Next to the Iranian nuclear program or Putin's neo-Soviet expansionism, the question of whether NBC News "managing editor" Brian Williams is a self-aggrandizing liar or a mentally ill fantasist is a relatively minor matter, notwithstanding that he is the very embodiment of the strange antiquated assumptions of network news - that because a chap looks like a 1950s department-store mannequin he's your go-to guy for economic analysis and foreign policy.
As to the subject at issue, my general view of "personal stories" (including my own) was summed up by Mel Brooks on stage a few decades back reminiscing about his life. After one especially uproarious anecdote, he said, "I swear every word is true. Well, no. The mildly funny stuff is true. The mezzo-mezzo stuff is mostly true. But the really funny stuff is entirely invented." That formula applies to the dramatic stuff, too. As you tell a story over the years, as Brian Williams did with his RPG-hit-chopper shtick, it gets too honed, too sharp.
Then too there is the phenomenon that creeps with age - when anecdotes you once told about other people mutate into anecdotes you tell about yourself. The first example of this I encountered, back when I was very young, was the great Royal Ballet choreographer Sir Frederick Ashton, who regaled me with a string of fascinating personal stories, all of which I discovered, upon returning home, had happened to Diaghilev or Massine or Ninette de Valois.
But again: I can understand that. You were there. You were part of the scene. You knew the people. You laughed and smoked and danced with them. Why couldn't it have been you who got off the devastatingly witty retort?
But I find it harder to believe that a man can "accidentally" claim his helicopter has been hit by an RPG. You have to feel that to know what it's like. And, if you've never felt it, how can you "accidentally" go around describing it to David Letterman on TV and Alec Baldwin on radio for years on end?
Back in 2003, I was in Iraq just a few weeks after Brian Williams. As I mention in The [Un]documented Mark Steyn, I rented a car at Amman airport, drove through Jordan's eastern desert, crossed the border and kept going. A little bit of it was scary, a lot of it was funny, relaxing, dull... As the years go by and I tell someone about the goofy guy I met gassing up in Ramadi, I have to stop myself and think, "No, wait. Was it Ramadi? Or Fallujah?" I'm sure, if you combed through a decade's worth of radio interviews, you could find inconsistencies.
When a soldier pointed me toward the road to Tikrit, he added, "Or, as we call it, RPG Alley."
"Oh, yes?" I said. "Why's that?"
I was certainly alert on the road, and I saw the occasional burnt out tank and other vehicles, but I've never been in any danger over the ensuing dozen years of "misremembering" an RPG hitting my car - because the difference between being in a motor vehicle or flying machine that's not hit by an RPG and the same contraption that is hit by an RPG is so vast I don't see how one wanders innocently across that line. I was around RPGs, I was in the vicinity of RPGs, I was in the Greater RPG Area zip code ...but I didn't see one and I didn't get hit by one. And I've no idea what that would feel like.
But Brian Williams does. His eyewitness accounts of things his eye never actually witnessed are impressive. Here he is a decade ago, back when he still remembered it was some other guy's helicopter that got hit:
The helicopter in front of us was hit. A pickup truck stopped on the road, pulled a tarp back; a guy got up, fired an RPG, rocket-propelled grenade. These were farmers, or so they seemed. And it beautifully pierced the tail rotor of the Chinook in front of us.
By "in front of us", Mr Williams in fact means "30 to 60 minutes in front of us". But his long-range eye for detail is so powerful the most plausible explanation is that he's a prototype for a new animatronic surveillance drone.
Here he is on the radio with Alec Baldwin a few years later. He's now transferred himself from the "following" helicopter into the one "in front":
"I've done some ridiculously stupid things under that banner," Williams said, "like being in a helicopter I had no business being in in Iraq with rounds coming into the airframe."
"Did you think you would die?" Baldwin asked.
"Briefly, sure," Williams said.
"Do you tell yourself that's the job?" Baldwin said.
"Oh, absolutely," Williams said.
Danger is his middle name. It used to be Dan Rather's middle name, but Brian bought it at Dan's yard sale a few years back. The "rounds coming into the airframe" is also a nice touch. He knows the lingo. He's way better than Billy Crystal's creative-writing student pitching her submarine drama in Throw Momma From The Train:
'Dive! Dive!' yelled the captain through the thing. So the captain pressed a button or something...
Whereas even Williams' highly misleading apology manages to convey the impression that sure, he didn't take it in the rotor on this flight, but hell, he's seen a lot of action:
I was indeed on the Chinook behind the bird that took the RPG in the tail housing just above the ramp.
Er, no, he wasn't. But "bird", "tail housing"... That kind of swaggering vernacular is way better than the creative-writing class taking the big scary bang-bang in the thingie at the back or something.
There's now some suggestion that his lurid accounts from New Orleans of dead bodies floating past his hotel window might also be, ah, "misremembered". But at least, when he's on the balcony of his suite at the Ritz-Carlton watching the passing parade as he toys with his eggs Benedict, he's on his own. When he was in the bird that took the RPG in the tail rotor, there were other NBC fellows with him. We're told NBC News execs disliked Williams' "version" of events and never permitted it on their own airwaves. Yet one week ago he told NBC viewers:
The helicopter we were traveling in was forced down after being hit by an RPG.
Assuredly there's been some turnover in NBC News since 2003. So maybe nobody working on the program now was working on it then. But in TV you're always looking for ways to show rather than announce, so, if you've got a line like that on Brian's prompter, it defies belief that someone wouldn't have said, "Hey, grab that footage out of the archive." And then the intern comes back from the basement and says, "Um, it was somebody else's helicopter that got forced down..."
I would wager, even as Williams read his line, that most everyone who mattered on the show knew it wasn't true. And maybe one or two of them looked nervously at each other in the control room, but let it go. Hey, he's the star, right? NBC Nightly News with Walter Mitty reporting.
Hardly anything on TV at the Bryan Williams level is accidental. That riveting account of death-defying derring-do with Letterman would have been worked out during the pre-interview for the show - in other words, the misremembering was painstakingly rehearsed. Maybe Williams is delusional. Maybe he is to anchors as Anthony Weiner is to wankers - a guy so cocksure he figures he can push it a little further each time.
Thirty years ago, it would be difficult to imagine a liar or fantasist surviving in a job that supposedly depends on one's trustworthiness. Yet today Brian Williams' survival is the way to bet - because the obsolete format of Big Three "network news" is a dinner-theatre exercise that now bears so little relation to real news that Williams' ability to project the aura of authority and integrity trumps the reality that he doesn't actually have any. If you get your news from old-school "network news", you're not actually getting any news, you're watching a guy 'cause he has great hair. So getting it from a delusional narcissist is only taking it to the next level.
As I write, NBC has announced an internal investigation into Williams. We'll see. He was on the bird, he was on the bird behind the bird, but no one at NBC is gonna give him the bird.