The anchor of NBC Nightly News,the top-rated news broadcast, is one of the most powerful journalists alive. And just wait till you taste hisMinute Rice.
Author David Carr Illustration Jeffrey Decoster
THERE’S A REASON BRIAN WILLIAMS’ REGULAR-GUY IMAGE IS SO EFFECTIVE. It happens to be true. Yes, he makes about $10 million a year and he is just about the closest thing we have to a Walter Cronkite. And yes, he lives atop the evening news ratings. But for all the plaudits and the silky-smooth drop-bys on The Daily Show, Late Night with Jimmy Fallon and Saturday Night Live, the man is toweringly normal. Raised in Middletown, New Jersey, he didn’t seem destined for the anchor desk. He attended three colleges without graduating—a deep regret now—and was on his way to becoming a firefighter when he landed an internship with the Carter administration.
That was followed by an early job in broadcasting in Pittsburg (without the “h,” in Kansas). After a stint as a local reporter in Washington, D.C., he moved up to New York to work for WCBS. He became the White House correspondent for NBC in 1994, and in 1996 he was chosen to anchor the news on the nascent MSNBC. When Tom Brokaw retired in 2004, Williams slid into the network chair without a hitch. NBC and Williams have since won a Peabody for reporting during Hurricane Katrina, which goes nicely with Williams’ five Emmys and four Edward R. Murrow Awards, all of which live in a room above his garage at his home in Connecticut.
In the middle of the summer, we meet for a hamburger (his favorite) in Manhattan. Due to some confusion, Williams winds up standing out in front waiting, accompanied by a big, goofy golf umbrella—the only thing handy at the office.
“I’ve been standing out here with this umbrella, looking like Mr. Peanut,” he says. “People have just been blasting away with their iPhones, taking my picture, each one of them grabbing a bit of my soul. They don’t say anything. They just take the picture and move on.”
Inside, as we wait for a table, the guy behind us makes a call. “I’m in line with Brian Williams,” he says in a stage whisper.
“I’m right here,” the anchor says, turning. “I can hear you. Would you like me to tell your friend that I am really me?” He says all of this without rancor, just amusement at the public dimensions of a very public job.
HEMISPHERES: Let’s get right to it. You’ve got a really good job, you make a lot of money, and people actually care about what you think. How did that happen?
WILLIAMS: I’m probably the least equipped person to answer that. When we get back to the newsroom, I’ll show you the picture of me standing outside of my firehouse. I was two weeks away from taking the nighttime dispatch exam in Freehold, New Jersey, because a buddy of mine had the night shift, and I thought that seemed like a pretty good life. Then I took a trip to Washington, D.C., and things changed.
HEMISPHERES: You became an intern for Jimmy Carter.
WILLIAMS: Well, he was president at the time, but I worked in the building next door. He exerted no choice over my selection. I did meet him once. I opened mail, I put letters under a signature machine, got coffee—everything an intern is supposed to do. I was never a college student per se. I went to a community college, failed miserably and transferred to two other colleges. The most I can say is that I was willing to take chances, and I was in no mood to give up. And I’ve been the beneficiary of good deeds by good people all my life.
HEMISPHERES: Talent must have something to do with it.
WILLIAMS: Well, that’s in the eye of the beholder. I work in the most subjective business on the planet.
HEMISPHERES: How do you like the job?
WILLIAMS: I love the job. I dreamed of the job. I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth. The job is not only writing and presenting, but having a say in what gets covered and thus what gets reported to the largest single daily audience for news in the United States.
HEMISPHERES: Your daughter graduated from Yale and your son is in college. How did you teach them to value higher education when it wasn’t necessary for you?
WILLIAMS: They grew up knowing their dad was a fluke who succeeded in an occupation where the ability to write a good lead and fly overnight to Afghanistan and get on the air without rest is venerated more than knowledge of long division. My parents had already educated three children when my father lost his job at fifty and the family went through financial ruin. I have worked since I was fourteen. I’ve never stopped, and I’m proud of that. I had two jobs, three at Christmastime until I was held up selling Christmas trees. My parents made me stop selling Christmas trees.
HEMISPHERES: Now your job involves sitting in a room staring at a camera. How do you know you are connecting with the audience?
WILLIAMS: Because I’m not alone. Carl is behind camera one, Barry behind camera two, Vito the stage manager is there, too. When I can see Barry’s shoulders shaking because he is laughing or they come around their cameras to watch a piece on the monitor, I know we’re doing well.
HEMISPHERES: Cable news has changed significantly since you were on MSNBC. For one thing, opinion seems to be displacing news.
WILLIAMS: I have never, ever done opinion television, and I won’t. I’ll retire without ever doing it. I don’t think anybody is interested in what I think. I had a blast at MSNBC. We had a great time. My executive producer is the president of NBC News today. It was me and Steve Capus over there in Jersey.
HEMISPHERES: You know New Jersey pretty well.
WILLIAMS: I was driving Sunday with my daughter and she said, “How do you know this little spur off of Route 46 to hop back up onto the toll?” I looked at her and said, “I’m from here.” I feel sad for the people who don’t know the 46 cut-off from the Turnpike, who don’t know that last minute skootch to get over and then how on the way back you may eat a few cones to get into those nice EZ Pass lanes.
HEMISPHERES: What do you drive?
WILLIAMS: I have a Mustang, a black GT. I can probably buy any car I read about in Road & Track, but I have a Chevy SUV and a black Ford Mustang. I’m an American car guy, raised that way. It’s what I want.
HEMISPHERES: What else do you do for fun besides cruise the Turnpike in your souped-up Mustang?
WILLIAMS: I shouldn’t say this, because it will get my captain in trouble, but I go over to Engine Twenty-three on the West Side any night my wife is out and I don’t have to go home. I go over there and sit in the kitchen with the guys and have dinner.
HEMISPHERES: You are a maniac. Okay, speed round. You’re a Giants fan. Favorite player?
WILLIAMS: Until his recent troubles I would have answered Lawrence Taylor, because in my view he changed the way the game was played.
HEMISPHERES: Favorite NASCAR driver now that Dale Earnhardt Sr. has gone to that big oval in the sky?
WILLIAMS: None that I worship as much as I worshiped Dale. His death kind of changed the way I view the sport.
HEMISPHERES: You’re deep into presidential history. Let’s hear an obscure presidential fact.
WILLIAMS: President James Garfield pined for squirrel soup on his deathbed in the White House.
HEMISPHERES: Speaking of which, when it’s date night with your wife, what do you eat?
WILLIAMS: Chicken breast on the grill and Minute Rice that I cooked.
HEMISPHERES: I’m not sure you want to brag about cooking Minute Rice. Moving on, people would be surprised if they knew you watched…
WILLIAMS: The Real Housewives of New Jersey.
HEMISPHERES: Favorite song by Bruce Springsteen?
WILLIAMS: “Valentine’s Day” I think is a masterpiece.
HEMISPHERES: Nice umbrella by the way, but I didn’t notice any rain. You’re supposed to be a weather wonk.
WILLIAMS: I am! When it was announced that we were buying the Weather Channel, it was like Mardi Gras in my house. I love me some Weather Channel.
DAVID CARR writes about media and culture for The New York Times. His favorite Bruce Springsteen song is “Candy’s Room.”