By Joe Conason, November & December 2008
The James Bond of TV newscasters has raced cars, has dodged gunfire, and jets around with McCain and Obama. But for NBC’s Brian Williams, there’s no place like home.
The conversation that would ultimately catapult Brian Williams from obscurity into the bright lights took place on a spring evening in a Manhattan hotel bar, just across Fifth Avenue from Central Park. Tom Brokaw, then anchor of the NBC Nightly News, had chosen the quiet watering hole at the elegant old Pierre hotel for a discreet meeting with Williams, simply because none of the young reporter’s colleagues at the local CBS affiliate were likely to make an inconvenient appearance there on a weekday evening. No gossip columnists were likely to show up, either.
It was 1993, and Brokaw had been impressed with Williams’s coverage of the initial attempt by a gang of Islamic terrorists to blow up the World Trade Center in February. So Brokaw invited him to discuss the possibility of leaving CBS, the network where he had already spent years working his way up from one broadcast market to the next. “I never understood why CBS wasn’t finding more room for him at the network level,” Brokaw recalls.
The reigning face of NBC News listened as Williams confided his lifelong desire to become a network news anchor -- an idea he had conceived in childhood, abandoned after dropping out of college, then embraced again after starting his career as a TV journalist in Kansas. Finally, Brokaw, who would become Williams’s mentor and close friend, said the words that persuaded the younger man to jump to NBC: “I told him, ‘If you look around, there is nobody behind me. You can get in line.’”
Today, sitting in his glass-walled corner office in Rockefeller Center, Williams still feels intense gratitude toward Brokaw. “You know, I owe much of what I enjoy in life to one guy. I’m in a unique position. This is the guy who sealed the deal to bring me here, who told me that day that he was looking for someone to take over.”
When Williams finally settled in as anchor and managing editor of the NBC Nightly News on December 2, 2004, Brokaw handed him a stopwatch that his own predecessor, the late John Chancellor, had given him in 1983 when he took over. The old timepiece was a symbol of succession -- and a talisman for the revolutionary changes in technology, broadcasting, and media culture that were about to take Brian Williams on the ride of his life.
This year has been particularly challenging for Williams and his network. The 2008 presidential race is his first in this anchor seat, coming just as NBC has regained primacy as the nation’s top-rated evening newscast. And last spring, midway through the political season, the network lost its Washington bureau chief and resident political sage, Tim Russert, to a heart attack -- a devastating blow from which neither the 49-year-old Williams nor his colleagues have fully recovered.
Having started the summer in Afghanistan, where he was covering the worsening war when he learned of Russert’s death, Williams soon sprinted onward to Berlin, where he interviewed Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama, then to Tehran for an exclusive chat with Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In August he was off to Beijing for NBC’s blanket coverage of the Summer Olympics. All this mad dashing about meant that Williams and his crew often went days without sleeping “more than a few hours in the traditional horizontal position on anything approaching a bed,” as he wryly noted on his blog, “The Daily Nightly.”
Sleep deprivation notwithstanding, the historic 2008 presidential election has Williams’s adrenaline pumping. “This year it’s as if we work in the toy department,” he says. “I’m trying to breathe it in, every minute of it, so I can remember it. I’m trying to take a daily record of what we’re witnessing.” A presidential-history buff from way back -- as a kid he wrote a letter to President Lyndon Johnson -- “he has unbelievably deep knowledge of presidential history,” says Alexandra Wallace, the NBC Nightly News executive producer. “He probably has every book ever written on the subject.”
When Williams was a boy -- growing up first in the little upstate town of Elmira, New York, and then in the middle-class suburb aptly known as Middletown, New Jersey -- most Americans followed a sundown ritual similar to the one dictated by his father, a department store manager. “Dinner couldn’t begin till Walter Cronkite said, ‘And that’s the way it is.’ Literally. We could not have the family meal until the CBS Evening News was over,” he remembers. It was back then that little Brian decided he wanted to be a news anchor -- a fact he confesses with mild embarrassment.
From there to here was a circuitous route that included a few fondly remembered years as a volunteer firefighter in his hometown, a brief impulse to join the Middletown police force, a White House internship during the Carter administration, and an incomplete college education -- with stints at a New Jersey community college and later at George Washington University and Catholic University of America, both in Washington, D.C. Then he took a job at the National Association of Broadcasters, the industry’s Washington lobbying organization, where he met Ken Schanzer. When he told Schanzer what he really wanted to do with his life, the young lobbyist -- now president of NBC Sports -- set him up to meet the owner of a tiny TV station in rural Pittsburg, Kansas.
