Thursday, July 31, 2008

Brian Williams on The Daily Show

[Transcript and embedded video below the fold, plus links to related video clips]

NBC News anchor Brian Williams, fresh back from a trip to Tehran to interview Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in his Presidential Palace, was Jon Stewart's guest on Comedy Central's Daily Show on Thursday, 2008-07-31. Stewart and Williams traded comedic jabs, but in amidst the snark you will find some actual information, including some reasons to be interested in watching the Ahmadinejad interview. Brian Williams gives Jon Stewart some of his first-hand impressions of Iran and its president, including the dimension so seldom highlighted in US news coverage that Ahmadinejad is to some extent playing political games for the benefit of his domestic "base" within Iran, and draws some further parallels between the apparent threat posed by Iran today with the threats we believed we faced from the Cold-War-era USSR and from Saddam Hussein's Iraq.

Embedded video from


Jon Stewart: Welcome back. My guest tonight, the anchor and managing editor of NBC Nightly News, just back from Iran; please welcome back to the show Brian Williams!

Sit down. I won't have it! Sit. This is not Tehran; I am the mullah, here.

Brian Williams: Are you the mullah or the mullet?

Stewart: You wanna go Jersey on me? You wanna go Jersey on me right now?

Williams: Hey — of the two of us, I'm from Jersey, and I can go Jersey on you, easier than you can go Jersey on me. If there's a can of whoop-ass out here, I open it. Okay? Look at me: I've been out here all of 20 seconds ...

Stewart: I welcome you to the show and suddenly you're threatening me with physical violence.

Williams: I'm verklempt; you threw down.

Stewart: I am delighted that you're here. You're just back from Iran, interviewing President Ahmoud Ahmadinejad. My question is this to you — and it's a simple question. In America we have a rule: we don't talk to terrorists. My question to you is, When did you turn your back on America?

Williams: Are we doin' this? Is this happening? Are we doin' this?

Stewart: Oh, we're on, baby; take out your can, 'cause I'm openin' mine.
[talking over each other]

Williams: This is happening. Oh, we're doin' this. Okay.

Stewart: Did you get anywhere with this guy? You sat down with Ahmadinejad.

Williams: I think, Jon — and I speak for the real news world —

Stewart: What?!! [tears up one of his note cards]

Williams: Oh, your "note" has been torn up. A card with my name on it —

Stewart: It just says, in big letters, Talk about a can of whoop-ass; that's all it says.

Williams: Jon's "interview prep."

Stewart: Tell me about this guy!

Williams: He is a lot of things: he's a Ph.D., he's the former mayor of Tehran, he's got an election next year, and after all, at the end of the day, he's a politician.

Stewart: Right.

Williams: And he may very well know that the religious folks — who are, some would argue, more in charge than he is — have decided that embracing the West, the U.S., while these talks are going on in Geneva, wouldn't be a bad idea. You enter that country, and you see what sanctions do. You see that the city streets remind you of a cross between Havana and Baghdad; kind of a used-to-be Eastern bloc nation [except that it was Western bloc] that hasn't had a cent invested in it in years. We were staying in what used to be a Hilton, and it just has gone to hell. You know, the walls of the hotel are scraped, and it's dirty and awful —

Stewart: Any stuff to bomb? Anything we could bring down with some type of ... explosions?

Williams: So, the first indication we had —

Stewart: Were you at the Presidential palace?

Williams: We were. Never happened before. I mean, this is like the most heavily guarded — you come down several streets.

Stewart: You must be very special.

Williams: Ohhh...

Stewart: Let me ask you this: do they have favors? Do they have, like — when you went to the bathroom, what are the soaps like? Do they say, like, Tehran or Presidential Palace? Were there ashtrays to steal? What'd you find over there?

Williams: We're on your time, okay? [throws up his hands resignedly, turns in his chair as if to stand and walk away]

Stewart: Come back!

