The American dream can be revived, says Tom Brokaw, if we can overcome our disunity, and universal national service is the key.
The Time of Our Lives: A Conversation About America, Who We Are, Where We’ve Been, and Where We Need to Go Now, to Recapture the American Dream
by Tom Brokaw
Random House, 320 pp.
In this political season, readers of Tom Brokaw’s latest book, The Time of Our Lives, might surmise that he’s running for office. Like many a candidate’s campaign book, it weaves together autobiography, profiles of contemporary average Americans struggling in difficult times, and accounts of innovative grassroots solutions to the great problems of our era. But the only office Brokaw seems to be running for is the unofficial one long held by Walter Cronkite: the media’s voice of reason— calming, reassuring, trustworthy, and wholly nonpartisan. Were such a race to be held, the much-admired TV journalist and author might well win.
Brokaw begins the subtitle of his book “A Conversation with America,” and starts with the proposition that America has lost its way. He offers a sharp critique of the current state of affairs—a devastated economy, rising competition from abroad, a broken political culture. And as befits the author of The Greatest Generation, he looks to the experiences of those who lived through the Great Depression and World War II for inspiration and ideas on how we can confront our own problems today.
Much of The Time of Our Lives is built around stories about four generations of his own and his wife Meredith’s families, and the distance he and Meredith have traveled from their small-town South Dakota roots. Seventy years old and very involved in the lives of his children and grandchildren, Brokaw is deeply concerned about the world being bequeathed to the next generation. He gives voice to the desire that many of us grandparents today have “to make the most of the time remaining.” He laments that his own Silent Generation and the Baby Boomers who followed lost the ethos of thrift and shared sacrifice that was second nature to his parents and grandparents. And though he movingly depicts the suffering of families in the current economic downturn, he also sees some hopeful signs of that ethos returning.
Like a TV documentary, the narrative follows Brokaw around on far-flung reporting assignments, introducing readers to individuals making a difference in their own lives and in the life of the country. An out-of-work electrical contractor in Covington, Kentucky, upgrading his skills at a cutting-edge community college. An Atlanta developer who used the proceeds from a rehabbed inner-city golf course to build a successful charter school. A severely wounded National Guardsman from Brokaw’s hometown of Yankton, South Dakota, being slowly reintegrated into the life of the community with the help of his family, friends, and neighbors.
Despite these hopeful signs, one question continually arises from the Americans he meets as he travels the country: “Why is it all shouting and confrontation? Why can’t we return to the days of Walter Cronkite and The Huntley-Brinkley Report? What has happened to us?” The well-documented explanations for our country’s growing partisanship is not Brokaw’s concern here. Nor is he interested in apportioning blame to one side or the other. Instead, he is challenging us all to address our problems as citizens. He asks, “A hundred years from now, what will be our indelible and measureable legacy? What will our grandchildren say of us? Of our country? Historians will not judge our time by Barack Obama, George W. Bush, or the Tea Party alone. We’re all in the dock.”
In Cairo in 2009, when he first interviewed the “casually confident, as yet untested and oh, so young” President Obama, they talked of the moral character of the American people. “The biggest lesson we learned from World War II,” Obama said,
is that America can do anything when it puts its mind to it, but we gotta exercise those muscles. I think they’ve atrophied a bit. We’re soft in ways that are profoundly dangerous to our long-term prosperity and security. And you know we’ve gotta start working those moral muscles and service muscles and sacrifice muscles a little more.
About the “muscles of national character,” Brokaw asks his readers, “Can they be developed so that they provide the strength to carry us through this treacherous passage? Do we have the will to restore a sense of national purpose that unites us rather than divides us?” As a first step, can we “establish a climate for listening as well as for shouting”?
High on his list of challenges to be met is reforming public education, which he believes “is to the twenty-first century what the civil rights movement was to the mid-twentieth century.” He cites Teach for America and the Harlem Children’s Zones as examples of unconventional and impressive public-private partnerships at the local, state, and national levels that point the way to addressing the systematic dysfunction eroding American society.
From his experience covering the American armed forces, in both war and peace, Brokaw places great value on their role in the training of citizens, from all walks of life. He hails the post- 9/11 GI Bill under which young men and women are eligible for financial support for tuition, fees, books, and housing for higher education after ninety days of aggregate service. Their presence on campuses, including community colleges and job-training institutions, he writes, is “a major step toward addressing the disconnect between the 1 percent of Americans in uniform and in harm’s way and the 99 percent of us who can go about our pleasurable civilian lives without even acknowledging wars are under way.”
Remembering how President Kennedy’s inaugural “ignited a fresh fervor for public service as the Peace Corps became the hot new destination for the young,” Brokaw laments the fact that nothing is now being asked of that 99 percent of us. With the discontinuation of the draft in 1972, the all-volunteer military is today drawn largely from the working and middle class: “We became two societies with too little connective tissue.” He calls the situation “manifestly unjust,” adding that ”if the political and military establishment has no interest in a renewal of military conscription, preferring the current all-volunteer concept, should we have as a national priority another form of universal service?”
And that takes us back to what Bill Clinton proposed in his presidential campaign in 1992: voluntary national service available to all, with living expenses for full-time volunteers and an educational award to help pay for college or pay off college loans. For all. That “all” was the key to the enthusiastic response of middle-class voters and young people to the Clinton campaign. It was estimated that such a new opportunity would open doors for at least a million young people.
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