It isn’t quite Reagan and Gorbachev in Reykjavik, but on a Tuesday afternoon in the 2 Penn Plaza offices of ABC Radio, two titans of clashing ideologies come face to face. Fresh off his daily one-hour ESPN broadcast with former SportsCenter co-anchor and longtime pal Dan Patrick, Keith Olbermann spies a familiar figure settling into Studio B for his afternoon shift. Olbermann, his anchor-issue trench coat tucked under an arm, opens the door and thrusts a hand toward Sean Hannity.
“Mr. Hannity, good to see you, sir,” says Olbermann.
Off-camera Olbermann, it turns out, is a lot like on-camera Olbermann. The gray pin-striped suit is perfectly crisp. The basso profundo booms. The outsize ego and acid tone ooze from him. It’s unclear whether the mannerisms are real or a bit of an ironic put-on that became Olbermann’s default setting after a time.
“Keith, how you been?” Hannity asks with a grin.
The congeniality is a bit startling. Olbermann is the ornery host of MSNBC’s Countdown and a newly minted, if unintentional, hero of the left. Five nights a week, he gives the president a beat-down so severe that it almost makes you feel sorry for the man (almost). Hannity, meanwhile, is a Fox News icon with a major Rudy Giuliani crush.
Nevertheless, the two men chitchat pleasantly until Hannity realizes a reporter is present and freaks. “This is off the record,” says Hannity, perhaps fearing a red-state backlash. “Well, you can say I think Keith is a great guy.”
Olbermann displays no such penchant for diplomacy. After the two say good-bye, he heads downstairs to a waiting Town Car that will take him to MSNBC’s Secaucus, New Jersey, studios. “I haven’t figured out who will be my ‘Worst Person in the World’ for today,” he says.
“Worst Person in the World” is a nightly feature of Countdown. Some days, the Worst Person is a Rummy- or Gonzales-quality viper. Some days, it’s a hapless soul whose lone mistake is trying to make a living in Olbermann’s chosen profession. Olbermann’s arch-nemesis, Bill O’Reilly, has earned the distinction scores of times. Hannity, a multiple Worst Person himself, is barely out of earshot when Olbermann finishes the thought. “I’m sure there won’t be a shortage of candidates.”
Keith Olbermann is pissed off. That’s nothing new. Keith Olbermann has been pissed off since he could lift the toilet seat. What’s new is that the 48-year-old Olbermann has lately taken to directing his considerable, bred-in-the-bone rage at high-value targets. That’s a fresh wrinkle. Yes, at ESPN, Olbermann was hugely popular—a pioneer in the now-stultifying genre of the loudmouthed, blow-dried smart-ass sports anchor. But in the end, this was sports. How much did it matter, really, that Bobby Knight tossed another chair? After ESPN, Olbermann took a job hosting a nightly hour-long talk show called The Big Show for the then-fledgling MSNBC (he also occasionally hosted sports programming and sporadically anchored the weekend news for NBC). On that program, Olbermann offered wry commentary about Monica Lewinsky and similar fodder, but again, his bombast seemed out of proportion to the issues at hand.
As an employee, Olbermann was his own kind of Worst Person in the World. His sense of superiority and caustic vibe eventually cost him gigs and friends at three networks. How naughty was he? Olbermann was the only former ESPN star not invited back for the sports network’s 25th anniversary (he’s allowed to participate on Patrick’s radio show only because Patrick promised that Olbermann would never set foot on the network’s Bristol, Connecticut, campus). He was fired from his first stint at MSNBC after he denounced his own show in a commencement address at his alma mater. Fox hired him to host its major-league baseball Game of the Week and then sent him home with a year left on his contract simply for being a malcontent.
That was then. Now, in his second go-round at MSNBC, Olbermann is doing politics, and he’s found his sweet spot. In politics, incompetence doesn’t lose pennants; it gets teenagers killed in a faraway land. Suddenly, viewers didn’t see Olbermann hauling off on hapless foes; they saw him speaking truth to power. “I think there was a lot of times where Keith’s anger was directed to targets not worthy of his anger,” says Dan Patrick. “Now he’s going after presidents and secretaries of State. They’re more worthy than Barry Bonds or a network executive.” Viewers also see a lefty who isn’t afraid to mix it up—Keith the Impaler. Ever since Olbermann ripped into Donald Rumsfeld in a much talked-about August 2006 Countdown segment, his popularity has soared. Improbably enough, the former SportsCenter anchor has even been credited with helping to effect the Democratic takeover of Congress this past November. Here, at the outset of the 2008 presidential season, Keith Olbermann may not be as popular or influential as Rush Limbaugh, but Olbermann has his own dittoheads (Olberites?). They just happen to drive Honda Elements with a dedicated iPod port.