Top of Mind: Jack Williams, Extended Version

By James Burnett | Boston Magazine |

Boston editor James Burnett: You’d better not win any more awards.

Jack Williams: Well, I don’t have any spots for them. Don’t tell anybody, but we’ve got them on the floor, and, uh, Marci says, "Don’t bring any more home, please." You know, I’m deeply honored—I just think if you’re in a place long enough, you get something.

JB: What does it feel like to be in the place you’re at now?

JW: It’s great, you know. I still love the work, I don’t want to retire, I have no desire to retire, I like doing what I’m doing. It’s fun winning.

And I think, to be around awhile, it’s like most things in life: Nothing’s going to come easy—you gotta work for it. …I think people in New England are very suspicious at first of new so-called personalities. It just takes a long time to prove yourself to people. But I will say that once they like you, they’re probably the most loyal group of people in the country, because they just don’t give their affection that easily. So I’m honored. My wife and I have tried to use the attention I’m able to gather at times to try to help out special-needs kids, that’s been our cause….

JB: What was your reaction when you got the call, when you were asked to come back to prime time?

JW: I always thought they made a big mistake taking me off, actually. They tried to replace me with an announcer from the World Wrestling Federation. Fortunately the idiots making these decisions are gone, but you just have to question, What were they thinking?

…Why did I survive, why did I get the call? Because all these years they did research, and I’m still the best-known person they had ….

JB: Ever talk to some of your former competitors, or your contemporaries?

JW: No, not really. It’s not like a little club. I’m so darn busy trying to run Wednesday’s Child—we run it out of our home, Marci and me, and we don’t have any employees—that’s taken more time than I ever expected. But it’s been so successful we can’t let up. And between that and the work hours, especially with the layoffs here—we’ve laid off 75 people—I’m doing a lot of the hands-on. …I’m doing a lot of the writing, especially for 11 o’clock. An awful lot of that. Which is good—I mean, I know how to write—but it’s an awful lot of bodies to lose. All of that’s still got to be done, and the pressure’s on to do a better job….

I got my first anchor job 41 years ago, so this isn’t my first rodeo. I kind of like doing it. I’d rather be busy.

JB: You used to write more of your own copy back on Sundays.

JW: Originally when Tony Pepper and I were the anchor team, ’75 through ’81, we were it, other than a producer. I would write all the local; he’d write all the national. And we had the biggest numbers in the country. But it’s a different animal—I think the quality today is much better. I do.

JB: You were an accomplished student in college, Phi Beta Kappa. If you were advising the you of then now, would you say journalism is a good business to go into?

JW: Nobody knows! I can ask you the same thing. Is there going to be a Boston magazine in 10 years? Will there be a Globe? Will there be a New York Times? I don’t know. There’s such tremendous change taking place today, I really question that. But I do think there will always be a place for smart people, who have a broad-enough background.

I’m a great believer in liberalized education. I’m on the national board of Phi Beta Kappa Fellows…and we’re pushing hard for that whole idea. There’ve been some interesting debates in articles over the past six month questioning the value of the liberal arts education. So many students are demanding specific technical information on how to do [the broadcaster’s] job, and our contention is that you need to learn how to learn and get the good background of good thoughts…. Because no one knows what direction this is going to go in. Right now, we could end up, all of us, broadcasting over the computer.

…This economy isn’t gonna turn around on a dime; it’s just not gonna do it. People will need smart people to read. I know you have to be careful when you say "smart people." Smart people got us into this mess. You know, it’s infuriating what they’ve done, I just can go on and on. I am so angry. I blame a lot of this on Ronald Reagan. That whole attitude—not that he wasn’t a fine fellow, because he was—but he convinced so many Americans that government was the problem, that unfettered free enterprise was the answer. And that is bullshit! I am sorry, you gotta have some control. …There are people beginning to wise up, with Barack Obama getting the votes, and hopefully we can show him some support if we get out of this. We need controls. Greed is a terrible thing.

And I can tell you, by the way, that our endowment for Wednesday’s Child only had 2 percent in stocks. We’ve not lost any money for those kids; we worked too hard to get it.

JB: So you’ve conservatively invested.

JW: Oh, yeah. Same thing goes for my personal portfolio. Although I had overall maybe 15 percent in stocks, and I’m still kicking myself over that. It’s sort of funny, for a liberal I’m very conservative with my own money. You know, I have a seven-year-old car, and that’s fine with me, thank you very much.

JB: Have you been affected personally by the downturn?

