BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Brian Williams, can you remember when you first got interested in history?
BRIAN WILLIAMS, NBC NEWS ANCHOR: Oh my goodness. I guess when I read my first school textbook. I do know that I wrote President Johnson when I was eight and I know that because one night, watching Michael Beschloss on a show called "Booknotes," he mentioned a one Brian Lamb, that he had called the Johnson library and he said, I wrote President Johnson. Is there any chance you can find the letter? And they found his.
So in a fit of jealousy, I called the Johnson library and I said you find Beschlossí letter as a boy to Lyndon Johnson. Find mine. And to this day in a case, as you enter the LBJ library, there is a letter from one Brian Williams, age eight in Elmira, New York and Michael Beschloss age 10, in suburban Illinois. And I read my letter today, I was basically inviting myself to the White House and telling President Johnson to cheer up. I had just seen the famous photo of him slumped over the Cabinet room table, listening to Chuck Robb on tape, the young Marine lieutenant in Vietnam and Beschloss is writing him to say, any thought of adding JFK to Mount Rushmore which is a funny concept as you read it knowing what we know now about the Johnson and Kennedy relationship.
So I wrote LBJ, I was always active in current events class and Iíve loved history as long as I can remember.
LAMB: Did you get an answer?
WILLIAMS: I did and in the corner of my letter is a red, almost a check mark which Iíve been told since means it was in his daily folder sample, in his night reading that he took up to the residence of his average letters from young Americans and to now know that the old man read my letter is a great thrill and somewhere in a box between here and Elmira, New York I have the pamphlet Lyndon Johnson speaks to young Americans and a signature machine letter response from the president which I of course assumed into adult head was actually his, into adulthood was his signature.
LAMB: Now why were you interested do you think?
WILLIAMS: Oh, I donít know. Itís Ė I donít know why anyone gets interested in history. Itís just a fascination with those who came before us, who worked on the streets outside this building. I was driving down Rock Creek Parkway in Washington the other day thinking who has made this drive? Did Lincoln come this way during summers in Washington to go to the Old Soldierís Home? I canít go anywhere without thinking whoís been here before?
LAMB: Weíre surrounded in your office by all kinds of memorabilia, mostly for I guess Lyndon Johnson. Is this expensive stuff?
WILLIAMS: It can be. I donít have an expensive hobby like auto racing or you know, I donít play any exorbitant sports but what I did discover a few years ago is if you love history, you can have kind of tactile ownership of history. In this office, Iíve got the signature of Gerald Ford, of Goldwater, of the first President Bush, of President Reagan, Kennedy, Johnson and itís also something I can pass on to my children. In our home, we have a note from Abraham Lincoln and he mentions Elijah Lovejoy, who is a descendant of my wifeís side of the family. Her mother is Patricia Lovejoy, so itís hugely valuable to our family.
LAMB: Who was Elijah Lovejoy?
WILLIAMS: Well, a well-known integrationist from Illinois whose printing press was destroyed. He was later murdered. The Owen Lovejoy homestead is in Princeton, Illinois and is a working museum to this day and Elijah Lovejoy is the subject of a book by the late Illinois Senator Paul Simon who was really something of a scholar on this topic until his death a few months back.
LAMB: Speaking of books somewhere, somehow, I either read or heard that youíre writing a book.
WILLIAMS: I am and I guess it is appropriate to say publicly here for the first time, what itís going to be about and what the working title is. The title that Iíve registered for is "The Last Train Ride," and itís about the death of President Garfield in the early 1880s in Washington, which I have always found was a great fascinating untold story, over rated, over looked story in American history and is a great period piece. He was shot while trying to leave Union Station to join his wife on the Jersey shore. This under rated president, Williams College grad, the first preacher president, the first (INAUDIBLE) to work his way up to president, shot by a disgruntled office seeker as heís always called. He spent a horrible summer in the White House with these grievous bullet wounds and while Joseph Lister (ph) was in the United States lecturing about sanitary surgery, by some estimates, 12 different doctors put their unwashed hands into the stomach cavity of President Garfield and only accelerated his death.
The story of his death involves really the invention of modern air conditioning. It involves Alexander Graham Bell. It involves complete strangers doing what just seemed to them to be the patriotic American thing and making his train ride to the Jersey shore, his last wish, more comfortable by stuffing straw and dirt under the train tracks wherever they could, by lining up along the train tracks as their president drove by. It involved 500 men pushing the train car up freshly laid track to the front door of this seaside inn in Elberon (ph), New Jersey. In a very dramatic final scene, where he only lived for a few days, but did get to taste the sea air he thought would have a restorative power.
Itís a great story and those people who read Isaac Storm (ph), the book about the terrible hurricane in Galveston, Texas and such a great yarn. Thatís kind of the model in size, scope and kind of gee whiz power of this book. Itís taking a story that is extant in American history, that people have perhaps glossed over and highlighting it. And it was finally Walter Isaacson, the author of the "Wise Men," the author of Henry Kissingerís biography, who had heard me telling the story at a party for about the fifth and final time and he said will you please write this book?
