Here’s why Williams thinks Gingrich came out on top: “I thought that he was very effective in playing to the audience last night. I think he won the debate, and I think he won the debate in large part because he answered the questions so effectively in a way that appealed to the political leanings of that audience.”
Williams is referring specifically to the questions he posed to Gingrich, questions about how Gingrich goes around saying that poor kids lack a work ethic, that they should work as janitors in their schools and that President Obama is a great “food-stamp” president. Gingrich answered those questions to huge rounds of applause and a standing ovation. Not that Williams realized the latter. ”I wasn’t aware of it,” says Williams. “I was not facing the audience, and I was focused on the intensity of the interaction with Speaker Gingrich.”
Williams’ pursuit of Gingrich was by no means singular — he pressed other candidates on questions of race, immigration and ethnicity. The appearance marked an end to a long vacation for Williams from the front lines of presidential debatery. The last time he paneled was in May (giving him a role in two of the five Fox debates*). At the same time, says Williams, “I don’t think that race has been a topic of discussion in the debates thus far.”
So why wait till Martin Luther King, Jr. Day to get our discussion on? Responds Williams: “I’m not an executive here. I work here.” He noted that panels in the intervening Fox debates were filled out by other people with legitimate voices in the national discussion. Fine.
Williams voiced exception to a suggestion that he’d “ghettoized” himself by pressing his questions in the debate, an apparent reference to this piece by Daily Beaster Howard Kurtz. (Kurtz reverses himself within the piece, determining that no ghettoization, in fact, has occurred.) Says Williams of all that business: “I’m thinking to myself, ‘Wait a minute, I’ve written bestselling books on race relations: ‘Eyes on the Prize’, a book on Thurgood Marshall other books on the history of black colleges in America.” Nor does race define him: “I’m just saying if you watch Fox News, I’m not constantly dealing with race. It’s not even close.”
Based on Williams’ approach to Gingrich during the debate, it appeared that he had more of an issue with the Speaker than with the other candidates. After all, the “questions” that he posed carried barbs; he asked if Gingrich could see how insulting his comments were, and he later noted that it “sounds as if you’re seeking to belittle people.” Not exactly the stuff you might expect from a Fox-sponsored debate. But Williams disavows any particular agenda focused on Gingrich: “I don’t think that’s accurate at all,” he says, noting that Gingrich’s statements on these matters made the questions de rigueur. “He’s the one who prompted” the questions.
Williams notes that Team Fox had warned him that he “could get booed” and that those questions were “not going to be popular with a conservative crowd.” He continues: “So I had to think that through, but the question, and I feel that way to this moment, is a legitimate question to Speaker Gingrich.”
One other thing, Williams: Do you think that Gingrich was trying to goad the audience to mock your first name, as a prominent commentator has suggested? “I know that when he said it there was a reaction out of the crowd, as if he was making fun of my name, my first name, but I didn’t react in the moment at all. I can’t know what was in the man’s mind.”
Williams has lots of company on that front — you never know what Gingrich is going to say next, a dynamic that accounts for no small part of his political difficulties. And even though Gingrich benefited from a crowd that saw a lot to admire last night, a lot of others saw something different: One man trying to ask how some provocative statements could be seen by others as offensive, and another man glibly, smugly dismissing any such notion.
*Updated to correct earlier version, which said that the May debate was the second of Fox’s debates in this cycle; it was the first.