Brian Williams on The Daily Show: ‘The Rules in New Orleans are as Good as the Last Person Who Made Them.’

Aug - Sept 05 160.jpg Last night Jon had the guest of guests – Brian Williams of NBC Nightly News, whose combination of reportage from the Superdome and frank blogging made him one of the standouts of the Katrina nightmare. Funnily enough he looks tanned and healthy, as though he just came back from vacation. Hardly.

After telling Jon “I like what you’ve done with the place” they got striaght into the interview, which was gripping. Williams obviously has a crazy story to tell and he told it honestly and straightforwardly with little grandstanding or “Voice of God”-ness. Riveting. I’m sure C&L will have it soon (or if you’re in NYC come on over, I DVR’d it. BYODC).

Williams said that he was there, then came back up here, then was compelled to go back down again after two days. “It’s very difficult to leave, I feel a bond, a connection to this story,” he said (in a sentiment reminiscent of Anderson Cooper). I was in the Superdome, with all those people,” he said. He was in the Superdome when the storm hit, and he describes watching the roof suddenly come apart under Katrina. “In the morning they closed the huge steel doors at the players and equipment entrance of the Superdome, and we watched that roof just slowly start to come apart.” Wow, said Jon. What was it like inside? Did you think you were goners? “Well, they said it was built to 200 miles per hour. Everyone in New Orleans was told it’s safe, it’s the shelter of last resort. If you don’t have another option, if you don’t have a car we’ll fill the Superdome, we had 10,000 of us in there. And then we started watching those roof panels and it was making a terrible noise…there was rain coming in all over the roof.”

Jon wants to know if there was confidence in the authorities, or if there was a sense of the impending tragedy. Brian wasn’t impressed with the authorities; he remembers leaving at 6:30pm after the storm to do the Nightly News and surveying the skyline: “We knew it had taken a big hit.” Meanwhile, back inside the Superdome no one had been told anything: when they could leave, what the conditions were outside, whether they’d have anything to eat (in other words, they knew about as much as Michael Brown). Also, he brings up the NOAA weather advisory from August 28th that foretold near-Armageddon damage (I’ve got it after the jump; salvaged it from my email). Williams said they all got it on their Blackberries on Sunday afternoon and weren’t sure it was real; of course, it was.

So, Jon asks, when did Williams realize that the federal response was a total fucking gongshow? “It was Thursday night, live on NBC nightly news. My guest was Michael Brown, head of FEMA. And I said, why no airlift?” Williams has been in Iraq, he knows what can be done with a Chinook or a Blackhawk. “I said, ‘Why can’t you drop pallets of MREs (Ed. – “Meals Ready to Eat”) and water to those people, they’re starving, down in the Convention Center.’ He said “That’s a good question.'” Dude found out about it on the air. “And then apparently Ted Koppel picked it up and had at him like a pinata later that night.” The audience is glad for an excuse to laugh, and clap. This is riveting stuff.

Jon says it was the first time he ever saw the media look around and say, “wait a minute: the disparity between what I’m seeing on the ground and what I’m hearing from public officials is so vast, that –” Williams: “We couldn’t help but (Jon: “Express bewilderment!” as Williams nods:) …and show our surprise on the air and go after these public officials. This is, after all, what we do at the end of the day” (insert your own press-regains-its-backbone commentary here).

Then Williams recounts waking up to a flooded city after the levees broke; he couldn’t figure out what was shining on the streets below — flares? Strobe light? Nope. Water. “We were coming and going by SUV with the water up to the windows, we had to lock them up…looting had started….Louisiana State Police had to cover us as we left the hotel against guys who were gonna do a smash and grab and carjack. They aimed their weapons” — here he cocks an imaginary gun per the photo above — “and covered us until we took a left and went out of range. The story flowed over us as it did every viewer watching.” Whoa. Williams expressed the outrage of he and his media brethren, Americans who refused to believe that their lives and those of their families were any more important than the people of New Orleans. Yes. You’d think.

Commercial. We only dimly care about the latest stupid Daily Show thinly-veiled-as-funny promotional segment, “Levi’s presents: Great Moments in Style.” Ew. I’ve still got the pall of seriousness over me from that interview, I don’t want to hear that faux-cheesy voice harping at me to buy stupid Levis.

We’re back. Jon asks him about police officers threatening the press. Brian recalls the crew covering a warehouse fire and a female officer raising her gun straight toward him and the crew, armed with an impressive arsenal of weaponry including notepads, pens and TV cameras. “We’re not with Al Qaeda, we represented no danger to the firefighting effort, but tempers are getting short – people haven’t slept. Now, the security has filled the city…there are more automatic weapons in New Orleans than in any spot on earth.” He said even an Oklahoman National Guardsman forced them to shoot from across the street for something as mundane as securing a Brooks Brothers (well, mundane becomes relative in post-Katrina New Orleans).