LAMB: Did you read Ken Ackermanís book on Garfield?
WILLIAMS: I did. I did.
LAMB: How do you, how do you differ when you see a book like that. What are you going to do that he did not or he did?
WILLIAMS: Well, Iím going to do a take out, really. Iím going to really focus from the gunshot forward and you mentioned the things in this office. I have already gone out into the world of catalogs and memorabilia and already purchased the cover art for the book, mourning ribbons that people wore to Garfieldís funeral, a pass to see his body lying in repose in the U.S. Capitol, that will be illustrations in the book. I will take it as a microcosm and as kind of when the presidency mattered, when citizens out of a sense of public duty, lined the rail tracks to see him go by, even though he could not see them in return.
LAMB: You said something interesting. When the presidency mattered. Youíre suggesting that it doesnít?
WILLIAMS: Well, not in the way it used to in this country and I think thatís inarguable. I think the president plays less of a role in a way in our sense of ourselves and our psyche. People watching this would say, what did you not understand about what just transpired in this country? And I was saying this very day, what a time to be alive if you love history. What a time to be alive if you studied presidential history. I donít know what we have yet. No one does. And what a time to be alive in the time of McCullough, Beschloss, Doris Kearns Goodwin, all these great historians who we have living among us whose work we will now read for years after theyíre gone, after weíre gone. Robert Dallek, itís a great time to be here in Washington, but I donít know what this is yet. Iím worried about some signs that weíre Ė this two America talk, the red and blue states. But I donít know what we have yet.
LAMB: Are we better off with a presidency?
WILLIAMS: Well, each generation gets the leader it deserves, right? Thatís what is said. I think itís an ebb and flow Brian. I think itís a pendulum. I truly do. Look at the Nixon to Carter years. We had these paroxysms. We went from a White House with uniformed guards to a president carrying his own briefcase. And then we kind of swung back to the regal Reagan years and isnít that interesting about us. Weíve just taken quite a turn and will this next election be an equal and opposite reaction? I donít know.
LAMB: What did you do for Jimmy Carter?
WILLIAMS: Not very much. I was going to Catholic University in Washington when a young man came to our college dorm and as I recall, he interrupted a, just a BS session in the dorms between young Brian Williams and young Ed Gillespie, not the chairman of the Republican National Committee, who was my classmate at Catholic University. We were sitting around listening to music, I think, and my young friend from St. Louis, Illinois, Rocco Erker (ph) reported that where he works, Senator Eagletonís office on the Hill, Tom Eagleton late of the McGovern ticket, a great democratic senator, reported there was an opening for an internship at the Carter White House that had to do with incoming correspondence from the Midwest. Basically a letter opener. It was obviously a nonpartisan, nonpolitical position. I have no party. I have no opinions, so as anyone whoís concerned and I went down and interviewed. I had I think it was breakfast in the White House mess and it was hard to concentrate on this man who would be my future boss. I couldnít believe where I was. I was wearing my only Sears blue blazer, the only dress wear I owned. I was hired, that it is to say, accepted for an internship and I donít think anyone in the Carter White House noticed that this kid from the Jersey shore only wore the one blue blazer every day of my internship.
LAMB: Did you meet him?
WILLIAMS: Oh, sure, I did and before I left, Iíll put it this way. Having seen my side of the presidency up close, the correspondence and signature area, when I left in insisted that I watch as President Carter signed the photos that they traditionally let you leave with. Thereís no compensation as an intern, but you do get to leave with the few accoutrements of an internship. So I did get to meet him.
LAMB: Somebody out there in the ether told me that you have documents from the Carter transition time as part of your collection.
WILLIAMS: I do.
LAMB: What is that?
WILLIAMS: They were in a desk drawer and I found them. I was assigned a desk in the Old Executive Office Building. This is one of the great quirks of the history of the last 40 years and I know who this is, youíve been talking to and it makes perfect sense. And I have the original list of potential vice presidents, the original IBM Selectric with corrections, something thatís been in the news of late, the original list of potential vice presidential choices for the new president. I have the kind of, how do we get started memorandum where Carterís handwriting is visible saying, transfer all calls to Plains. Hereís how to answer the phone. Carter transition office, Governor Carter is not in, but may I take a message?
The president, who was later so famous for his love of and immersion in the minutiae of office, is clearing seen doing the same before he is even in office. And Iím very lucky to have these. I guess itís squatterís rights. I will probably hand them over to their rightful owners. Iíll keep only a Xerox and Iíll give the papers to the Carter library. Truth be told, my wife and I live in a converted barn. These were missing for a period of about 10 years during which time I shared the story with no one and was perspiring heavily about it until recently when, in trying to track down a mouse, I moved a wall panel. Lo and behold, they were in the same red manila folder that they were in in the Carter White House. I found them, retrieved them. They are now in safe hands.
LAMB: What were some of those names on there for vice president?
