How to Dodge a Hand Grenade

As the contentions GOP debate cycle heats up, 24 hours behind the scenes with Brian Williams shows what moderators will face
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You'd think a guy who is on live TV almost every day and has done everything from interview sitting presidents to hosting Saturday Night Live wouldn’t get nervous anymore. But just before taking the stage to moderate the Sept. 7 Reagan Centennial GOP Presidential Primary Candidates Debate, NBC Nightly News anchor and managing editor Brian Williams was feeling it.

“I sweat these more than anything else I do—the stakes are high and there are hand grenades all over the place,” he says. “Interviewing a sitting president is much less stressful.”

And this debate—held at the strikingly picturesque Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif.—was a potential game-changer despite being 14 months shy of Election Day. That’s because it was the first for Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who entered the race relatively late and immediately vaulted to front-runner status.

But between a dinner with the event host, Nancy Reagan, shortly after arriving in town, and a stop at a fast-food joint on the way back out, Brian Williams calmly shook off technical glitches and even shots from candidates to confidently host the first of a series of debates that will help guide what looks to be a wild run to the GOP nomination. And as the GOP debates continue with a CNN-hosted Tea Party debate on Sept. 12, one 24-hour period with Williams shows the tricky terrain moderators have to deal with—on- and off-camera.

‘A Night at the Museum’

It’s 19 hours from the start of the debate—10 p.m. Paci! c Time on Tuesday night, Sept. 6—and Brian Williams is on stage getting things exactly how he wants them. During a walk-through, the production team tests camera angles and blocks out shots, checks sound and adjusts lighting.


Williams has done enough of these to know what he needs—and in this case, he asks for a monitor to be moved to a better place. “I need to know what is being seen by the viewers at all times,” he says. “It doesn’t just matter what I’m seeing, I need to see what they are seeing.”


After about an hour, Williams walks to the top of the seating in the venue and lies down in his suit sans tie, pretending to begin an appointment with a shrink. But as he looks up, the jokes quickly die down, as this is no ordinary venue, especially for him. We are sitting directly beneath an airplane—specifically, an Air Force One used in the Reagan era—which dominates the room where the debate will be held.

Williams is crazy about airplanes, and quickly begins to describe details of different Air Force Ones. In fact, he goes on and on about airplanes, from the engines to the fuel costs of the shiny planes of American Airlines. Tending to be in the Irwin R. Fletcher camp of thinking it’s all ball bearings these days, I actually have to ask him if he is making this stuff up. He isn’t. “I could sleep here, like A Night at the Museum,” Williams says, taking in the huge plane above us with a serious look on his face. With Williams, you always have to double-check, as his quick, dry wit can pass you right by if you aren’t on your game.

Dozens of people scurry around down on the stage, moving signage and lights. As if casting his mind ahead, Williams talks about how he will orchestrate a debate featuring eight candidates. “It’s going to be tough, like running the tower at JFK,” he says, sticking to the airplane motif, whether on purpose or not.

But this debate isn’t about eight people, and he knows it. It’s about introducing the country to the Texas governor, and seeing what happens when Perry meets up with current main competition Mitt Romney and six others who are gunning to knock him down a peg or three.

Williams candidly admits that those expectations enter into his preparation. “I guess it does, yeah,” he says. “Perry is a fascinating story line right now, there is no doubt about it.”

Williams also knows he has to try and do one of the toughest things in the world: get candidates to actually answer questions on camera. “These candidates know what they are here to accomplish,” he says. “You think we’ll hear Ronald Reagan’s name [invoked] once or twice?” (Or five times, as Newt Gingrich will ultimately end up doing in one quick answer.)

Shortly after 11:30 p.m., Williams walks out of the hangar to leave for the night. He passes a plate of cheese sitting out, but thinks better of it, knowing he still has work to do and not knowing how long said cheese has been taking in the considerable Simi Valley heat.

Back at his hotel—the Four Seasons, about 15 minutes away—Williams heads to a meeting room and joins a dozen others to keep working on questions. Two hours (and the last pastry in the box) later, he heads to his room, but continues to prep. At 2:30 a.m. he gets an email from his producer, saying simply “Go to bed.” An hour or so later, he finally does.

Game Day

After six hours of sleep, Williams is back up and at it again at 9:30. He reads the papers, flips on the television and starts to work not only on the night’s debate, but also on the Nightly News broadcast he will host from the bleachers 90 minutes before the debate begins.

His only distraction from his studying is some bad weather back East, so in addition to monitoring the cable news networks, including his own MSNBC that will air the debate, he’s keeping an eye on the Weather Channel.

His main concern is his in-laws, whose house in Fair- field County, Conn., could flood, thanks to a post-Irene rainstorm, and he needs to stay on top of whether or not they need a sump pump.

Other than that, Williams is content to stay in his hotel as long as possible. While others may like to hang around the venue, drink in the atmosphere and mine last-second nuggets, Williams is all about sequestering himself. “I’m not trying to sound lofty. I just like to stay in the zone,” he says. “It could be like a high school reunion [at the venue] because I know so many people there.”

Finally, he gets to the library at about 2 p.m., 90 minutes before Nightly and three hours before he will welcome a national television audience of millions to the debate.

He sets up shop a floor below the hangar that will host the festivities, but it is not just in any old room: his “green room” is actually a replica of Reagan’s White House briefing room, an irony for the former chief White House correspondent.

