Now that Tom Brokaw is no longer confined to the anchor desk, he has hit the road. In making the USA Network’s documentary “American Character Along Highway 50,” the former “NBC Nightly News” anchor spoke to people in places like Montrose, Colo., and Hillsboro, Ohio, about the state of the country. “It seemed like the right time” to examine the national mood, he said, “with a unique new president and a lot of difficulties.”
The show premieres Monday, Jan. 18, on the USA Network.
Why did you decide to get involved in this project?
So you traveled Highway 50 for this project? Is that figurative? Or did you actually drive down Highway 50 to do this?
I didn’t put the car in drive and start in the Eastern Shore in Maryland. I made all the stops, but I parachuted in, in a matter of speaking. I drove across a good chunk of Kansas, a good chunk of Nevada, Colorado, Ohio, the Indiana border and Maryland into Washington, D.C.
Do you like to drive?
I do. I grew up in the Great Plains. You learn to drive when you are 12 or 13, and then my first assignment for NBC was in California, so you get that freeway narcosis.
How did you determine where you would stop?
We let the folks on Highway 50 know that we were interested. And then people solicited and said, “Here’s a good story for you,” and then we evaluated them. We also had some markers — we wanted to do a car dealership, we wanted to do a housing story, we wanted to do something with the military.
It sounds like many of the people you feature in this documentary have fallen on hard times. How did you convince them to let cameras into their lives? Was there any hesitation on their part?
If you go out there, and don’t try to intimidate and — I’ve been doing this for a long time — and say, “We’re genuinely interested in your story,” and if there’s a lesson for the American people … In these kinds of assignments, I’m not prosecutorial. I say to them, “If you want to rephrase that in some way, just let me know, that’s fine.”
What was your strategy for entering a community once you arrived? I imagine you can’t exactly arrive incognito.
No, I can’t, but I’ve been living with this for all of my adult life, and I’d like to think I’ve developed a certain comfort level with the people I meet. I grew up in Middle America … I’m a great student of Americana. I almost always know something about the place I go. I don’t travel with an entourage, I rent my own car, and I travel alone. It’s also tonal and attitudinal.
It’s a double-edged sword — the better part of it is, for the most part, if you’ve been at this for a long time, and people know who you are, people are inclined to tell you their story.
What do you think people who work inside the Beltway can learn from this?
There’s a hell of a lot less ideological divide out there than there seems to be in the Beltway. The people you’ll see in the documentary are interested in solutions. They’re interested in finding a way out of it, and they’re not interested in the blame game. It was interesting to me that there was not a lot of finger-pointing going on.
What were some of the things you learned while doing this project? What surprised you?
People are living in the middle of great economic distress, and they can still be living pretty well. A family in Ohio cut off their premium cable, and they weren’t going to movies, but they had a television in their house. And they were together. Every plane I was on was filled to the brim. Fast food restaurants were busy. There’s a lot of contradictions going on out there.
What were some of the biggest challenges of this project?
To be representative as we went across the country with what in fact was happening, and I feel pretty comfortable with that — that we touched all the major geographical locations along the way, most of the cultures as well. We had real estate people, blue-collar workers, healthcare providers, small-business owners, an educator.
What were some of the interesting, funny or bizarre moments that didn’t make it into the documentary?
I rode a bulky horse on an organic ranch in Colorado. I’m a pretty good horseman, but I think the crew was terrified it was going to buck me. I ended up getting off and leading it back by hand.
The documentary follows D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee and Sacramento, Calif. Mayor Kevin Johnson. They are now engaged. Is this a complete coincidence that they’re both in the documentary?
We made note of that. They were two perfect candidates. Michelle Rhee — we wanted to do someone who was challenging American education — she’s the greatest symbol of that that I know. Kevin Johnson — he got elected mayor in his hometown and is really working on the issues.
I have to ask this: Did you have any good food on this road trip?
Yeah, we did. We had very good food in Sacramento at the end of the trip. We had great crab in Maryland …We had excellent food on the organic ranch.
The wife of the rancher cooked lamb patties, and they were outstanding. I’m always looking for Tex-Mex when I’m on the West Coast, a burrito. We did well.
You’ve been out from behind the anchor desk for about five years now. How does it feel?
It’s time. It has been from the beginning. I knew what I was doing. This was my idea. Someone had once calculated that I had been on the air almost every day since I was 19, and I was 64 when I retired. I’d been on television a lot, but being on television was the least appealing part for me. I love the work.
Have you nurtured any new hobbies since your retirement from the anchor desk?
No, not new ones. I’ve been spending time in the ones I’ve had — fly-fishing, bird hunting. I’m getting ready to go to Australia and New Zealand to go biking. I was in the south of France and South Africa biking.
Will we be seeing much of you in Washington this year?
Well, I’m on that circuit down there pretty regularly … I’m working on another documentary on baby boomers. I was on the Hill the other day to see [Sen.] Jim Webb [D-Va.].
What news stories will you be watching closely in 2010?
You can close your eyes and just pick. Is healthcare going to become a reality, and what shape will it be in? Will we stop the economic decline? I think we’re at the bottom, and how long is the bottom going to last? And the election of the fall will be one of the times we take the temperature of the country again … And obviously terror in Afghanistan — what happens there.
What’s your outlook on the state of journalism today?
I think one of the things that we have to concentrate on is the importance of the culture of journalism. What we have to constantly be doing is reminding people of the importance of journalism, and we do that by doing very important work.
What are your plans for the future? Any other projects you’re working on?
I’m always working on something. I’m finishing up a documentary for CNBC on baby boomers. I’m working on another book, the subject of which I’m not prepared to share with you at the moment. I do a fair amount on writing. I just did a profile on Dick Ebersole for Men’s Journal.
And I continue to pursue the things that compelled me to leave nightly news, like biking, climbing, exotic fishing trips. And then I’m spending more time watching my grandchildren come of age.
To recommend a political personality for 20 Questions, call Kris Kitto at (202)628-8539 or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.