WILLIAMS: Oh, boy, Iíd have to go back and look at them. I think itís safe to say that Americans would be surprised at the diversity of the original list. Ella Grasso from Connecticut stands out. I believe but donít hold me to it, names like Shirley Chisholm, a lot of the politicians of the day, Walter Mondale, his eventual choice of course is on there. Andrew Young I believe is on there but some surprising wide net names and itís all defensible. They can say now either look, this was just a throw out a wide net and investigate all possibilities or oh yes, we were actually considering these names at the time.
LAMB: Do you need, I need to finish the book thing, when do you plan on trying to get that done?
WILLIAMS: You know what. Iím about to go into this long, what I hope is a long and happy adventure of anchoring NBC NIGHTLY NEWS for many years and I think that, as we get further into this job, Walter Isaacsonís advice was, youíre going to need someone to come home to and he said, that while he was working running CNN, he needed to come home to Ben Franklin every night. And he said, youíre going to need to come home to President Garfield every night. So as long as my wife doesnít mind that Iím also spending time with President Garfield at the computer, that will be fine.
LAMB: How long have you been married?
WILLIAMS: Iíve been married 18 years. She was a television producer when we met. We met in a television control room in Washington. She was one of the producers of the PBS series, INSIDE STORY, which critiques the news business and frankly which we could probably use back again, absent any kind of national news council or watchdog group to keep us all honest and keep our noses in joint. And she was also the producer of a show called PANORAMA at WTTG in Washington, where I was working as a general assignment reporter and so she was, I was filling in for the host Maury Povich, who was hosting a daily talk show, which was a kind of serious variety show at the time. He was our news anchor at 10:00 on the 10:00 news in Washington. And so technically I started dating my boss, my superior and we see what happened.
LAMB: And you have two children, how old?
WILLIAMS: I have a 16-year old daughter, who I believe is visible right over our shoulder there and my son, who is also in the picture next to a race car, is 13 and theyíre both doing astounding well in school.
LAMB: And what do they think about what you do?
WILLIAMS: Thatís a very interesting question. I think they think the accoutrements are neater than what I actually do. Theyíre interested in what I do and they see the ancillary effects on them. When my daughter writes a good paper, well, it may just be that by osmosis growing up sheís become a good editor. Sheís learned how to tighten copy as her dad does every day for television. When my son is congratulated for a good verbal manner in Spanish class with pronunciation and a good set of guts for standing up in front of people, well that may be credited to what his dad does for a living.
So theyíre cognizant of that and I think my daughter likes the chance to come see SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE in this building once a season and get moderately good seats and but they do not have a blown out proportion view of what I do. Itís very important to my wife and me that they understand that their teachers at this school, do a more important job every day as do fire fighters, police officers and people who do those jobs in our society. And they also have grown up understanding that this is vitally important to me, that vacations are going to get interrupted, that at times Iíve been gone for eight weeks. At times Iíll disappear for eight days. I was just gone for nine days Tel Aviv, Ramala. They know that itís like catnip, that when something happens, when that phone call comes, that Iím going to be packing up, that Iíll be safe. Iíll be back and they are extremely flexible.
LAMB: If I read correctly, you donít have a college degree.
WILLIAMS: I donít. I was a terrible student. I was in too much of a hurry. I had bad grades and no money and thatís a terrible combination for finishing your studies. College was on me.
LAMB: Why no money?
WILLIAMS: My father had already put three children through a variety of schools. I was a menopausal surprise as we used to refer to it in Irish-Catholic households, so there was long gap between my nearest sibling and me. My father had entered a different stage of life and had changed jobs and money was no longer available for things like that and I was already in the workforce. I started working really my sophomore year in high school. I did all kinds of things. I bussed tables. I sold Christmas trees out of a van. I worked in the hardware department at Sears Roebuck. Iíve always worked and I have a very old fashioned view that if this all ended tomorrow, Iíd be willing to do anything for a living and I feel able to do anything for a living. I would hope I could work in the news business because I need to be around facts and changing events.
But Iím totally willing to do anything that I need to do to support my family. I was always like that. And Iíll tell you what did it. There was a moment. I had transferred from Catholic University to George Washington University because their studies were more flexible by this time for what was happening to me at the White House. And I was sitting in a course on the presidency, that remember I was paying for and it was a night course and the professor admitted heíd never been beyond the public tour of the east wing. I had my hard pass stuck in my shirt pocket with my Sears blue blazer, granted, but I had just been in the west wing as a student and had huffed and puffed to get to this class, had probably left something undone on my desk and I realized, roll the dice and go with your gut. Enter the workforce. Go out there.
This is something you can come back and finish. I never have. Iíve been fortunate enough to get I think five honorary degrees which my father at age 87 finds hysterical and yet donít have the credential that a bachelorís degree represents. I never worried about my reading. I read every night for hours. Iíve already read. I made a deal with myself at age 14 never to let a day go by without finishing that dayís newspaper, usually the "New York Times." When I come back from vacation, itís not often to tell the person whoís bringing in the paper at our house that we, itís not uncommon rather, to save them all and Iíll sit down and get through every newspaper. Itís just a, itís a thing I have. My biggest worry is that a fact will get by me, that there will be a fact in the ether as you speak of out there, that I wonít know about and I hate that feeling.
