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THE BROKAW ERA ENDS
NBC ANCHOR SIGNS OFF ON WEDNESDAY, TAKING WITH HIM HIS MIDWESTERN CHARM AND THE RESPECT OF COLLEAGUES LIKE TIM RUSSERT

As Tom Brokaw's colleague and one of his closest friends, Tim Russert has some stories about the departing NBC Nightly News anchor that help to explain what the South Dakota native is all about.

They involve a Buffalo plastic cup, Iowa pork chops and a final post-Election Day hug.

The cup story involves Russert's father, Big Russ, who, like Brokaw's dad, Big Red, is a stocky 5-foot-8 man who worked with his hands.

Brokaw "always had this wonderful relationship with my dad," explained Russert. "The first time he used 'The Greatest Generation' on the air was on 'Meet the Press.' He was in Normandy. We were talking and he said that 'people like your dad, they truly are the Greatest Generation."

"He included my dad in his second book," added Russert. "Big Russ said, 'Tom is the nicest guy in the world, I've got something good for him.' He had a plastic South Buffalo American Legion Post 721 beer mug. He shipped it off to Tom and said 'Tom will like this.'

"To this day, Tom has it on his sink. He uses it every morning to brush his teeth. It's there. His brush-holder, his mouth rinser. He thinks of Big Russ every morning. It shows how resourceful Tom is. He knew a good mug when he saw one."

Brokaw illustrated that he was an excellent bargain hunter again while covering the Iowa caucuses in February. Several NBC staffers told Russert that Brokaw was desperately trying to find him.

"Ohmygod, something big is up," thought Russert.

"You've got to get over here," Brokaw told Russert. "I found this place that has pork chops and a whole lunch for $3.49."

You can take a man out of South Dakota, but you can't take South Dakota out of the man.

"There were fresh pork chops, mashed potatoes, green beans," said Russert. "Like a Buffalo diner, it was spectacular. We're sitting there laughing like crazy."

At 6:30 a.m. Nov. 3, Russert and Brokaw had some final words for each other off-camera after spending 12 hours side-by-side covering President Bush's re-election.

"We both stood up, he gave me a big hug and I gave him a big hug and he said, 'You're on your own buddy.' Which was exactly what he said to me in 2000. But then along came Sept. 11. I know this time, this is real. I said to Tom, "It's been an honor being your wing man.' "

'Our Cal Ripken'

Nightly News has been No.1 nationally for years, but has been No. 3 in Buffalo, primarily because it follows WGRZ-TV's low-rated 6 p.m. news. However, Brokaw and Russert did win Election Night locally, a testament to their friendship, Russert's hometown appeal and the widespread perception that NBC's coverage was the most balanced of all the networks.

"It is going to be very tough," Russert said of Brokaw's decision to vacate the anchor seat to concentrate on reporting on big stories and issues. "When you're on the air particularly on something like Election Night for 12 hours, it really does help if you know somebody well. We understand each other's rhythms, we both have a deep understanding and appreciation of politics and political coverage and we read each other.

"The thing people don't get about Tom is he really was our team captain. He was our Cal Ripken. He had the work ethic, he set the tone, he drove the coverage, he was there for people when they had personal problems or personnel problems. . . . He'll leave a huge vacuum."

Stepping into the vacuum is Williams, a technically proficient anchor and native of Elmira who hasn't yet shown the ability to make viewers feel he's the kind of guy who would jump for joy eating a $3.49 pork chop. Even Brokaw's occasional difficulty with his diction while reading the news makes him seem like one of us.

"Absolutely right," said Russert. "Tom's Midwest nice, he's got Midwest values."

Brokaw shares what is believed to be one of President Bush's chief attributes. He is extremely likable. Williams is more like John Kerry, a proficient anchor who hasn't yet shown that he has the personality to connect to Middle America except during his infrequent late-night appearances with Jay Leno.

"Brian is more than prepared," said Russert. "He has the skills and ability to do very well. But Tom cannot transfer his persona or credibility. Brian has to earn that. . . . There will be moments when anchors have the opportunity to define themselves, and Brian's time will come. Brian is going to be very good, you watch."

Wife changed his life

Brokaw's ability to make Middle America think he was one of them was made easier because he was one of them. A native of Webster, S.D., Brokaw says he was a Whiz Kid who was unable to fulfill the high expectations of him early in college.

"I kind of drove myself off the cliff," said Brokaw in a conference call. "I majored in beer and coeds for the first couple of years, dropped out for a time. I was seriously adrift."

Like the president, a woman set him straight. The future Mrs. Brokaw was a former Miss South Dakota, Meredith Lynn Auld.

"The woman who I have been married to happily, deeply in love for 42 years had completely written me off," recalled Brokaw, "saying 'don't bother to call or darken my door. You're going nowhere.' Getting back to school preparing to be a network correspondent and win back Meredith's esteem was a very powerful combination for me."

Growing up in small South Dakota, he said he tried to live up to the standards of hard work and fundamental values and something else that is valued in journalism.

"At least in me, it instilled in me a great curiosity about what was going on over the horizon," said Brokaw.

Inspired by watching the 1960 presidential election between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon in his parent's home, Brokaw went back to college and was determined to become a network correspondent. Six years later, he joined NBC News. He eventually became a White House correspondent during Watergate, a co-host of "Today" and sole Nightly News anchor after one difficult year co-anchoring with Roger Mudd.

"I look back at those pictures, I was so young," said the now gray, 64-year-old Brokaw. "I find it hard to take me as an authority figure."

The rest is history. While covering American and world history, Brokaw became part of television history. He says he finds the length of his term in the anchor seat astonishing. On Election Night, he seemed embarrassed by the salutes he received from several top politicians before and after they were interviewed.

"It always makes me uncomfortable, but it seemed to have the added virtue of being sincere on their part," said Brokaw. "We've banged heads over the years, and many of us are of the same age. I think they were saying goodbye to a contemporary as much as anything."

It's all over but his final words. I had to ask what they will be.

"It won't be an opus of some kind," said Brokaw. "I feel very strongly after you've been doing this as long as I've been doing it . . . you do feel almost an organic connection to the people who have been watching. . . . So I think I want to say something personal, as well as an observation about maybe some of the lessons I've learned from the last 23 years here."

As far as his pork chop buddy, Russert, is concerned, one can summarize how much Brokaw will be missed after Wednesday in two words first made famous during the 2000 election campaign.

"In the words of (Vice President) Dick Cheney," said Russert, "Big time."

e-mail: apergament@buffnews.com