Tonight for the first time in 21 years, there will be a new man permanently sitting in the anchor chair for "NBC Nightly News," Brian Williams. It's been a long journey for this one-time volunteer firefighter from New Jersey. NBC's Lester Holt sat down with him to talk about his new job and how he got there. He began by asking Brian what will be going through his mind when he starts the broadcast.
BRIAN WILLIAMS: Well, first of all, I won't quite believe it. It's still Tom's in my mind. I guess maybe when I sign off a few hours from now it will be different, obviously. I don't want to pretend this will be a day like any other day. I feel the weight of history.
HOLT: But is it the same show that Tom walked into 21 years ago?
WILLIAMS: I would like to think so. And Tom has made it the most popular in America, and I think because it kind of skews to middle America. It calls balls and strikes, right down the middle. I think it's probably the best half-hour recitation, look back at the events of the day. I think it mirrors the country it covers.
HOLT: You are the first guy who will walk into this job, or one of the evening type newscasts, that comes from a cable background. Does that arm you better for this job?
WILLIAMS: The hours in the chair, talking to people. You kind of develop a rhythm. And it becomes a conversation with the viewer. And like you, I started 12 years in local news around the country, which is a great proving ground.
HOLT: And the big breaking stories, TWA 800. That was the first big one you covered...
HOLT: ...in the anchor chair at MSNBC.
WILLIAMS: Yes, the first week MSNBC was on the air, and our graphics department had left for the evening. And we didn't have that sophisticated machinery on a good night, so I remember someone got a roadmap from the trunk of their car. And I held it up. It was kind of retro-television, and using my own finger to point out where this jet had gone down.
HOLT: There's been a lot written about Tom and about you. How would you write this story of this transition?
WILLIAMS: I would write it more about Tom leaving, frankly, than my arriving. He's the first guy in memory to say,`This is going to be my time. I'm going to go out on top. And more than that, here's--here's my guy.' And he kind of brought me up here over the last 12 years at NBC News. This is very personal for me because there's a lot of viewers I never want to disappoint. A lot of them friends, family. But there's one new viewer out there as soon as he gets back from vacation, and I owe it to him to put the best newscast we can on the air every night.
HOLT: Let's talk about some of the stories you've covered as a network correspondent. Obviously, you were in the White House.
WILLIAMS: Covering the White House is absolutely the top job. Clinton was the most traveled president in modern American history. He used that aircraft like most families use a minivan. So, you know, my favorite expression:'Oh, the places you will go.' The places I saw that growing up as a kid I dreamed about seeing as a correspondent, but never really believed I would be to Jakarta, Indonesia, or, you know, Tel Aviv so many times I can get in a rental car and drive around and know my way around.
HOLT: This particular war, you started out in Kuwait. But before--almost before the US troops got there, you were in Baghdad?
WILLIAMS: That's right. We--we arrived really--I guess a day and a half after that statue fell. We had to take some extraordinary means to get into Baghdad. It was an incredible conflict to cover. And like everyone else, I come back and I am touched by the young men and women who are fighting.
HOLT: You've never told me the volunteer firefighter story. I always read it when I'm reading the bios and the articles. What was that all about?
WILLIAMS: Some of the greatest years of my life. I can still go back. I can still operate a pump handle if I absolutely had to. I've got my boots. I've got my helmet, even though my helmet is very passe. I couldn't afford my coat when I left the department, so I let somebody else have it.
HOLT: You are a huge NASCAR fan?
WILLIAMS: I will watch anything go around in a circle. The other night on Speed Channel, I realized I was watching British semi or Lori truck cabs racing. And that's pathetic, Lester, really. I love the car racing. State Troopers should know I always keep it at 55 or thereabouts myself. But I just have always loved it. I love the smell of it, the sound of it.
HOLT: People who see you when you appear on late night shows, or see you at dinners, they always come away, `He's really funny.' You ever thought about doing stand-up comedy?
WILLIAMS: No. Too often we begin the broadcast with the loss of somebody's baby. A 19-year-old in Fallujah. We have 22 minutes after commercials in the half-hour. At the end of that half-hour, be joking or cutting up about something, has always felt inappropriate to me.
HOLT: Tell me about the direction of the broadcast. You will sign on. It will be the "NBC Nightly News" with Brian Williams. Will the format change. Will we see any dramatic changes?
WILLIAMS: Tom has worked so hard to make this the number one broadcast in television, to the frustration of two of our friends in the business who do the other ones, and if it ain't broke, don't fix it.'
HOLT: Will your heart be beating a little faster?
WILLIAMS: I can't deny that my heart will be beating a little faster. I'll have a lot of people on my mind who helped get me here. I may thank a few folks at the end and just say, you know, this is going to be an interesting journey.
HOLT: And we wish Brian all the best.