Now, stripped of suit, tie, and specific mandate to behave like a prick, Scarborough is a host transformed. His manner is so genial and evenhanded that TV Guide, in comparing him (favorably) to Chris Matthews, referred to Morning Joe as “Softball.” And ratings have steadily increased: The show saw its best numbers to date in May, averaging 356,000 viewers, which is up 91 percent from the previous year and better than Imus’s last month on the air. NBC president Jeff Zucker recently called the show the “most underestimated” on MSNBC.
Part of the success of Morning Joe has been serendipity. This year’s endless, and atypically compelling, election has played to the strengths of the show. But a lot of it has to do with Scarborough’s likability.
“I was totally skeptical, and now I’m totally won over,” says Time editor-at-large Mark Halperin, a political analyst at ABC News. “I was a huge fan of Imus, but Joe has taken that real estate and turned it into something—and I say this without hyperbole—revolutionary. There’s no other show that does what they do. They’ve really found a new form.”
Scarborough came up with the format himself, convinced that it played to his strengths. The show’s leisurely, conversational tone has a drive-time-radio feel. The bookers balance out the usual suspects—MSNBC stalwarts like Matthews and Pat Buchanan—with quirkier choices not seen as often on cable: Frank Rich, Hendrik Hertzberg, John Ridley. Interviews run twice as long as similar segments on competitors’ shows, allowing room for both depth and digression.
And his co-hosts provide him with the opportunity for banter and improvisation that was missing from Scarborough Country. Willie Geist (son of longtime CBS News correspondent Bill Geist) sits in front of an open laptop, of late the de rigueur prop for cable election coverage, and fills the Jimmy Olsen slot. Mika Brzezinski (daughter of former national-security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski) reads the news and acts as a gentle liberal foil to Scarborough. There’s a flirtatious, Sam-and-Diane sort of chemistry to their sparrings. The two first worked together when Brzezinski did news breaks from New Jersey during Scarborough Country. “Whenever she tossed it back to me, she’d always say, ‘Now back to Scarrrrborough Country,’ ” he remembers. “I started to think, Damn it, she’s making fun of me.”
“It’s true,” Brzezinski admits. “I’d always sort of put the title in quotes.”
“Finally we met in New York,” Scarborough continues, “and I said, ‘Hey, I’m onto you. I know you’re mocking the show.’ And she said, ‘How can I mock a show I’ve never seen?’ I said, ‘But you’re here every night. You’re paid to watch this network.’ She said, ‘When you’re on, I use the time to call my friends.’ ”
Scarborough and I meet for lunch at Blue Smoke, Danny Meyer’s barbecue restaurant. It’s one of Scarborough’s favorite spots, and the host greets him warmly. Sliding into a booth, Scarborough says he’d normally get the ribs but is worried such a heavy lunch might put him to sleep. Instead, he orders the chicken wings, the vegetable plate, and the chocolate cake.
Scarborough is talking about what he calls his post-nineties “ideological fatigue” and how it is that he became the mellow, fleece-wearing Republican that Democrats love to like. “I think I was painted one way in Congress. That 1994 class was the most conservative class in ages, and I got put in that box. And now, here, I’m painted another way. Republicans don’t understand. They expect me to be loyal. I hear about it from my parents whenever I go after Bush. I keep trying to give them a sporting analogy. I’ll say, ‘If I was a ref for a football game, you wouldn’t expect me to cheat for my team, would you?’ But I think they do expect me to cheat.”
Scarborough points to Hurricane Katrina as a turning point in his thinking about Bush. The day after the storm hit, he and his wife drove to Biloxi, Mississippi, where he broadcast for the next two weeks. “More than the war, that’s where Bush really started losing people,” he says. “It wasn’t just the general sense of incompetency. It was the idea that maybe he doesn’t care. Maybe all of those things people say about Republicans—maybe that’s the case.”
All of the glowing post-Katrina Anderson Cooper profiles notwithstanding, Scarborough rather proudly insists that “Scarborough Country was the first show to go after Bush at the time. I thought I could do it especially because I was a Republican. And I just went after him with a vengeance. I think that was the first time people who’d seen my show once in 2003 and said ‘God, I hate him’ might have flipped the channel back.”
One can’t help but wonder to what extent Scarborough’s non-wagging finger has been testing the wind, but Scarborough insists his conversion isn’t one of convenience and that, anyway, he hasn’t really converted. “Every time someone calls me a traitor, I tell them, ‘Name an issue where I’ve changed from ten years ago when I was a right-wing nut.’ The difference now is, I just never, ever believe that I’m necessarily right anymore, that I’m the only one with the answers.”
Scarborough’s energy is flagging a bit, and he’s staring down at one of the wings he’s absently dunked into a cup of ranch dressing. He still calls himself a Republican, though he says he’s not sure how he’ll vote in November. “What’s McCain’s bumper sticker: MORE WAR, LESS JOBS?” he asks, perking up at his own joke. “I don’t see how a Republican fights it. This is a tidal wave coming in. And you just don’t swim against the tide.”