He may have five Emmys, four Murrows and six honorary doctorates, but Brian Williams still does not have a college degree.
But that did not stop the NBC Nightly News anchor from expounding on politics, journalism and college before a tightly packed crowd in Morse Master Frank Keil’s house Sunday afternoon, moving quickly through his own background before fielding questions from the standing-room only assembly.
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The first challenge was getting in. The crush of students lining the Morse courtyard was so huge that Keil had to turn students away from the tea.
Inside, Keil kicked off the session by listing Williams’ honors and accomplishments, among them a George Foster Peabody award and four Edward R. Murrow awards, in part for his coverage of Hurricane Katrina. He was interrupted twice: Once when Williams actively searched the room for his daughter, Allison Williams ’10, and again when the newscaster lifted the hem on his trousers to show off a pair of shoes (Williams won GQ’s 2001 Man of the Year title).
Williams deflected Keil’s praise, citing his own upbringing in Middletown, New Jersey. Williams also discussed his regrets about dropping out of Catholic University to intern for President Jimmy Carter’s administration.
Then the newscaster began in earnest: The internet has transformed the landscape of the American media, Williams said, affording any and all citizens the means to make their voices heard. But Williams said he worries that the multitude of voices is preventing meaningful dialogue.
Then, the discussion turned quickly to politics. Audience members probed Williams on walking the line between journalistic professionalism and friendship when it came to the presidential candidates, with whom Williams has chatted on several occasions. Williams, who said he has known both Sen. John McCain and Sen. Barack Obama for years, said that he keeps a professional distance with the two candidates, adding that he respects them greatly both as men and politicians.
McCain, Williams said, displayed great patriotism and courage during his time as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. The newscaster said he found it remarkable that McCain could lead such a successful life after the ordeal.
Ultimately, Williams was tight-lipped about his pick for the presidency. Before embarking on any discussion of politics, he prefaced his remarks by noting that he never discloses his ballot choice to his wife or daughter, and tries to present an impartial face to the TV viewer.
“I’ve trained myself in twenty-six years in this business to not have [opinions],” Williams said in an interview following the talk. “I try to call as an umpire would — balls and strikes — and see it right down the middle.”
That did not stop some students from guessing. Naomi Chou ’12 had Williams pegged as an Obama supporter.
“You could formulate his opinion from what he said about his background,” she said.
But Andre Alexander ’12 was not so sure.
“He seemed pretty fair and unbiased,” he said.
And in some respects, the tea was a two-way street. Williams doled out advice on political involvement (“go work for Nader if you’re into Nader!”) and urged students to remember their friends and counterparts serving overseas.
“For every student at Yale there is a kid in the [army] who would love to have this experience,” he said later. “Not that they’re not loving what they’re doing — they love that too.”
Williams’ daughter Allison watched the talk with a mix of pride and anxiety. For the duration of the tea, Williams seated himself precariously atop the back of his chair.
“Obviously his perch on the chair was nerve-wracking,” Allison Williams wrote in an e-mail to the News. “I thought he was going to fall backward at any minute.”
But Allison Williams said the posture invited a more intimate discussion and showed the newscaster’s awareness of audience.
“Many people wouldn’t have been able to see him if he’d sat down in the chair,” she wrote. “It made him look much more casual and laid-back.”
Williams became NBC’s Nightly News anchor in 2004, succeeding long-time broadcasting icon Tom Brokaw. Williams’ coverage over the last several years has taken him to the Vatican for the death of Pope John Paul II, to Iraq for the 2003 invasion and to Indonesia in the wake of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.