JW: Certainly, my family has. You know, it’s just staggering what people have lost…. You’ve seen what’s happened to CBS stock—holy mackerel! They had the whole "fund the future" idea, and it was a great idea, the stock was going to be $35 to $40 a share, and now it’s down to a few bucks a share. Yikes.

…All these things kind of tie together, because with a down economy, with people fearful of their jobs, kids sometimes are the recipients of the anger. I think as families dissolve—we saw the same thing with the crack epidemic back 20 years ago, my God, these kids were coming in, it was just awful. And I’m very worried about that, at a time when we as a society need to rally around them to protect them, because they’re our investment. There are thousands of these kids at stake here. There are several thousand ready for adoption in Massachusetts alone. And [the problem is] going to get bigger all around the country….

I’m so thrilled with Barack Obama and this influence he’s having on African-American children today. I think it is beyond-belief wonderful. Now their aspirations are so high. It’s great that they can see beyond the limitations imposed on so many generations. And I’m quite excited about that. Things can turn around….

JB: In general, where do you turn for information?

JW: I always start my day with the computer. And I get hard copies of the paper delivered to the station, so as the night goes on I’ll go through them. I start with the Globe, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the LA Times, and a couple of small player papers in communities I’m interested in. When you’re online, one of the dangers is that you do a lot more scanning than you do reading. There’s something about picking up a paper that forces you to go through it all. I find it much more fun.

I’ve subscribed to the New Yorker. I think American Scholar is pretty interesting. I like Charlie Rose—my car radio can pick up TV so I listen to his show on my way home. He’s really good with his interviews.

I refuse to go to bed unless I’ve read something. When I go home, Marci’s usually asleep, but I like to put on classical music and I try to read for an hour. I have a can of beer or glass of wine or something, and that’s what I want to do. I spend a lot of time with biographies. Once in a while I’ll go off and just do some real pleasure reading. I finished a book the night before last, one in the Inspector Montalbano series by this Sicialian writer, Andrea Camilleri. Delightful.

I just finished a wonderful new biography on Lincoln called by Ronald C White Jr. Before that there was one of the best books I’ve ever read on Winston Churchill, Warlord, by Carlo D’Este. You know, when you juxtapose those two you realize very quickly it’d be a lot more enjoyable to spend time with Abraham Lincoln than an egomaniac like Churchill….

JB: You mentioned earlier to be a great writer you read great writing. Who are your broadcast role models?

JW: Certainly Walter Cronkite. My first job was at a CBS station, and I got to know him fairly well. I liked that whole group of former print journalists who got into broadcasting during World War II, of whom only Andy Rooney is still managing to eke out a living. Charlie Rose, I can’t stay enough about. In print, a must-read today is of all people a Republican: David Brooks. He just gets it. I imagine most of the time the Republicans are ready to shoot him, but he is really good.

…Great historians…I suppose if I could be anybody at all, I would be David McCullough. Of the past 15 or 20 years, he’d be it. What a voice, of The Civil War. And his books are really first-rate books, and he’s got a great life.

JB: Do you have any writing projects you’re working on?

JW: A couple of things. I’ve started to do some research on what’s happened to all of these Wednesday’s Children. This will be our 28th year in October, so there are children who are now adults, who are in the next generation. Some of them have very happy stories; some of them have very sad ones. I suppose when they finally give me the boot here, that’s one thing I will do….

The other love of my life has been the 2nd Rangers Dog Company. I first went to Normandy in 1984, the 40th university of D-Day landings, and I got to know a number of company members from New England. I have over 1,000 pages of transcribed interviews. …These guys fought from there right up until the end of the war. And we forget sometimes when we’re worried about our 401k’s and everything that that was the problem. When you’ve got Germans shooting at you, that’s a problem. This is an inconvenience….

JB: Is it at all a mixed blessing to be as busy as you are?

JW: Busy is good. I’ve seen some of my friends who made a lot of money and weren’t that interested in their profession, and retired—and I think most of them made a mistake. You can only play so much golf.

JB: You talked about needing to be adaptable, about that being key to survival in the profession. Is there enough opportunity to do the kind of more substantial stuff you seem to find most gratifying?

JW: Well, fortunately here…we don’t just want to redo the morning Globe or the Herald. I think there are a lot of opportunities coming up. But again, I can’t tell you in what form. I think the stations are going to survive. My opinion on what the future’s gonna be? I think there will be about one or two strong stations in local markets. And that could be all. Including Boston. I don’t think the money’s going to come back even when this recession ends. It’s profitable for anybody who’s number 1 and maybe a strong number 2. It’s not profitable anymore for a third or fourth place. The most endangered species in America today—other than derivative traders—would be the highest-paid anchor in the third- or fourth-rated station. Yikes! Hopefully they’ll save their money.

