” Next to the Iranian nuclear program or Putin’s neo-Soviet expansionism, the question of whether NBC News “managing editor” Brian Williams is a self-aggrandizing liar or a mentally ill fantasist is a relatively minor matter, notwithstanding that he is the very embodiment of the strange antiquated assumptions of network news – that because a chap looks like a 1950s department-store mannequin he’s your go-to guy for economic analysis and foreign policy.
As to the subject at issue, my general view of “personal stories” (including my own) was summed up by Mel Brooks on stage a few decades back reminiscing about his life. After one especially uproarious anecdote, he said, “I swear every word is true. Well, no. The mildly funny stuff is true. The mezzo-mezzo stuff is mostly true. But the really funny stuff is entirely invented.” That formula applies to the dramatic stuff, too. As you tell a story over the years, as Brian Williams did with his RPG-hit-chopper shtick, it gets too honed, too sharp.
Then too there is the phenomenon that creeps with age – when anecdotes you once told about other people mutate into anecdotes you tell about yourself. The first example of this I encountered, back when I was very young, was the great Royal Ballet choreographer Sir Frederick Ashton, who regaled me with a string of fascinating personal stories, all of which I discovered, upon returning home, had happened to Diaghilev or Massine or Ninette de Valois.
But again: I can understand that. You were there. You were part of the scene. You knew the people. You laughed and smoked and danced with them. Why couldn’t it have been you who got off the devastatingly witty retort?
But I find it harder to believe that a man can “accidentally” claim his helicopter has been hit by an RPG. You have to feel that to know what it’s like. And, if you’ve never felt it, how can you “accidentally” go around describing it to David Letterman on TV and Alec Baldwin on radio for years on end?
Back in 2003, I was in Iraq just a few weeks after Brian Williams. As I mention in The [Un]documented Mark Steyn, I rented a car at Amman airport, drove through Jordan’s eastern desert, crossed the border and kept going. A little bit of it was scary, a lot of it was funny, relaxing, dull… As the years go by and I tell someone about the goofy guy I met gassing up in Ramadi, I have to stop myself and think, “No, wait. Was it Ramadi? Or Fallujah?” I’m sure, if you combed through a decade’s worth of radio interviews, you could find inconsistencies.”
Steyn is always Saturday’s must read