The past few months have been volatile at MSNBC. The network managed to boost its profile during the unusually dramatic primary season but also became a target of both the right (as the home of Keith Olbermann) and the left (when Chris Matthews was accused of sexism). Then came the sudden death last month of Tim Russert, NBC News’ Washington bureau chief, host of Meet the Press, and a regular presence on Morning Joe and other MSNBC shows. “Andrea Mitchell, myself, all of us in the Washington bureau—Morning Joe has become a staple for us,” Russert told me two weeks before he died.
“It’s like a bomb’s gone off, and everyone’s just doing their best to recover,” Scarborough says of Russert’s death. He seems reluctant to make much of their friendship, mocking the “long line of carnival barkers trying to associate themselves with Tim.” But eventually he says, “It’s been much more staggering personally than professionally. At the memorial service, when Springsteen appeared, I thought, God, please don’t play ‘Thunder Road.’ He did. That’s the first time I put my head in my arms and lost it. I’d never seen him more like a kid than when I heard him talking about seeing Springsteen play that song.”
Russert had chuckled when I brought up the recent partisan critiques of NBC News. “That’s nothing new,” he said. Besides, with someone like Scarborough, “it’s not as if people are trying to present him as a news anchor. He’s not. But even though he’s a conservative Republican, he’s not afraid to criticize his own party. And I think people find that refreshing.”
Scarborough’s slippery partisan loyalty has proved useful to the network. Despite his criticisms of the Bush administration, he is often cited as MSNBC’s house Republican, his Morning Joe a counterpoint to Olbermann’s Countdown. And indeed, Scarborough’s nineties résumé is that of a true conservative.
He has said his “visceral dislike” of the newly elected Bill Clinton inspired him to run for the House of Representatives in 1994. At the time, he was living in Pensacola with his first wife and two sons, putting his law degree to use litigating local insurance cases. Despite having no political background, he launched a quixotic campaign and was elected as part of the class of freshman Republicans who swept Newt Gingrich to power. He supported impeaching Clinton, abolishing the Department of Education, and cutting off AIDS funding for the so-called Ryan White Act. (He lost all of those battles, the last by a vote of 402 to 4.)
But Scarborough bristles at being called one of Gingrich’s “lieutenants.” “We never really clicked,” he says now. Still, he concedes that the militancy-by-association “helped me get reelected in a district Jerry Falwell called one of the most conservative in America.” He was certainly one of the hardest-line freshmen when it came to government spending—part of the group who would come to be known as “the New Federalists”—and says he’s still “almost libertarian” on economic issues. “But I was always quirky on human rights, China, the environment,” he says. “I say ‘quirky’: Republicans couldn’t figure out which way I was going to break on votes. They finally just gave up whipping me.”
“Republicans don’t understand. They expect me to be loyal. I hear about it from my parents whenever I go after Bush.”
“Joe was a partisan, but he wasn’t a crazy,” says liberal Massachusetts congressman Bill Delahunt, one of Scarborough’s closest friends in the House. “I think if Joe had stayed in Congress, he’d definitely be in leadership now, and his voice would have been good for the Republican Party.”
By the late nineties, Scarborough was losing interest in Washington. He began flying back to his district every weekend to play gigs with his band, Regular Joe. The chorus to one of his songs went, “We can’t change the world, we can’t change the world / Life’s a bitch and they can’t make me care.” He drank onstage “with regularity,” and his marriage broke up in 1997. (He married his current wife, Susan Waren, a former fund-raiser for Jeb Bush, in 2001.) A profile of Scarborough in the St. Petersburg Times from 2000 opens with a description of his Florida office, including the “empty Absolut vodka bottles” cluttering his “desk,” which was really a door atop a pair of sawhorses.
Scarborough retired from Congress in 2001, to spend more time with his then-13-year-old son. But he continued to make appearances on shows like Hardball and Hannity & Colmes, and Phil Griffin took notice. MSNBC, then floundering in third place among cable news networks, had decided to emulate top-rated Fox News with an O’Reilly Factor of its own. Scarborough was telegenic, quick on his feet, and came off as a sort of populist Everyman.
But Scarborough never quite mastered the voice of perpetual outrage. “There are very few things in politics that make me feel like wagging my finger,” he says. “It wasn’t me.” Scarborough has two major modes on television. Either he holds his face unnaturally still, maintaining a somewhat stagy deadpan, or he appears to be on the verge of laughing. “I remember my first six months in Congress, doing all the cable shows,” he says. “I saw myself on TV once, and I looked so angry it scared me. So I sort of made a rule that every time I started to get upset, I’d laugh and tell a joke.”