JB: What did you gain during the time where you lost the marquee newscast?

JW: It was very hurtful. Especially when they replaced me with people you don’t think… Listen, I don’t like ego. I’m not overly enamored of myself, but I know that I’ve managed to survive all these years by being able to do some things well. Don’t ask me to build a house. I know how to write, I know how to talk, and I try to present. That’s all I do. And raise kids—I’m better at that than I thought…

But it was hurtful. You know, this goes back to liberal arts: Creative people will find a way to fill their time. Thank you, David Brudnoy, God bless your memory, he saw I had some time to spare, he wasn’t feeling well, and I substituted for him for 100 shows. …And I wrote op-ed pieces for the Herald, of all places, for a couple of years. I was their only liberal columnist…I realized there wasn’t a future there.

But the thing is, if I hadn’t done those things, I wouldn’t have been able to do what we did with Wednesday’s Child, the endowment, which was to get this money for these kids. …This is another bully pulpit, but one thing that really irritates me is so many of these charities with fancy offices and company cars take a lot of the percentage of the money raised in order to perpetuate their lifestyles. I don’t believe in that, I’m sorry. I think you need to sacrifice to raise money to help people who are really, really desperate. So we prided ourselves in trying to put together an organization that deals with volunteers. The guy that does our investments is my own private guy—he charges me plenty, but he does Wednesday’s Child gratis. Just like our attorney—does it totally free. You surround yourself in people that are interested in just trying to make a difference.

…Sometimes you look back at times in your life that were really not very pleasant, and realize they were great opportunities. I couldn’t have done all this with the pressures I’m now under. I wouldn’t have been able to do radio. That’s a good ace in the hole.

All I need is more years, you know. I hope I don’t kick the bucket or something.

JB: Do you feel the pressure of being number 1?

JW: I think the pressures are self-imposed, to keep creating good shows. I’m very competitive. I love it. No offense to my competitors, but I love to whup ‘em.

I think a lot of people in this country are competitive. I think we have all kinds of driven, very savvy people in this country. Unfortunately, most of them don’t get any publicity. They’re not some anchorman on the air or something, or a sports player. …It’s an exciting time, that’s the thing. That’s Obama’s great message. It’s not about dribbling a basketball or how fast you can run—nobody cares, because after a few years time will take its toll. If you have an active mind, that’s the best way to make sure you don’t get Alzheimer’s disease. Keep active. I’m trying to learn Spanish right now.

…As long as I’m healthy, you know, I look reasonably decent here—I’m going to try to stay on the air. …You gotta keep reaching. It doesn’t matter where you are in your life. Look at poor Natasha Richardson on the bunny slope of Mount Tremblant. The next thing you know you’re dead.

JB: Any low point? Something that gave you a little chagrin?

JW: I’m not afraid to ask hard questions, but it does bother me to be a verbal bully. It just isn’t me. I think perhaps I’m not as good as I could have been in some ways. I can’t go after people. That bothers me that I can be kind of soft.

…Going back to when I first came here: I’d known some of the Kennedys in Oregon—I got to know Ethel and Bobby—and Ethel remembered me, and so I had a chance to [cover] JFK’s early years…and I was so enamored with the Kennedys I suppose I sugarcoated them more than I should have. I mean, I was in awe.
JB: Do you talk to anybody in the family now?

JW: Yeah, I talk to Ethel once in a while. She’s been good. She’s supported Wednesday’s Child. Wonderful lady. I always tried to get her to do an interview with me but she just doesn’t want to.

JB: Sitting in your chair, do you sometimes think you’re taking a back seat to—

JW: —whatever’s big, whatever makes ‘em [tune in], if that’s what people want. We’re walking kind of a tightrope, because we know we need to answer some questions, but you can’t become too alarmist. You can’t have too much bad news; you’ve got to have some good stuff. But right now, people really want to know what is going on. On the whole AIG thing, etc., that was way overblown. Because people have just had it.

And I can tell you right now, this is not a good time for those who are ostentatious in their taste and their wealth. It’s a good time to learn from the old Yankees. When I came here, most of ‘em in our community—which had a number of people with old-time money—drove Ford Tauruses. Bentleys weren’t big among the old Boston Brahmins.

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