The year Pete Williams, the Pentagon's top spokesman, graduated from Stanford University was incorrectly reported yesterday in Style. It was 1974. (Published 1/22/91)

Pete Williams, chief Pentagon spokesman and primary link with a desperate press corps, looked remarkably as if he just stepped out of the pages of GQ on this, the third evening of war. His banker's-gray suit showed no signs of the marathon meetings and phone calls he had endured with Dick Cheney, Colin Powell, Marlin Fitzwater, headquarters in Saudi Arabia and the first editors to challenge the so-called Pentagon "censorship" rules. His crisp white shirt bore no witness to the dozens of reporters who had accosted him, hungry for any scraps of information. And the perfect placement of every brown hair on his head did nothing to suggest two nights of napping on his office sofa.

"Actually," he conceded with a sheepish grin, "I went home to bed at midnight." Which happened to be about an hour before the second wave of Iraqi missiles hit Tel Aviv early Saturday morning. "They tried to wake me at 1:20 but I slept so soundly, I never woke up until 9."

Williams's prime-time exposure to date has been limited, as Defense Secretary Richard Cheney, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Colin Powell and other Pentagon officials are happy to brief on the successes of the Desert Storm operation. But it is generally believed that he will become the most familiar face in America if the news starts to sour and casualties escalate.

"It's the hardest part of the job," he said of delivering bad news. "It makes it clear that military operations are carried out by individuals."

Indeed, these are times that would try even the coolest flack's soul. And Williams, say journalists who deal with him every day, is about as cool as they come.

He's 38 and looks 10 years younger -- although he very well may have aged a decade in the past four days. He's single, lives in Adams-Morgan, used to take tap dance lessons, is a mountain climber and avid bicyclist, and for the past 14 years has emceed the local Jerry Lewis telethon in his hometown of Casper, Wyo.

This is the same man who, at 5:30 Saturday evening, had a half-dozen reporters clamoring for a piece of him, had just instructed his secretary to track down Gen. Powell, and asked another aide to contact some military men who could review a soon-to-be-published news story out of Dhahran over which Pentagon officials in Saudi Arabia were jittery. There were five silent televisions running in his office, which he managed to glance at every minute or so.

In the months leading up to the war, it was Williams who spent countless hours with news executives trying to iron out the rules that would govern war coverage, and Williams who took the heat over those rules when the Pentagon mandated that all pool reports coming out of the war coverage would be subject to military review. And it was also Williams who, with remarkable equanimity, accepted the blame last year when the handling of the media during the Panama invasion turned into nothing short of a fiasco.

"With Panama, we just weren't there in the initial phase of the operation," he said of the Pentagon's ineffective and very late movement of reporters into the area. "What we tried to do this time is be much more prepared. Here, we had a pool on the aircraft carrier before it started, we had a pool on the battleship before it started, we had a pool out on Air Force bases to watch planes take off. ... The Panama situation was obviously very constructive. I remember it being a ceaseless chain of complaints."

Since then, Williams has managed to win back the confidence of a press corps known for its cynicism. He is considered an advocate in the media's own private war for information -- even though there are doubts about his effectiveness with the military's top brass. Still, in an agency (not to mention an administration) that has little use for the dissemination of any news, reporters appreciate that Pete Williams may be the best they've got.

"I trust him," said Timothy Russert, NBC's Washington bureau chief. "He makes an impossible job possible. He understands the needs of the press. ... I do feel we get a fair hearing and that we have a friend in court. It's just that the things that he tries to do on our behalf are contrary to what his superiors want done.

"This week we felt that Powell and Cheney wouldn't have told us if our coats were on fire," said George Watson, ABC's bureau chief. "Their tactic in dealing with reporters is to say as little as possible. Pete genuinely tries to be helpful. We rely on him to take our case back to his people and I think he gives it his best shot."

"He goes out of his way to be accommodating," said Jack Nelson, Washington bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times, "but when it comes down to the bottom line, he is carrying out policies of this administration. There are certainly times when we feel that, if he does have some clout, he doesn't use it very well."

If Williams is aware of the mounting frustration over the slow pace of news out of the Pentagon, he doesn't let on. He insists that the agency has been as open as it can be under the circumstances. And while, as a former TV journalist in Casper, he appears to be sensitive to the problem, he responds with what he himself calls the department's well-honed "mantra."

"The feeling out there is that bomb damage assessment is like election returns," he said. "You go out and do something and then next day you get results. This is just not like that -- it isn't a 24-hour operation. On Day 1 you have certain targets, many of which spill over into Day 2. It's a big, well-planned, highly complicated campaign to be carried out over many, many days. It's not something that moves in the same kind of cycles as the news industry.

"There's no way in the early part of a military operation that we can ever say enough to satisfy a good reporter. Good reporters want to know just as much about the operation as the commanders know. That can't be. I have a solemn obligation to safeguard this military operation and the lives of the troops."

He dismissed the suggestion that the memory of hard-hitting Vietnam coverage prevents military officials from going any further with the press. "What drives the restrictions on reporting this story is simply and solely the fact that we can't lay it out there while we're in the middle of it," he said.

At the Pentagon he's a walking Dale Carnegie course on first names, a salesman skilled in the art of making the most insignificant correspondent feel as if he's just asked the most significant question.

"There's another answer to your question," he earnestly told a radio reporter who had been badgering everyone at Saturday's briefing about Iraqi damage assessment. "And that is we just can't release that kind of information because it might jeopardize our {fighter plane} operators in future attacks."

The correspondent, who had come just short of calling Lt. Gen. Thomas Kelly a liar minutes earlier, apologized to Williams.

Williams knew Cheney from Wyoming, where both men were alumni of the same public high school, years apart. After graduating from Stanford University in 1970, Williams returned to Casper to work for the largest television station in the state. He spent most of his 11 years at the station as news director, but ultimately became an on-air correspondent and somewhat of a local celebrity. On March 10, 1986, he started work as then-Rep. Cheney's press secretary. Three years later to the day, George Bush announced that Cheney would be his choice to head the Department of Defense.

He clearly loves this job, if that's possible considering the grim conditions under which he must operate these days. "If I had to deal with this stuff a year ago," he sighed, "I just don't know that I would have been able to do it."

Of course, this is no time to think about that.