How choice the view from the catbird seat. How kicky to be courted by three TV networks at once. How sublime to wind up the highest paid newsman in all, all, all of Television Land.
Tom Brokaw, 41, leans forward in his chair and stops tapping the desk with a pencil. "I will spend," he says in his arid baritone, "even with the guarantees in my contract, the next seven years looking over my shoulder, wondering when somebody's gonna pull the rug out, when somebody's gonna turn off the switch on this magic dream that I'm having, in terms of the wealth that is there."
The wealth that is there has been placed in published reports as high as $2 million a year, a golden carrot handed Brokaw for staying with NBC, where he has hosted the "Today" show since 1976, and for teaming up with Roger Mudd to aim at becoming the Roger Mudd to aim at becoming the Huntley and Brinkley of the '80s and revive "NBC Nightly News" starting next spring. Brokaw will not confirm a figure -- "I'll take any one that has been printed" -- but at the very least, his salary alone, without additional benefits and income, is $1.2 million per.
Why, that's more than Dan Rather makes!"
"I never expected this kind of material wealth to come my way as a result of getting into this business," says Brokaw, leaning back in his chair now, looking, in his shirt sleeves and with his hands behind his head, like a motion picture idea of an ambitious young politico, which he is. "That's just not why I got into it. It was not the top priority in the course of this negotiation. It came along with the deal.
"Look, I started out making $100 a week at a TV station in Omaha when I was first married. And my dad -- well, I don't want to tell how much he makes, I told him I would never do that -- but my dad was a hard-hat, blue-collar worker who carried a lunch bucket every day until he retired a year ago. I'm at a stage in my life where I don't think I can be corrupted by money."
Perhaps very few people in any field reach that stage in life, but is they want to, it helps to work in television. Brokaw, who says he won't even tell his own father how much he signed for, isn't naive enough to pretend that his boyish good looks and cute button nose didn't have something to do with his ascent into the superstar constellations, but as he sits and talks about himself and NBC News, he's certainly deadly serious. And he is highly regarded by peers and competitors as an earnest, diligent and virtually inexhaustible reporter.
His personality seems a curious combination of callowness and pompousness; there is about him and off-putting yet respect-commanding air of straight-As and first-string varsity and debating club. Like Rather -- against whom he briefly competed as White House correspondent and whom he hopes to blow away in the nightly news ratings next year -- Brokaw wears his heartland on his sleeve, waxing wistful about his midwestern roots and the earthiness of his early years.
Say, maybe he should even write a book about all this, like Rather's. "No," Brokaw says quickly to that, "Not like Rather's."
He grew up in little ol' Yankton, S.D., just about 40 miles, he reckons, from where Johnny Carson grew up, in Norfolk, Neb. It makes a television kind of sense: America's joke-teller and America's newsgiver being soil mates from the same crossroads of the melting pot -- and then years later sitting next to each other at Wimbledon. It's so perfect it hurts.
"I tell you something," says Brokaw, on the subject of perfection, his . "People write these wonderful things about me. Well, I'm a klutz like everybody else. I am ! I lose things, forget things, make bad judgments about stuff, am sometimes uncertain about what I'm going to do. An I read all these accounts and I just can't believe that it's me, 'cause I don't feel that much in control all the time. I really don't. I just don't . My children could tell you about all my bad habits. I can't sing. I'm flat-footed. I'm not very fast-running. I've played tennis for seven or eight years and I'm still not very good at it. There are lots of things, lots of things!
"I work hard at whatever I do -- that much I'll give me.
"But I ain't a poifect person." A Newsman of Standards
The competition in network news is hot, it's heavy, and don't let them tell you it doesn't all eventually boil down to personalities and their chemistries. ABC and NBC thing that with the departure of Walter Cronkite, the chance has arisen to move in and grab the top spot. The ratings of the evening newscasts are traditionally the barometers networks use to decide who's the fairest in the land.
Yesterday ABC News announced with its usual blast of trumpets that last week, for the first time during a "typical or non-event week," ABC took first place in the nightly news ratings, toppling CBS to second, and with NBC, as it has most often been since April, in third. "It's certainly not a trend, and it's not the first time it's ever happened," scoffed a CBS News spokesman.
From Ottaw, where he anchored the news at the site of the economic summit, Dan Rather was similarly unimpressed. Last week was his 19th as anchor of the CBS Evening News; "if we're 18 and 1, I'll take that any day," Rather said. "For 18 weeks we took them, and they weren't putting out press releases." He denied current rumors that CBS News is revamping everything from the set to Rather's own makeup in its scramble to hold onto its longtime vigil in first place, although a change in the set has been "under consideration" for some time.
