PBS talk show host Charlie Rose, who spent the 1980s at CBS doing the overnight interview show "Nightwatch," is never a softer touch than when he has a network star on his show. Monday night’s interview with NBC anchor Brian Williams gave the anchor a platform to present his newscast as a "reasoned, serious" oasis from cable-news shouters, a "half hour of peace and tranquility" with "smart people" like David Gregory and Andrea Mitchell telling you about the world. Their discussion of Katrina coverage had no hint of regret that NBC misled people with Ray Nagin’s wild estimates of 10,000 dead. Williams said, "you remember people saying, well, the media have found their footing again and its name is New Orleans. They were asleep during WMD. But they're awake now."
The interview began with syrupy talk about Williams filling in for Rose during his heart-surgery break. Williams said it was his pleasure, since he was interviewing that genius who is the editor of Newsweek:
"They allowed me to interview Jon Meacham. We could have done three hours as you know. Jon's intellect will take you around the world."
Rose added: "And you can touch on all the gods and all the Founding Fathers and the latest conversations with Billy Graham."
Williams: "And Franklin and Winston."
Rose: "Yes indeed. And the boy writes history as well."
Williams was drawn into praising his own show (and mocking the talk-show hosts on cable TV) when talking about how NBC still draws ten million viewers a night, up to 11 or 12 million around the elections:
Williams: "I see us as still offering this reasoned, serious half hour every night. The more people shout on cable, the more I actually welcome that."
Rose: "Because it makes what you do more needed."
Williams: "Right. Sure. Give us this half hour of peace and tranquility and let me hear what David Gregory says it was like in the front row of the briefing that day. [Talk about a shouter!] Let me hear Andrea Mitchell describe Condi Rice on this trip to Jakarta. I want to know about that. I want to know it from smart people who do this for a living."
Then came the time to honor Williams for his "passion" during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina:
Rose: "You have had the opportunity because of that chair to be in new orleans. It is the most important story identified with you. Did it change you."
Williams, beginning with a hushed tone: "Oh, I think so. What was different and you were around and you remember people saying, well, the media have found their footing again and its name is New Orleans. They were asleep during WMD. But they're awake now.
The difference, as I need not tell you, is we got to New Orleans before that storm hit, and made it an intentional decision to lock ourselves in that dome. I rode out that storm in that leaky dome with all those people, not all of whom lived to see the next week. So I think it made me a witness. We saw palpable screw-ups by our government, and we saw our brothers and sister citizens, Americans – I had just covered the tsunami, thinking all the while when I saw an open grave, well, we'll never have people, Americans, floating through streets of our cities. And of course we did. Of course we saw people floating through the streets of New Orleans. Obviously there was a storm. And no one can stop that. But, boy, the government response could have been different. I think everyone responsible has made their respective apologies. I was just there really as the viewers' advocate."
Being an "advocate" meant confronting President Bush with the idea that he was influenced by racism, that a majority-white city would have drawn a better, quicker government response.
Rose: "Tell me about your impression of him on that day, on that day."
Williams: "I got in so much trouble on that day in New Orleans. You'll see the body language. He plays you man to man. He likes to get in your grill. He likes it that way. And you can't give distance. I don't mean that in a Jets vs. Sharks way. I'm not an adversary. But I'm not an advocate for his position either. So you hold your ground as you would in conversation. He gets so close to you sometimes it's beyond – I normally wear glasses when I'm off the air. It's beyond my ability to focus in on his face. But I found he appreciates the swordfight of a crackling good conversation. People said to me after this interview, you asked him what he was reading just to embarrass him. I said, no, I asked him what he was reading because we always talk about books. I know he's just finish a Teddy Roosevelt kick. I know as of the time I've seen him he read 53 books in this competition with Karl Rove they were having for nonfiction.
Rose: Is this when he later said Karl Rove won because he may not have been working as hard?"
Williams: "Exactly, and the president admitted he was reading philosophers at the ranch in texas. It was a revealing moment."
Rose: Columnists had a field day with [Bush reading existentialist writer Albert] Camus.
Williams: "Yes, they did. With Camus, and ‘three Shakespeares.’ as the president said."
Rose: "But beyond that, that's a telling detail. He likes to be in your face...Other impressions that don't match what might have been conventional wisdom about him adding to the portrait?
Williams: "Interesting. Having covered Bill Clinton as White House correspondent and now having been around this president, one of the real joys of my job, my hobby in life is presidential history. I live for each new book or detail to come out, is how equal they are as retail politicians. So many differences obviously between the two men. But they are equally at home in private settings and they need that tonic of personal contact. Both men have that wonderful gift. If you're standing in front of them, there is no one else in the world and having been in the company of both men I'm struck by that similarity.
Rose: "I don't know if Bush feels that way. Clinton has taken note of that saying he has great respect for him as a politician because he loves the game. He loves to walk down the rope line and shake hands and see people because he is a people person. His father, Bush's father, seems different about politics. Was much more... loved government. More so than politics."
Williams: "And noblesse oblige. More than the son perhaps. I don't know."
Rose: "I want to take a look at this interview with the president. Here it is. Roll tape."
[Video of Williams to Bush: "Was there any social or class or race aspect to the response?"
Bush: "Somebody, I heard a couple of people said Bush didn't respond because because he's a racist or alleged that. That is absolutely wrong. I reject that. Frankly that's the kind of thing that you can call me anything you want but do not call me a racist."]
Rose: "What's interesting about that-- and i hadn't seen that bite-- it is that people don't appreciate the power of engagement. I.E., It's not the perfect question always. It is putting that person not by soft or hard, not by any other definition just engagement so they want to tell you. It's an engagement of a conversation."
Williams: "I had an idea on that flight on Air Force One, we were above Philadelphia. The truth is the taxpayers can now know the pilot had to do a rectangle while we were -- because the interview went longer than we thought because Bush was engaged. He didn't want to stop. I said to me, Mr. President, what just happened in New Orleans? What if that had been Nantucket or Chicago or Florida or New York or L.A.? That's what set him off. He sensed an implication in the question. And so that's what led to that second exchange."
He sensed an implication? Wasn’t the implication crystal clear? "You don’t care about black people."