NBC News made the logical move on Sunday in tapping Tom Brokaw for the tough job of following Tim Russert as moderator of "Meet the Press" for the rest of this year, at least through the end of the presidential race in November.
Brokaw has the reporting experience, the on-air chops and the gravitas to uphold Russert's considerable legacy in turning "Meet the Press" into a consistent news-making and profit-making enterprise for the Peacock, as Variety's Michael Schneider reports.
But as right as it is to hand the chair to Brokaw in the short term, there's an equally smart choice on the NBC News roster to take the job for the long haul. Andrea Mitchell, Peacock's chief foreign affairs correspondent, also has the resume, the Washington relationships, the reporting skills and the extra-thick skin to take on the job. Having Brokaw handle the challenging transition period in the wake of Russert's surprising death June 13 is the best scenario that could arise for the show out of NBC News' tragic loss. Mitchell wouldn't have to follow Babe Ruth up to bat, and having a clearly defined limited tenure would probably help Brokaw avoid the inevitable "is he as good as" comparisons too.
Brokaw, in my view, is the very model of how a network anchor should comport him or herself after relinquishing the throne.
He's contributed greatly to NBC's election-year coverage, but he hasn't tried to out-do his successor, Brian Williams, in his role as special correspondent. Nor has he retreated to his beach house.
Brokaw has stayed in the public eye by producing and hosting "Tom Brokaw Reports" docu projects of particular interest to him for NBC and Discovery Channel and assembled the compilation book "Boom! Voices of the Sixties" that yielded the
History Channel spesh "1968 With Tom Brokaw." Those projects have also kept him in demand on the talk show circuit, and in that one-on-one setting Brokaw always makes for good TV. He's made multiple visits to "The Late Show with David Letterman," "Late Night with Conan O'Brien," "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno" and even one stop at "The Colbert Report" since he handed the "Nightly News" reins to Williams in December 2004 (right after the last presidential race).
Brokaw always comes off as a smart, funny, down-to-earth guy who's not overly impressed with himself even though by all rights he could be. I've always thought those early appearances of Brokaw's on "Late Night with David Letterman" in the early 1980s, when he and Letterman were both new to their posts, went a long way toward the longevity (21 years) he enjoyed on "Nightly News."
With all this and a winning smile going for him, Brokaw doesn't need "Meet the Press" as a career segue. He's always going to have the "former 'NBC Nightly News' anchor" descriptor as his first reference, short of his discovering a cure for cancer.
For starters, Mitchell has been a regular panelist and occasional fill-in host on "Meet the Press" for years. She's covered Congress and the White House, presidential elections, national crises et al, and her extensive overseas experience during the past 15 years certainly can't hurt either.
Mitchell, of course, is also one-half of a high-wattage Washington power couple -- her husband is former Federal Reserve Board chairman Alan Greenspan -- which means she ranks very high on the Beltway social pecking order that is so important to understanding Washington (or so I've read in the Washington Post).
What Mitchell (pictured above flanked by Russert and Greenspan) would not be, were she to get the gig, is the first femme to serve as moderator of "Meet the Press." That distinction belongs to the program's co-creator, Martha Rountree. Rountree is a heck of a figure in the history of radio and TV news, and was once described as "a diesel engine under a lace handkerchief."
A reporter and producer, she first created "Meet the Press" with Lawrence Spivak, editor of American Mercury magazine, for the Mutual radio network in 1945. The show moved to NBC in November 1947, when the Peacock network consisted of two stations. The half-hour program aired in primetime for nearly 20 years, until August 1965 before moving to Sunday ayem (thanks to Tim Brooks and Earle Marsh and their "Complete Directory of Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows 1946-Present" for these insights).
Rountree was moderator of "America's Press Conference of the Air" until 1953, when she was followed by NBC News reporter Ned Brooks. (Here's a great Web retrospective on "Meet the Press," assembled for show's 60th anniversary last year.)
The other candidates who have been mentioned as possible Russert successors bring either too much political baggage -- Keith Olbermann, much as I enjoy watching him, and Chris Matthews -- or not enough heft for the grilling of world leaders and powerbrokers that the gig demands. NBC's current man covering the White House, David Gregory is clearly a smart and a pit bull of a reporter, but he still needs some marinating.
Mitchell's the one.
From the who knew? department: Back when television was young, NBC had a series of "Meet..." interview programs. "Meet the Veep," a 15-minute skein that ran from June to August of 1953, featured Harry Truman's vice president, Alben Barkley opining on his experiences and topical issues of the day. "Meet the Champions," focused on sports heroes; and "Meet Your Congress," which paired two Democrats and two Republicans for a debate show. It ran on NBC for a few months in 1949 before moving to DuMont for a few more years. (Once again, thanks to Brooks and Marsh for this info.)