Jon wants to know what’s up with that – is it related to FEMA’s ban on photographing the bodies? Is this just PR? Brian shakes his head, remembering; there were dead bodies all over the place, in regular locations, like markers, he said, remembering “one dead guy we knew we would pass on a certain corner within view of the Superdome…there are bodies all over in New Orleans and if they don’t want them to appear on television first they should perhaps police the bodies.” He mentions the corpse on Union Street made famous by the New York Times.”The rules in New Orleans as good as the last person who made them.”

Okay, says Jon. Let’s get to it. Who’s fault is it? Local officals? Our hapless feds? Give it up, Bri. No dice: “I’m gonna let that one go,” says Williams, seriously. “I don’t do opinions, I’m going to leave it to others.” Ha – Jon has one: “Here’s the only thing that I will say, comment on it if you will.” (Cue the Jon Stewart Agenda – I’m not saying I don’t agree with it, but don’t tell me it ain’t there.) “This administration continues to get us into situations that are untenable, and then once into those situations when people attempt to bring up that some of the decision-making may have been wrong-headed, the conversation always becomes” (cue Rummy-style bluster): ‘Look, we’re in a tough jam right now, no time to talk!’…It does seem to be a pattern of some sort.” Williams allows himself some cautious agreement. He seems somehow owlish right now. Don’t ask me why, I don’t really know. “I will say, it was awfully hard. I’ve been to some pretty lousy places in my life — Iraq over the past twelve months, and Banda Aceh — open graves and bodies. These were Americans.” Which led to the national refrain: “How is this happening in the United States?” and then to quieter, equally disturbing musings: “Had this been Nantucket, had this been Boston, Cleveland, Chicago, Miami, Los Angeles…how many choppers would have…?” He is cut off by applause. We all know how that sentence ends, anyway.

Jon thanks him and says he appreciates the work he’s done. So does the audience, and so do I. My impression of Brian Williams as a mensch remains intact — despite his James Bond-style good looks (reminscent, I will say, of Peter Jennings) and smooth manner, he comes across as real. The age of the anchor may not be over yet.

I will say that Jon closed on a sour note for me: reminiscing about New Orleans as a city where he saw much “sating of the appetites” and being a little inappropriately lascivious in my view. Yep, we all know what New Orleans was famous for. Rick Bragg told us. But that was just a really shocking and graphic interview. The earthly delights of your youth seem long ago, and pretty insignificant just now. Still, he urges his audience to give generously. Ten points back on for Gryffindor.

That’s it for this interview — we’re skipping the rest of the ep but we will share with you the moment of Zen: Pat Robertson channelling Barbara Bush and commenting that this whole death and destruction of Katrina thing was sure a lucky distraction for John Roberts! Not to mention, Pat Robertson, for you.

Have a great weekend, back atcha Monday.


NOAA weather advisory, August 28, 2005 (sorry no link, I salvaged this from my email):

EXTREMELY DANGEROUS HURRICANE KATRINA MOVING ACROSS SOUTHEAST
MISSISSIPPI

DEVASTATING DAMAGE CONTINUES ALONG ITS PATH

KATRINA…NOW A CATEGORY THREE HURRICANE WITH WINDS OF 125 MPH AND
HIGHER GUSTS…WILL CONTINUE TO MOVE NORTHWARD ACROSS SOUTHEAST
MISSISSIPPI AND INTO EAST CENTRAL MISSISSIPPI THROUGH THE AFTERNOON
AND EVENING HOURS. ALONG AND NEAR KATRINA’S PATH…EXPECT PARTIAL TO
COMPLETE WALL AND ROOF FAILURE. ALL WOOD FRAMED LOW RISING APARTMENT
BUILDINGS WILL BE DESTROYED. CONCRETE BLOCK LOW RISE APARTMENTS WILL
SUSTAIN MAJOR DAMAGE…INCLUDING SOME WALL AND ROOF FAILURE.

HIGH RISE OFFICE AND APARTMENT BUILDINGS WILL SWAY DANGEROUSLY…A
FEW POSSIBLY TO THE POINT OF TOTAL COLLAPSE. MANY WINDOWS WILL
BLOW OUT.

AIRBORNE DEBRIS WILL BE WIDESPREAD…AND MAY INCLUDE HEAVY ITEMS SUCH
AS HOUSEHOLD APPLIANCES AND EVEN LIGHT VEHICLES. SPORT UTILITY
VEHICLES AND LIGHT TRUCKS WILL BE MOVED. THE BLOWN DEBRIS WILL CREATE
ADDITIONAL DESTRUCTION. PERSONS…PETS…AND LIVESTOCK EXPOSED TO THE
WINDS WILL FACE CERTAIN DEATH IF STRUCK.

POWER OUTAGES WILL LAST FOR WEEKS…AS MOST POWER POLES WILL BE DOWN
AND TRANSFORMERS DESTROYED. WATER SHORTAGES WILL MAKE HUMAN SUFFERING
INCREDIBLE BY MODERN STANDARDS.

THE VAST MAJORITY OF NATIVE TREES WILL BE SNAPPED OR UPROOTED. ONLY
THE HEARTIEST WILL REMAIN STANDING…BUT BE TOTALLY DE-FOLIATED.