It’s a meeting of broadcasting legends on NBC’s “Dateline: On Assignment” on Friday at 10 p.m. when David Letterman gives his first interview since his retirement from late night TV to former “NBC Nightly News” anchor Tom Brokaw. (The segment was scheduled to have run Sunday but was postponed for coverage of the Orlando shooting massacre). As they walked through the Indianapolis neighborhood where Letterman grew up, the former “Late Show” host weighs in on presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump (“despicable”), the current state of late night TV (“I couldn’t care less”) and his weird beard.
Brokaw offered a preview of his chat with Letterman and a few thoughts about the past year at NBC News.
You were a frequent guest on Letterman. Out of all the news people he had on, it was clear you were his favorite.
He was a serious guy. [His producers] would pre-interview me about stuff. What David wanted to talk about was, ‘What’s going on in the Middle East? What should we be concerned about? What’s going on with American politics?’ We had to do that in a way that we could kind of keep his entertainment-oriented audience together as well. But he was very nimble about being able to do it.
Why do you think you’ve had such a strong connection with him over the years?
I thought about it when I was out there [in Indianapolis]. We have very similar back stories. We were both kids who grew up in the Midwest that showed a certain amount of talent for this business at an early age. I’d like to think we went through both life and our careers without becoming prima donnas. David was a very private person. But the fact is he was always Dave from Indianapolis. I could never get away with being something I was not. I grew up in South Dakota in a succession of working-class towns. Then I got to Yankton where I got my first job in radio when I was 15. I got married to Meredith [Brokaw’s wife of 55 years] who grew up there as well. So there’s not much I can get away with at this point.
Is he enjoying retirement? It was hard to imagine his life after “The Late Show.”
He’s very absorbed in the [Indy] car that he owns. He’s looking to do something in the charity vein. He hasn’t figured that out yet… He’s very happy. He has an active life in Montana. We helped get him to Montana and he fell in love with the eastern part of the Continental Divide. He’s an accomplished horseman and we’ve gotten him fly-fishing as well.
What was it like touring his old neighborhood in Indianapolis?
It was very reassuring. It was very modest in the truest sense of the word. His parents paid $8,000 for their little house. Of course, those were different times. It looked like the neighborhood where I grew up. He had a very funny line. He said, “They bought it for $30,000, and then 30 years later -- you won’t believe this -- they sold it for $30 million.” Well that wasn’t true of course. He was so at ease with everyone he was just happy to be back in his old neighborhood, which was very neat, very middle class and very All-American.
Any insights about his beard?
My opening question to him was people want to know what’s nesting in that beard. He had just trimmed it. He said, “The reason I grew the beard is that for 35 or 40 years I had to shave twice a day. Once in the morning and once before I went on the air. I got so tired of it I just decided to let the beard go. Nobody in the family likes it. My son calls it creepy. But it’s my beard, and Dad’s going to do it his way.”
Let’s talk about you. Are you going be at the Republican and Democratic conventions this summer?
Yes. I’m not going to be down on the [convention] floor. I’m going to do essays and do stuff as required. I’m going to help [current “NBC Nightly News” anchor] Lester Holt get ready for it. Because doing the conventions and election nights is different than doing the ‘Nightly News.” I’m a big fan of Lester’s. He’s not going to need a lot of help, but he’s open to the idea that we can chat about it.
NBC News appears to be thriving again after going through a difficult time when Brian Williams was suspended last year. That must be gratifying for you.
What I’m very gratified about is the way the rest of NBC News responded. They didn’t go into a fetal position. They went on and kept doing their job, even when there were a lot of distractions obviously, and doing it very well. And I’m absolutely thrilled with the success of Lester Holt. We’ve always been very fond of him - and I don’t mean the royal we. I mean everybody in the news division working with him. He’s a real pro’s pro. Got on the airplane and went where the news was. Didn’t expect a big pat on the back or the star treatment. And he’s brought that to the “Nightly News” and it’s been very successful. That for me is very gratifying.
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June 15, 2016, 7:47 a.m.: This story was updated with a new air date for “Dateline: On Assignment.”
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