He has become the most visible target of anthrax, the television star who dropped his reserved anchor mask and told the world how angry he is over the attack.
"It's the ultimate nightmare," Tom Brokaw says.
From "NBC Nightly News" to "Dateline" to "Today," the 61-year-old journalist has been venting about the tainted letter addressed to him, giving a face and voice to a danger that has afflicted mostly anonymous staffers. After nearly two decades of visiting the country's living rooms, Brokaw even overshadows his fellow South Dakotan, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, whose office received an anthrax-laden letter with similar handwriting.
"Brokaw has always been the Jimmy Stewart anchor, the straight-up, down-home, plain-spoken Midwesterner," says Robert Lichter, president of the Center for Media and Public Affairs. "An attack on Tom Brokaw seems like an attack on America."
He had already tapped the country's patriotic spirit with "The Greatest Generation," Brokaw's monster bestseller about the men and women who won World War II. Now he's been drafted in a very different kind of war.
The dilemma facing Brokaw -- and to a lesser extent ABC's Peter Jennings, who had to report on the anthrax infection of a "World News Tonight" producer's 7-month-old baby -- is how far to go in personalizing the story. The perpetrator obviously wanted to reap a publicity bonanza by targeting Brokaw, along with other media and political figures, and to a large extent succeeded.
Brokaw generally projects an image of cool detachment. That abruptly changed with the Friday announcement that his longtime assistant, Erin O'Connor, 38, contracted anthrax from the letter mailed to 30 Rockefeller Center.
Tim Russert, NBC's Washington bureau chief, recalls talking to Brokaw about the situation: "We're very used to, very comfortable with, covering news, covering wars, covering plane crashes. We're the media. We're immune from it. Suddenly -- boom! -- on our doorstep.
"As an anchorman, he has to do it in a fair and objective way, but as you saw on Friday, there was raw emotion. Knowing Tom, I know how deeply and awful he feels that a letter destined for him was opened by Erin."
Brokaw, who has declined all print interviews, was visibly shaken when he began speaking out on NBC. "This is so unfair and so outrageous and so maddening, it's beyond my ability to express it in socially acceptable terms," he told viewers Friday.
Brokaw wrote those remarks in his office, a few feet from O'Connor's desk, less than half an hour before air time, says Steve Capus, executive producer of "NBC Nightly News."
"That was from the heart and mind of Tom," he says. "It was awfully powerful. It summarized what a lot of us felt. All of us were really struck by the power of his words."
Some officials at other networks say privately that Brokaw may be overdoing it in terms of making himself the story. But Dan Rather, who's been in touch with the NBC anchor, says he understands Brokaw's public display of emotion.
"I support him completely, absolutely, without equivocation, and I think viewers understand," the CBS newsman says. "When it's something as close as this is, try as he may, it's impossible for him not to let it show at times.
"I'm struggling. I think we all are," says Rather, who choked back tears during an appearance with David Letterman after the terrorist attacks. "I'm doing the very best I can not to let my emotions show in my reporting. But it's not humanly possible every moment of every day on every story to do that with perfection."
Some NBC staffers say Brokaw has shrewdly deflected attention to the larger issue. In a "Dateline" sit-down with Stone Phillips, Brokaw said: "I'm mostly very angry. Look, the people I work with are very professional. They're dealing with this in a mature way. . . . Our employee's going to make a full recovery. There are a lot of people who are hurting in this city and in this country, and we think about them all the time as well."
But, he added, "there's going to be a psychological scarring, let's be honest about that. This is -- this is tough."
Brokaw, who has taken antibiotics along with his staff, closed his broadcast Monday by declaring, "In Cipro we trust."
Off camera, colleagues say, Brokaw has taken on the role of reporter, using his clout to call health, law enforcement and military officials and sharing the information with a worried staff.
"I think he's done extraordinarily well under the circumstances," Russert says. "He's rallied the troops. He's kept everyone focused." But it's hard to cover the story dispassionately "because you cannot utter the words 'anthrax' and 'NBC' and not see Erin O'Connor in front of you."
Brokaw was still talking about O'Connor's plight yesterday, complaining about delays in the response by authorities after the network alerted them to the suspicious letter.
"Thank God she and her husband understood the gravity of what they were dealing with," he said on "Today." "They always believed it was anthrax. The FBI tried to wave them off. They had public health officials trying to wave them off. That misled us in turn."
Each day seems to bring a new round of victims, from the 31 Daschle staffers who tested positive to those exposed while working for New York Gov. George Pataki. But never has a network anchor been more identified with an attack on the country.
"At times of crisis," Lichter says, "television's role is less to provide information than to provide emotional bonding. Brokaw projects the emotions of one who feels the reality of terrorism most directly."