Hey Ma, Top O' the World! Nbc's Tom Brokaw Conquers Fresh Heights in the News Ratings War

updated 04/28/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/28/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

It is two hours before the evening broadcast, and the NBC Nightly Newsroom is rippling with tension. Producers have just learned that ships of the U.S. Sixth Fleet are sailing toward Libya, confirmation has come in that U.S. bombers have left England, and correspondent Steve Delaney is on the phone from the Al-Kabir Hotel in Tripoli. The streets, he reports, are eerily quiet. At 6 p.m. anchorman and managing editor Tom Brokaw walks into a network executive's office. "I smell a raid," he says. Finally, at 7:02, he goes on the air with Delaney reporting from Libya. "Tom," the correspondent says gravely, "Tripoli is under attack." And that is how America first hears the news—three minutes before ABC broadcasts it, 10 minutes before CBS. That is how things have been going of late for NBC and for Brokaw, who earlier this month, for the first time, finished in a dead heat with perennial frontrunner Dan Rather in the battle of the evening news ratings.

Since starting out in TV news 24 years ago, Brokaw, 46, has been pulling himself to the top hand over fist, employing charm, wit and perseverance. But there are other reasons for his sudden rise in the ratings. Certainly the show has benefited from NBC's hot prime-time lineup, and in the past year the network has aggressively promoted Brokaw in an attempt to increase his visibility. But in a contest that often seems to hinge more on personality than substance, Brokaw's boyish looks and crisp manner are obviously winning friends. A 13-year-old boy recently wrote, "Dear Tom, You are opposite Dan Rather. I always watch you. I can't stand Dan Rather. Dan never smiles...."

Brokaw, in fact, smiles often, for he is a man who enjoys his life and his work. In the past year, says NBC Vice-President Timothy Russert, Brokaw's on-camera presence has begun to reflect more of his off-camera ease. Recently, at the end of a piece on Clint Eastwood's election as mayor of Carmel, Calif., a local woman asked NBC correspondent, "When are you TV crews going to get out of here?" On-camera, Brokaw started to laugh and said, "That's a question they're asking all over America." Says Russert: "Tom never would have done that a year ago."

But people who keep watch on these things point out that Brokaw hasn't yet made the biggest emotional leap—crying on the air. Perhaps no anchor has, but Rather's red-rimmed eyes on the day of the shuttle explosion are freeze-framed in the minds of millions of Americans. "I'm fairly emotional off-air," says Brokaw. "On my mother's side I come from very Irish stock, and I had a grandfather who used to weep at the sound of the national anthem. I have that in me. I cry if I see handicapped people, they really tear me up. But I don't think crying is what people want." As for the time he appeared to choke up while reporting the death of Grace Kelly, he insists it was only a piece of popcorn that had lodged in his throat.

Brokaw is paid $1.7 million a year, reflecting a rather comfortable increase since he got his start as the anchor of an early morning news show in Omaha in 1962. The station offered him $90 a week, but he held out for $100. "I was about to get married, and my wife's father was very skeptical about the future of his son-in-law," says Brokaw. "I thought I had to make a statement. Also, I was dead broke. I needed the money."

After two years Brokaw moved to Atlanta, where he worked as the late-night anchor at WSB-TV and covered the civil rights movement. Once, in Americus, Ga., where racial tensions were high, Brokaw became involved in an ugly confrontation. "I had developed a number of sources in the redneck community and thought I had won them over," he says. "Then they read something in the Atlanta Constitution and blamed me. I was unwisely wearing a tie; they got hold of me and led me by my tiptoes across the town square."

In 1966 Brokaw moved on to KNBC in Los Angeles. His coverage of California politics led to his assignment as the network's White House correspondent in 1973. Brokaw's colleagues during those tumultuous Watergate years remember him as a dogged, down-to-earth journalist. "He was a very good reporter," recalls Adam Clymer of the New York Times, who was then covering the White House for the Baltimore Sun. "I remember once I walked back into the NBC booth and complimented Tom on a piece he had done. I made some wisecrack like 'If you suddenly suffer facial disfigurement, I can get you a job at the Sun.' Some producer type immediately upbraided me, saying, 'How dare you talk like that to Brokaw.' And Brokaw said, 'Shut up, that was a compliment.' "

"Most of the network people were tense, constantly running around and worried about getting beat by somebody," says the 77'mes'veteran Washington correspondent John Herbers. "Tom was very low-key." So low-key was he that NBC concluded that he might wear well at 7 a.m. In 1976 Brokaw went to New York to host the to day show, moving his family from leafy northwest D.C. to a Park Avenue duplex. He rose at 4:30 every morning and often worked far into the night. His seemingly endless capacity for work earned him the improbable nickname "Duncan the Wonderhorse" from bemused and slightly envious colleagues.

