July 12, 1993 12:00 PM

DURING EMILY ROONEY’S SALAD DAYS, family suppers were often lively, even a little boisterous. Never at a loss for words, she and her three siblings dished out their opinions on world events, with dad Andy Rooney, then a CBS news producer and, since 1978, the resident 60 Minutes curmudgeon, right in the thick of things. “We’re a direct family, we speak our minds,” says Emily, now 43, “and we’re all experts on everything.”

As it turns out, those dinnertime discussions were the best possible preparation for a high-voltage career in broadcast news. In May, the hard-charging Rooney became the executive producer of ABC’s top-rated World News Tonight with Peter Jennings. Now not only is she the first woman ever to produce a nightly network newscast, but she also outranks brother Brian, 41, an L.A.-based ABC correspondent.

Emily moved to ABC News’ Manhattan headquarters from Boston, where since 1990 she had served as the first female news director of ABC affiliate WCVB-TV, which she shepherded to the top of the local ratings. To land the network job, she had to survive a tough grilling from Jennings. “I asked, ‘What do you think of…?’ and ran various correspondents’ names by her,” he recalls. “She gave me thoughtful precis of each one. And when I threw her brother—and me—into it, she didn’t drop a stitch.”

Rooney’s forthrightness may usually be an asset, but it can also get her into trouble. In Boston, where her temper once led a reporter to call her Blowtorch, she also demonstrated the knack of being “funny and engaging,” says WCVB reporter Jorge Quiroga. “But, just like her father, she does not suffer fools gladly.” That reputation may have preceded her to ABC’s Washington bureau, where staffers had apparently drawn and quartered her even before she took over. But during a two-day series of meetings she quieted, if not completely quelled, the rumblings. Afterward, the bureau’s members, says Robin Sproul, vice president of Washington coverage, “were enthusiastic about her visit and deeply appreciated that she came.”

Decisiveness, it seems, is also a family trait. Growing up in affluent Rowayton, Conn., Emily—encouraged by Andy and math teacher mom Marguerite—learned to trust her own judgment. “My father once let my sister [identical twin Martha] and me go away for a high-school weekend ski trip with a couple of guys we didn’t know that well,” she says. “He knew it wasn’t going to be a problem.”

Despite an early disinclination to follow her father into journalism, Rooney double-majored in that subject and government at Washington’s American University. Her senior year turned into a “watershed” when she began reporting about Watergate for the school paper. “Let’s face it,” she says, in mock resignation. “Everything in life is genetic.” (Well, almost. Sister Ellen, 45, is a photographer and TV producer in London, but Martha is a D.C. medical librarian.)

After graduating in 1972, Rooney toiled as a Jill-of-all-trades at a small FM radio station in Washington, where she met, married and was later divorced from a fellow broadcaster. Then, in 1980, after moving to Boston, she encountered Kirby Perkins, a reporter at WCVB. At first reluctant “to get involved again with somebody I worked with,” Rooney soon changed her mind. A big part of Perkins’s appeal was his ability to pass the so-called Rooney Test. “You have to be a great cook, and you have to be able to hold your own in family athletic events,” says Emily, who herself skis, swims, plays tennis and does aerobics.

A year after their marriage in 1983, Emily gave birth to daughter Alexis. Convinced that “if I didn’t come back [to work], the Red Sea was going to close over and the job was going to be gone,” Rooney returned to CVB when Alexis was 6 weeks old. The couple hired a nanny and “divvied up the duties,” says Rooney. But things have gotten considerably more complicated since Rooney’s move to Manhattan. Perkins, currently WCVB’s political reporter, remained with Alexis, now 9, in Boston. She finished her school year there, and he is now job-hunting for something in New York. “The hardest part of this [move] is the personal uprooting of my family,” says Rooney.

Andy Rooney admits to a few misgivings about the upheaval in His daughter’s life. “It’s going to be hard for her to find the same life and the same number of friends she had in Boston,” he says. “But,” he adds with uncurmudgeonly paternal pride, “if Emily is as good a producer for World News Tonight as she has been a daughter for us, then ABC is lucky to have her.”

S. AVERY BROWN in Boston

NINA BURLEIGH in Washington

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