Boom!: Voices of the Sixties by Tom Brokaw (Random House, 662 pages, $28.95). "What are you going to call this one?" asked some of Tom Brokaw's baby boomer friends about his book-length "reunion" of '60s big shots -- "the Worst Generation?" Nah, Brokaw assures them, not the worst but "not as great they thought they were either."
Vintage Tom Brokaw, man from America's middle (South Dakota) with the kind of perfect pitch for the music of the ideological middle you can only develop after all those years of huge broadcast popularity as a news correspondent, "Today Show" host and, most famously, much-trusted news anchor, the closest contender his time had to Cronkite-hood.
If "The Greatest Generation" codified the popular historical view of those who survived the Great Depression and World War II, "Boom!: Voices of the Sixties" may well simplify -- as only a profoundly gifted and accomplished TV journalist could -- the raging, chaotic, upheaving American decade which is still hanging over America, in both the racial and gender and cultural triumphs it established and the politics it made possible.
In fact, if there is one insight that seems to hang over every page of "Boom!," it belongs to historian Alan Brinkley, the son of David Brinkley whom Brokaw considers his "mentor at NBC News." 1968 wasn't a year of revolution, said Brinkley, but of a "counterrevolution" we're still in. Not the street tumult and horrific public assassinations, then, but the social and political counterreaction that gave us Reagan, the Bushes and, even, a Democrat as comfortably conservative as Bill Clinton. No one could possibly gainsay the advances everywhere engendered by boomers in the '60s. He treats the decade as if it began with the March on Washington and Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech on Aug. 28, 1963, and ended Aug. 9, 1974, with the resignation of Richard Nixon.
He reunites some '60s movers, shakers, players, alumni and victims to reflect on the decade -- everyone from Thomas McGuane, Joan Baez, Andrew Young, James Taylor, Judy Collins, Arlo Guthrie, Nora Ephron, Gloria Steinem and Jane Pauley to Dick Cheney, Colin Powell, Pat Buchanan, Karl Rove and assorted senators, generals, doctors and others who have more than a little experience getting the best table and being driven where they want to go.
Because he always stays on topic -- the '60s -- barely a glove is laid on Dick Cheney. And, characteristically, Brokaw remains loyal to Don Imus, whose radio show he used to decorate. But the constant disarming personal asides will, no doubt, surprise, from a pre-gubernatorial Ronald Reagan selling him the idea of new soft contact lenses; to a nude orgiast he knew sliding into a pool at an L.A. party smoking a "spliff" the size of a cigar; to he and Jane Pauley, in the morning, seeing John Belushi and Chevy Chase after their night of hard, hard revelry asking if Brokaw and Pauley needed them to do anything on "The Today Show." Jann Wenner is ushered in and out for two pages of rock reminiscences while all sorts of possible testimony about much-reported bisexuality remain untouched.
No one but Tom Brokaw would likely have assembled this exact '60s reunion or been so casually and readably revealing about it. If Jimmy Carter is most people's nomination for best former president, Brokaw seems, by far, the best retired TV anchorman. He deserves to sell millions of copies of this, if not exactly the skillions it may well sell.
Turning Back the Clock: Hot Wars and Media Populism by Umberto Eco, translated from the Italian by Alastair McEwen (Harcourt, 369 pages, $27). Umberto Eco is an extraordinary figure, to be sure -- the only Bologna medievalist and semiotician to also be a best-selling novelist ("The Name of the Rose" and the much-bought, if little-read "Foucault's Pendulum"). Read him here on "Paleowar" and "neowar" as a "media product" with his conclusion that "recent events have shown that history repeats itself and always in the form of conflict." Many of his Italian references tend to be lost on us but then he truly believes our only hope in the West is to work for "local peace." Whether writing about anti-Semitism or "Intelligent Design," he's one of the world's original thinkers and writers.
-- Jeff Simon