The Corner

Brian Williams and the Tyranny of Ego

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.

David French — David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Most Popular

U.S.

The Gun-Control Debate Could Break America

Last night, the nation witnessed what looked a lot like an extended version of the famous “two minutes hate” from George Orwell’s novel 1984. During a CNN town hall on gun control, a furious crowd of Americans jeered at two conservatives, Marco Rubio and Dana Loesch, who stood in defense of the Second ... Read More
Film & TV

Why We Can’t Have Wakanda

SPOILERS AHEAD Black Panther is a really good movie that lives up to the hype in just about every way. Surely someone at Marvel Studios had an early doubt, reading the script and thinking: “Wait, we’re going to have hundreds of African warriors in brightly colored tribal garb, using ancient weapons, ... Read More
Law & the Courts

Obstruction Confusions

In his Lawfare critique of one of my several columns about the purported obstruction case against President Trump, Gabriel Schoenfeld loses me — as I suspect he will lose others — when he says of himself, “I do not think I am Trump-deranged.” Gabe graciously expresses fondness for me, and the feeling is ... Read More
Science & Tech

Set NASA Free

The Trump administration has proposed shifting the International Space Station from a NASA-exclusive research facility to a semi-public, semi-private one. Its plan would nix all government funding for the ISS by 2025 and award at least $150 million per year to NASA to help with the transition. This would be a ... Read More