Brian Williams — yes, that Brian Williams, the anchor of success and solemnity for NBC News — tells a great Detroit story. This is one of his favorites:
“Donna [the wife of his bosom pal of 30 years, longtime Channel 4 (WDIV) sports anchor Bernie Smilovitz] was celebrating, shall we say, a ‘round-number’ birthday,” Williams says by phone from an office on the third floor of New York’s fabled 30 Rock. “Bernie arranged a surprise dinner at the Capital Grille at Somerset. So my wife, Jane, and I arrive, and Bernie has reserved a private room, probably a dozen guests.
“But among the guests were two of the three network evening-news anchors, because Donna used to work with Katie [Couric of CBS] in the old days at CNN. So you see these holiday shoppers who decided to get a little nip at the Capital Grille bar, they watch me come in and they’re saying, ‘Well, isn’t that weird? Did you see who’s here?’ But then Katie walks in, and they really start pounding back their holiday toddies! It was really funny. If we’d had Charlie Gibson, it would have been a total hat trick.”
In these dismal times, when any Detroiter would be justified in believing the national media uses our city as its personal piñata, let us take heart in knowing at least one network news nabob appears to have the Motor City’s collective back. “When I talked to my friend Bernie, he asked the natural question: ‘What the hell do they want to talk to you about?’ ” says Williams, his natural sense of humor cleverly masked by the familiar, authoritative tenor TV viewers have come to trust since 2004 as anchor and managing editor of the NBC Nightly News (6:30 p.m. weeknights, Channel 4 in Detroit).
“I said, ‘I think they have approached me as a friend of Detroit,’ and I am. I consider myself one. I cheer on a constant basis for all of Detroit. I never miss an opportunity to mention Detroit on Nightly News, hopefully more positive than negative.”
Smilovitz, turning serious for a moment from his customary role as resident court jester on Local 4 News, concurs. “The one thing that’s unbelievable to me, at least for us here in Detroit, is that if we have something that’s pressing or telling or needs to be addressed, we let Brian know these things are happening or we need help,” Smilovitz says. “He’s a friend of Detroit from the word go, and I think he always will be.”
Part of Williams’ attachment to our town is rooted in his close relationship with Smilovitz, who met Williams while the two worked together at WTTG-TV, now the Fox affiliate in Washington, D.C., in the 1970s — Smilovitz as the station’s sportscaster, Williams as a street reporter. “There were many, many instances through the years when Brian was just a reporter on the street, that we knew he was going to be the anchorman of the nation,” Smilovitz says. “We just knew it being around him, because his whole life was geared toward that.”
The ties that bind Williams to Detroit run deeper, however. His mother-in-law, Patricia Lovejoy Stoddard, grew up on the 1700 block of Iroquois in Indian Village. “Like everyone else, her father was involved in the auto industry,” Williams says. “I don’t know in what capacity. He was a tinkerer. I’ve heard stories about all the different things he customized in the Indian Village house. I have actually given the address to [WDIV anchor] Carmen Harlan, who is kind of an amateur curator of homes and lives very close to where my mother-in-law grew up.” Further, his brother, Richard Williams, lived and worked in Troy for many years as a construction executive at Kmart corporate headquarters before relocating to El Paso, Texas.
Though he has heartland connections, Williams, 50, is a son of the East Coast. He was born in Ridgewood, N.J., and moved with his family to Elmira, N.Y., and Middletown, N.J. (He spent several years as a volunteer firefighter in New Jersey, an accomplishment of which he’s particularly proud.)
He attended both George Washington University and the Catholic University of America, but did not graduate, leaving school to accept an internship with the Carter administration. He’s collected seven honorary degrees since then, however.
Today, Williams — recipient of the George Foster Peabody Award, the electronic media’s highest honor, and once ranked by Time magazine as one of the “100 Most Influential People in the World” — says he views Detroit “with great affection. It is America. To me, it’s where normal people live and work. It’s a place that, for reasons unrelated to Detroiters, the workers have been so down on their luck. Detroiters don’t ask for much.”
A frequent and welcome guest on entertainment programs, including The Daily Show With Jon Stewart and The Late Show With David Letterman (“To let people know that I have legs,” he jests), the anchorman recalls, “One of the last appearances I made on The Tonight Show was before Jay [Leno] left, and Bernie said to me the night before, ‘Put in a good word for Detroit.’ He said to tell Jay, because he knew we always talked cars, that ‘Detroit is full of good workers who just want to be told what to make next. They’re skilled workers and they’re willing to work — just put them to work.’
So I made that point on The Tonight Show and we got a huge response. People called and wrote to thank me.
“When I say nice things about Detroit in the national media, it’s because I genuinely love the place. We’ve been up to Pine Knob [DTE Energy Music Theatre]; we’ve seen shows at the Fox. We try to go to dinner a lot when we’re there. I love shopping in Birmingham. And, of course, when my wife and I come out to visit, we’re always forced to watch old tapes of Bernie’s sportscasts, some dating back to the early 1980s.
“You know, I’m an American car guy as well,” Williams adds, with an audible tinge of pride. “I don’t do it for appearances, like a politician. I buy American cars because I love American cars. That’s the household I grew up in. My dad was religious about it. I frankly wish [the] ‘car czars,’ the administration team that’s charged with fixing the auto industry — that more of them owned American. I think you have to own American to know about it.
“I just told a buddy of mine who’s looking to trade in a gas guzzler, ‘Man, go to the Ford dealer first and see the 2010s. See the new Edge, check out the new Focus. I am a happy and proud Mustang owner. I have an ’09 GT ‘Bullitt’ edition, black. I just love that car. No one’s taking that car away from me.”