80 Staffers, 75 Hours of Video, One Contentious Day on Capitol Hill

By Gail Shister 

“I’d rather be lucky than good,” says NBC’s Brian Williams. “In this case, I’ll take luck.”

Luck touched Williams twice for his Sunday ‘Dateline’ special, ‘Taking the Hill: Inside Congress,’ making him, and his network, appear particularly prescient. (His luck didn’t extend to ratings; NBC finished third in the 7 p.m. slot.)

Luck No. 1: Having anchored ‘Nightly News’ on Sunday, Williams was already on set at 30 Rock when President Obama announced at about 8:40pmET that a compromise had been reached to raise the debt ceiling. Williams was the only Big 3 main anchor to cover it live.

Luck No. 2: NBC first requested access from Speaker Boehner’s office more than a year ago for a ‘Day in the Life’ special. What were the odds that the eventual date, July 27, during summer session, would feature some of the most intense party bickering in recent memory?

When Williams reached the House elevator with Speaker Boehner that morning, “he asked, ‘How did you get this scheduled for today?’” Williams recalls. “I said, ‘Mr. Speaker, we got the date from your office.’ He smiled.”

“I don’t think the leadership could have foreseen this titanic struggle,” Williams adds. “If the leader (Boehner) had his druthers, he’d much rather have our visit come when they were debating off-year funding for agricultural appropriations for fiscal 2012.”

No doubt. Williams descended on the Capitol with an army of 80 staffers and 30 cameras. They returned with 75 hours of raw video. Workers were divided into six teams, with everyone empowered to find “nuggets,” Williams says. His 14-hour day on the Hill was “probably the least of any member of my team,” he says.

Despite the Capitol’s size and grandeur, Williams’ presence did not go unnoticed. “We tried to go in with small footprints,” he says. “Walking as fast as we could through that complex, we kept passing through the same doorways. We just made a blanket apology all day. … It was an out-of-body experience.”

A self-described music freak, Williams personally chose the hour’s background tunes from his ipod. (He has 6,600 songs, with a playlist of 800 in heavy rotation.) For a wide shot of the Capitol, it was Coolio’s ‘Gangsta’s Paradise.’ For Boehner, Jimmy Dean’s ‘Big Bad John,’ which Williams labels ‘an underrated song.’

As he called it a night in the newsroom Sunday, Williams commemorated the occasion with “four cashews and a can of Coke that was empty when I picked it up.

“I ended up walking to my apartment and celebrating with a fried-egg sandwich.”