether this place is hot or not. We think not. But we've got to put on a show tonight. We've got to put on the news tonight.

And we'll see what we have to do. Well, the long and the short of it is that Erin did get treated appropriately. And it was very difficult for her, to put it mildly. And she's been very brave. And her daughter, that daughter is in college now.

And her life is going on. It turns out an intern had emptied the anthrax envelope. And she had spores all down her leg. And we were not aware of that. And then she came and said, you know, I have these things.

And so they had to go to her apartment and clean it out, and then put her in treatment. And we kept everything kind of under the cover on all that. And my camera crews came in, guys like your guys here. And they were reporting for their shift. And they said, no one said anything to us.

What the hell is going on? So we got them Cipro. And then I kept in my desk a bottle of booze. And at the end of the nightly news that night, I walked out. I said, OK, guys, here we are together.

We'll take Cipro and this. So we all kind of bonded over that. And then we got through it. But it was one of the worst experiences of my life, because no one had the answers. And so we got through it. And it was so emotionally traumatic for my secretary and for other people as well. Then I think we gave Cipro to half the population of New York.

If you're walking by 30 Rock, you got some Cipro. Yes, we did. But what was really scary was that the city was so unprepared. They just had no way of dealing with it. Got through it, though. Remember the flyovers.

I mean, the children, grown-ups, all of us. I mean, to this day, I still have those memories. I guess you don't get over that. I don't have a side effect or an effect of cancer. Cancer treatment is fatigue. We began the interview talking about Duncan the Wonder Horse and your famous stamina.

And I still see that. Fatigue is something I can relate to. Fatigue, I don't know if it's easier to roll out the door despite pain, but if you're just tired. Well, for the first time in my life, I have real fatigue, which I sleep more than I ever have before. I took a nap before we sat down here. I went in there. I took a 15-minute nap.

I've now calibrated it in a way that I can go where I need to go. Last weekend, we'd been traveling a lot. We were in North Africa with our grandchildren. Then I was in Normandy and with Paris and London.

And then came home. And it caught up to me, quite honestly. And I'm 79. The other thing is that my system, I think, probably is running down a little bit.

So I just have to measure it a little more carefully about what I do and when I do it. And I have no apologies for taking a nap. I say, look, I'm tired. I'm going to take a nap. And so I do.

And I think it comes with this particular age. On the other hand, I've written a book in the last six months. And I'm in there working on that. And I feel guilty if I don't get out and do something really active with the dogs. And I'm looking forward to a big summer in Montana and trout streams and out on the prairie and with my dogs. So I have nothing to complain about, Jane.

I mean, good God. I've had this great, great life. And I've been married to Meredith. And we have these wonderful children.

And they're really doing well. And we live beyond any expectation that we could have had when we left Yankton on August 17th, 1962. Way beyond.

Way beyond. Thank you, Duncan. You have a great summer. I have a one-minute last thing to say.

Keep the jacket. There's a story. What does that mean, Tom? Our little inside joke about that.

Well, the inside joke is that you and I are on Mike Douglas. And you had a dress. And it was a, it's hard to describe, it seemed to be metallic.

And it was a, what they called a sack dress, I guess, in those days. And it was short in addition to all that. So we did Mike Douglas. And it went very well. And we were walking off.

And I looked at you. And I said, burn the dress. And you never forgot it.

So I want you to know, keep the jacket. I don't remember the dress. I don't remember nothing.

I remember burn the dress. That was, what was, you know, I was so presumptuous of me. But I was, we were in this together. You know, you and I were... Nobody else was going to help me. I know. There we were. We were, I used to say it was like Das Bolt. NBC put us in this raft and set us afloat. And you kind of, okay, do for yourself. The difference was, I was with Tom Brokaw. I know, but it was chaos, frankly, at pro time. No, didn't know. you get your podcasts.
Whisper: medium.en / 2023-01-28 01:27:40 / 2023-01-28 01:39:26 / 12

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