Joe Scarborough: As Anti-O’Reilly, He’s a Gentle Bear

Joe Scarborough, a former Republican Congressman from Florida and ubiquitous spokesman for George W. Bush during the 2000 campaign, was sitting in his small office inside the space-station-like headquarters of MSNBC in Secaucus, N.J. Mr. Scarborough, 40, is the host of Scarborough Country, which like its host is a user-friendly, soft-edged vehicle for conservatives. The show replaced Phil Donahue’s attempt to create a liberal-leaning talk show on the cable news network.

“People around here call me Little O’Reilly,” said the 6-foot-4, 220-pound Mr. Scarborough, referring to controversial right-wing personality Bill O’Reilly, host of Fox’s The O’Reilly Factor . “People have always said that I’m ‘Little O’Reilly’ and ‘O’Reilly Lite’-I have absolutely, positively no interest in going there. I will succeed or fail, whatever that is, if I’m myself.”

Mr. Scarborough was wearing a J. Crew jacket, Gap khakis and Stan Smiths. Although he’s more moderate than Mr. O’Reilly and many Republicans, he had a consistent “pro-life” voting record in Congress and shares in the current right-wing euphoria over the war in Iraq.

“I am the hawk’s hawk,” he said. “I believe the President was right in Iraq, and I think he’s right to be threatening Syria. Of course, I don’t think he’d ever go into Syria, but it is certainly good to be waving the bloody club.”

Joe Scarborough got on television quicker than most people get a haircut. In February, he was living in Pensacola, Fla., and working as a plaintiffs’ attorney, a career he took up after serving from 1994 to 2001 in the U.S. House of Representatives. Now, he wakes up at 5 a.m. at the Essex House in Manhattan, reads the papers, makes some calls and starts planning the show. At 11 a.m., he heads to the Brooklyn Diner, then heads across the Hudson to MSNBC and prepares Scarborough Country for the live 10 p.m. broadcast. He gets back to the hotel at 11:30 p.m., watches Letterman and Jimmy Kimmel, and always ends up on PBS. On Fridays, he flies back to Florida to be with his family.

It all began last December, while he was appearing on MSNBC’s Hardball . As a Congressman, he had been a frequent guest on the show, and now he was calling for the head of Trent Lott, after the then Speaker made his infamous remarks at Strom Thurmond’s 100th birthday party. An MSNBC producer spoke to Mr. Scarborough through his earpiece: “Joe, do you want to do a TV show?”

He said why not and met with MSNBC.

“The message I delivered was that Fox isn’t No. 1 because they’ve got the best talent,” he said. “Even though O’Reilly is great TV-I think he and Larry King are the two real pros on cable TV-I said, ‘It’s not talent; it’s not that they produce the shows better than you guys. It’s that they’re conservative . It’s ideology and ideology alone. And unfortunately Donahue might be great TV, but 98 percent of the people who watch cable news are conservatives or moderates, and they don’t share Phil Donahue’s viewpoint. They don’t share Ashleigh Banfield’s viewpoint. They don’t share the viewpoint of a lot of people you’ve been putting on prime time.'”

A week later, he was offered a three-year contract. Now he’s looking for an apartment. “But, you know, for the price of a studio apartment in Chelsea or a two-bedroom where I would feel safe leaving my pregnant wife and my two boys,” he said, “I could buy a mansion on the Gulf of Mexico. It’s outrageous.”

He said he wants his show to counterbalance the liberal bias in the media.

“Obviously, Fox is conservative,” he said. “If I can help tip the scales at MSNBC, which is currently more down the middle, I think that’s a victory.” He said he was very aware that Donahue lasted only six months and that CNN had recently pulled the plug on Connie Chung.

“It’s so much like politics, so much like Washington, D.C., it’s not even funny,” he said. However, he added, “There was so much hate and vitriol in politics, and for the most part that seems to be missing here.”

He told MSNBC that he could do better over time by being polite and trying to make sure his guests left with a smile.

“I reminded them that before the era of O’Reilly, the No. 1 cable news guy was Larry King,” he said. “Who interviewed Connie Francis and Don Rickles and the like for years. I don’t think you have to come out brandishing your sword and telling everybody, ‘Agree with me or else you’re spinning .’ There’s sort of a condescending tone with some of the other shows.”

Confrontation can distress him. Every time things have heated up with a guest, Mr. Scarborough has gone to a commercial break thinking he’s failed.

