By Martin Fletcher, NBC News
The engine was screaming on the chartered Dakota into Mogadishu in 1992, everyone was sweating, and the water bottle passed from the Duke of Miller to the Jinx to the Wanker to Screaming Skull and ended in the hands of Duncan the Wonder Dog aka Tom Brokaw. There was barely a mouthful for Tom who grimaced at his grimy colleagues, and said, “Here we go. NBC’s Dirty Dozen.”
It was true. The same bunch of comrades trotted the globe and when the story was big enough, we were cheered by the presence of our intrepid leader, immaculate in Patagonia.
Tom was always well briefed by the ambassador of whichever country we were in, top American intelligence sources, and Robert Redford. Yet he is modest and unassuming, as he will be the first to point out.
Keith Miller explains that Duncan the Wonder Dog earned that particular nickname in Beirut when he was always the first up and the last to bed, and bewildered drunken hacks at the bar asked, “Who is that guy?” An exhausted NBC producer said spontaneously, “Duncan the Wonder Dog,” and the name stuck.
It stuck because it fit. Superbly informed, with his trademark match of boyish enthusiasm and worldly cool, he outperformed everyone.
On Nov. 9, 1989, probably Europe’s most important day since the end of World War Two, Tom, also known as Big Foot, was the only American anchor in Berlin when the wall came down, a genuine scoop. Surrounded by hundreds of thousand of partying Berliners, Tom decided very late to end Nightly News with an impromptu “thoughts of the day.”
He ad libbed for two minutes and as I listened, and later studied his report, I realised that if I had had two days to polish it, I would not have changed a word.
It takes enormous guts to ad lib live such a historic moment, and only an exceptional newsman who combines depth of knowledge with great empathy for the people could have pulled it off.
Yet Tom managed anyway.
It wasn’t always such a smooth ride but Tom knew how to take it on the chin. Back in Beirut, ABC owned the American hostages story and Tom came in to turn things round. This was shortly after Thomas Hearns was beaten bloody by Marvin Hagler in what came to be known as the best three rounds in boxing. Tom, drinking Baileys at the Commodore bar, learned, to his horror, that ABC correspondents had just interviewed some of the hostages around the pool of the Summerland hotel. “Maceda,” he said to our correspondent aka Jim, slumping as if he’d just taken a heavy body blow, “I feel like the Thomas Hearns of Network News.”
Tom Brokaw: raconteur par excellence, comic, insightful analyst, down-to-earth. There was no anchor entourage with Tom, no airs and graces. He carried his own backpack, traveled with one producer, rode in a cab. In Jerusalem I complimented him on a script. His response: “Fletcher, don’t suck up.”
But I will anyway.
As anchorman, Tom was the true team leader, admired, loved and respected by his colleagues, and he still is.
Today no NBC wedding, funeral or celebration around the world is complete without a humorous, respectful note, read out to great laughter and appreciation, from Tom Brokaw who still loves nothing more than to get out of Manhattan and see the world.