Brian Williams and the Tyranny of Ego

by David French

Like so many others, I find it impossible to believe Brian Williams simply “made a mistake.” At the risk of indulging in armchair pop psychology, I’d say it’s far more likely that a titanic ego collided with reality, and reality lost.

In my own experience, there are few things more humbling than getting downrange and realizing that — no matter your accomplishments back home — you’re not really a big deal. It’s especially humbling when your accomplishments are all in the civilian world, with the “bragging rights” consisting of degrees from fancy schools, cool media appearances, and writing opportunities — all things that mean exactly jack and squat when you come face-to-face with young guys who know what it’s like to look death in the eye and do their job with courage and honor. Even an NBC News anchor can feel small next to a guy who just kicked down a door and went in with no knowledge of what was waiting for him on the other side, or just rolled back into the gate after a six-hour firefight. That’s not to say that it’s not a real accomplishment to become a news anchor. It is. But it’s not one that requires the depth of courage and fortitude a person sees at war. And the contrast can be humbling — or humiliating, if one is given over to arrogance and envy.

I served with heroes. I’ve told many stories from my deployment, of guys who did things I’ll never do. It was an honor to serve with them, and to do what little I could to facilitate and empower their work. But I’m not them. My story will never be their story. And that’s okay.

It seems that some politicians and media figures are incapable of honoring others without attempting to capture some of that reflected glory for themselves. Anchors and politicians often got exactly where they are in part through relentless self-promotion, and they just can’t resist the tyranny of their own egos. In a time of war, commentators or politicians who’ve been under fire are often imbued — or imbue themselves — with a kind of Absolute Moral Authority. So Hillary Clinton braved sniper fire (with her daughter, no less!) Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal “served in Vietnam.” Brian Williams’ chopper took fire and was forced down. Those lies were told in the service of a heroic narrative, as another bullet point in their authors’ glittering resumes.

The irony is that in each case, the fabulist was actually doing something good and honorable, yet still felt the need to embellish. It was good for the First Lady to visit war-torn Bosnia. Richard Blumenthal’s service in the Marine Reserves was honorable. Brian Williams was demonstrating real bravery by traveling in Iraq during the invasion. But for each of them, reality wasn’t enough. They had to be more.

And in trying to be more, they became less. Brian Williams may remain an NBC News anchor, but his lies have diminished him, and his continued spin and evasion diminishes him even more.

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