Morning in America

Scarborough with co-host Mika Brzezinski.Photo: Brian Finke

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.”

Photo: Brian Finke

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.”

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.”

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Morning in America