In 1981, when Brokaw's Today contract expired, both CBS and ABC courted him avidly. NBC wanted to make him the network's evening anchor, but Roger Mudd was contractually guaranteed the job whenever John Chancellor chose to surrender it. Then, in what former NBC News President Bill Small calls "the most generous act in broadcasting history," Mudd agreed to accept Brokaw as his co-anchor. Sixteen months later, when the show's ratings had fallen from second to third place, behind ABC, the network removed Mudd, who is now NBC's senior political correspondent. TV columnists complained that the pretty boy had beaten out the real reporter.

Such accusations are a source of frustration for Brokaw, who feels that a man's face shouldn't be held against him, whether he looks like the Elephant Man or a nightly news anchor. "I can't do anything about this," he says, pointing to a tanned, sculpted cheekbone. "Anyway, I don't think I'm handsome." In fact, Brokaw had set out to be a correspondent, not a news personality, and stays in touch with his reporting roots as much as he can. Last year alone, he covered the summit in Geneva, went to South Africa to do a series on black-white tensions and cut short a vacation in Kenya with his family to fly to Beirut to cover the hijacking of TWA Flight 847.

As a child, Brokaw lived in a series of small towns along the Missouri River, where his father helped build dams for the Army Corps of Engineers. Big, flame-haired Red Brokaw was the moral force in his son's life. "He grew up as the kid everyone thought would go bad," says Tom. Young Red's family owned a rickety hotel called the Brokaw House, near the railroad tracks in Bristol, S.Dak. Then one day a hotel guest named Oscar Johnson bought the place. Red dropped out of school in third grade and went to work for him hauling coal, moving houses and drilling wells. "He lived at the hotel in whatever room was free," says Brokaw. "Sometimes he'd fall asleep at the movie theater and stay there all night."

One evening Red went with a friend to a play at the local high school. Smitten with Jean Conley, who had the lead, he bet his friend that he could get a date with her. "The next night he drove out to her father's farm," says Tom. "He left the lights on in the car and the motor running, knocked on the door and asked her to go to the movies with him." Five years later they were married.

Tom, the oldest of their three sons, was a letterman at Yankton (S.Dak.) High School in football, basketball and track. As a junior he was elected governor of Boys State, a model government sponsored by the American Legion. Then he traveled with South Dakota Gov. Joe Foss to New York, where they appeared on the TV quiz show Two for the Money. Afterward Tom called home and asked if he could stay a few more days in New York. "I think you should," answered Red Brokaw, "because you may never get there again."

There was another side to young Tom Brokaw—a need "to test the limits," he says. The result was a bad-boy bravado that led to his expulsion from the senior class play. But by that time he had met Meredith Auld, a studious high school debater who would later be a Miss South Dakota. They didn't start dating until they got to the University of South Dakota, but once they did, he was a changed man. "Tom has told me he was a ne'er-do-well until he fell in love with Meredith," says CBS correspondent Robert Pierpoint. "Meredith turned him around and made him serious about life."

Brokaw was also deeply affected by an incident in 1970, during a white-water expedition on the middle fork of Idaho's Salmon River. Three companions were in a boat, and Brokaw and others were following in a raft, when the boat overturned, drowning two men. Brokaw and the rest of his comrades struggled to shore and were rescued the next day. "It's still very much on his mind," says Pierpoint. "It had a profound effect on him, watching his friends die. I think when you come that close to death, life means a lot more to you."

Perhaps also it has made him less vulnerable to the perils of success. "A lot of people can't take fame," says his friend, writer Calvin Trillin. "They become weird, or bullies or arrogant. You can tell by the way they treat the people under them. I've known a succession of Tom's secretaries and he's never become that way." The Brokaws' style of entertaining, says Trillin, has always been more homey than elegant. "We've gone there on Christmas Eve, when Tom and Meredith serve oyster stew. There's a lot of family there and people from the show, not what you'd think of as a glitzy crowd."

The marriage, by all accounts, is thriving after nearly 24 years. Meredith is the owner of a small but successful chain of Manhattan toy stores, and most nights, after Tom's broadcast, she and he have dinner together with whichever of their three girls—Jennifer, 20, Andrea, 18, and Sarah, 16—is at home. On weekends they go to their country house in Cornwall, Conn, and take their daughters backpacking or skiing. "Tom's family," says a friend, "is the center of his life."

In some respects, network anchormen are a little like America's first astronauts: they have the right stuff, but not much chance to show it. It doesn't take a treasury of talent, after all, to read a few minutes of news and go to the videotape, and more often than not the machinery of the broadcast is more essential than the interlocutor's skills. Ultimately, the race among Tom, Dan and Peter has less to do with who is the best journalist than with who most effectively commands a sense of authority. Can Tom Brokaw, this boyish man who is four years short of his 50th birthday and one shy of his silver wedding anniversary, inherit the mantle of the revered Uncle Walter? Maybe if he just had a sweater....

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