Brian Williams: GOP Candidates 'Running Far to the Right,' Can't Be 'Shocking Enough' for Primary Voters

Updated [12:45 ET]: Full transcript added.

Appearing on Monday's "Late Show with David Letterman" on CBS, NBC "Nightly News" anchor Brian Williams responded to Letterman's assertion that Texas Governor Rick Perry was a "right-wing conservative psych job" by declaring: "In a Republican primary race in this early stage, you run far to the right....You can't say something shocking enough in some of these crowds." [Audio available here]

Williams observed: "You're trying to keep tacking to the right of your opponent." He then warned: "This will all settle down, though comments last forever. They will all be held accountable for what they're saying now. It's tough to run in the general after this."

View video after the jump

Update:

Letterman was commenting on the fact that Rick Perry was criticized by conservatives for his granting in-state tuition to illegal immigrants in Texas but praised for his commitment to the death penalty, and ranted: "What kind of a person says, 'You know what, for president I want a heartless gunner. I want a guy who can kill 250 people without blinking an eye and I don't want any benefits for kids.' Who – honestly. Who can – who can think that way?"

Williams rightly pointed out: "I'll remind you, we are a majority-death-penalty nation. Our president is in favor of the death penalty."

Letterman began the segment by wondering if Williams was "surprised" by the audience response to the death penalty question in the MSNBC/Politico September 7 Republican debate. Williams noted: "The word 'executions' was applauded by not the whole crowd but some in the crowd, as we saw outbursts at two subsequent [debates]." He then remarked: "...remember who comes to these. This is often the kind of energized core of the primary crowd."

Near the end of the segment, Letterman went after the GOP candidates over 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell': "...the most recent debate...We had a serviceman.....after his discussion of 'Don't ask, Don't Tell,' and whatever his point was, the young man was booed."

Williams interjected: "Was booed. By one to two audience participants in a major arena, major venue in Florida. Not being an apologist, just trying to be accurate."

Letterman continued: "Why doesn't one of those eight presumably legitimate candidates for the nomination jump all over that moment....and said, 'Ladies and gentlemen, what have we come to? That we booing a man who has served the United States?'" Williams noted: "Which some of them did the next day." Letterman shot back: "The next day ain't good enough."


Here is a full transcript of the October 4 exchange:

12:09AM ET

DAVID LETTERMAN Brian Williams, ladies and gentlemen. Brian, I have three things that I want to ask you, all having to do with the-

BRIAN WILLIAMS: And I have a thing, so it's three to one, but it's your show. But I have a thing.

LETTERMAN: Alright, thank you very much. First, how did you enjoy hosting the – I think it was the second, first or second presidential debate, the Republican debate?

WILLIAMS: There's nothing I prepare for more. And it is a, it's a real high-wire act. You're sitting in that desk looking up at these eight candidates realizing, a false word here or there, you could change someone's candidacy. But what vulnerability when they look down at you, you know you're in your windup for your question. They don't know what's coming. It's like standing in on preferably, hopefully, major league pitching. It's a fraught exercise.

LETTERMAN: I believe it was your event where Rick Perry, in fact, you may have posed the question to him, about the executions, am I right about that?

WILLIAMS: Yes, I did.

LETTERMAN: Were you surprised by that response?

WILLIAMS: The word "executions" was applauded by not the whole crowd but some in the crowd, as we saw outbursts at two subsequent – remember who comes to these. This is often the kind of energized core of the primary crowd.

LETTERMAN: Right, but nonetheless, a group from that we can take their temperature. Can't we? I mean, that's an indication of a greater feeling, don't you think?

WILLIAMS: I don't know that any wider lesson can be drawn from somebody hooping and hollering at one of these events.

LETTERMAN: So he announces or you announce. And I think the point that they made afterwards that you might be going for was there had been an execution coming or going that was under some question as to whether or not there had been actual guilt proven.

WILLIAMS: Well, the total number of them was what I was saying and then I chose to ask a followup, 'What do you make of the dynamic that my mention of word execution just drew applause?' That's where he hunkered down, got very serious and said each case is very serious.

