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Walking gold

By Brian Williams, Anchor and managing editor

Watching and being around Michael Phelps last night reminded me of covering and interviewing presidents in one fundamental way: the aura of fame, importance and popularity – the palpable feeling of building anticipation — the people positioning themselves along the "route" he's expected to take, the blur of his arrival accompanied by flashes and shouts and the surge of the crowd, and then the total vacuum when he departs a given space...and it's all over. Yesterday, there was indeed an aura around him, and an excitement – a feeling in the atmospheric bubble wherever he traveled – that was the unmistakable marker of the biggest global celebrity of the times. His entourage was actually rather small, comprised of coach, manager/PR guy, and his family. His height (6-foot-4 inches) helps call attention to his every move. His head — at times eerily backlit by the camera lights — lit his profile wherever he travelled.

His draw is undeniable.  We learned today that nearly 40 million people were watching NBC at 11pm last night.  In an on-air chat with the anchor of WNBC in New York last night, I predicted that the evening might be "the first stay-at-home-and-watch-TV Saturday night in the modern era," and I might have been right.  NBC's broadcast average (over the whole evening) of 31.1 million viewers represented the best Saturday night viewership since the "Golden Girls" spinoff program "Empty Nest" debuted before 31.4 million viewers on Feb. 24, 1990. Michael Phelps was 4 years-old.

All he wanted after yesterday's race was McDonalds.  Before our interview, a producer asked him for his order.  He initially wanted a cheeseburger, Big Mac and fries. Then I stepped in (having done the research) and told him that the double cheeseburgers here were good, better than in the States. I told him there was no mustard on them, and that the minced onion was kept to a minimum. I could see in his eyes that he realized he was in the company of a fellow aficionado.  He changed his order  – so  excited at the thought of McDonalds for the first time since arriving here in Beijing —  and the interview began.

Portions of our interview will air tonight, with more tomorrow night. We will post the entire thing on our Web site.  Pay special attention to the conversation about his iPod, and how happy and relaxed he is.  Right now, Michael Phelps has the world on a string and history hanging around his neck.

We hope to see you tonight from Beijing.