Joe Scarborough was back in Washington, where he cheerfully admits he was a “bomb-thrower” of a congressman, using his privileges to walk onto the House floor for John Boehner’s swearing-in.
But Scarborough, who has begun to muse about running for office again, has become something of a scold toward his party, preaching like a reformed alcoholic that the Republicans shouldn’t make the mistakes that he and his fellow rebels did when they were savaging Bill Clinton.
“We had contempt for Clinton,” he says moments after wrapping his MSNBC morning show. “We thought he was a has-been. We thought we were going to run him out of town. And we were wrong. We overreached.”
Scarborough’s evolution from fiery Pensacola politician to television personality touting the virtues of civility says a great deal about how polarized both the capital and cable news have grown in the last decade. In taking on the likes of Sarah Palin, Scarborough has been branded a turncoat by some in the GOP. In rejecting the shouting-heads format, he has separated himself from the reigning ethos of his liberal network. And in dominating what has become the breakfast salon of the Beltway elite, he has been accused of sexism toward co-host Mika Brzezinski.
The shooting of Gabrielle Giffords and 19 other people in Tucson left Scarborough shaken—and his wife, Susan, in tears—but added resonance to the message he has been peddling. “Nobody can find a direct link to a Sarah Palin ad or a Michele Bachmann statement or the extreme rants from the left,” he says. “But it serves as a very clear warning to everyone involved in politics that there are unbalanced people out there who may seize on any words they hear and the consequences may be devastating.
“Timothy McVeigh didn’t come to his conclusions about government in a vacuum.” While the case of Arizona gunman Jared Loughner is very different, he says, “we warned for three years that those who are most affected by the harsh language are people who are detached from reality and can hear the ranting on cable or in parts of the blogosphere.”
Scarborough did not return to the Hill last week out of any great love for Boehner; he also attended Nancy Pelosi’s swearing-in four years ago. When he was in Congress, Scarborough recalls, Boehner “was part of the leadership we were going after. He golfed a lot. He was pretty tight with the lobbying community. He was establishment Washington. That’s just not the world we ran in.”
The Giffords shooting “serves as a very clear warning to everyone involved in politics that there are unbalanced people out there who may seize on any words they hear and the consequences may be devastating.”
The host of Morning Joe portrays himself as unchanged since he was elected with the Class of 1994—except in stylistic terms. “People on the hard right think I’m a sellout,” he says, clad in his TV uniform of navy blazer, white shirt, and red tie, “and yet they can’t name one issue where I’ve changed ideologically. Deals don’t get done if you’re constantly insulting the other side. I’ve told them it’s counterproductive to call Obama a Marxist. I caught so much flak by calling out Republicans when a few of them, like Sarah Palin, made things up like death panels, or obsessing over his birth certificate.”
Other Republicans have declined to take on Palin, says Scarborough, because “they’re just scared. They want her voters.”
Oddly enough, Scarborough refuses to acknowledge that the GOP center of gravity has moved to the right, which seems beyond dispute. Perhaps he views the Tea Party movement as an echo of his renegade brand of politics in the Gingrich House. But his gang eventually compromised with Clinton on a balanced budget and welfare reform, and Scarborough says he’s since had “several great talks” with the former president, who invariably thanks him for being fair to Hillary in 2008.
Despite dropping hints about a future campaign, possibly a presidential one, “I’m not crazy about the idea right now,” Scarborough says. “I’m going to give my party one more chance and see if they’re really serious about balancing the budget. I’m influencing the debate more now than by being the 100th-ranking senator.”
The tension between perpetual outrage and thoughtful debate has played out in his cable career as well. Scarborough quit Congress in 2001 when, after a divorce, one of his teenage sons was having problems, and two years later he launched the prime-time show Scarborough Country. His new bosses, he says, wanted him “to be MSNBC’s version of Bill O’Reilly. They kept pushing. After a year I realized it just wasn’t in me.” Scarborough recalls an incident in which a network executive “yelled” at him for being polite to a female ambassador on the program. His response? “I’m sorry, I’m from the South. I don’t scream and insult women.”
He had to deal with a different kind of woman when he pushed Brzezinski, a longtime CBS News correspondent, for the morning program he launched in 2007. “NBC didn’t want her on the show,” Scarborough says, deeming it a bad fit.
Once he got his way, the duo had to work out an on-air relationship. “He definitely realized it’s not productive to be yelling at each other,” says Brzezinski, sitting next to Scarborough but waiting until this moment to jump in. “We’re not perfect. It’s hard to strike a civil, balanced tone when you feel strongly about things.”
Scarborough says they have gotten into heated arguments twice—over the Bush administration’s interrogation of terror suspects and a Michelle Obama campaign speech—continuing the debate off the air.
“Debate’s a nice way to put it,” she says.
“We’re not Zen about this stuff,” he says.
“It’s easier to scream, actually,” she says.
They have also fought MSNBC management, which “wanted us to be a bit lighter and not do heavy news for three hours,” says Scarborough, who is not averse to wandering into the weeds of health-care policy. “They wanted us to do trench collapses and Paris Hilton. We just kept saying no.”
Scarborough, who occasionally slips into rants, basically drives the televised conversation and interrogates the guests, needling Brzezinski and sometimes trampling her in the process. A recent New Republic article titled “The Sexism of Morning Joe” complained that “Brzezinski seems to have settled into a deferential role,” her dissents reduced to little more than “eye-rolling.” Brzezinski isn’t reticent about responding.
“It’s called Morning Joe, not Scarborough-Brzezinski,” she says. “My role is different. Sometimes I don’t do as well as I’d like, and I take responsibility. It’s not Joe, it’s me needing to bring it to the table.”
Scarborough says his partner, as a career journalist, is less comfortable in the opinion arena. “I said, ‘You’re going to have to get out there a lot more. You’re going to make me look like a bully.’”
When her conservative co-host is tangling with five liberal guests on the set—not an uncommon occurrence, if Pat Buchanan isn’t around—Brzezinski sees no need to jump in. “I’m comfortable,” she says. The critics “are acting as if I’m some kind of victim. It’s a made-up story.”
Brzezinski views the show as an “island” amid the cable craziness, and Scarborough admits that cable contributes to the hyperpartisan talk he decries—but declines to discuss specifics or whether his network is a prime offender. There are, apparently, limits to his candor.
Morning Joe beat CNN’s American Morning for the first time in 2010, 387,000 viewers to 310,000, though both are far behind Fox & Friends and its more than 1 million viewers. The show has become a regular stop for administration officials, members of Congress, and such journalists as Mark Halperin, Jon Meacham, Peggy Noonan, and Bob Woodward (and Daily Beast Editor in Chief Tina Brown). So why would Scarborough flirt with the idea of giving up such a platform?
“I love what I’m doing,” he says. “But I’ve always said the greatest job I ever had was when I represented Florida’s 1st District in Congress.”
That, however, was a decade ago. Scarborough, who rails against the likes of Glenn Beck and occasionally says nice things about President Obama, could find himself out of step with today’s GOP culture if he ventures back into the arena.
“If my Republican Party really thinks Sarah Palin is the best Republican candidate in 2012, or believes a talk-show host should be calling the president a racist”—he pauses here—“that’s not my party.”
Howard Kurtz is The Daily Beast's Washington bureau chief. He also hosts CNN's weekly media program Reliable Sources on Sundays at 11 a.m. ET. The longtime media reporter and columnist for The Washington Post, Kurtz is the author of five books.