NEW YORK – Tom Brokaw's (search) successor is a NASCAR dad who considers pizza night with the kids sacred — thin crust, please — and listened to hundreds of hours of White House tapes from the Johnson administration for fun.
Brian Williams (search), whose tenure began Thursday, is no stranger to regular viewers of NBC's "Nightly News," (search) but his success depends on whether viewers grow to know and like him as much as his predecessor.
Brokaw anchored his last "Nightly News" Wednesday, leaving on a ratings high with 15.4 million viewers.
Washington bureau chief Tim Russert came to New York for Williams' first show, and was interviewed on the set about the political situation in Iraq. Williams made no mention of the transition until the final minutes.
Then he paid tribute to Brokaw, saying his predecessor was headed out on the world's "most carefully planned vacation. He said he was proud to represent NBC News in fulfilling a dream he had since a boy.
"Thanks to all of your for watching," Williams said. "We'll continue to work each and every day to earn and preserve your loyalty. It means so much to have you with us as we continue a great tradition, starting tonight."
Williams, 45, has been Brokaw's chief sub since joining NBC News in 1993. He gave up his nightly cable newscast and took on several prominent reporting assignments during the carefully planned transition, which was announced in May 2002. He had a feel-good story about a soldier recovering from war injuries air during Brokaw's last broadcast.
The Elmira, N.Y., native climbed the local television ladder from Pittsburg, Kan., to WCBS-TV in New York City, where he caught the eye of NBC executives.
He considers Brokaw his mentor, and his years as White House correspondent during the Clinton administration a journalistic crucible.
His hobby is presidential history, and he's read hundreds of books on the topic. Through a source at the Lyndon Johnson presidential library, he borrowed tapes of the former president's White House meetings and listened to them in the car from his Connecticut home to MSNBC's New Jersey studio — 600 hours of them.
He has two teenage children, and just bought the "Shrek 2" DVD for family viewing. Sunday is make-your-own pizza night at the Williams home.
Like many parents, he cringed when the racy "Desperate Housewives" skit preceded a football game.
"People report breathtakingly about how cultural issues were important in this past election," he said. "Well, I could have told you that. That's my kitchen. That's what we talk about."
As an illustration of the nation's geographic divide, he frequently tells about interviewing a hunter from Michigan who said she can't wait to "take the shot and provide for my family." Blue state residents chuckle at the story; red staters say yeah, what's your point?
It's incumbent upon someone who does his job to understand both sides by getting out and talking to people, he said.
Approaching the heartland appeal of Brokaw, the South Dakota native who wrote "The Greatest Generation," will be key for Williams. It didn't seem coincidental that he interviewed the Rev. Billy Graham for a profile last month.
The anchor transition has led ABC and NBC to launch a presidential-style campaign for viewers; ABC is hoping its second-place evening newscast with Peter Jennings can cut into the lead NBC has generally held since 1997.
ABC News has aired commercials touting Jennings with the tagline, "Trust is earned." In response, a full-age newspaper ad bought by NBC Thursday pictures Williams under the headline, "reporting America's story." Williams, the ad said, has "been there. And back. A seasoned reporter with a passion for the story."
Williams appeared on Thursday's "Today" show — where Brokaw's exit was the day's top story — and was filmed in slow-motion walking through the newsroom with a serious face.
Williams saw the Jennings commercials pointing out the ABC anchor's experience. "He's entitled to it," he said.
"He's had a long and illustrious and very successful career and he is one of many who can make that claim," he said. "I ascribe no inferences in that beyond the fact that they are very proud of what Peter has done."
Come on, Brian, isn't this classic negative campaigning?
"I would like to think that my friends at ABC News would not be involved in that game after seeing the divisive [presidential] campaign we've just been through," he said.
That's a taste of the sort of dry offstage humor people who know Williams are accustomed to. The oft-stated rap on Williams by TV writers/critics is that he's too stuffy in his well-tailored clothes.
"People in your line of work either have an F-7 key [on their computer] which says 'he appears stiff and remote,' or an F-8 key, which says 'people describe him as warm and funny at times,'" he said. "You've got to pick one."
Williams accepts invitations to the "Tonight" show or "The Daily Show" to enable people to see another side of him, but recognizes the danger in trying to overcompensate on the nightly news.
"I regard television news as being an invitation into someone's home, and I guess my Catholic school education takes over when I have my tie on," he said. "It's a very serious business most of the time."