"I've never stopped feeling fortunate that I have this incredible, incredible front-row seat, quite literally, flying around with the candidates, driving through motorcades, going to conventions and debates," says Williams. One memorable moment on the stump with presidential candidate John McCain strikes him in particular. "It was late. It was the height of the campaign in Iowa," he recalls of one freezing night last January. "We were in a tiny suburban VFW hall. McCain arrives for a rally. And he had promised us an interview. It was the last thing he wanted to do. It was bedlam. We had fire marshal issues, crowd-control issues. Our microphone didn't work. McCain wanted to walk out. He was, I will say, having known him for a long time, in a foul mood. I didn't blame him. It was the end of a very long, grueling day." A network television interview "was the last thing he wanted to do--and he did it. And he was pleasant, and he honored his commitment to us."
For Williams--the son of an Army captain who served in World War II, and an unabashed supporter of American soldiers and veterans (he is on the board of the Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation)--McCain's heroic history as a former Navy pilot and prisoner of war in North Vietnam for five years, along with that Iowa incident, shows he "has a stick-to-itiveness and he has these gradations of things that are bothersome in life. A friend of mine who knows him likes to say that he has been 'scarred by the professionals.' So not much gets to him. And people need to know that about John McCain."
If Williams doesn't regard Obama with the same kind of visceral appreciation he obviously feels for McCain, he has nevertheless come to admire aspects of the Democrat's personality that might also serve a president well.
"Driving through New Hampshire with Obama, alone in the front of the bus with him, I was struck by how easily he relaxes," he says. "He seems to have one mode. There's no pregame ritual before a speech, there's no postspeech endorphin crash that some politicians suffer." Last July, Williams went to Germany to interview the Illinois senator. "Minutes before he spoke to a quarter of a million people in Berlin, he was standing around with us talking and joking with members of his Secret Service detail. He heard his own introduction and turned toward the stage without ceremony or drama. His aides often use the word serene to describe him--and it's accurate."
The candidates' engaging personalities have made the journalist's job "more interesting," as Williams puts it--and, in a way, more difficult.
"Of all the politicians to end up in this race, as a friend of mine would say, these two guys are 'quality hangs.' These are good guys to hang out with," he says. "Have I watched a lot of journalists fall slowly and head over heels in love with John McCain in the back of a moving bus? Yeah. Have I watched a lot of my fellow journalists at least slightly swoon over Barack Obama in the back of a moving airplane? Yeah."
But he denies that such bonding between candidates and correspondents softens coverage. "Okay, it may loosen up a conversation," he says. "It may give me more ease with them. It may give me more access. But you don't shy away from that. You don't say 'Oh, God, I enjoy sitting down talking with John McCain, thus I worry about my ability to be impartial, thus I worry I'm going to give him a pass.'"