Brian Williams is flat on the ground in the Coliseum with a sword poised above him. Thumbs up or thumbs down?
Behold a man at the peak of a fabulous career, earning $10 million a year; his handsome, sincere, trusted face delivering the nightly news to 8 million NBC viewers. No talking head, he, but in there with our troops dodging rockets and bullets in Iraq, watching Palestinian rockets pass under his copter in Israel, reporting first-hand on Katrina and the body he saw floating in a canal.
It now appears that Mr. Williams had it all but wanted more. The truth was too mundane. Apparently he longed for the adulation that broadcast correspondents like Walter Cronkite, Dan Rather, and Morley Safer have received. They saw war up close, especially in Vietnam.
In 2003 Williams was in a helicopter in Iraq, and another copter some distance away got hit with a rocket and small-arms fire and had to land. Over the years that story morphed into a tale in which it was his craft that was hit and forced down. Not content with the Olympian heights he already occupied, he began appearing on late-night talk shows with versions of that and other embellished stories. It seems now that the Palestinian rocket he saw was six miles away and not anywhere under his copter. And now some are wondering about the floating Katrina body that added such pathos to his reporting from New Orleans.
Williams’ fabrications galled troops who’d been in those helicopters in 2003. The one he’d been in was unscathed because it was never under fire that day. The second one was hit by a rocket and small-arms fire. It was miles away from Willillams. It was years before the soldiers’ protests were listened to and Williams’ tall tale blew up in his face. His on-air apology only made things worse when he suggested that the mists of memory or the fog of war may have confused him. As combat veterans will tell you, those who have been shot at and survived don’t forget that. There’s no room for “maybe” in your memory.
What really nails Williams is that in 2003 he went on the air with the story for the first time and pretty much told what really happened: that it was another copter that took fire, not his. His tale of combat danger grew as the years went on. He appeared on late-night talk shows and heroically laughed off his brushes with death. It was too much, and when he repeated the tale recently, he crashed and burned. Williams took taken himself off the air while NBC “investigated” the situation; now, the network has suspended him for six months without pay. Poor NBC. Brian is their Midas Boy. Their nightly news dominates, with ABC and CBS well behind.
It’s hard to say what will happen. Polls say that most of those interviewed believe NBC should dump him. NBC may gamble and keep him, knowing the public is fickle and has a very short memory. I don’t know how all the newscasters are playing the story. CNN seems to be playing the story pretty straight, while some Fox News pundits are circling like hungry sharks.
Who knows what makes famous people lie? It seems to happen a lot when men talk about their military record. Richard Blumenthal made campaign speeches for U.S. Senator from Connecticut in which he talked about “we” Marines doing this and that over there and finally coming home from Vietnam. It turned out that he was a reservist and had never served in Vietnam. (He still got elected).
Why do people do it? Of course, simple self-aggrandizement may explain it, including the tall tales of Brian Williams. These folks want you to admire them more or pay them more or offer them sympathy—whatever. Then there are the sociopaths who just like to lie. Really. They lie when there is absolutely nothing to gain. I think it is because they love the idea of fooling you.
When it comes to war I think there is another element. It has to do with the primitive male warrior gene found in many if not most men. In wartime these men tend to wonder how they would do in combat. Would they display courage? Cowardice? All of us know that war is insane. Nobody wants to get his head shot off.
Talk of valor and duty, we say, is nonsense. Or is it? Without a doubt we know that some men (and women) act bravely, sometimes even giving up their lives for their comrades. A man who lives in wartime and does not go to war will always wonder how he would have performed. He will never know of course, and maybe that’s why some make up stories.
Who knows? My ruminations, I admit, are probably little more than my own version of psychobabble.
But I do have a solution for NBC and Brian Williams. Let him go on the air again and make a real apology. No dodging, weaving, or spinning. Let him tell the truth. That for reasons he may not fully understand he mixed up news and entertainment, that he portrayed himself as a veteran of combat when he really was not, that he apologizes to his millions of viewers and his fellow journalists, but especially to the soldiers, sailors, and Marines who have really been in harm’s way. (It will not be forgotten that he was always careful to express his gratitude and admiration for our men and women in uniform).
Let him be sincerely sincere and sincerely humble. Not of one those phony apologies that are anything but. “I am sorry if I offended … .” None of that “if” nonsense. Tell it straight from the heart and mean it. He lied, he knows it, admits it, and he may or may not totally understand why, but it was not for any admirable reason.
If Brian Williams were to make such an apology, the American public would forgive him. This is the land of new beginnings, the nations of immigrants. We love fresh starts. We truly believe in redemption.
How refreshing it would be to see a public figure humble himself like that. I am talking about true humility, which always brings with it dignity. No spin, just the truth.
Do it, Brian. Thumbs up, I say.