Williams: If you feel — no, okay. I never left — just for the record. It's an amazing place. You're in this courtyard, 95° heat [35°C], he comes out of what is the equivalent of the West Wing, his residence is behind you, you realize briefly that you're in this courtyard that the CIA would've given thousands of dollars just to see up close — it's never — we have very little human intelligence in Iran — and he was clear he had a message to impart. It was clear from when we were picked up at the airport, when we learned where the interview was going to be. Ten minutes after he went out, I went on the Today show, from his courtyard. Just absolutely unheard-of. And buried in his rhetoric —

Stewart: Let me guess the message. Can I guess it?

Williams: [patronizingly] Yes, Jon.

Stewart: "Death to America"?

Williams: Not so much. It was more like — and I'm gonna use a big one here — rapprochement; can you handle it?

Stewart: Sounds pretty — I don't know, French?

Williams: And what's Stewart?

Stewart: Sort-of Jew.

When you talk to them, do you feel like — you know, when he says the crazy things that he says — and he says crazy things —

Williams: Oh, yeah.

Stewart: Is he playing to his base? Is this just a politician — because, I think, wasn't that the mistake we made with Saddam Hussein: his bragadaccio [sic], all those things, were of necessity, because he has to play to this base. Are we misinterpreting their belligerence and thinking it's baiting us into a war when in fact it's just a way to stay in power?

Williams: Well, that's exactly what it is. There's universals in politics: he's playing to his base just like a politician in Cleveland. You can go through the transcript — and, you know, you were joking — he says all but "Death to America!" At one point, he says to me, and I'm paraphrasing very loosely, the atomic bomb is so "20th century."

Stewart: What?!

Williams: He wanted us to know they're —

Stewart: Do they have a death ray? What do you mean, "the atomic bomb is..."

Williams: I don't know — it does beg the question: what do you guys got?

Stewart: Really?

Williams: Yeah. But he delves into sarcasm, he tries false flattery, but then —

Stewart: Have we made a mistake, elevating them to this idea that they are now the Axis powers? That they are Germany in the '30s? Have we made a mistake in this type of elevation?

Williams: That's the great argument. First time I go to Russia, I realize Tom Friedman's theory that this "dirty little secret" was that they couldn't build a light bulb, back during those years we were so worried about them. First time you go, I was in Saddam's palace, two days after the invasion, went to drink from the faucet in his bathroom, and realized the gold sink was paint and the underside was just black metal, and that's a perfect metaphor for so much of what these rulers build up, so maybe you could argue that a Military-Industrial Complex depends on having enemies. I'm not saying that; it's been proferred before.

Stewart: Brian Williams says, "Beware the Military-Industrial Complex"; he makes a plea, I think, to the American leaders tonight on this show, to stand down and embrace the Iranian people; he speaks French — and, other than that, I think really, no news made here tonight.

Williams: Can we go back to the guy named Bragadoccio you mentioned earlier? I think I grew up with him in Jersey.

Stewart: Brian Williams, everybody; watch the interview!


  1. Brian Williams' interview with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad: video and transcript on the NBC News web site.

  2. Ferklemt verklemt: the correct spelling is verklempt or ferklempt in Yiddish, or verklemmt in the original German. It means, roughly, "choked up"; you are so overcome by a rush of emotions that you can hardly speak and barely even breathe.

  3. Iran was never an Eastern bloc country. It tried to remain neutral in World War II, having been playing off the USSR and Britain as well as Germany and Italy in the pre-war years. The USSR, Britain, and the US invaded in 1942 to secure the oil fields, purportedly to prevent German sabotage. After World War II, the shah returned to power, but then became solidly aligned to the West when the US and UK engineered a coup against the democratically elected prime minister Mohammad Mossadeq (محمد مصدق‎) who had opposed his autocratic rule. Whatever comparisons one may draw between the forms of government, Iran under the shah was far more economically successful than the Eastern bloc countries under Soviet domination. However, it's easy to see how the decades of sanctions could create a certain commonality between Havana, Baghdad, and Tehran.

  4. Jon Stewart mispronounced bragadoccio; Brian Williams got it right.

  5. The most famous warning against the Military-Industrial Complex was in Dwight "Ike" Eisenhower's farewell message at the end of his two terms as President of the United States in 1961. audio

  6. Some of the verbal jousting was referring to the previous segment, in which The Daily Show team puts itself forward as "the best campaign team in the universe, ever!" watch the video

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