Hillary Clinton’s interrogation by the House Select Committee on Benghazi was a searing crucible and test of mettle for a public figure who has been forced to answer question after question about what happened and didn’t happen during a violent attack on Americans stationed overseas.
I’m speaking, of course, of Brian Williams, the disgraced NBC Nightly News anchor who returned to work in September from a six-month suspension—his punishment for publicly exaggerating his adventures in journalism, especially a 2003 helicopter ride during the U.S. invasion of Iraq—for which Williams claimed, erroneously and years later, that his aircraft had taken fire from a rocket-propelled grenade.
On Thursday, Williams, who had slipped quietly into the anchor chair for a soft launch last month to cover Pope Francis’s visit to the United States, enjoyed his biggest day yet as a freshly rehabilitated breaking news anchor, presiding for eight long hours over coverage of the congressional hearing of the Democratic presidential frontrunner for NBC News’s cable sibling, MSNBC.
There he was from 9 a.m. till 5 p.m.—making phrases at a stentorian clip while arching those asymmetrical eyebrows at a meaningful angle—happily running the table with MSNBC show hosts Chris Matthews, Rachel Maddow, Lawrence O’Donnell, Steve Kornacki, Andrea Mitchell, and Chuck Todd following his lead.
The 56-year-old Williams might have lost his marquee franchise on the broadcast network, where replacement anchor Lester Holt has been giving a decent account of himself. But NBC News’s erstwhile alpha male was finally back in the saddle, the master of all he surveyed (albeit for a much smaller viewership, maybe 16 times tinier).
“I’ve been asking this question of our guests—anything good going to come out of today?” Williams mused to his panelists before the hearing commenced.
The answer, surely, was Williams’s apparently complete restoration to journalistic respectability. His on-air colleagues treated him with a mixture of deference and chumminess, as though his recent spot of bother had never occurred, and he demonstrated convincingly that he hasn’t mislaid his mad skills for live news anchoring.
Doing that job for eight hours Thursday during breaks in the former secretary of state’s nearly 11 hours of sworn testimony, Williams was focused, conversational, pertinent, and even witty, if occasionally baroque and windy.
Addressing Todd, moderator of NBC’s Meet the Press and host of MNSBC’s recently debuted MTP Daily, Williams posed a typically elaborate query: “We had some politics yesterday. Joe Biden got out of the race...As we wait to see Hillary Clinton before this phalanx of people, she’s running for president. She’s about to face a withering day of questions on this topic where a misstep...would be very, very bad news. Last time the enduring sound bite—‘What difference does it make?’—was that a misstep?”
“It really depends,” Todd began.
Later on, Williams declared to Matthews—whose Hardball program he flatteringly professed to watch—that “presidential politics is going to be sitting here in this room today as the unnamed committee member.”
Block that metaphor!
Williams also explained certain congressional-hearing folkways, noting that it was customary for the witness, in this case Clinton, to shake hands before testifying with her Republican adversaries. She did just as he predicted.
Meanwhile, he generously sought comments from each and every one of his panelists, who also included NBC congressional correspondent Luke Russert.
At one point the left-leaning Maddow got into a raucous debate over the significance of Clinton’s email inbox with former View panelist and Bush 43 White House communications director Nicolle Wallace. Clinton can’t be blamed for receiving emails from her sharp-tongued confidant Sidney Blumenthal, Maddow argued.
“I get emails from a Nigerian prince,” she said.
“I think I know that Nigerian prince,” Williams chimed in.
He even tossed into his patter a sprinkling of historical erudition, noting that President Lyndon Johnson, whenever he wanted inside info on a particular foreign country, would simply place a direct phone call to the relevant lowly State Department desk officer.
Although he didn’t stay in the chair as long as Clinton—with Mathews assuming anchor duties around 6 p.m.—Williams showed that he still wears well on camera, and, like the former secretary, emerged from the day not only unscathed but enhanced.