“I do find myself resisting the temptation to brief,” he jokes, munching on a banana at a makeshift desk a few feet from the faux podium, wearing a suit and his glasses. But his immediate priority—now that he got an IT person to fix his faulty BlackBerry—is to finish writing the open to his news program. He wants to write it very precisely today and not leave much ad-libbing, knowing his head will be in debate pregame at that time.

A ‘Nightly’ Test

Not long before airtime at 3:30 PT, Williams walks to the bleachers facing the stage, where he will anchor the beginning of the broadcast, standing with the podiums as a backdrop. Joining him near the open will be NBC’s White House guy, Chuck Todd, who stands a good head shorter than Williams.

With the pair set to stand next to each other, someone brings Todd a faded but solid-looking rectangular red wooden box to stand on. He refuses, with a grin on his face. “I can handle it—he’s taller than me, I can handle it,” he says.

As soon as the show starts, technology completely betrays the duo, despite all of Williams’ preparation. The monitor in front of them doesn’t work, and a taped piece they throw to doesn’t play. But they have both been there plenty of times and calmly get through the segment.

Once done, Williams heads back downstairs for final preparations, where he will snack on bananas, yogurt and granola and listen to some of what he calls “mellow” music to keep him calm before the start.

While he is down in his “briefing room,” there is a photo session taking place in the adjoining room—a replica of Reagan’s Oval Office. Each debating GOP hopeful parades into the room for a photo with Nancy Reagan.

Williams does not go in to chat, choosing to just peer in through the door. The scene is reminiscent of one involving another NBC employee who long ago observed a big meeting through a door: the time when Jay Leno famously heard NBC executives talking about his battle with David Letterman. At the mention of this, Williams laughs. “You’re right, but I overheard nothing that would affect my career’s future or my contract,” he says.

Showtime

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The debate is about to begin. Williams has moderated many of these before, but this one feels markedly different for him. His usual partner-in-crime for hosting debates was the late and well-respected grand presence that was Tim Russert, now absent for the first time. While Williams thought Russert was fantastic during debates, he marvels just as much at what NBC’s former political whiz used to do beforehand. “He’d always come in with something from the local sports team to win over the crowd,” Williams recalls, shaking his head with a wistful smile. “I used to call him a ‘pander bear.’ He didn’t care.”

But fortunately for Williams, he also has a comfort level with tonight’s comoderator, John Harris of the Website Politico. The two often covered the Clinton White House together and racked up some serious miles on the road at the same time, including a trip to Bosnia of all places. Williams did have some advice for Harris. “I said to John before [the start], ‘This will go by [fast], like your wedding day,’” and also offered, “‘We like to say if you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans for the debate.’”

But before Williams can think too much about his own nerves, the debate begins, at 5 p.m. local time.

The set-up has the two front-runners, Perry and Romney, next to each other front-and-center, with the main camera Williams is to look into right between them, embedded in the set.

That works out just right: Perry-Romney is exactly where Williams begins, getting the two to take on each other right away and even letting Romney jump in and ask for some more time to prolong the back-and-forth. “Nice to see everyone came prepared,” Williams quips after the two fire shots at each other. It is a full nine minutes into a scheduled 105-minute debate before another candidate besides Perry and Romney speak.

Williams is forced to make an early save when a video of a Romney quote doesn’t play and Harris freezes for a beat, before the anchor jumps in to keep things moving.

One of the more memorable moments comes when talk turns to capital punishment, and Williams hears the crowd erupt into cheers when Perry talks about executions. He then asks Perry for a reaction to that applause.

“I thought that [reaction] was an elephant in the room—and could even be the story of this debate for some,” Perry says.

For the most part, Williams is able to do what needs to be done by a moderator—which is to move things along and not become part of the story himself.

That comes under fire for a moment when Newt Gingrich fires back at a question from Politico’s Harris—saying that the media tries to get Republicans to fight each other to protect President Obama. (Williams says this strategy was expected and is “red meat” for the audience.)

Even so, afterwards, in the debate’s spin room, where the media meets the candidates and their staffers, a Gingrich spokesperson will actually commend the moderators.

But not everyone agrees. Ray Sullivan, Perry’s campaign communications director, will later say his candidate was subject to a “disproportionate number of barbed questions from the moderators.”

When told about that reaction later, Williams replies: “They came here expecting the most and the toughest questions, and we delivered.”

Getting ‘In-N-Out’ of Dodge

After the debate, Williams poses for a few photos (including one with Gingrich and his wife) and heads back down to the “Briefing Room,” where he changes into more casual pants and shirt.

Leaning back in a chair and analyzing what just happened on stage, Williams seems pretty satisfied. There were some glitches, like not being able to see the stage manager at all, which didn’t end up mattering. And he says he accidentally drank out of Harris’ coffee cup a couple of times.

“You can always go through these things and make changes, but we got through it,” he says.

After chewing over the debate and the winners and losers (that part was off the record), he has to head to the airport to catch a red-eye to the nation’s capital, where he will be at the White House at 11:45 the next morning for a lunch with President Obama (and other anchors) in advance of the much-anticipated jobs speech.

But there is one stop to make first: the In-N-Out burger joint right next to LAX. He will treat himself to a double-double (if you don’t know what that means, that is your loss) with cheese and ketchup, fries, Coke and a black-and-white shake.

“Tomorrow is all about fine china and nice cards with your name on it—tonight is about that burger and those great fries,” he says.

And then Williams gets to board an airplane, whose hydraulics he probably can tell you all about. Perhaps the president was treated to that over lunch.


E-mail comments to bgrossman@nbmedia.com and follow him on Twitter: @BCBenGrossman

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