It should come as no surprise that Pentagon spokesman Pete Williams lists his hobbies as tap dancing and mountain climbing. Under the relentless questioning of reporters—and the unblinking scrutiny of armed forces brass—since the start of the gulf war, Williams has had to be quick on his feet and as surefooted as a goat. As Williams sees it, the art is in furnishing enough facts to satisfy the journalists—but none that will endanger American lives. “Actors have a nightmare that they will forget their lines,” says Williams. “Briefers have a nightmare they will blurt out that hidden piece of information.”
Twenty months ago, when Williams, then 37, joined the Pentagon as an Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs, he barely knew the difference between an M16 and MTV. Now, as the Defense Department’s public relations point man, he is charged with the vital task of putting the military’s case in the best possible light and helping to win hearts and minds on the home front. In that role the rangy, 6’3″ bespectacled Williams has proved to be one of the Pentagon’s most useful weapons. Although journalists remain frustrated by the sluggish flow of information from the military, Williams has earned praise for his candor and command of the facts. “He treats everyone with deference and respect—even when they don’t deserve it,” says John Broder, who covers the Pentagon for the Los Angeles Times. “Imagine being squeezed between the U.S. military and the U.S. media.”
That respect is at least partly because Williams has been a working journalist himself. Born in Casper, Wyo., he graduated from Natrona County High School, the alma mater of his present boss, Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, in 1970. (Pete’s father, Dr. Louis Williams, an orthodontist, served as an officer with the famed Merrill’s Marauders in Burma during World War II; his mother, May Louise, sells real estate.) He went to Stanford intending to be an electrical engineer, but after reading a book on the legendary broadcaster Edward R. Murrow, he set his sights on being a newsman. After graduation, he worked for about 10 years at TV-radio station KTWO in Casper. In 1986, eager for adventure in Washington, he left Wyoming to become press secretary to then Representative Cheney; they moved to the Pentagon together in the spring of 1989. The two have an extremely close working relationship. “Pete has the confidence of Cheney and a very good feel for what Cheney will accept,” says TIME senior correspondent Bruce van Voorst.
Williams freely admits that he wasn’t exactly overqualified for the job in the beginning. “When I came to the Pentagon, I went to my first meeting and I understood about one word out of 20,” he says. But he set about learning the ropes, which required not only a lot of study but enormous self-confidence. “He’s not the least bit bashful in meetings about asking officers questions that to them may seem naive or basic,” says Col. Bill Smullen, a public-affairs officer for the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Williams has become a key member of the Pentagon’s inner circle. Each morning he sits in on the briefing given to Cheney in the National Military Command Center at the Pentagon. After last week’s bombing tragedy in Baghdad, in which the Iraqis claimed that some 500 civilians died, Williams somberly—yet forcefully—argued the administration’s position that the bombs hit a legitimate military target.
These days, with the war on, Williams has little time to listen to his favorite jazz CDs or to go out on his customary 50-mile bike treks through the Virginia countryside. Neither does the bachelor have time to pursue his interests in gourmet cooking or mountain climbing. As for tap dancing, which he studied for five years back in Casper, that too has been neglected. Yet, as the Pentagon press corps will attest, the fast-on-his-feet Williams is still a virtuoso.
Bill Hewitt, Linda Kramer in Washington