In Depth

Brokaw Readies for 'Meet the Press' Role

Shortly after Sunday’s announcement that Tom Brokaw will moderate NBC’s “Meet the Press” through the 2008 presidential election in November, the former “NBC Nightly News” anchor told TelevisionWeek, “I can cancel my appointment with the AARP.”

No footnote was needed to indicate Mr. Brokaw was joking. Since he stepped away from the anchor desk, Mr. Brokaw has remained involved in NBC News coverage, and his appointment means NBC News has a veteran in the chair left empty when "Meet the Press'" host Tim Russert died unexpectedly June 13.

Mr. Brokaw, a sturdy 68, has not been lazing incommunicado on his Montana ranch. The career NBC newsman, who became a special correspondent when he was succeeded by Brian Williams as the network’s flagship anchor after the 2004 elections, has done network specials and written another well-received book, “Boom: Voices of the Sixties.”

“I had not gone off to the old anchorman’s rest home. I was still pretty deeply involved in our political coverage, and Tim and Steve and I talked all the time,” he said, referring to Mr. Russert and NBC News chief Steve Capus. “I was going to have a role in our political coverage anyway.”

He had become a familiar presence throughout the 2007-08 presidential primary marathon on NBC and its rambunctious cable kin, MSNBC, where he had assumed a role he describes as “hall monitor.”

Mr. Brokaw’s presence since delivering the somber news on-air June 13 that Mr. Russert had collapsed and died at NBC's Washington, D.C., bureau, has proven to be a particularly welcome balm.

Many pundits and media odds-makers had favored his taking an interim role on “Meet the Press,” thus diminishing potential for damage from overt jockeying to succeed Mr. Russert on-air and in his executive roles, which Mr. Capus still must fill permanently.

“Even I can see that in many ways I was the logical choice,” Mr. Brokaw said. “(A) It gives Steve time. (B) It gives others who may want it an opportunity to appear with me or in some capacity there for us to make evaluations. (C) We’ll continue to honor Tim but he was the first to say, and we’ve talked about this all the time, that ‘Meet the Press’ has enormous institutional strength. It had been a successful broadcast for a long time and Tim took it to great new heights."

Mr. Brokaw's interim role also may ease the way for Mr. Russert's permanent successor.
"What you want to do is to be able to get it positioned for the fall, for whoever takes it over, so that they’re not carrying the heavy burden of, ‘Well, he’s not Tim' or 'She’s not Tim.’"

Mr. Brokaw said “Meet the Press” is going to be on the road for the Democratic National Convention in Denver and the Republican National Convention in Minneapolis at summer’s end. He said he hopes the show also can play off at least one presidential debate.

“[Executive producer Betsey Fischer] and I haven’t talked about this yet, but there are presidential debates that tuck up against the weekends,” he said. "There’s a good chance that we’ll do ‘Meet the Press’ from Oxford, Miss., the Sunday after the Friday that it’s there. This is all very speculative at the moment."

Mr. Brokaw said NBC News will have to step up after Mr. Russert's death, and he's already changing plans and arranging travel to fill the void. That process started immediately, when Mr. Brokaw canceled a trip to the Middle East that he and wife Meredith were supposed to have started at 9 p.m. the day Mr. Russert died.

“I was waiting to talk to Tim because I knew he was just getting back from Rome and I just had a couple of things to catch up on,” he said.

Mr. Brokaw is canceling a September fishing trip to Russia because it would take him “too far out of circulation. The rest of it is just managing and massaging. I had a pretty full calendar, a combination of personal and political things.”

He expects he can keep a commitment to conduct a roundtable at Stanford University, where daughter Jennifer graduated 20 years ago, and then zip back to Washington for “Meet the Press.”

Mr. Brokaw still has a home in New York City. He rattled off the travel options—none straight through—from the Montana ranch where he was speaking Sunday, to Washington.

Technology will ease the process for Mr. Brokaw.

“I’m sitting in my office in what couldn’t be a more remote part of Montana right now,” he said. “I’m 20 miles from town on a twisty gravel road. I’ve got my computer up. I talked to Betsy this morning and over the weekend, watching the show on satellite TV.

“Tim and I have been joined at the hip on this political stuff. We were talking about it all the time. Every Sunday I would give him my e-mail review about who was strong, who wasn’t,” he said. “We would chat back and forth on that and talk during the week about who he had up next. So this seemed not like an enormously radical move.”

Mr. Brokaw said he was not expecting any cultural whiplash as he commutes between Montana (where his yellow lab was chastened recently by an antelope pair protecting their fawn) and New York.

He has stayed engaged, wherever he is. Earlier in the campaign, he critiqued MSNBC's coverage of early primaries.

“I’m out here in the wild, wild west, but when I’m back in New York I’m on the wild, wild west of cable television and that’s the new reality," Mr. Brokaw said. "The gratifying thing is that people are watching. They’re engaged. And there is this huge kind of electronic, amplified town hall going on of people weighing in. MSNBC has found its place there. So I’m glad to be part of that,” he said. “My role, as I’ve described it, however, is hall monitor. ‘Now, maybe you should go back to study hall for a while.’ But we’ve all got great personal relationships.”

For full coverage of Mr. Russert's passing and "Meet the Press," click here.

(Editor: Baumann)