September 22, 2015

It was a launch so soft that National Security Agency satellites might have missed the introduction of a new product.

But there at 3 p.m. Eastern Tuesday, following an ad for a rheumatoid arthritis drug, was Brian Williams, a star anchor back from self-inflicted corporate immolation and brief purgatory.

“And good day, I’m Brian Williams at MSNBC headquarters here in New York,” he said in a decidedly un-dramatic opening to coverage of the arrival in Washington of Pope Francis.

There was no pro forma anchor hyperbole, no seemingly rehearsed grand socio-cultural statements or rhetorical, Vatican-smitten groveling toward this “holy man.” We did not have a seven-figure journalist emoting about the Catholic Church leader’s admirable quest for greater economic equality.

No, he quickly threw the story to reporter Chris Jansing at what “we used to call Andrews Air Force Base, now Joint Base Andrews,” a snippet that served as a reminder of his own Washington past.

“Good, afternoon, Brian,” Jansing said.

And that was really it. That was the informal welcome back of a man who left as king of the hill at NBC News. But his suspension for exaggerating tales related to an Iraq War helicopter rescue prompted his being suspended, derision by critics and even colleagues, a suspension and loss of a nightly anchor post still coveted in a world of audience fragmentation.

There was little insertion of personal opinion, even veiled, with the exception of colleague Chuck Todd suggesting that the visit might alter the generally coarse tone of the presidential campaign (largely meaning Donald Trump). Williams suggested that he hoped that would be true but did so with an inflection that implied he didn’t necessarily think so.

But he also displayed why he got where he did, especially as an adroit ringleader, moving from guest to reporter to guest seamlessly. He was surrounded by an NBC News A-list, even the return of long-ago NBC regular Maria Shriver, a major league Catholic, plopped in front of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, where Francis will celebrate mass and canonize a saint.

The only smidgen of perhaps inessential rhetorical flourish came as the Alitalia jet landed.

“There you have it, the pope on American soil at 3:49 p.m.,” he said, as if this actually would be a time we’ll want to commit to memory and pass on to our grandchildren. It wasn’t a Moon landing.

Williams had time to kill as the plane was taxiing on the runway, avoiding the grandiose, offering a quickie primer on the different draft in sight and holding a chat with NBC reporter Anne Thompson (the clear, old-hand star of MSNBC’s afternoon coverage), who was on the plane and gave a succinct capsule of a 26-minute press conference the pope had held on the plane during its trek from Cuba.

It also meant delving into the relatively inconsequential, such as which of two doors the pope and the press would exit.

For those looking for a slip, or to find some potentially great ironic moment, given his past ethical missteps, there was scant fodder. He alluded to his own White House reporting days but there were no, “I remember when…” sagas. Fact-checking Williams skeptics will probably come up dry.

But it also offered the possibility of finally flashing his quick humor, playing off Thompson’s mention of being way back in Row 44 (and thus unable to see the pope very well, suggesting that NBC travel officials upgrade his colleague on the next leg of the journey).

There was more time to kill, the camera focused on the plane’s front door and Williams vamped adeptly. He mentioned the weather, the frequent winds on that particular airstrip, the low-hanging clouds. And even letting silence take hold and giving viewers what’s known in the business as “nat (natural) sound” of a band playing, the invited folks in the bleachers cheering.

When President Obama ambled out (first with one daughter, then with the second daughter and wife Michelle and her mom following), one saw the full orchestration of the event on a split screen, with Francis in the plane awaiting Obama’s arrival at the foot of the stairs.

Williams said little. There wasn’t a whole lot to say, even on a cable news channel where there’s lots of time to fill (and which, one realized clearly, could provide a very suitable venue for professional redemption). And he was wise to let others talk as much as he did.

“You see the pope there with Dr. Jill Biden…all the greetings very warm.”

The only, typical TV glitch involved an attempt to get back to Thompson. It didn’t work. But he segued to musings about the Obama daughters. No problem.

“I guess the school day is over and they have permission to come out here,” Williams said.

There was talk by others around him of the pope’s “perpetual smile” and his “love of children.” It was a hint of the effusive accounts to come.

And then Francis exited the field, briefly returning to board his very small black Fiat. The opening of a three-city extravaganza was over. There was some serious discussion about the pope with Williams’ academic expert and a Jesuit priest.

The president and First Lady bid their farewells, for the moment, and shortly the car itself was departing for the Vatican’s residence in the city.

“We are used to the big U.S. dreadnoughts,” Williams said accurately and drolly about the armor-plated giant limos and Chevy Suburbans in which our leaders may travel. “And this is a Mr. Bean by comparison.”

After a very long, uninterrupted stretch, it was time for commercials. No surprise, there was one for diabetic nerve pain.

The hawking of pharmaceuticals was typical. But the return of Williams was not. A low-key opening afternoon was a clear, even if perhaps modestly watched, success.

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New York City native, graduate of Collegiate School, Amherst College and Roosevelt University. Married to Cornelia Grumman, dad of Blair and Eliot. National columnist, U.S.…
James Warren

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