The accidental man: On the surface of things, Brian Williams was a very strong early achiever.
After two years of community college, he came to Washington in September 1979 as a student at Catholic University.
Things took off from there—or at least, it seems they did. As of 1980, he had an internship at the White House. It became a paying job.
When Jimmy Carter left the White House, so did Williams. Still just 21, he moved to a job at the political action committee of the National Association of Broadcasters. His boss, Ken Schanzer, later described his role thusly:
“Although he was only an aide, he helped us raise money, organize nationally, and was a key member in all the discussions charting the direction in which we were going to go. I thought he was enormously mature and politically sophisticated for his years.”
Who knows? Maybe Schanzer was embellishing when he made those remarks. (Schanzer went on to be head of NBC Sports.) At any rate, one thing seemed to lead to another from there. By the time he was 34, NBC News was paying Williams $2 million per year.
Here’s our question: How did Williams get that first gig at the White House? In 2012, the anchor answered the question this way in a commencement address at George Washington University.
Warning! Self-deprecation alert!
WILLIAMS (2012): I come down [to Washington] and I tried to transfer my vast credits from Brookdale [Community College] to Catholic University. They have run out of dorm space because I am a little late in applying, so they find room for me in the administration building of Trinity College across the street. There are eight of us living on the top floor—eight men, 600 Catholic women. It was fantastic.“Things just started happening to me!” That should probably be the motto on Williams’ coat of arms.
And things just start happening to me. One of the young men we lived with in the administration building named Rocco came home one day and said he had to vacate an internship at the White House, was anyone interested?
I owned one blue blazer, again not to brag, but I had worked at Sears, and I bought it with my employee discount.
And I said, “Why, Rocco, that sounds like a terrific opportunity for me. After all, there is nothing about my background that doesn't leave me perfectly equipped to go into the West Wing every day.”
And so I interviewed for the internship, and by some quirk I got it. And for the next year, every day I was going into the West Wing in the Old Executive Office Building, while trying to pursue my college studies at Catholic University.
Williams’ story may be perfectly accurate, of course. On the other hand, does that sound like the way people get internships at the White House? Rocco says he’s leaving his post, does anyone want to take it?
That story may be perfectly accurate. We know of no reason to think that Williams had any pull inside the Carter White House. On the other hand, has any journalist profiling Williams ever bothered to ask?
That said, it’s a perfect example of the humble, sad-sack way Williams has always tended to tell his life story. Except in the early days, when the early profiles began presenting his life in a dangerous way—in terms of wealth and connection.
As Williams continued that commencement address, he told a sad sack, woe-is-me tale about the reason why he dropped out of college in 1980. Earlier in his career, he had told the same story in an extremely upbeat way, as we noted in this morning's report.
Will the real Brian Williams please stand up? Do you believe the story he told about his route to the White House?