"The Time of Our Lives: A Conversation About America" (Random House), by Tom Brokaw: Just in time for the 2012 general election, Tom Brokaw has written a book that begins with the sentence: "What happened to the America I thought I knew?" It's easy to imagine Republicans and Democrats flipping through it for ideas on how to avoid another debt ceiling debate, improve educational opportunities for all, or pursue green energy initiatives.
But Brokaw didn't write the book for the politicians he spent decades covering at NBC News. He seems to have written it mostly for his grandchildren, inspired by a reporting assignment in 2009 when he traveled across the U.S. on Highway 50 to show viewers the changing American character.
Each chapter of "The Time of Our Lives" begins with a box divided into two sections, FACT and QUESTION. Some sample facts:
—Independent voters make up about 30 percent of the American electorate.
—In 1999, 1.2 percent of home loans were in foreclosure.
—Daily newspapers penetrate less than 33 percent of the population eighteen to thirty-four years of age.
The corresponding questions frame the stories to come: When was the last time you voted a straight party line? Could you be just as happy in a smaller home? Are you more or less inclined to believe what you read on the Internet than what you pick up from elsewhere?
All those facts and questions make for an occasionally wonky book, but Brokaw's journalism background is evident. He's quick to focus on individual stories and characters to make his points. In the chapter about national service we meet Corey Briest, a National Guardsman from Yankton, S.D., who suffered a traumatic brain injury in Baghdad and was able to return home and lead a new life only after his friends and neighbors banded together to offer financial and moral support. You'll want to thank the next man or woman in uniform you see after reading it.
Brokaw sprinkles in quite a few personal stories as well, writing about his early years as a reporter in Los Angeles and buying his first house for $42,500 in the San Fernando Valley. We meet his parents, their parents and the same on his wife Meredith's side of the family. All the biographical details serve a large purpose: to inspire today's generation to make a difference and actively work to solve problems in the U.S.
And while he still works plenty for NBC News, Brokaw seems to enjoy speaking his mind in print. Decades behind the anchor desk and he never really had a "Walter Cronkite moment" when he told the millions watching at home what he really thought about Iran-Contra, Monica Lewinsky or the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"The Time of Our Lives" affords Brokaw ample opportunity to share his views on topics ranging from elder care to the Chinese economy. It's a valuable contribution to the national discourse and may just inspire some readers to go out and make a difference.