Brian Williams ended his MSNBC show The 11th Hour — and his long career at NBC — with a warning of what is happening to democracy, telling viewers in his sendoff, “My biggest worry is for my country.”
“The truth is I am not a liberal or a conservative. I’m an institutionalist,” he said. “I believe in this place and in my love of country I yield to no one. But the darkness on the edge of town has spread to the main roads and highways and neighborhoods. It is now at the local bar and the bowling alley, at the school board and the grocery store. And it must be acknowledged and answered for.”
He added, “Grown men and women, who swore an oath to our Constitution, elected by their constituents, possessing the kind of college degrees I could only dream of, have decided to join the mob and become something they are not, while hoping we somehow forget who they were. They’ve decided to burn it all down with us inside.”
Williams made the surprise announcement last month that he would not renew his contract with the network, meaning an end to The 11th Hour, which has gained a following with its late-night take on the day’s news featuring a line up of journalists, analysts, historians and political strategists as guests. That was certainly not a groundbreaking feature for a cable news show when it launched in 2016, but Williams infused his nightly hours with a sardonic wit.
Williams did not say what he would do next but said, “I will probably find it impossible to be silent and stay away from you lights and cameras after I experiment with relaxation and find out what I’ve missed and what’s out there.”
In one of a number of tributes to Williams during the final hour, Eugene Robinson mentioned the name Balzac, the novelist and playwright, in noting that Williams had a “unique ability to see not just the tragedy, but also the comedy.”
Williams responded to the columnist, “Here’s the difference a Pulitzer Prize makes: Where I am from you throw around words like ‘Balzac’ you are going to get thrown out wherever you are in.”
Nicolle Wallace also was among those who appeared as a guest and with a segment of highlights from the show over the past five years. “All of us are missing something already,” she said.
Historian Michael Beschloss paid tribute to Williams by promising to send him an exact scale model of Franklin Roosevelt’s limousine from 1938, along with a send off, “Every single night you spoke truth to power in the best democratic tradition.”
MSNBC said that rotating hosts will fill the slot until a permanent successor is named. His sign off also ended a nearly 30-year career at NBC News. That tenure included 11 years anchoring NBC Nightly News, having succeeded Tom Brokaw in 2004. Williams stint in that anchor chair came to an end when when an internal investigation concluded he had embellished details of reporting experiences.
The 11th Hour helped Williams revive his career, to the point where his exit was viewed as a significant loss for MSNBC, what with the possibility that they also will be faced with Rachel Maddow scaling back her schedule at the 9 PM ET hour. (Maddow herself encouraged viewers to watch Williams finale, saying, “His decision to step away is a really big deal for all of us.”)
Williams said, in announcing his exit in November, “that are many things I want to do and I’ll pop up again somewhere,” and speculation quickly went to a range of possible next gigs.
The levity of his final night was countered a bit by the gravity of one of the show’s topics, the January 6th investigation and the lingering threat to democracy. It was perhaps fitting, given that The 11th Hour launched just two months before Donald Trump won the presidency, and tracked his lingering impact on American institutions and norms.
In his closing remarks, Williams said that the final show made him “hyper aware that it has been a remains a wonderful life. It’s as if I am going to wake up tomorrow morning in Bedford Falls. The reality is, though, I will wake up in the America of the year 2021, a nation unrecognizable to those who came before us and fought to protect it, which is what you must do now.”