LAMB: Have you ever had anybody that was about to hire you say that the college degree mattered?
WILLIAMS: Never. And in journalism, think of those who have gone before me, those greater names than mine exponentially like Cronkite and Jennings who also did not complete their studies. It has not traditionally mattered except perhaps at those newspapers with whom the credential is very important. It has not traditionally mattered in television journalism where youíre judged on your ability to write and write quickly, to write a lead to sum up the day, to arrive in a hostile place and go on the air and get it right and look into that camera without the benefit of notes or fancy silly things like teleprompters or producers and get it right. And sometimes guns are going off and sometimes youíve been up all night. But people donít understand thatís what makes our endorphins flow. So thatís not a challenge.
LAMB: I think this is a quote. My mother was a loud mouth Irish Catholic from Chicago. What did you mean?
WILLIAMS: Oh, in the best sense of the word. Anyone whose ever had a loud mouth Irish Catholic mother from Chicago knows exactly what Iím talking about. She was boisterous woman who loved life. We lost her 12 years ago to non-Hodgkins lymphoma. She was a little theater actress, very dramatic and very sentimental, had a lot of courage, could go off on stage and stand in the middle of the stage in a single spotlight and sing like a bird or be the first act in a play. Such a good actress that I remember as a young boy seeing her in "Desperate Hours" and she was in the midst of a hold up. This stranger was holding up my mom and I left the theater. My dad had to walk me out. I burst into tears, forgetting that this was the woman I had just left the house with that she going to in fact be fine. Thatís how good she was. But I see it in my daughter. It has gone right through me and Iím raising a 16-year old actress and singer suddenly, whoís also good at so many other things and so very smart that I think her conundrum will be whether or not to be a Supreme Court justice, a physician or a thespian.
LAMB: Are you like your mother?
WILLIAMS: Oh, I think in many ways I am. In many ways Iím like my father. Heís a Ė kind of the embodiment of Cal Coolidge in many ways. Heís from Framingham, Mass., taciturn, a physics major at Bates College where my parents met, went on to get his masters at night at NYU, spent in life in mostly marketing and retailing, never made a fortune, worked so hard, the old-fashioned work ethic that I admire so much. Of my new job, I think heís more pleased that I have a good benefit package than anything else, but itís that era. Heís a member of the greatest generation to coin a phrase and so Iím partly like him too. I see him in me a lot. I look at the prices on things and I joke with my wife that I only really have about two pairs of shoes. I donít need more than two pairs of shoes. Iím not into shoes; my dad wasnít into shoes. I donít understand people who have a closet full of them. So thatís just Ė thatís what we take away from how were raised.
LAMB: What is a normal day like for you and what Iím looking for is the information flow.
WILLIAMS: Oh my.
LAMB: When do you start that and how does the day pan out from there?
WILLIAMS: Well, a normal day, given that thatís a little bit of an oxymoron and that some of that has to do with raising two children and having school functions and having a lot else in my life, the normal day begins with the tactile feel of a newspaper. Three of them come to the house, "USA Today," the "Wall Street Journal" and the "New York Times" and I will get on the web. I will -- I get a news summary on my blackberry. Thatís buzzing as I wake up in the morning. And then our conference call is at 9:30 a.m. for which I usually come in and take a spot in the editorial meeting here in New York. The bureaus overseas have already checked in. The domestic bureaus join this call and we lay out the day at NIGHTLY NEWS. The next meeting is at 2:30. Thatís where we lay out the front page. Thatís where we make a template to say, well, this is what weíre going to talk about and that way, we then can make changes. Weíve got the pieces we can move around. My personal theory and I think I heard Cronkite say this in an interview Ė I like writing the newscast from the bottom. The first thing I like to get done is that is NBC NIGHTLY NEWS for this Monday. Iím Brian Williams, reporting tonight from New York City. That way, we work our way up and the last thing I write is the first thing I then say five minutes later. Iím not done with the writing until about 6:25 Eastern time for a 6:30 start. But thatís fun. It means your last writing will be your best writing. Itíll be your freshest and itíll be most familiar, most top of mind when you then come out on air. So I like that system. And you know, during the day, we just read a ton. I take home so many periodicals. I read the "Standard." I read the Ė I read "Time" and "Newsweek." I read "Claremount (ph) Review of Books." I read the "New York Times," the New York review of books, all kinds of periodicals.
LAMB: "Weekly Standard" when you were talking about.
WILLIAMS: Sure, yeah.
LAMB: I mean, how do you Ė so much the conservative media criticize anchors living in New York City and in Connecticut for being isolated and never paying attention to their thought. How do you Ė do you ever listen to the Limbaugh show or any of that stuff?
