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Veteran recounts Brian Williams ditching Medal of Honor event for SNL

Amy Poehler, left, Brian Williams, center, and Seth Meyers, are seen when Williams made a surprise cameo at the Weekend Update desk on Sept. 30, 2006.

DANA EDELSON, NBC/AP

By PATRICK DICKSON | STARS AND STRIPES Published: February 10, 2015

WASHINGTON — Brian Williams’ on-air apology last week rang hollow to a number of veterans. Perhaps none more so than Boston firefighter Neal Santangelo.

In Sunday editions of the Boston Herald, Santangelo recounted for columnist Peter Gelzinis how, at the last minute, Williams had told organizers of a 2006 Congressional Medal of Honor banquet in the city that a “pressing engagement” would prevent him from serving as master of ceremonies and keynote speaker, as he’d agreed to do six months earlier. He would instead only have time to greet the audience.

As members of the committee that arranged the event, Tom Lyons and Santangelo were disappointed, but arranged for a police escort to rush Williams to the airport to catch his plane back to NYC.

After the banquet, as they and other committee members relaxed in the hotel lounge, Santangelo’s wife phoned from their room to say she knew why Williams had to bail out.

She was watching the NBC Nightly News anchor ham it up with Seth Meyers and Amy Poehler in a Weekend Update sketch on “Saturday Night Live.”

In the skit, Williams was told that he did not get the Update anchor job, and has an awkward moment with co-anchors Amy Poehler and Seth Meyers.

Santangelo wrote an angry letter to Williams a week after the banquet. “In an act of egotistical, blatant self-promotion, you deceived the (Medal of Honor) Recipients, declined to break bread with them and disrespected them.

“You placed comedy before courage ... Your conduct was irreverent, insulting, incomprehensible and shameful....”

He never sent it.

“I didn’t want to send it off like some loose cannon,” Gelzinis quotes Santangelo as saying. “So, even though the local committee agreed with every word, we decided to run it past the national (Medal of Honor) society.

“And what came back to us was, ‘Yes, we agree with what you’re saying, but we don’t want to burn any bridges with this guy.’ ”

Williams still sits on several advisory boards of the Medal of Honor Foundation, an adjunct of the MOH society. They have declined any comment, Gelzinis wrote.

The accusation that Williams sought celebrity status, perhaps at the expense of journalistic standards, has been made elsewhere since veterans challenged his account of being aboard a helicopter forced down in Iraq in 2003.

In her Sunday column in The New York Times, Maureen Dowd wrote:

“As the performers — Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, John Oliver and Bill Maher — were doing more serious stuff, the supposedly serious guys were doing more performing. ...

“With no pushback from the brass at NBC, Williams has spent years fervently 'courting celebrity,' as The Hollywood Reporter put it, guest starring on '30 Rock,' slow-jamming the news with Jimmy Fallon and regaling David Letterman with his faux heroics: 'Two of our four helicopters were hit by ground fire, including the one I was in, RPG and AK-47.'”

Williams is now being scrutinized for a number of stories, including telling journalism students that while covering Hurricane Katrina, he had seen a dead body floating past his New Orleans hotel room, where flooding was not severe, and how armed gangs had run amok in the hotel.

Many of his stories, however, were told as he was out pushing his “brand” on shows such as Fallon’s or Letterman’s, and his bosses at NBC exhibited no public discomfort with his doing so.

In one of his many appearances on Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show,” he told a story of being in an Israeli Black Hawk helicopter, and watching Katyusha rockets pass underneath him. Like many of his stories, it evolved from the first telling. At the end of a nearly six-minute segment, he concludes his story by telling host Jon Stewart, “Any time you want to cross over to the other side, baby, travel with me.”

On NBC Nightly News’ Monday broadcast, stand-in Lester Holt said, “We want to take just a moment to tell you where Brian is tonight”... then mentioned Williams’ note to the staff, adding that he’ll take several days off “amid questions over how he recalled certain stories he’s covered. ... He’ll be off while this issue is dealt with.”

dickson.patrick@stripes.com
Twitter: @StripesDCchief

 

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