“I took this guy to dinner,” Williams recalls. “He told me, ‘There are cows around the base of our antenna. It’s in a cornfield. It’s in the middle of America. And you can come out if you really want to. I can’t fly you out for an audition. We don’t even have that kind of money. But it’ll be a seven-day week at $168 a week.” He took the job, and moved on to work at a Washington, D.C., station, then at CBS stations in Philadelphia and New York.
He was a natural.
“I think he came out of the womb in a jacket and tie, ready to anchor,” says Bernie Smilovitz, a Detroit sportscaster and old pal who has known Williams since they worked together in D.C. “When we first met and we were all single, we used to go on vacation all the time. All of us would bring along junk novels and other garbage to read, but Brian would bring Supreme Court decisions, political books. And even if we were on a boat in the Caribbean, he would bring six starched white shirts, buttoned-down starched shirts…on hangers.”
“I’ve never stopped feeling fortunate that I have this incredible, incredible front-row seat, quite literally, flying around with the candidates, driving through motorcades, going to conventions and debates,” says Williams. One memorable moment on the stump with presidential candidate John McCain strikes him in particular. “It was late. It was the height of the campaign in Iowa,” he recalls of one freezing night last January. “We were in a tiny suburban VFW hall. McCain arrives for a rally. And he had promised us an interview. It was the last thing he wanted to do. It was bedlam. We had fire marshal issues, crowd-control issues. Our microphone didn’t work. McCain wanted to walk out. He was, I will say, having known him for a long time, in a foul mood. I didn’t blame him. It was the end of a very long, grueling day.” A network television interview “was the last thing he wanted to do -- and he did it. And he was pleasant, and he honored his commitment to us.”
For Williams -- the son of an Army captain who served in World War II, and an unabashed supporter of American soldiers and veterans (he is on the board of the Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation) -- McCain’s heroic history as a former Navy pilot and prisoner of war in North Vietnam for five years, along with that Iowa incident, shows he “has a stick-to-itiveness and he has these gradations of things that are bothersome in life. A friend of mine who knows him likes to say that he has been ‘scarred by the professionals.’ So not much gets to him. And people need to know that about John McCain.”
If Williams doesn’t regard Obama with the same kind of visceral appreciation he obviously feels for McCain, he has nevertheless come to admire aspects of the Democrat’s personality that might also serve a president well.
“Driving through New Hampshire with Obama, alone in the front of the bus with him, I was struck by how easily he relaxes,” he says. “He seems to have one mode. There’s no pregame ritual before a speech, there’s no postspeech endorphin crash that some politicians suffer.” Last July, Williams went to Germany to interview the Illinois senator. “Minutes before he spoke to a quarter of a million people in Berlin, he was standing around with us talking and joking with members of his Secret Service detail. He heard his own introduction and turned toward the stage without ceremony or drama. His aides often use the word serene to describe him -- and it’s accurate.”
The candidates’ engaging personalities have made the journalist’s job “more interesting,” as Williams puts it -- and, in a way, more difficult.
“Of all the politicians to end up in this race, as a friend of mine would say, these two guys are ‘quality hangs.’ These are good guys to hang out with,” he says. “Have I watched a lot of journalists fall slowly and head over heels in love with John McCain in the back of a moving bus? Yeah. Have I watched a lot of my fellow journalists at least slightly swoon over Barack Obama in the back of a moving airplane? Yeah.”
But he denies that such bonding between candidates and correspondents softens coverage. “Okay, it may loosen up a conversation,” he says. “It may give me more ease with them. It may give me more access. But you don’t shy away from that. You don’t say ‘Oh, God, I enjoy sitting down talking with John McCain, thus I worry about my ability to be impartial, thus I worry I’m going to give him a pass.’”
Williams gestures beyond his office walls to the sprawling warren of staff offices, desks, and cubicles that fill the newsroom of NBC’s headquarters. “When I originate a piece of writing for Nightly News, it is then seen by four other adults on what we call ‘the rim’ out here in the newsroom. They are, by definition, hopefully by design, people who didn’t wake up with the same biases that I did this morning. They are, hopefully, not all married-for-22-years white males who have a two-car garage, two children -- one in college, one looking at schools -- and my worldview.”
That offhand, thumbnail self-description is objective but far from exhaustive. Williams is a man of many parts, mostly imperceptible to anyone who knows only the sober news anchor whose persona is as crisp and straight as his starched shirts. Only once in recent years has he dropped the cool delivery to betray his deeper feelings, when he was roiled by the anger and shame of Hurricane Katrina’s tragic aftermath. His memorable coverage of the disaster -- Vanity Fair said he “exhibited unfaltering composure, compassion, and grit” -- won a shelf’s worth of awards, the culmination of a quarter-century in journalism.
