Longtime NBC commentator Tom Brokaw's new book is a steam engine for getting America back on track. In his westerner with a world-of-experience way, he tells us what questions people asked him as he traveled around America.

At the top of the list, "What has happened to us? Have we lost our way?"

Things are tough. Listen to what Dan Loper of New Vienna, Ohio, told Brokaw when he spoke to them: "I used to buy the twelve-pack of batteries for kids' toys. Now when the toys go dead, they stay dead. I don't buy batteries."

This is what happens when people lose jobs never to return. Between January 2007 and January 2011, according to Brokaw, an estimated 9 million workers lost their jobs.

There are no simple answers to multiple tragedies. Brokaw has an approach he uses to segue from hard times to possible improvement. "To begin," he asks, "isn't it time to reflect on where we have been and how we are going to move forward together, and to do it with more listening and less shouting?"

Brokaw uses his family clock, a time piece in the family for over a hundred years, to reprise the past. The clock has ticked through the arrival of electricity and telephones; the growth of steel mills and railroads; the Roaring Twenties; Pearl Harbor and the end of American innocence; the rise of the middle class after World War II; the race to space; the dissolution of the Soviet empire; Islamic rage and more wars.

Most recently, the list quickens with "the power of cyber technology and its capability of retrieving, sharing, and acting on information from a good cup of coffee to the best treatment for a rare form of cancer."

About technology, Brokaw asks, "How should we use this technology to create a national dialogue on what we want for our grandchildren?"

The clock continues to tick. Brokaw says it's time to re-enlist as citizens. He gives multiple examples of citizens who made a difference. There was John Gardiner, founder of Common Cause, who emphasized, "Pluralism that reflects no commitment whatever to the common good is pluralism gone berserk."

And A. Bartlett Giamatti, president of Yale University and later commissioner of Major League Baseball before his untimely death, who told incoming freshmen "You are not expected to know, but you are expected to wish to know."

Michelle Rhee, the former chancellor of the Washington, D.C., school system, comes in for some plaudits. Before the mayor who appointed her, Adrian Fenty, was defeated in a primary because of his aloof manner, Rhee made a forceful impact on a school system that had failed for 50 years or more. She had to resign because she knew she wouldn't be reappointed -- because of politics.

Brokaw has an idea to improve schooling: lengthen it. He says, "Extend the school year to eleven months and make the eleventh month morning or afternoon only. For teenagers who need to earn income during the off season, bring employers into the equation with tax credits for participating work-study programs."

Another good idea: When the author met Kevin and Joan Salwen of Atlanta, they told him that they purchased a $2 million home in an upscale Atlanta neighborhood. They wondered about how much was too much, relates Brokaw. They came to a consensus. "Let's sell this big house and give half to charity. The half amounted to $885,000 net."

Another: Jenny Briest of Brokaw's home town of Yankton, S.D., received notice that her husband, Corey, was wounded in Iraq. Brokaw relates that Corey was medevacked to Germany and then to the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. Jenny and Corey's mother, Diane, were at his bedside to help in his recovery.

"Now", he says, Jenny "has become an advocate for other wounded veterans, writing regularly on, an online information center for families who are struggling with war wounds, cancer, or other debilitating conditions."

What's Brokaw's point with the examples? One person can make a powerful difference.

I used to see Brokaw from time to time when I worked in New York City. We both would drop into the same inexpensive cafeteria in Rockefeller Center for lunch. I'm sorry I never sat down and talked to him. I didn't want to bother him. Celebrities need some time out. Besides, he looked so tired.

But at this distance, I have the feeling he wouldn't mind my responding to the central thrust of his book, which is to "love your country but always believe it can be improved."

The obvious double meaning of the book's title is a spur to readers to enjoy their short time on earth by doing their best to make America a better place for the next generation.

Michael D. Langan is a frequent News reviewer and a former member of both the U.S. Labor and Treasury Departments.


The Time Of Our Lives: A Conversation About America

By Tom Brokaw

Random House

291 pages, $26