Brian Williams, NBC News anchor, has been taking a lot of heat lately. It’s alleged that in retelling his experiences, he has enhanced them in ways that enlarge his role and confirm his status as the “I’m just a regular guy, don’t call me a hero, I was just doing my job, but seriously, I was lucky to survive” Managing Editor of NBC News.
America Loves a Hero, Right? So why not be one?
As a former naval officer, I would like to take this opportunity to point out that it appears that Brian has made the leap from “news”, which is an ostensibly factual replay of the day’s events, to “sea stories”, a tradition of oral history that began as soon as the first “men who went down to the sea in ships” came back ashore.
What is a sea story? A sea story, properly told, is both a spoken narrative and a closely held philosophy. The narrative may encompass events ranging from hair-raising in-air mishaps to pithy shipboard parables.
The philosophy of sea stories is that the best stories are nearly always nearly true, and as such, are anchored (if I may use that nautical term) in a firm belief that just because one or two critical events may or may not have happened is no reason to throw out a perfectly good story.
As in so many cases, it is the philosophy that causes the problems. When the narrator is freed of the limits imposed by a strict adherence to truth, the scope, scale and vigor of the narrative is also freed to expand, with no natural limits.
An overly liberal application of this principle, however, may lead to a narrative that’s so inflated that it can only be described as entertainment. Need an example? Start with Andy and Opie on a fishing trip, apply a few layers of compound narrative inflation, and before you know it, you’ve got Moby Dick.
With that in mind, let’s wind the Brian Williams drama ahead to 2018, and see what develops, given a few years of compound narrative inflation.
“With us tonight is long-time NBC News Anchor and Managing Editor Brian Williams. You’ve heard of his harrowing exploits in Iraq, New Orleans, and working the Christmas tree stand in Red Bank, New Jersey, but tonight we’re going to hear the rest of the story…best described as “Brian Williams Three Greatest Gifts to Mankind.
Here then, is “Brian Williams: In His Own Words.”
“Wow, my three greatest gifts to mankind…I would have to say the first is George Clooney. If you look at George Clooney today, he’s a huge movie star, humanitarian and citizen of the world, but when I met him, he was just an actor in a night-time soap, playing a doc on the TV show “ER”. One day I saw him in the NBC commissary and I said to him “George, you’re a good-looking guy, and I know you’ve got a pretty good gig right now, but you need to make one big change, and you need to make it now. You’ve got to stop coming your hair forward. Look at the great ones through history…Lincoln, JFK, me…you gotta part your hair on the left. You look like Moe of the Three Stooges, for Pete’s sake. So, he started parting on the left, and well, suddenly he’s the greatest actor of his generation.”
“I think the second greatest gift to mankind would have to be the Internet. Now I don’t claim to have invented the Internet, because that would be crazy, right, but Tommy Lee Jones says I should. A lot of people know that Al Gore and Tommy Lee Jones were college roommates. What very few people know is that I roomed with them, for just one semester, but it was one of the most entertaining periods of my life. We would sit around the dorm room on Saturday nights and just laugh and laugh…you have to realize that even then, Tommy Lee Jones looked just like he does now. He was basically a grumpy, baggy looking college sophomore when I knew him, but that’s another story. Anyhoo, Al would sit there and just go on and on, and in the course of an evening, he laid out what eventually became the Internet as we know it today. Finally I just said, “So wait, Al. You’re saying that in the future, everyone will have a computer, and they will all be connected to each other, and it will all be FREE? Oh, man, you have got to write this down. So anyway, I didn’t invent the Internet, but Tommy Lee says that by getting Al to write it down, I can rightfully claim at least partial credit. But hey, that’s not my style, you know?”
“The third greatest gift that I have given mankind, without a question, is Forrest Gump. We were filming a piece about the SpaceCamp in Huntsville, Alabama, and one afternoon we took a field trip to shoot some B-roll film, and I just happened to notice this guy out mowing the football field in the heat of the afternoon in a little town called Greenbow, Alabama. We pulled over and started a conversation and it turned out that he was a Viet Nam vet with an amazing story to tell. I made a couple of phone calls, and well, the rest is history, as they say.”
“The incredible thing that we found out is that we’re about the same age with a lot in common, and sometimes I get a little confused about where Brian ends and Forrest begins…but I’m sure a lot of people feel that way, right?”
Dennis Brouwer is a leadership coach (www.crew11.us), writer, and avid teller of sea stories. He and his wife live on a small farm in northern Virginia. He can be reached at DB@crew11.us.