Rather chuckled at the idea that Brokaw and Mudd will be the Huntley-Brinkley of the '80s. "I'm supposed to be the Ed Murrow of the '80s," he said. "It appears the '80s are going to be overburdened with talent."
Brokaw says he doesn't know -- no one really knows -- if the chemistry between him and Mudd will be right on the air, and intoxicating enough to knock Rather off the mountaintop. "You know what worries me?" he says. "It looks terrific on paper. Too many people are saying it's going to be dynamite. But that's not the test of it. The test of it's when we get on the air."
He claims to be personally fond of the irascible, mavericky Mudd. "You know what I like about Roger? Somebody described him as 'mischievous.' I'm not sure that's the word, but he's nobody's fool. And after all these years in Washington, and living at the top of his profession, he's never been one who's played the game of all of that.
"And if he's cantankerous, most instances of that have been for the right reason. He's been cantankerous because things weren't done right, or because he was expected to do something that he ought not to have been asked to do."
But it's been speculated that it will take a heap of self-effacement for Mudd not to resent the younger, richer, prettier Brokaw, especially since Mudd stomped away from CBS News after being passed over for Rather as Cronkite's successor. "We're grown-ups," says Brokaw. "We have a common interest which is to succeed not just as individuals because that would be impossible without succeeding as a team. I'm not here to lord over Roger. He's not down there to dictate to me. I think that we'll work it out along the way.
"I really do."
Still, the courtship of Tom Brokaw by three TV networks has to have set his head spinning at least a little. For weeks stories floated out of New York of ABC News president Roone Arledge and CBS News president William Leonard showering Brokaw with temptations. "I knew obviously that I was in a great position. People kept saying, 'Isn't it wonderful?' Sure it was wonderful. It was a kind of agony-and-ecstasy, though."
It wasn't a matter of getting each network to top the other guy's offer and throw in more fabulous prizes, Brokaw insists. "It goes on in a far more conceptual way than that. And most of it's initiated by what the other side figures that they can do to top you. I mean, I played my cards pretty close and they'd look me in the eye and say, 'What if we offered so-and-so?' It does kind of escalate."
Brokaw has high praise for Arledge: "I think he gets worse press than he deserves. What is appealing about him is that he has an enormous amount of energy and you know he has a lot of authority at ABC and he can do what he says that he can do in most instances. Plus the fact that he's a charming man, he just is."
But just how did Brokaw get in the position of America's most desirable newscaster? By being personable and easy-to-take on the air during the delicate early hours of the day, for one thing; by playing cards not only close but shrewdly (his agent is Mr. Sheer Energy himself, Ed "The Hook" Hookstratten). And he also earned a reputation as a man with standards; the first time he was offered the job of "Today" show host, he turned it down because NBCwould not accede to his demand that he not do commericals. Eventually, he won on that point, and the show was his.
Some things about the "Today" show Brokaw will not miss. He confesses he has been "uncomfortable" with the show more than once since it was speeded up and jazzed up to meet the competition of ABC's "Good Morning America."
"There are things I do here that I'm not crazy about," Brokaw says. "Recently I had to interview one of the performers from 'Dallas.' It was just something that when I finished, I said to myself, 'Why'd I have to go through this?' Charlene Tilton, or Tiden, one or the other -- I've tried to put her name out of my mind. Tilton . I didn't know who she was, which is a terrible confession. She was really well-meaning and enthusiastic, but my level of interest was not real high."
Careful viewers of "Today" may have noticed that never once has Brokaw done the studio intro for gossipmonger Rona Barrett out of Hollywood. This is "by informal agreement," Brokaw says. Beneath his dignity. Brokaw also recalls that when "GMA" first gave "Today" a serious challenge, "people began to panic around here" and started advocating "things that I was not willing to do," though he won't say what any of them were.
Brokaw also will not miss the rumors, which have persisted through several years and layers of NBC denial, that he and porcelain-doll Jane Pauley, co-host on the program, never got along off camera (and occasionally made persnickety remarks to one another on camera). "I'm fairly businesslike in what I do and I think some people have interpreted my on-the-air demeanor as being anti-Jane," Brokaw says. "It's not been that. You do two hours of live television and live in front of people every morning like that and it's very hard to look like you're chirpy and delighted and someone's best friend.
"Jane and I have a very, very good relationship and we have had from Day One. There have been some moments of difficulty but my God, I can't imagine other people going through the same circumstances and not having the same type of thing. The best of friends are going to have flare-ups."