WILLIAMS: Oh, often, often, and Iím one of the few in a very select group that Rush has allowed on when Iíve called in from the car. I do listen to Rush. I listen to it from a radio in my office or depending on my day, if Iím in the car, I will listen to Rush and he will tell you Iíve been listening for years. I think itís my duty to listen to Rush. I think Rush has actually yet to get the credit he is due because his audience for so many years felt they were in the wilderness of this country. No one was talking to them. They would look at mainstream media and theyíd hear sentences like the following: Conservative firebrand Newt Gingrich today accused Massachusetts Senator Ted KennedyÖ.
Well, whatís wrong with that sentence? My friend Brit Hume Ė we covered the White House together, always would call reporters on this. Whereís the appellation for Ted Kennedy in that sentence, you remembers of the perhaps unintentionally liberal media? Why arenít you calling Kennedy something if youíre going to label Newt Gingrich a conservative firebrand? Thatís what Rush did. Rush said to millions of Americans, you have a home. Come with me. For three hours a day you can listen and hear the like minded calling in from across the country and Iíll read to you things perhaps you didnít see that are out there. I think Rush gave birth to the FOX news channel. I think Rush helped to give birth to a movement. I think he played his part in the contract with America. So I hope he gets his due as a broadcaster.
That is an answer that is meant to be absent ideology. But if youíre anchoring a blue state broadcast that is headquartered in a blue state, itís incumbent on you to know as much as you can. I like to feel I grew up in a red spot in a blue state. Elmira, New York, the Elmira of my youth, was classic small town America. My wife and I vacation in Yellowstone National Park every year out in the west. I feel I know that area intimately. I go down to the house where I was born, where my sister now lives in New Jersey. I visit my old fire house.
I feel I have a good, almost again to use the word tactile feel for America. Because of my roots and certainly nothing fancy, an education that was just middle of the road, I had to start out at a community college locally because thatís all my guidance counselor in high school thought Iíd be up for. I feel I have a pretty good idea of what the message was in this last election and what real Americans eat, sleep, breathe, what they do, what they are and what theyíre passionate about. And to make sure we know, weíre going to take this broadcast on the air, on the road rather. Weíre going to get out. Itís one thing to guess about whatís important in Ohio and Las Vegas and Alamagordo (ph). Itís another thing to go there, put a microphone in front of someone and say, tell us about your life. How do you see the country right now?
LAMB: You alluded to earlier, the books. How many books do you read on average, I mean day to day?
WILLIAMS: Well I probably have five going at any one time and among them, presidential fact books, Iíll reread a chapter on Chester A. Arthur for fun or to help myself go to sleep at night. And a lot of political nonfiction I will just read at a Ė in a three-day sitting or over two plane flights. Iíll keep one book in my briefcase. For the long time it was a book called "Cod," about the cod fish and its importance in the American economy. And that was a great piece of airplane reading.
My biggest fear in life is being on a plane with nothing to read. I look at these people who take the free magazine out of the seat back pocket and I shake my head and I say what did you not know about your day today that you werenít going to need reading material? I get shaky when I think about the prospect of a plane flight without a book. There is always a book with me. I havenít read a novel, I am embarrassed to say, in probably 15 years. I read Ė I love Tom Wolfe so Iíve read most of "Bonfire," "A Man in Full," "The Right Stuff." Iíve read some of Buckleyís spy novel. But really my avocation and vocation are so close, I love nonfiction. I live nonfiction in life. I love biography. I love politics. I love history. I have Mike Mansfieldís new biography on my nightstand.
LAMB: (INAUDIBLE) book.
WILLIAMS: Right now, I have the new Sargent Shriver biography on my nightstand. I just finished the new Franklin Pierce. I just finished the new Joseph Ellis, his Excellency on George Washington, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Thatís what I read. It may make me a very dull boy. I fear that.
LAMB: Youíre self taught. If you go back to your education, didnít do too well, but then you got into this reading thing. If you were to recommend somebody listening, doesnít consider themselves to be a very good student, kind of fascinated by the history thing. Give them three or four ideas of where to start.
WILLIAMS: Doris Kearns Goodwin, "No Ordinary Time," Michael Beschloss, "The Johnson Tapes." Donít buy it in book form. Buy it on CD or cassette tape. People donít understand and perhaps the publisher hasnít done a good enough job explaining this. When you do that, youíre buying the White House tapes. You can try to wait for them on NPR and be at their mercy, but with Beschlossí superb narration, with his knowledge of this presidency and the family, youíre really better for it. I think "A Flawed Giant" is probably as good a biography of Lyndon Johnson as there is by our friend Robert Dallek.
I think "What It Takes" by Richard Ben Cramer is one of the great books on contemporary politics. It followed a campaign a few cycles back. You have to read it in his tongue, in his vernacular as he imitates Gephardt and Dole and itís a brilliant, Wolfian piece of writing about nonfiction. Thatís where my taste runs. You know, once in a while you see these catalogs come to the house where theyíre trying to sell you the entire presidential library one biography of each president. Well, thatís catnip for me. I love that kind of thing and I understand my interest skews heavily towards the presidency. A good compilation of the writing of William Manchester, that sums up a whole period in American politics is always good, Frances Fitzgerald, "Fire in the Lake," Vietnam War, Michael Hurr (ph) on the Vietnam War dispatches. Iím trying to envision my bookshelves at home and they just go on for miles and miles and miles and thereís books that I love so much but I also love things like the Oxford supreme court dictionary that you can cross tab any case, any issue, any justice and itís great for dinnertime debates as well.
