Tom Brokaw, the 71-year-old former NBC newsman, has recast his brand of journalism as the author of several recent-history chronicles, most notably The Greatest Generation and Boom! In The Time Of Our Lives: A Conversation About America, he addresses the present-day difficulties in his beloved country. As usual, he has his peer group firmly in mind, but he also wants to address the nation’s youngest adults. Comparisons to the way things once were inevitably abound, but without becoming overwhelming.
Written before the Occupy Wall Street protests began, Brokaw’s book wonders aloud how this latest period of upheaval will play out. In short chapters on issues—education reform, the housing crisis, the future of entitlements, the military and public service, “neo-frugality,” and plain old being nice to each other—he outlines the problem, visits with or cites bold thinkers in the field, and gently suggests a few ways we might make improvements. It’s much less advocacy journalism than grandfatherly advice from an avowed non-partisan who nevertheless doesn’t shy from the old lefty notion of “progress.”
Nostalgia is a powerful force for Brokaw. Though he’s down with technology, “no text message,” he writes, “will ever replace the first kiss.” His mother, who grew up during the Depression, once had a favorite toy—“a piece of fence post she christened Maude and carried around as a make-believe friend.”
But he can still think like a younger person, too. Regarding the ideological blowhards for whom cooperation is a dirty word, he’d like to see them “explain their attitudes to a junior high civics class.” He has high praise for PepsiCo’s Indra Krishnamurthy Nooyi, one woman who is helping to break the “old-boy culture” in corporate America. “A company is not an engine for the short term,” he quotes Nooyi. “It is a complex organism, and it does not float free of society, free of long-term obligations.”
Time Of Our Lives is a survey, not a manifesto. It feels a bit too much like the patriarchal rock of the family orchestrating a current-events conversation around the Thanksgiving dinner table. Yet Brokaw has settled easily into his assumed role as a sage elder with Great Plains common sense. What’s the point of it all? he asks early on, for a moment letting his ’60s cultural roots get the best of him. “You are not expected to know,” he quotes the late Yale president and baseball commissioner Bart Giamatti, who was speaking to a class of incoming college freshmen. “But you are expected to wish to know.”
At 71, Brokaw still wants to know. For young pups now teething on the national dilemmas they’re about to inherit, The Time Of Our Lives offers plenty to chew on.