Brokaw and Pauley and the rest of the "Today" crew are on their way to London for coverage of the royal wedding. Brokaw speaks like a true TV journalist when he says he welcomes rather than fears the possibility of turbulence in the streets. "I think it's going to make it a far better assignment for all of us," he says. "I don't wish ill to the British people, and I certainly don't want them to burn down towns for our sake. But there has been a lot of ferment there for some time and it just happens to be breaking out now."
Some guys have all the luck. The Common Touch
On a wall of Tom Brokaw's office is a photo he took of a tombstone marking the grave of "Christian Sunrise," a Sioux buried on Sunrise Hill near where young Tommy Brokaw used to go fishing in the Missouri River. Brokaw says a part of him has never left South Dakota and that when he goes back there in his jeans, people look at him to see if he has changed, and nosir, he hasn't, not even with $2 million a year in the kitty.
"I've made more money in the past five years than I thought possible, but it hasn't really changed the way I live that much. My interests are still the same. I don't go to the south of France and rent a yacht. I go backpacking in Montana."
All this money and power won't detach him permanently from the mainstream where he was spawned, Brokaw says. "I still go see my parents in South Dakota, and my brother's a hardhat worker for the telephone company, and I stay in touch with his life. Because I'm interested and I love him and also because it keeps reminding me of what else is going on. I don't intend to hole up in some New York ivory tower and not ever come into touch with how most of this country lives."
He's beginning to sound like the Jerry Brown of anchormen. "Oh, Jesus!"
Brokaw exclaims at that suggestion. Surely he's going to splash some of that money around. "I've always wanted a Porche," he says guiltily, "and I'm not going to buy one. I still shop at sales. I still look for good deals on things. I still wince at checks in restaurants.
"I got a couple more pair of cowboy boots now than I might have had five years ago. Never paid more than $120 for a pair of them, though, I never have bought $500 cowboy boots or anything like that. I just can't do it." This comes from his upbringing, the fact that his parents "grew up in the middle of the Dust Bowl" and he went to journalism school partly on the urging of his mother, who had always wanted to pursue that career herself but who had "not a dime" for college when she graduated from high school at 16 and got a job as a waitress.
"In those small-town midwestern values, they don't believe in being excessive in terms of consumption for the most part. And you don't escape that." What worries him is how the money and fame may affect his children -- three daughters aged 15, 13 and 11. "I don't want this job to be a risk to their lives, dammit, and I really feel strongly about that." Duncan the Durable
CBS News is the prestigious industry leader. ABC News is the electric, pizazzy young upstart. NBC News is languishing now, and without a strong identity. Even Brokaw, who turned down glorious offers in order to stay at the network, concedes the roof is leaking and the plumbing makes noise.
"We have stumbled on a couple of major stories this year, there's no question about that. The Reagan shooting was one of them; there's just no question about that. And the pope, in the first afternoon. On the other hand, the 'Today' program is part of the NBC News organization, and in both those stories, by the next morning we put on a superior product compared to the other two.
"I don't think we're all that far behind," Brokaw says. "'Nightly News' is a vastly improved product over what it was two years ago. This is not a place in which the foundation has been knocked out from under. All the elements are here. All it needs is a kind of commitment, and patience, and a higher level of energy."
Yes, all it needs, all NBC News really truly needs, is -- Duncan, THE WONDER HORSE !! That happens to be the nickname "Today" executive producer and longtime Borkaw pal Steve Friedman gave Brokaw after his whirlwind performance during the election year. Brokaw would finish "Today" on a Friday, jet off to a primary state for the weekend, and be back on the "Today" set Monday morning.
Asked if he is priming himself to be combative and competitive for the battle with Rather, Brokaw says, "I don't have to prime myself up. I'm always combative and competitive." And, sounding as much like the high-charged Rather as Rather does, Brokaw declares, "Whether it's CBS or ABC or whoever else is around, I want to be on top."
Duncan the Wonder Horse says some of his drive may be chronic workaholism, but actually, well, he's just kind of high on life. "Mostly what I am is durable. It's real hard to wear me down and I'll work real hard at almost anything.They asked me last year, 'How can you do all that?' I said, 'It's the ultimate manifestation of my ego. I want to be on the air all the time. That's what drives me." He laughs a contented laugh.
"The other thing is, corny as this sounds, I can't believe that life has been this good. And I don't want to miss anything. Having grown up in a small town in the middle of South Dakota, I just didn't know that all this would be possible in my life."
A photographer has been taking Brokaw's picture through much of this reverie. He is asked if the picture-taking bothers him. For a moment at last he seems truly to relax. "It doesn't bother me," Brokaw says. "I'm on television!"