LAMB: Youíre one of the few people that have done a one-hour evening newscast.
WILLIAMS: Yes sir.
LAMB: You did it for eight years at CNBC and MSNBC. It didnít work and the reason I ask this is because so many anchors have said, I wish I had an hour. I wish I had an hour. Is it not possible? Are people not able to sit for an hour?
WILLIAMS: Well, Iím going to find fault with your question. It worked. It worked really well. It was seen by a very small audience and thatís really no oneís fault. We put it on CNBC as we launched it on MSNBC in its infancy. I think we started out with 21 million homes soaking wet that could see it. Most nights, I understood that when we signed on the air on cable for eight years of my life, I was talking to between 100,000 and 200,000 households and you know what, that was truly fine with us. I say us, the executive producer for a lot of those days is currently the executive producer of NBC NIGHTLY NEWS.
We came up, our farm team was cable and before that local news. Because you know what, we could go home. We could get in our cars afterwards and go home and Brian, part of me has to believe this, because I missed dinnertime with two young kids growing up every night for eight years because I had to have a larger cause. I had to have something that I could say, I could be proud of. That newscast was something to be proud of. We had a lot of our mutual friends, the print journalists in Washington come on to explain a piece they had just written and filed for "Time," "Newsweek," "New York Times," "Washington Post."
I just had an e-mail this morning from one of the friends I made in those days because he become such a frequent guest, Howard Fineman of "Newsweek." And it was a good defensible newscast. It became apparent to us all that when cable took a turn for the noisy, and we all know what weíre talking about here, that I used to describe ourselves as the attractive daughter on "The Munsters." We just didnít fit on the schedule any more. All that while, I could have asked my bosses right around the corner here in their corner offices, to put me on DATELINE NBC where I would have been seen by I donít know, 12 to 20 million people depending on the subject.
The number of eyeballs has never been that important to me. I want to win. Iím highly competitive and I Ė but the quality is so important to me. Again, that sense of, youíre in the car, youíre driving home. Youíre daydreaming. Youíre replaying the day. And in this city, youíve got a long drive home. You got plenty of time to think. You want to make sure that Iím proud of that story. I think we did a lead story right. I think we did that right. I think we had a thorough airing of that. Itís quality and when that stops, Iíll walk away. Iím in this to do good work. Iím not in it just to work in television. And I speak for a slew of people in our newsroom and at networks all over the place.
LAMB: The personal stuff, the view that people have of an anchorman is one who makes a lot of money, is moved around the world on private jets, is chauffeur driven to and from the office, has security around them, is a big time celebrity. What of that is not true?
WILLIAMS: Private jets, weíll take one at a time. We use private aviation as other figures in American businesses do when it is germane to what youíre doing. If a story breaks and we have to get somewhere, I had Ė we had to charter a plane to one of these hurricanes this past summer, because the airport told us they werenít allowing commercial traffic. We had to find a smaller airstrip closer inland and we had eight people to get down there that night and in those cases, it can be called private jets. We call it a charter. We have to get down there privately.
But no, you know, on family vacations, right after this Christmas season perhaps, you will see me and my family in three of those middle seats right there in JetBlue pounding the TV screen on the seat back in front of us like everybody else and itís very important that our children have that, know that this is how our family travels. So do that when itís expedient, when we got to get somewhere or when a company, a private entity, I donít accept money for speeches or anything like that and that is a very important topic to me. But sometimes they will say, for example, Iíve had colleges say if youíll be our commencement speaker, if you will accept an honorary degree, we traditionally have a member of our board donate his aircraft for the day and his pilot. And we realize this is a Sunday out of your life or a Saturday away from your family. So can we fly you to and from? That happens constantly, in the business world, in academia and in the media.
Chauffeur driven. Well, again, that a pejorative term for the black cars that cruise around New York that we take again for expediency sake. I like driving and being captain of my own ship. Iíve got satellite radio that I plug into the cigarette lighter. Iíve got my CDs. Iíve got my telephone that I use a headset for, because anything else is a harrowing experience and I like being able to talk to my wife and my friends on my way home playing music loudly, listen to all news radio and you can blow off some steam without being overheard. Then again, if you got a bunch to read, if youíre preparing for an interview, you have someone pick you up, take you to work or take you home that night.
Security, nah, only if youíre in a very strange situation, usually overseas in a strange place. I canít speak for everybody else. People are very nice in these jobs. Theyíve invited you at some point into their home and they feel if we do this right, what you and I do for a living, they feel a kinship with us. You have this same experience in public and people feel like they have taken away from you a little of your personality, especially after an interview like this where Iím bearing my soul to our modern day Barbara Walters. Iím now giving them more nuggets that they can know. They know I go home to a family like they do and read books like they do and things like that. But that gives them a certain sense of ownership in your life and thatís to be expected. That comes with the territory.