“Everybody will say, ‘Oh, no, no, that’s great TV-people love that,'” he said. “I just don’t think they do, over time. I really don’t.”

Perhaps the hottest things have gotten was when Mr. Scarborough raised the issue of a controversial comment Mr. O’Reilly was recently reported to have made at an inner-city fund-raiser he was M.C.’ing. (Referring to a group of students who were late, Mr. O’Reilly had said, “I hope they’re not in the parking lot stealing our hubcaps.”) Mr. Scarborough brought this up with a guest, The Washington Post ‘s Lloyd Grove, who had reported the O’Reilly comment. For just mentioning the incident, Mr. Scarborough felt heat from the right.

“Right now, Congress and TV land are a lot alike,” said Mr. Scarborough. “Right now, O’Reilly is what Newt Gingrich was in 1995. Everybody’s scared of him. I’m getting e-mails now from people saying, ‘How dare you cross Fox? How dare you bring anything up? You wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for Fox!’ I know I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for Fox. But if somebody else made a statement like that, you think Bill O’Reilly would sit back and say nothing about it?”

Mr. Scarborough said he greatly admired Mr. O’Reilly’s achievement, and admitted there were some “generational differences” between the two men.

“I grew up listening to the Beatles and the Stones and the Grateful Dead,” he said. “Of course, I was in college in the 80’s, so R.E.M., Elvis Costello-stuff like that. It’s just a culturally different viewpoint.”

Not that people haven’t already gotten them confused. On his April 16 broadcast, Mr. Scarborough’s guest was Republican Congressman Dan Burton, who began by saying, “Hey, Bill, how are you?”, and then launched into his spiel.

Mr. Scarborough stopped him.

“Well, first of all, let’s get it straight,” said Mr. Scarborough, looking pretty irked. “My name’s not Bill. My name’s Joe, Dan.”

“I’m sorry, Joe,” said Mr. Burton.

“Don’t even say that’s a Freudian slip.”

“Forgive me, forgive me,” Mr. Burton said.

That cleared up, they proceeded to enumerate Bill Clinton’s foreign-policy failures.

I told Mr. Scarborough that he comes across as less self-righteous than Mr. O’Reilly.

“May I be struck down if anybody calls me self-righteous,” he said. “It’s been my pet peeve. I have viewpoints, and I believe strongly in them and I want to fight for them, but God help me if I ever tell somebody that they’re wrong or evil or un-American.”

He said that when scripts for Scarborough Country veer into that territory, he says to the writers, “O.K., let’s pull it back a little, cowboy.”

Mr. Scarborough was raised Baptist in the South-Georgia, Mississippi-and then upstate New York. His father was an industrial engineer at Lockheed Martin, and his mother was a music teacher and church organist. He played guitar and sang for a band called the Basement Boys (named by his mother). At 15, the family moved to Florida, where he was quarterback of the Pensacola Catholic High football team. At the University of Alabama, he majored in history and pledged a fraternity-an enthusiasm which lasted a month.

“I’m just too independent,” he said. “I didn’t like rednecks getting drunk at 3 in the morning and throwing whiskey bottles from the third floor and telling me to sweep it up. Just not my nature.”

He played in a rock band, wrote a conservative column for the school paper and ran for student-body president on a platform of abolishing the student government, trying to take down the University of Alabama “machine” which had given everyone in Alabama politics their start, including Jefferson Davis and George Wallace.

“They were very arrogant and pompous,” he said. “They were the fat white pink boys who now go around in starched white shirts in Washington with the suspenders.”

Mr. Scarborough lost, but it was a moot point: He was running as a senior and so could not have taken office anyway. “This is all very much in line with my very predictable personality,” he said.

He married his first wife, Melanie, a teacher from Pensacola, when he was 23; coached high-school football for a few years; wrote and produced a satirical musical about televangelists called The Gospel According to Esther ; and then attended law school at the University of Florida. In 1994, when he was 30, he decided to run for Congress after becoming frustrated with Bill Clinton.

“I was one of those guys who had a visceral dislike for him,” Mr. Scarborough said. “Every time I watched him on TV, I’d be going, ‘He’s lying!’ And finally, after Somalia and the tax increase and his first two years, which were just absolutely a nightmare politically, I jumped in and ran.”

He didn’t know anyone in politics, he said, and his family wasn’t wealthy, but he proved popular in Northwest Florida, a conservative district with several military bases, a region which has at times been called the Redneck Riviera.

