‘The Greatest Generation’

One of the most recognizable faces in broadcast journalism appeared at the Chautauqua Institution amphitheater to discuss his bestselling book Monday.

Tom Brokaw kicked off the institution’s first morning lecture series of the season as the guest of Roger Rosenblatt, a writer and long-time essayist for Time Magazine and PBS NewsHour, to discuss Brokaw’s book, “The Greatest Generation.”

Brokaw is perhaps best known for his 21 years as the anchor and managing editor of “NBC Nightly News” – though he also has the distinction of having interviewed every U.S. president since Lyndon B. Johnson, and has covered every presidential election since 1968. He has also moderated nine primary and/or general election debates.

Despite his formidable on-screen presence, Brokaw took time during his first visit to Chautauqua to elaborate on his writing abilities, with special emphasis being placed on his most successful book.

“The Greatest Generation” was released in 1998, and focuses on the generation which grew up during the Great Depression and subsequently answered the call of its country to fight in World War II. The term “greatest generation” was coined by Brokaw himself, who described the generation thusly because “they fought not for fame and recognition, but because it was ‘the right thing to do.'”

The discussion began with Rosenblatt asking whether the “greatest generation” is something that could only be recognized in retrospect, or whether any generation could have risen to the same occasion.

“I think those two historic events, the depression and then the war, defined this generation,” Brokaw said. “And, gratefully, they were up for it. Many of them were either immigrants or first-generation Americans. They had a passion about this country, and they knew what it would take based on their earlier experiences in their home countries to preserve what we all hold dear. So it was, if you will, a terrible price to pay, but we had the right generation in the right place at the right time.”

Discussion then moved to the impetus for the book’s creation. Brokaw described his experiences with World War II veterans during a visit to Normandy for the 40th anniversary of the D-Day landings that marked the initial Allied invasion of Nazi-controlled Europe. Due to his observations of these veterans at that particular occasion, Brokaw said the term “the greatest generation” came to mind. As he was writing the book that would ultimately bear the term as its title, he said he stuck to his guns despite the reservations of both his wife and editors that it was “a very big statement” to make.

Brokaw spoke in defense of his belief that “the greatest generation” is aptly named.

“I’ve had discussions with (author and historian) David McCullough, who said the founding fathers’ generation could not be the greatest generation because they allowed slavery to continue, and they didn’t give women the right to vote,” Brokaw said. “This generation was not perfect. There were bad people and bigots and others, but as a whole I thought one generation rose to these extraordinary challenges in a way that made them unique.”

The session ended with Brokaw reading a selection from his book that recounts the experiences of a World War II veteran who became a prisoner of war in a Japanese concentration camp in 1942, and ended up becoming an eyewitness to the bombing of Nagasaki – which was located nearby to where he was being held – before returning safely home.

In spite of the several told and untold tales of heroism and duty experienced by members of “the greatest generation,” Rosenblatt left Brokaw and audience members with a poignant observation on the character of Brokaw in light of his recent health ailments.

“There is no tougher or braver man than you,” he told Brokaw to a standing ovation.