LAMB: Do not take money for speeches. Why?
WILLIAMS: I Ė it gives me an uneasy feeling. A lot of people take it and then put it into a blind fund and give it away like Robin Hood. I suppose I could do that. I would have a hard time accepting $40,000 from the American Association of Truck Stop Operators. Thatís a lobby group I think Ron Ziegler ran in his later years and then turning around and doing a piece on NBC NIGHTLY NEWS about the scourge of amphetamines and prostitution at Americaís truck stops as has been alleged. Does that conflict me, that in my bank account is money from that group even if Iím assigning it to a correspondent? Isnít it better just to say no, to say, especially if itís a charity, I get a great thrill out of telling people that Iím not going to take their money and/or Iíll say, can you turn your check around and put the name of my favorite charity on it? Can you give it to this cause or that because theyíre terribly poor and this much money would make a huge difference in their annual budget? Giving money away, like giving a good gift, is one of the great feelings in the world. I just never want the taint of a conflict.
Tom Brokaw and I were joking a few weeks ago. We got from a company that meant very well, matching fishing gear, already embossed with our names on it and we had to look up in a catalog the list price and write them out a check for it. It was the cost of good intentions. This company meant to give their two favorite NBC people fishing gear and it ended up costing us money, but no oneís fault. We canít accept things like that. We canít accept gifts.
LAMB: Youíve known for over two years that youíre going to be the anchor for this program. Was that a good idea?
WILLIAMS: I think so. I think the better idea was having me as Tomís sole substitute. Weíre seeing a lot of hubbub about our industry right now, a lot of it speculation, whoís going to be this? Whoís going to be that? And I think NBC probably because of the good management practices of General Electric, you know, theyíre very good managers at GE. We have I guess the old term for it is a Chinese wall between corporate and news. So I donít delve too much into the corporate ownership side of the company, but they talk so often about best practices. GEís management is studied around the world and they have a back up for everybody. Well, that certainly has applied to Tom Brokaw. It will apply to me and so I think itís been a good message to say to the viewers, when Tomís not in the chair, I hope youíll welcome this young man into your homes. The implied message all along was someday, we hope itís him youíll be welcoming into your homes.
LAMB: I know this is private, but what can you tell us about what NBC has said to you? What do they expect from you and how many years do they have you tied up?
LAMB: Whatís success?
WILLIAMS: Whatís success? I think we view it differently. I have the luxury Brian of viewing success as a good newscast every night. Now, before I sound too pure, I also want to beat the smithereens out of the competition and I want it to be the one the most people watch. Just as a journalist at the "New York Times" wants to be in the parlance of newspapers out front, they want their story out on page one. They know that the most eyeballs will see it that way. They want the "New York Times" to domestically outsell all other papers. I want us to be that.
The business side, which is not even on this floor, wants very much to win in the
ratings, wants good commercial sponsors and they want to be able to charge I guess better ad rates for 30 seconds and have young and hip products on NBC NIGHTLY NEWS and they want to know that I am an accepted member of the NBC family in American homes. We donít have the same goals and yet we do. We both want to be number one, but weíre motivated by two different causes.
As far as how long they want me around, I would say only that if you look at the history of these jobs, this job that Iím in now, they donít like a lot of turnover. What theyíre doing is now investing in yours truly and saying to American viewers, hereís our guy. The new era has started at NBC NIGHTLY NEWS and make this is a part of your day and find a way in this new electronic universe, those of you who are Brianís age, who are boomers, who grew up with this on before dinner, during dinner, after dinner, find a way to slip it back into your life.
The newscast is still as relevant and as good and as detailed a recitation of events of the day as it always was. It hasnít gone anywhere. You, America, have gotten busy in the intervening years. This is our problem right now in getting some of that share of the audience back. I always talk about my childhood in Elmira because we had a single attached garage, three bedroom, tight L-shaped ranch and our neighbor, Mrs. Jenkins was about a foot away from our kitchen window. I could see what she was making for dinner every night but more important, the Jenkins on one side and the Millers on the other, I could see what they were watching on television because of the flash on their curtains. And when there would be a shot change or a dip to black for a commercial, in the America of two and then three networks, there was a whole sense of communal viewing and you remember those days.
You remember the next day at work or school, wasnít Rowan and Martinís "Laugh In" funny? Were you watching last night when they came on and did that horrible special report saying Bobby Kennedy had been shot at the Ambassador hotel in Los Angeles? The moments good and bad that united us and I was just telling someone this past weekend, I just recently went between channels 500 and 600 on the new digital set top boxes that someone put in our house. I didnít ask for them, but our cable company upgraded them. I hadnít discovered those upper regions. We have a knitting channel. We have a knitting channel that I didnít know came into our house. I donít need it. I donít know what commercial support them. Are there different brands of needles? This is a chicken and egg proposition. Did we do this? Did we the media cause this? Did we give the choice? Were we filling a demand for it? Thatís a book Iíd read. I watched with great interest on C-SPAN recently as the author of the new book of why people under 40 arenít watching the news gave his theories, what his research showed as he traveled the country and spoke to high school kids in Louisiana and kids slightly younger out on the west coast.