By all accounts Williams is in private one funny guy. He allows glimpses of that guy during occasional appearances on The Daily Show, Saturday Night Live, and The Tonight Show. (Tom Brokaw says Williams worshiped Johnny Carson.)
One killer bit on a recent SNL gig found Williams in a skit trying to persuade NBC News executives that the best way to attract a younger audience would be to open the news with the flashy new introduction he had produced: what followed was an exaggerated version of the credit sequence of a James Bond movie, featuring Williams as a swaggering, 007-style correspondent.
Smilovitz insists, “If he wanted to host a late-night talk show combining comedy and politics, he could do that. People who only see him on Nightly News don’t see one tenth of who he is.”
That other nine tenths would include the avid NASCAR fan who used to race cars and once owned a share in a stock car team; the adrenaline freak who jumps at the chance to fly in Marine choppers and dodge gunfire; the middle-aged rock fan who exchanges music with his teenage son and enjoys a friendship with Bruce Springsteen; the regular guy from the Jersey Shore who still shops at Price Club; and, perhaps most of all, the proud suburban father who cannot possibly spend enough time with wife Jane and their two children -- Allison, a junior at Yale, and Douglas, star pitcher for his high-school baseball team. (“I was like the Great Santini to him when he was pitching in Little League,” confesses Williams, somewhat implausibly conjuring up images of Robert Duvall’s classic movie portrayal of a blood-and-guts military dad.)
Recalling his first encounter with the woman who would become his wife, Williams -- who has an ear for dialects -- says, “I heard her before I met her.” He was a local Washington, D.C., reporter in the early 1980s; she was producing a weekend talk show on which he was filling in for the regular host. “I was listening to her cues for next segments on my earpiece,” he says. “I met her, and that afternoon I went into the office of a friend who was a sportscaster at the station and told him that I was ‘off the market.’ It was a little arrogant because I hadn’t shared that information with the woman who was going to be my future wife.” He pauses. “She was technically my superior. Not that that’s ever been discussed again.”
If Williams toiled a lifetime to achieve a boyhood dream, he has worked no less diligently to grow a close and successful family. For seven years when his children were still small, he worked nights on cable. “I missed seven years of dinnertime and bedtime. I tried to balance it out. I was at all the daytime school events and often was the only dad [there].” When he couldn’t be there, he found other ways to communicate. “I would leave my daughter a long note every night; she would leave me a long note in return every morning.” Not long ago, Allison found a big folder full of those messages. She had kept every one of them.
The important thing, says Williams -- the man who dreamed his whole life of becoming a network news anchor, and then devoted his all to reaching that goal -- is to have the right priorities at heart. “You send the message that you are happiest at home, in your backyard, in your favorite chair in the den. You’re happiest when surrounded by your family.”
Although Williams is heir to a broadcasting lineage that dates back more than 50 years, he seems much more accessible to the audience, as a person, than the austere figures who preceded him. “I view my job as a seat on the Supreme Court,” he says, without a trace of sarcasm. “I’m in the Brokaw seat on the Supreme Court. Tom used to view it as being in the Chancellor seat; and before him, Frank McGee; and before him, Huntley and Brinkley. And we see it as a continuum. And what you’ll get by tuning in to us is that anticipatable set of assumptions and rules. You’re going to get Nightly News -- modernized but pretty much the way it’s been for a long time.
“Walter Cronkite said an evening newscast is best viewed as a kind of headline service and an adjunct to your daily newspaper. I should add quickly for audiences unfamiliar with that term, newspapers are the paper versions of websites that we hold in our hands. They’re still available.…”
That flash of deprecating wit is the voice of a traditional journalist who eventually won the most coveted job in broadcasting by dint of powerful ambition and very hard work -- only to find that in a changing society, the nightly news broadcast is no longer a universal ritual. The network news divisions have left behind their glorious past and still face an uncertain future, yet nobody believes that they have forfeited their influence. Cable makes much more noise, but the three most popular cable news shows combined reach only a third as large an audience as tunes in to watch Williams every night.
“Do I think what we do is important?” Williams volunteers. “There’s no good way to answer that question and not sound like a pompous stiff. I think it’s important because people watch it. And they are our customers. As long as they’re watching us, I owe them the best job I can do.”
Source (with behind-the-scenes video).