SECAUCUS, N.J. — Spend a few minutes with Brian Williams, anchor and managing editor of MSNBC's "The News With Brian Williams," anchor of the Saturday edition of "NBC Nightly News" and chief substitute anchor for Tom Brokaw, and he will make one thing plain.
He's not waiting to be the heir to anything right now, except, perhaps, more viewers and validation of the 24-hour news network he represents.
"I don't count on anything," says Williams on a recent afternoon at MSNBC headquarters in Secaucus. "I have a very Depression-era mentality. So I don't sit around plotting, scheming, investing money I don't have, [thinking about] a title I don't have, a future I don't have. You'll be hard-pressed to find somebody who is as happy as I am, who has gone as far on as little--coming from where I did--at this age in this business. I can safely say . . . I'm not thinking about any next job."
Despite such protestations to the contrary, one wonders--the reason for our visit--whether the 39-year-old newsman, who joined NBC News just over five years ago and not too long afterward was being eyed by colleagues and the media as a possible successor to Brokaw, is feeling a little stuck, a little confined.
In July, it will be two years since MSNBC was launched. And while there has been growth in its relatively small universe, Williams--ubiquitous though he is (his broadcast is also seen on CNBC)--plays to an average of 103,000 households with "The News With Brian Williams." Though younger and a more attractive audience to advertisers, viewers are still few in number.
"Nightly News" household averages are more than 100 times higher.
And Brokaw, who not long ago renewed his contract and is still No. 1 in the ratings, doesn't seem to be going anywhere soon. Williams, too, recently signed on with NBC in a deal that keeps him with that news division through 2002.
But Williams, who has a work schedule that's exhausting just to listen to, and a mellifluous on-air manner that is not, says he's just waiting for people to recognize that he already has what he considers "the next big job."
"I keep telling people that there's no language that compels me to sit here," he says. "There's no language that compels me to go from New Canaan, Conn., every day to Secaucus. I left the White House [where he was chief correspondent for two years] for this. I wouldn't be here if I didn't believe in it."
Actually, it's Williams' belief system that explains so much about his career path, his diligence and his priorities in life.
Handsome, unflappable, intelligent and interested, Williams, who could--with the right sunglasses--easily be mistaken for a Secret Service agent, is decidedly old-fashioned for a guy so focused on the future of television.
"This is not a good time in this country," he says in a fairly typical moment. "We are adrift. No compelling national interest. Too much time on our hands. That's why we have 800 Web sites on Pamela Anderson, 14 different kinds of coffee; we have too much free time. . . . I always say that in World War II, there were only about three shrinks [in the phone book]. No one had time to blame everything on their mother. They were fighting; or wrapping bandages stateside; or making engines for the B-25s. I think we've become horribly self-indulgent."
Williams is apparently a man of few indulgences, unless you consider a diet of strictly nonfiction reading material, long workdays and a frequently stated devotion to family, a study in excess.
No, it's the air time on MSNBC he says is his luxury.
"It's an addiction," says Williams, whose news show is an hour and has the ability to go on and on and on when major news, such as the death of Princess Diana, breaks.
"Once you've tasted from the cup of two and three segments per subject," he says, "you kind of like it."
Which brings us back to professional choices.
"All I ask out of life is that I be around news," says Williams. "And I don't know any way to prove this other than doing it some day, but I don't care about the on-air part. In fact, the notion of having my privacy back is attractive some days. I'm not wedded to the idea of being on television."
Don't think for a moment, though, that Williams takes his job lightly.
"I care very deeply about what I do for a living and that's by way of saying I have the ability to surprise everybody."
"There are some days when I find, because of what I do over here now, Jim Lehrer's job [at PBS] more attractive than the so-called Big 3."
But, again, he's not planning on going anywhere soon. Williams won't leave until he thinks his work is truly done at MSNBC.