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Limbaugh for Lefties

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In the Cornell radio station's newsroom, 1979.   

It’s a couple of hours before his nightly broadcast, and Olbermann is looking through boxes of mail in his Secaucus office. “Maybe this one contains Chris Matthews’s eyebrows,” he says, referring to his fellow MSNBC host. “You see them last night? Did he borrow them from Joe Pesci?”

When it’s time for the show to begin, Olbermann sits alone on the Countdown set. Tonight, Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter is in the studio for a conversation, but he’s tucked into an auxiliary room (Olbermann doesn’t share the Countdown stage with anyone). After Alter talks about global warming, there’s a segment on the Scooter Libby trial followed by video of Paul Wolfowitz at a Turkish mosque, taking off his shoes and exposing socks with holes in them. “Wolfowitz seems completely unembarrassed by the ordeal,” says Olbermann. “Then again, after Iraq, how could you be embarrassed by anything?” He segues into a segment on a chicken born with duck feet.

I’m watching from the wings with Jeremy Gaines, an MSNBC flack. “Did you hear that snort he just did?” asks Gaines. “That’s Keith’s imitation of Matthews.” Gaines then bites his lip as if to say “oops.” He tries to respin. “But they really, really like each other.”

Bill O’Reilly has liberal guests on so he can skewer them. Olbermann’s visitors are affable yes-men providing can-I-get-a-witness nods to the latest gem proffered by their all-knowing host. After a commercial, Olbermann interviews Countdown regular John Dean on the Bush administration’s alleged abuse of executive orders. Olbermann eventually does “Worst Person in the World.” Tonight, he gives the silver medal to O’Reilly for supposedly blaming the victim in a child-kidnapping case. Then he gives O’Reilly the gold as well for promising to send a copy of his latest book to an American soldier for every copy bought at full price. “Bill, why do you hate the troops?” mocks Olbermann.

During the final break, Olbermann checks his hair in a Snow White–size mirror and twiddles his BlackBerry. Then he launches into another five-minute pummeling of the president. Tonight, he’s questioning the authenticity of the four terrorist plots that Bush, in his State of the Union speech, said his administration had foiled. “What you gave us a week ago tonight, sir, was not intelligence but rather a walk-through of how speculation and innuendo, guesswork and paranoia, daydreaming and fearmongering combined in your mind and the minds of those in your government into proof of your derring-do and your success against the terrorists, the ones that didn’t have anthrax, the ones who didn’t have plane tickets or passports, the ones who didn’t have any clue, let alone any plots.”

A moment later, Olbermann ends the show with Edward R. Murrow’s “Good night and good luck” (Murrow was an Olbermann boyhood hero). Then Olbermann tosses his script pages into the air, and he’s done for the night.

The whole affair is classic Countdown: moments of juvenile absurdity followed by moments of biting, sincere, and genuinely affecting commentary.

Olbermann has been hosting Countdown since March 2003, the month the U.S. invaded Iraq, and the show has grown progressively anti-Bush as the situation there has deteriorated. But it wasn’t until last August—when Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was implying that those in favor of staying the course in Iraq were Churchillian while those opposed were modern-day Neville Chamberlains—that Countdown began to click.

“I was sitting on the tarmac in L.A.,” recalls Olbermann over lunch at the Meridien Hotel. “I’d exhausted all conversations with James Gandolfini, who was on the flight. And I thought, ‘Where is the outrage? Where are the constitutional- scholar conservatives coming out and going, “This guy is a danger to the democracy. Not to the Democrats or Republicans but to the democracy.” Where is that person?’ ”

Olbermann pauses. “Then I thought, ‘Oh, yeah, I have a newscast, don’t I? I have editorial latitude, don’t I? Well, I guess it’s my turn. Let me strap the jetpack on.’ ”

The next night, Olbermann delivered a six-minute jeremiad against Rumsfeld. It began with the lines, “The man who sees absolutes where all other men see nuances and shades of meaning is either a prophet or a quack. Donald H. Rumsfeld is not a prophet.” Olbermann’s outrage read real, not focus-group manufactured like much of cable punditry. Even a Bush acolyte had to admire Olbermann’s eloquence.

Suddenly, Olbermann was a player in the war debate. Countdown’s ratings spiked, making it MSNBC’s most-watched show. Everyone from the Washington Post to the National Review was talking about Olbermann as a pop liberal antagonist. On the streets of Manhattan, strangers began flashing him thumbs-up. One afternoon a few weeks ago, I was having lunch with Olbermann when no less a left-wing eminence than Ted Danson approached him. “Excuse me, I just wanted to tell you how much I appreciate what you’re doing every night,” Danson offered. “Thank you, and keep it up.”


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