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BROKAW IS STUCK IN HIS OWN UNIVERSE
NONFICTION

From the book: - It's not surprising, given my interests in the outdoors and in social gatherings, that at an early age I became an enthusiastic member of the scouting movement. Mother was our local den mother for the Cub Scouts ... The Scouts were a big part of my early teens, with their emphasis on outdoor skills, community service, and recognition of achievement in the form of merit badges. It was a natural fit with my "good boy" reputation.

A Long Way From Home: Growing Up in the American Heartland

By Tom Brokaw

Random House

272 pages, $24.95

Tom Brokaw's insufferably narcissistic slice of anchor/celebrity Americana possesses all the gravitas of a family newsletter. In fact, Brokaw should have stuffed this book into envelopes with his Christmas cards.

Those on Brokaw's mailing list could then celebrate the holidays by digesting this "Pleasantville" tale of a 1950s kid from South Dakota who comes across as a combination Tom Sawyer and Tim Russert.

Brokaw is the kind of television news media star who can whitewash a picket fence and meet the press -- both at the same time.

All I can say after enduring these 272 pages is: What's the frequency Thomas?

Should we really care about Brokaw's grandfather, his father, his grammar school days, his high school days, his sporting accomplishments, his sweetheart, his home town, his home state and everything else in his life?

Of course we should care, because every night, right smack in the middle of our living rooms, is Brokaw himself, delivering the news of his world and how it impacts our daily lives.

It's the inalienable right of network anchors to burden us with their self-proclaimed importance. And Brokaw is no longer just the anchorman for NBC News, he is a literary industry: the patron saint of the "greatest generation."

No one in anchor history has commercialized our nostalgic, patriotic longings better than Brokaw. Peter Jennings and Dan Rather write books, but they can't match Brokaw on the best-seller lists.

Brokaw's book reign started in 1998 with "The Greatest Generation," a stirring tribute to World War II heroes. A year later came "The Greatest Generation Speaks: Letters and Reflections," a weary re-working of the first book.

What next? "The Greatest Generation Speaks Again?" Nope. This time Tom needed a new topic and what better topic to write about than himself? That's about the only subject bigger than World War II in Brokaw's world.

The book cover is a close-up shot of teenage Tom, looking as wholesome, vanilla and pure as Wally Cleaver. Make that Tom of Mayberry.

It's a 1950s black and white photo of him wearing a baseball uniform. His face has an Ivory-soap glow and he sports a sheepish, but sly, grin. Even at this young age, you get the feeling that this kid can hustle, and we're not just talking about what happens on the baseball field.

Brokaw begins the book telling us of his ancestors and life in South Dakota. "I could not be the man I am today without the boy I was yesterday, in a far-off place and a long time ago."

It sounds like the beginning of another "Star Wars" movie, but Brokaw is stuck in his own universe. We get more than we ever need to know about his early days. He longingly writes of Zippo lighters, Pall Mall and Camel cigarettes (his Dad was a chain smoker).

Consider this poignant sentence: "In 1950, Dad, who had always been a Ford man, switched to Chevrolet."

Then there's Tom's first public speaking role, in 1944, when the 4-year-old boy opens the Christmas pageant. "I just loved to talk," Brokaw writes, "and I soon had an opinion on just about everything."

Some things never change.

Brokaw was quite the jock, playing football, basketball and baseball. About the only thing he couldn't do was sing.

"At what age do you begin to realize your limits," he writes. "For me, the first dawning came when I was about 7 or 8 and I was asked to help form a children's chorus for Sunday school."

He adds that he and his teachers thought Brokaw could sing until, "I opened my mouth . . . It was my first real encounter with failure and I had no control over it."

Brokaw's friends seem cast from a Disney movie, in fact, judging by their nicknames, they could have been "Tom Brokaw and the Seven Dwarfs." He writes about guys called "Rocky, Moose, Barnacle Bill, Cherokee Tidy, Horny, Lefty, Skeeter, Doc and Pudgy. To some I was known as Kawbro, a reversal of my last name's syllables."

The only part of this book that bears anything close to depth is in the chapter "Race." Brokaw writes how "the appearance of any actual Negro caused a minor stir, more out of curiosity and ignorance than hostility."

Brokaw also writes: "For all my youthful indignation about the treatment of black people, I was unaware of the depth of discrimination against Indians in my home state."

The rest of the book is all Brokaw. He provides ubiquitous details of his time in the Boy Scouts, his college days, early jobs in broadcasting and how he wooed and won Meredith Auld, who was once Miss South Dakota.

For most of us, Brokaw's pre-anchor star life, is a long, boring irrelevant story. Yet it is so wholesome and American, you actually feel good when you put the book down.

It's comforting to know the American dream lives -- at least for Tom Brokaw. And we can all share that dream for a mere $24.95. Is this a great generation or what?

Anthony Violanti is a News media reporter. E-mail: aviolanti@buffnews.com.