SECAUCUS, N.J. (AP) – Now that the war is largely over, Lester Holt can get together again with his buddies to jam on loud rock songs in a grungy Manhattan rehearsal space.

A bass player, Holt loves the instrument’s subtle part on “Stairway to Heaven.”

Not quite your image of MSNBC’s wartime iron man, eh?

Holt’s graying temples and authoritative manner make him so much the quintessential anchorman that it’s easy to forget there’s a living, breathing human underneath.

Holt’s star is on the rise at NBC News, even overshadowing NBC’s top anchor-in-waiting, Brian Williams, during the war.

Holt worked regularly as MSNBC’s chief war anchor from noon to 6 p.m. Eastern, taking a short break and coming back from 9 p.m. to midnight. On a handful of days, he’d get a few hours of sleep before subbing for Matt Lauer on NBC’s “Today” show at 7 a.m.

“You do suspect after a while that he has a twin brother,” said Erik Sorenson, MSNBC’s general manager.

A New York City radio station even saluted Holt in song. “He’s so smooth, he puts me in a trance,” WPLJ-FM’s Todd Pettengill wrote. “If you want my vote, you should watch Lester Holt.”

Sorenson wouldn’t put Holt on the air so much without a strong audience response. At MSNBC, which is happy for any kind of attention, Holt caught many eyes with the prime-time war buildup show, “Countdown: Iraq.”

“Some anchors are accused of being robotic and detached,” Sorenson said. “He seemed to strike the right balance between being empathetic to the situation he was covering and not wallowing in the emotion of it.”

Holt, 44, is no stranger to anchoring. He spent 15 years as a top local news anchor in Chicago before a demotion led to a career crossroads.

He’s flattered and somewhat bemused by the attention he’s getting now – as only an “overnight sensation” who’s been working for more than two decades can be.

When someone comments on his sense of calm on the air, Holt laughs. “It’s fatigue,” he said.

But he wasn’t about to refuse work during the war.

“This is what we do,” he said. “You’re here for the big story. It would be like a fireman saying “no’ to a five-alarm fire because he doesn’t want to work too hard. I don’t feel like anybody’s taken advantage of me. And I would feel bad if they weren’t asking me to do all these hours.”

Holt’s emergence may have come at the expense – at least temporarily – of Williams, who is set to replace Tom Brokaw as NBC News’ top anchor late next year.

The rap on Williams was he lacked the high-profile reporting assignments to lend substance to his role as an anchor. So he flew off to Kuwait and Iraq for the war.

It may not have been enough. Williams didn’t get the exposure of reporters like the late David Bloom or Kerry Sanders, and he was even stuck in the desert for a couple of days when the military helicopters he was traveling with were grounded.

While Williams was gone, Holt was on the air.

“Brian’s doing fine,” Holt said. “I felt sorry for him being stuck over there as long as he was. While Kuwait’s an OK place, you wouldn’t want to live there.”

The downside to being hot on MSNBC is the network sometimes has the attention span of a small child. It wasn’t too long ago that Ashleigh Banfield was MSNBC’s luminescent star. Remember those glasses? Remember her?

Holt is already cutting back. MSNBC is cutting costs by replacing his 11 p.m. newscast with a “Hardball” rerun. And Holt will eventually be replaced at 9 p.m. by former Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura.

Holt’s regular anchor slot will be 4 to 6 p.m. on weekdays.

“Lester is a tremendous security blanket for NBC,” Sorenson said. “He’s sort of like the best sixth man in the NBA, which doesn’t mean he can’t be in the starting lineup. But he can play guard, forward and center. He’s one of those Kevin Garnett types who can play any position.”

Holt’s not taking any chances. He briefly interrupts an interview in MSNBC’s lunchroom to go record a one-minute news summary for NBC radio – again, he couldn’t say no – and is careful to clear sandwiches and wipe off the table before he leaves.

“In this business, you never know,” he said. “I could be busing tables before too long.”

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EDITOR’S NOTE – David Bauder can be reached at dbauder”at”

AP-ES-04-25-03 1237EDT

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