Brian Williams: Joe the Plumber Was Silly, A 'Rat Hole of Distraction'

NBC anchor Brian Williams appeared on the Tavis Smiley show on PBS on Monday night and trashed Joe the Plumber's anti-tax cause as a silly issue, not a serious question about the redistribution of wealth: "Look at how our attention was able to get pulled into pigs and lipstick and plumbers. We got a plumber who's the third member of the GOP ticket, in effect, and that's - it's all of our fault, yes, and there will be time to bloody our own backs with chains, but it's also the sorry state of our discourse as if, Tavis, we don't have enough serious issues to concentrate on." Williams added: "I think we may find out it was a movement year, we may find out we all had to step aside and just let it happen, and we may decide we went down too many rat holes of distractions on our way there."

Williams also complained once again about the delay in his Sarah Palin interview, given his network’s leading stature. "I went more than third -- I went fifth or sixth," even as he added: "I think she's a professional at her job, I try to be at mine, and we kind of quickly got over it." Sounds like he hasn’t.

The interview began with the plumber-bashing:

SMILEY: Has this campaign, honestly and frankly, gone on just too long?

WILLIAMS: Oh, yeah. I don't even have to be honest or frank about it. It's just flatly gone on too long, and what's sad about it is I remember saying, naively, innocently, "Well, at least we'll have a thorough and serious and sober airing of the issues."

And instead, look at what we did. Look at how our attention was able to get pulled into pigs and lipstick and plumbers. We got a plumber who's the third member of the GOP ticket, in effect, and that's -- it's all of our fault, yes, and there will be time to bloody our own backs with chains, but it's also the sorry state of our discourse as if, Tavis, we don't have enough serious issues to concentrate on.

He returned to the theme just a few sentences later when asked if the networks did too much horse-race coverage:

A funny thing happened on the way to the nomination for President Giuliani and President Hillary Clinton, and that is it appears that if these polls hold and we've got it at 51-43 as of tonight, and our pollsters are very good, it looks like everybody else in this race ran smack into an American history movement. Ran smack into a changing of those iconic symbols at the front of all the classrooms we grew up sitting in, all those oval pictures, depictions of our presidents. It's about to change, after 43 of them, if these polls hold, and people need to get out to vote.

The American voter has a funny way of deciding for themselves what happens in our elections. So I think we may find out it was a movement year, we may find out we all had to step aside and just let it happen, and we may decide we went down too many rat holes of distractions on our way there.

Then came the Palin exchange:

SMILEY: You mentioned one woman a moment ago, Brian, of course, Hillary Clinton. There's another woman in this race, still in it as of this moment, Sarah Palin. Let me just ask you in a very forthright way. When you're sitting for a conversation, as you did days ago, with one Sarah Palin, and your own network, in fact, "Saturday Night Live," has made such a wonderful run of jokes about Sarah Palin, and they're not the only ones. But clearly, she has been ridiculed -- my words, not yours here -- ridiculed for being, shall we say, an intellectual lightweight. When you're going into an interview and you know that that's the rub, that's what's out there, how do you prepare for that conversation so that you don't get chastised for being too soft or too hard?

WILLIAMS: Well, by then, remember the context, Tavis. By the time I got to sit down with Sarah Palin, I was (A) allowed eight minutes with her in private; (B) allowed an extended period of time only if the top of the ticket, John McCain, was sitting with her. I went more than third -- I went fifth or sixth, if you count some of the interviews she granted. Charlie went first, then Katie. Here we are, to be gross about it, we're the largest evening news audience, and it was clear -- I joked about it on David Letterman's show - we were paying for some of the perceived sins of our cable network, and these days, everyone knows that in prime time cable programming, there's attitude.

You know what you're getting. There's truth in labeling. Nobody's being fooled. So was there a little tension? Absolutely. Can I develop a relationship, one on one, with someone? John McCain I've known for a long time, but the governor was new to me. Absolutely. And you -- I think she's a professional at her job, I try to be at mine, and we kind of quickly got over it. But a lot of -- to be frank about it, a lot of the good questions had been taken, so I chose to go down different roads.

Finally, Williams rather ridiculously claimed that no one, absolutely no one would have any idea of which presidential candidate he favors. Does he think no one noticed the difference between the pounding he gave McCain and Palin and the repeated hand-holding in interviews with Obama? But he implausibly claimed that he was a hard-core political agnostic:

SMILEY: Let me shift gears dramatically here. Obama, as you certainly know and have covered on the "NBC Nightly News," for whatever reason or reasons, has generated a certain level of enthusiasm and energy in the younger generation. You have two kids - I think 17 and 20. If my research is as good as yours, I think my facts are right. Seventeen and 20; and so they're in that age group that Obama has played so well to. Without betraying the confidence of your children, are you one news anchor who's had your children in your ear when you're not on the anchor desk about this campaign?

WILLIAMS: Oh, you've just landed on the recurring theme in my house. My family knows that I am such a political agnostic, I've never told my wife of 22 years or either child who I voted for for president. I've only said publicly that I think my politics might surprise some folks, that I've voted for members of both parties for president. But it drives them crazy, and it's been driving me crazy that I have to put ear plugs and blinders on when I come in the house. I can't hear it. I can't hear it, I don't want to hear it, I don't have a dog in this. I go up to my easy chair on the second floor of the house. My dog comes with me. She sits with me and keeps me company. She has expressed no view in this election, and so far she's the only member of my household to express no view in this election.

Tim Graham
Tim Graham
Tim Graham is Executive Editor of NewsBusters and is the Media Research Center’s Director of Media Analysis