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Morning in America

Where else could a red-meat, right-wing congressman like Joe Scarborough reinvent himself as the liberal’s favorite talk-show host?

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Scarborough with co-host Mika Brzezinski.  

Joe Scarborough was walking in his neighborhood, near 66th and Broadway, one afternoon this spring when he felt a tap on his shoulder. It was Harry Smith, the avuncular co-host of CBS’ The Early Show.

“How ya doin’?” Scarborough asked.

“You never get used to it,” Smith said. “I’ve been doing this for twenty years. And you never get used to it.” Then he walked away.

“We’d never even met before,” Scarborough tells me. “He was like the Angel of Death!”

Scarborough loves this story, which he tells to illustrate how much he despises waking up early. On this particular morning, he’s been up since four, surfing the Internet at his apartment and maintaining BlackBerry contact with his producer and co-hosts. He arrives for work at 30 Rockefeller Plaza at a quarter to six—fifteen minutes before his show, Morning Joe, airs live—and takes a seat at a bar stool behind a long silver table. He’s a big man: six foot four, with handsome, blocky features. His deep-set eyes are small relative to the size of his head and can look unflatteringly beady when he’s tired, like raisins sinking into dough. An assistant brings him a Starbucks Venti iced latte.

Despite his complaints about the hours, Scarborough lobbied hard for this job, which opened up in April 2007 when Don Imus made his ill-advised foray into color commentary of women’s college basketball. “Not to dance on anyone’s grave,” says Scarborough, “but the second I heard about Imus, I told my wife, ‘Honey, it’s gonna be a busy weekend.’ ” For the previous four years, he had been unmemorably hosting Scarborough Country, an evening show on MSNBC in which he came off as a B-team O’Reilly impersonator. But he’d always been convinced the format was the problem. “All of my executive producers had always told me the same thing: ‘We’ve got to get you off the prompter more—you’re best when you’re just talking off the top of your head,’ ” he says. Imus’s morning slot seemed like the perfect opportunity.

Unfortunately, no one else thought of Scarborough as the kind of guy people would want to wake up to. “I didn’t see it at all,” admits Chris Licht, Scarborough’s longtime producer. “He was so enthusiastic, I thought, Okay, I’ll pretend to go along with him. But it was really just me hoping he’d change his mind in a couple of days.”

Scarborough spent a weekend at his Florida home and designed his own morning-show poster using Photoshop. He e-mailed the file to the Kinko’s on Columbus Circle and had a printed version delivered to MSNBC head Phil Griffin that Monday. It took the network six weeks to fill the slot, and it auditioned everyone (David Gregory, Tucker Carlson, Jim Cramer … Michael Smerconish?) short of Carson Daly’s cue-card guy. But Scarborough finally got the gig, and Morning Joe debuted last July.

Tom Brokaw summed up the consensus opinion when, a week or so later, he poked his head into Griffin’s office and said, “Scarborough. Who knew?”

The prenoon Scarborough bears little resemblance to his prime-time self: the blustery former congressman from Florida’s “Redneck Riviera” who seemed a likely inspiration, along with O’Reilly, for Stephen Colbert’s conservative-blowhard character. On Morning Joe, shouting is discouraged, the teleprompter has been largely banished, and the overarching mood, despite an almost exclusive focus on the day’s political fisticuffs, is a chatty bonhomie. Scarborough has turned out to be more Katie Couric than Sean Hannity.

He seems to delight in confounding expectations. One of this morning’s guests, by remote, is McCain campaign manager Rick Davis, who receives a cheerful if critical welcome, with Scarborough noting that the latest polling numbers “don’t look good for your guy.” When Davis attempts a rebuttal, bringing up McCain’s proposed gas-tax holiday, Scarborough placidly notes that “almost every economist disagrees with that.” In the same show, Scarborough—who formerly campaigned for Bush, even serving as a point man in Florida during the 2000 recount—says the McCain campaign’s problem is “they’re strapped to the Bush administration.”

In fact, the only time Scarborough musters a defense of the current Republican nominee comes when another guest mocks McCain’s alleged love of Abba.

“‘Waterloo,’” he says. “Great song.”

Scarborough admits that he is courting a new constituency. “Once we started Morning Joe, Phil Griffin said to me, ‘You can cut out this regular-Joe crap. Our audience is from Boston to Washington, D.C.’” In fact, he seems to be right at home on the Upper West Side. “The thing I hear all the time,” he says, “when people come up to me on the street, is ‘I love your show,’ and then there’s a hesitancy, and I’ll finish their sentence: ‘And I’m a liberal?’” Scarborough beams, pleased with his own apostasy, before adding, “Republicans aren’t as gracious.”


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