LETTERMAN: Okay. And then I think the same candidate, when talking about illegal immigration in Texas, and him talking about the benefits for the sons and daughters of illegal immigrants, and invoking the word "heart" and how you must apply some heart to this situation, meaning humanitarianism, then he's booed for that.

WILLIAMS: Yes.

LETTERMAN: And then later, he's forced to apologize. Now do I have that correctly?

WILLIAMS: Yes, you do. In broad strokes, yes, you do. And may I say, when we sit close like this, much better. This is good.

[LAUGHTER]

LETTERMAN: I think this is startling information for your current wife. Okay. Alright. So in a – what happens when a guy whose's thought to be a right-wing conservative psyche job and he says something honorable and decent and is held accountable to the point of he must apologize for his embarrassment?

WILLIAMS: In a Republican primary race in this early stage, you run far to the right. And then when general election season comes around, you run right up the middle. You have to appeal to a broad population. Right now it's the party stalwarts, you can't say something shocking enough in some of these crowds. You're trying to keep tacking to the right of your opponent. This will all settle down, though comments last forever. They will all be held accountable for what they're saying now.

LETTERMAN: Okay, I understand what you are saying.

WILLIAMS: It's tough to run in the general after this.

LETTERMAN: But what kind of a person says, 'You know what? For president I want a heartless gunner. I want a guy who can kill 250 people without blinking an eye and I don't want any benefits for kids.' Who – honestly. Who can – who can think that way?

[APPLAUSE]

WILLIAMS: Well, right before I reach for a subject-changing prop, I'll remind you, we are a majority-death-penalty nation. Our president is in favor of the death penalty. And while the numbers have been on the move and the numbers have changed, and people like the Innocence Project have proven a lot of people innocent, that's still where we are as a nation. But I'm glad-

LETTERMAN: Wait a minute, wait a minute. I have point number three. First of all, as far as I know, the death penalty, and I understand why it's there, but it is not a deterrent to crime.

WILLIAMS: Oh boy.

LETTERMAN: Still has not been proven to be a deterrent of crime.

WILLIAMS: Dave, unless you're doing a three-hour special tonight, I-

LETTERMAN: Okay. Wait a minute. We're not-

WILLIAMS: I feel like "Jungle" Jack Hanna. I'm going to bring out an oselot.

[LAUGHTER]

LETTERMAN: Wait a minute, I got-

WILLIAMS: I got a thing.

LETTERMAN: You didn't let me get to my three points. Now also then on – I believe the most recent debate it was the issue of 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell.' We had a serviceman-

WILLIAMS: A gay member of the service, Army, yup.

LETTERMAN: And during his – or after his discussion of 'Don't ask, Don't Tell,' and whatever his point was, the young man was booed.

WILLIAMS: Was booed. By one to two audience participants in a major arena, major venue in Florida. Not being an apologist, just trying to be accurate.

LETTERMAN: Okay, thank you. Why doesn't one of those eight presumably legitimate candidates for the nomination jump all over that moment.

WILLIAMS: The question went to Rick Santorum. And he just either could not ad-lib right then or chose not to. He went ahead with his answer, that somehow this was, I believe, "social engineering" was the quote inherent in his answer. And you know, these are, these are live events and he, a former U.S. senator, had a judgement to make on the fly, he went with the answer he went with.

LETTERMAN: Okay, but here we have nothing if not supreme opportunists on that stage. Somebody, if not Senator Santorum, somebody could have jumped all over that moment and said, 'Ladies and gentlemen, what have we come to? That we booing a man who has served the United States?'

WILLIAMS: Which some of them did the next day.

LETTERMAN: The next day ain't good enough.

WILLIAMS: And not that night. But you're right. There was an opportunity there.

[APPLAUSE]

LETTERMAN: And I'll tell you something else, I don't know what they're demonstrating about down on Wall Street, but I'm happy that it's going on.

WILLIAMS: Why, because of the income disparity?

LETTERMAN: I have come to believe that the only change that ever is affected in this country comes via demonstration. Because it's certainly not happening in Washington DC.

WILLIAMS: Well, we certainly saw it in the 1960s.

LETTERMAN: That's what I'm talking about.  

Kyle Drennen
Kyle Drennen
Kyle Drennen is a News Analyst for MRC