Don't be fooled by the shaggy dog stories. "He's intensely aggressive," says his boss, NBC News president Andrew Lack. "But what makes him unique is that he knows how to turn a phrase and to write for television." So why is Williams famous among his friends for self-deprecating jokes? "He wants to be treated as a nice guy," says Williams's NBC colleague Jim Miklaszewski, "not a network star."
Yet a network star he is. Last November, after just two years at NBC, Williams signed a reported $5 million, five-year contract that puts him first in line to sub for Tom Brokaw on the Nightly News when the anchor is on vacation. Will he succeed Brokaw, 56, some day? Quite likely, NBC sources say. But first, to maximize his exposure, Williams could succeed Bryant Gumbel when the Today cohost steps down at year's end—if the job doesn't go to Today news anchor Matt Lauer.
Brokaw, though he has no plans to abdicate anytime soon, finds nothing wrong with Williams's high profile. "He's in the front ranks. And I don't feel threatened by it at all," Brokaw says. "But he ought to be able to [concentrate] on becoming the best damn White House correspondent he can be and not worry about all this other stuff." Williams claims he doesn't. "This is a career-capping job for me," he says, "I pinch myself every day."
Becoming a TV newsman was Williams's dream from the time he was 5. "He used to imitate Walter Cronkite," says his father, Gordon, 79, a retired marketing executive. (His mother, Dorothy, an amateur actress, died of lymphoma in 1992.) At Mater Dei, a Catholic high school in Middle-town, N.J., where the family moved from Elmira, N.Y., when Brian was 10, "I was not a stellar student," he admits. After enrolling at Brookdale Community College in Lincroft, N.J.—while moonlighting as a Middletown volunteer fireman—he transferred to Catholic University in Washington. But instead of earning a B.A., in 1980 he nabbed a job as a TV reporter at KOAM in Pittsburg, Kans. A year later he returned to Washington, covering the Pentagon and the '84 Democratic Convention for WTTG. One day, while subbing for Maury Povich, then host of the local TV newsmagazine Panorama, Williams immediately fell in love with the show's producer, Jane Stoddard. "He had all of us in the control room laughing at his jokes," recalls Jane, who married him in June 1986 and put her career on hold to start a family.
Allison was born in 1988, while her dad was working for then-CBS-owned WCAU-TV in Philadelphia; Douglas came along in 1993, when Williams was a reporter and noon anchor for WCBS-TV in New York City, the network's flagship. NBC saw a hot property and approached him that year about jumping ship. Williams was torn, but a quiet tête-à-tête with Brokaw in the lobby of Manhattan's Pierre Hotel helped make up his mind. "I told him his life at NBC could be very exciting," says Brokaw. And indeed it was. During Williams's first year at the network, he covered everything from South Africa's first post-apartheid elections to the Iowa floods—for which he won an Emmy. To boost his visibility, his bosses installed Williams at the White House in 1994.
Through it all, he says, being a family man has given his skyrocketing career a solid base. He drives Douglas to preschool every morning, attends Allison's soccer games on Saturdays and, alternating with Jane, reads to them at night. "Bedtime deadlines," he says, "are sometimes as important to me as on-air deadlines."
MICHAEL A. LIPTON
MARY ESSELMAN in Washington
- Mary Esselman.
ON THE EVENING NEWS, NBC White House correspondent Brian Williams cuts a dashing figure. At 61", dark blond and immaculately suited, he always seems poised and in charge—even when reporting on Whitewater or questioning President Clinton about U.S. response to Cuba's downing of two civilian planes last Feb. 24. But in his own home—a rented, four-bedroom house just 15 blocks from the White House—Williams, 36, says he's really Clark Griswold, the bumbling dad played by Chevy Chase in the National Lampoon Vacation movies. A case in point: Last Christmas, en route to see relatives in New Jersey, Williams and family stopped off at a turnpike rest stop for dinner. Sitting down to eat, he absent-mindedly took a swig from a Styrofoam cup his wife, Jane, 38, had placed on the table after their mutt Lucy had drunk from it. "Yeah, dog water," sighs Williams with a Chevy-like eye roll. "Right down the hatch."