LAMB: Before we run out of time, I have a very penetrating question to ask you. I have a question that people will fall off the couch when they hear this one, but I know that people want an answer and that is, where do you get your shirts and where do you get your ties?
WILLIAMS: I get my shirts and ties wherever I see shirts and ties on sale. Thereís aÖ
LAMB: You know why Iím asking. I mean that is something that people write about, your ties.
WILLIAMS: I guess so. I donít even know where I got this one. This isÖ
LAMB: How many ties do you own?
WILLIAMS: This is probably a $19 off the rack Brooks Brothers white cotton shirt and I own a lot of ties, but then my kids school has a used tie sale. All the dads at the school donate their ties with a little drop of coffee or something and theyíre sold for charity. And I have people writing, these jobs are so strange. Here I am talking about the journalism of it all, what Iím passionate about. So many viewer letters are about the tie you wore last Tuesday. My husband loved it. Where did you get it? And Iíve long since forgotten what I wore. I buy regular stuff, the stuff that people buy. If Iím in Union Station in Washington, D.C., Iíll go up Ė thereís a Joseph A. Bank clothing store and I will circle their little tie area and grab one if I like one. The only trick is, youíve usually got to stand back about 10 feet and that gives you a good idea how itíll play on television. But Iím fascinated that there is any fascination in how I dress. I donít think Ėthis show is a common Washington background between us both and I always joke that I never thought Walter Mondaleís fashions go enough attention and Iíve devoted my life henceforth to wearing his clothes.
LAMB: But you do notice others, donít you, when you watch television. You know how theyíre dressed.
WILLIAMS: Yeah, I guess so. I guess so. And I guess when weíre sitting in the newsroom, all those years Tom came on every night, we would say, well thatís a nice tie or thatís a niceÖ I guess itís human nature and I guess if find it strange that Iím now getting talked about. Itís a strange part of a visual medium where we put ourselves out there and ask to be invited into peopleís lives.
LAMB: Letís end on history again. Your favorite president in history?
WILLIAMS: Oh, thatís a tough answer and before I do, Iím going to leapfrog you for 30 seconds and Iím going to say that I would never be able to live with myself were I not to say the following. C-SPANís a part of my life and the life Iíve just described to you of love of history and nonfiction and books, itís as if I have a network that I can watch. I donít have a knitting channel, but for years until recently, I had book notes and will watch briefings, author lectures, panels. It is a wonderful service. Youíve been told it before, but it canít be repeated enough times.
If I have a favorite president, it would have to be Lyndon Johnson and I guess itís for sentimental reasons. It has nothing to do with Lyndon Johnson being a liberal southern Democrat. Iím as fascinated in the policies and personality of Ronald Reagan, but Johnson because I wrote to him, because he was the archetypical president when I came of age. I thought they were all have baked hens (ph) big jowls, big ears, booming voices and pulled dogs up by the ears. He just had big canned ham mitt size hands and he was powerful and overwhelming and yet I could also tell he was vulnerable and he was sad and this war was tearing him up on the inside. He had place all of his credibility and all of his chips on one bet, on civil rights and on social policy and he watched as the war tore that apart. Weíre still watching it get torn apart today.
Now that I have become a friend of great people like Michael Beschloss, Mrs. Johnson, Harry Middleton (ph), the long time library director, Jack Valenti, the young aide who Johnson drafted the day of the shootings in Dallas, itís been such a rich life. Iím the luckiest man youíll perhaps ever sit across from because talk about a tactile feel for history. When Michael Beschloss and I spent a day at the Johnson ranch, going in the old manís closet, seeing the old stall shower where he plugged in his early model Norelco shaver, the phone he used to call Mike the Secret Service agent when life left him as he was having a heart attack and fell by the bed that day. The domino table, the coffee table from Frank Stanton at CBS with a plague on it as a gift to the Johnsons, what a rich day. What a great life and what a lucky man I am.
LAMB: What would you do in life if you werenít doing the journalism thing?
WILLIAMS: Oh, if I werenít doing journalism? I probably, I was very close to taking the police exam in Middletown, New Jersey. I was a fireman. We hung out with a lot of police officers. I loved my town. I was civic minded. I knew a lot of the cops. I can still remember a lot of their names and it looked like a nice comfortable life to fall into, meet a girl, get married, get kind of a split level house, Middletown, New Jersey, a town which it breaks my heart to say is now the title of a book by Gail Sheehy (ph) because of the terrible loss it suffered on 9/11, because itís a bedroom community for the World Trade Center area in New York. Iíd probably be willing a perfectly wonderful middle class life with a two-car garage in Middletown, New Jersey. I have a two-car garage now and having grown up with a one-car garage, isnít that the definition of success in America?
LAMB: Thank you Brian Williams.
WILLIAMS: Thank you Brian.