“I just worked hard and got lucky and got elected,” he said.

He ran against Bill Clinton’s tax increases, and in favor of a stronger military and a balanced budget. He lifted his campaign slogan, “Retake America,” from the Tim Robbins movie Bob Roberts .

(There is one actor Mr. Scarborough cannot stomach these days. “There’s something deeply offensive about Ed Norton going to the Berlin Film Festival saying he’s ashamed of America,” he said. “And one of my favorite movies-another thing that O’Reilly probably would not say-is Fight Club . I just loved Fight Club ! Get the DVD, one of the best DVD’s ever! But I just can’t watch the guy now.”)

In Washington, he said, he acquired a reputation for being “very, very conservative” when it came to the economy and national defense, and “pretty green” when it came to the environment. His Republican pals in Congress called him “Squish” for that, and for his moderate attitude on human-rights issues in Tibet and Sudan.

Mr. Scarborough was part of the cabal that conspired to get rid of Newt Gingrich in 1997. “He was a lightning rod,” said Mr. Scarborough. “He’s a very, very bright man, but just so many self-inflicted wounds.”

But even with the drama of a coup attempt, life in Washington wasn’t much fun.

“I ran against the imperial Congress, and then when I got up there, I was disappointed at just how unimperial it was,” Mr. Scarborough said. “It was hard work. I mean, if you wanted to do your job right, you worked from 7 in the morning until 11 at night. You do that three and half days a week, and the second that the last vote was over, you’d rush out to your car, run to the airport, fly home-but the second you got on the airplane, people would start talking to you about things they needed help on, and obviously you were glad to help them. Then you’d get home, you’d try to see your family and be with your kids, but then you’d do town-hall meetings. Again, if you do it right, it’s a tough, tough job-especially in the House, where you’re running every two years. Now, the Senate is the House of Lords; that’s the best gig in town.”

Still, he made an impression as a TV-friendly conservative. “I can’t tell you how many people came up to me when I was in Congress and told me, ‘I love watching you on TV. Most conservatives don’t know how to articulate their feelings on TV without coming across being rabid dogs,'” he said.

Mr. Scarborough made his own fun in Washington, playing in a band called Regular Joe. And he got to know the Bushes: He became good friends with Governor Jeb Bush, and during the 2000 Presidential campaign, he made hundreds of TV appearances as a spokesman for George W. Bush. His rock band was allowed to play some patriotic, John Cougar Mellencamp–style tunes at the Republican convention.

In Washington, he got along with Democrats better than Republicans, but he had trouble with the Democrats, too. “I can’t tell you how many of them would say, ‘I hate conservatives-God, they’re fascists!'” he said. “I’d sit there and go, ‘Hey, here I am.’ And they’d all say the same thing: ‘You’re not really-you don’t believe that crap. You’re not really a conservative. You’re a liberal who ran as a conservative to get elected.'”

In 1998, he and Melanie, who have two teenage sons, divorced. In October 2001, he married again; he and his second wife, Susan, are expecting their first child.

One sleepless night during the end of his first term, he was watching A Hard Day’s Night and thought, “Why did I stop playing music? I’d rather be playing music than be here.”

By the time he was re-elected in 2000, with 78 percent of the vote, he decided he’d had enough. He packed his bags and, in May of 2001, set up a law practice in Pensacola.

“Unfortunately, the longer I’m out of politics, the more I’m happy, my wife’s happy, my family’s happy,” he said.

When discussing why he’d quit Washington, Mr. Scarborough asked if I had done any research about him on the Internet.

“Have you seen I’m a murderer?” he said. “Do a Yahoo search, and this will tell you why I don’t want to get back into politics. The second and third sites will say that I got a staff member pregnant and killed her-that I was cheating on my first wife, got her pregnant and I killed her. That’s why I was getting out of Congress. Comparing me to Gary Condit. And I’m a big boy, but after reading that you’re a Nazi for five years while you’re eating cereal, you learn to go, ‘O.K., well, I wonder if the Braves won.’ And all that came from the 2000 election. I think I was up there probably in some of the ugliest years.”

Though serving in Congress was a “duty,” he said, being on TV also has a missionary aspect. Someone, after all, has to express the conservative viewpoint without spooking the kids.

“I kind of feel I need to be out there,” Mr. Scarborough said. “But I don’t call it a passion. If I ever won the lottery, I’d sit on the beach and read magazines and newspapers all day and listen to 70’s music on the iPod.”