“Stop that!” said Mika Brzezinski, who plays cohost to Joe Scarborough on the morning radio program The Joe Scarborough Show. “No, no, no. You know what? That’s what you do when you want to win a fight.”
“No, I want you to answer the question,” said Joe Scarborough. “I’m not fighting.”
Ms. Brzezinski flipped her hand through her blond bangs and threw Mr. Scarborough a look. “You sound like my husband,” said Ms. Brzezinski.
It had been a long morning. Ms. Brzezinski had arrived before 6 a.m. at the MSNBC studios at 30 Rockefeller Plaza to begin the long slog through her television show with Mr. Scarborough, Morning Joe. Then it was up to the windowless box of a radio studio on the 17th floor of 2 Penn Plaza. So she was on approximately her fourth hour of arguing with Mr. Scarborough about the federal stimulus package, for our amusement.
A flat-screen television hung on the sidewall of the studio where they now sat to do the show, which airs weekday mornings in New York on WABC-AM. It was tuned to MSNBC, which was showing footage from the Westminster Dog Show. A Scottish deerhound pranced across the screen. There was a chill in the studio. Mr. Scarborough was wearing a sweater. A pair of tortoiseshell glasses hung on the bridge of his nose.
Earlier, Mr. Scarborough pointed out that Mika was a child of official Washington. Her father, Zbigniew Brzezinski, had served as national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter and helped to found the influential Trilateral Commission with David Rockefeller.
“You make it sound dirty,” said Ms. Brzezinski.
Mr. Scarborough alleged that the character played by Tom Hanks in The Da Vinci Code was based on Ms. Brzezinski.
“You’re a tool,” Ms. Brzezinski shot back, lovingly.
In real life, Mr. Scarborough lives in Washington, D.C., with his wife, Susan, and Ms. Brzezinski lives in New York with her husband, James. But every day, five days a week, from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. on MSNBC and from 10 a.m. to 11:45 a.m. on WABC, Mr. Scarborough and Ms. Brzezinski are locked together in that time-honored New York tradition: media matrimony. ’Til contract renegotiation do them part.
The radio show is the latest element of the Joe and Mika franchise, bringing this Burns-and-Allen-Goes-to-Dartmouth routine to the unlikely masses who like to get their political news from radio screamers.
While numerous media stars from Sean Hannity to Glenn Beck have managed to successfully transition from talk radio to cable television, the reverse pollination process is much less common.
Although it still trails in the ratings behind CNN’s American Morning and Fox News’ Fox & Friends, since its inception in the spring of 2007, Morning Joe has grown into a buzzy phenomenon, particularly beloved among policy wonks in New York and Washington.
To paraphrase George Burns, the most important thing in morning television is sincere camaraderie. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.
Whether it’s real or fake, Morning Joe seems to go down pretty smoothly with its ensemble cast: second-generation TV wisecracker Willie Geist, veteran newspaper columnist Mike Barnicle and curmudgeonly political legend Pat Buchanan. But at the heart of the collective bonhomie is the intimate, complex, tantalizing, combative, flirtatious, heated, intellectually driven relationship between Mr. Scarborough and Ms. Brzezinski.
There was the time Ms. Brzezinski tore up a script about Paris Hilton, and Mr. Scarborough inhaled the smell of the balled-up piece of paper. The time Ms. Brzezinski got mugged in Washington, and an angry Mr. Scarborough took the mayor of the city to task–live, in person, on the air. The time Mika’s father said Mr. Scarborough possessed a “stunningly superficial” knowledge of the Israel-Palestine situation and Ms. Brzezinski ate it up publicly, laughing heartily for the cameras.
But the radio show, which launched in December, strips away the cast of supporting characters and places the relationship between Joe and Mika center stage, with no diversions.
“There’s a certain level of trust that we’re going to beat each other up or we’re going to get along, but either way, we’re going to like each other,” Ms. Brzezinski told The Observer recently. “We get frustrated on issues. We even get frustrated with each other on things, but there’s never an underlying lack of trust. I think that shows.”
“Anything can happen on this show,” she added of the new radio show they’re working on. “Aaaaanything. With TV, we make it as spontaneous as possible. On radio it goes way further. Our conversations are able to go a little closer to the edge. People who call in are able to do that, too. That can border on the crazy and the extreme.”
ON THURSDAY MORNING, Feb. 5, at around 10:30 a.m., Mr. Scarborough opened up the phone lines. He and Mika had both been up since dawn. They had interviewed Senator Jim Webb, Time columnist Mark Halperin and former General Electric CEO Jack Welch. Mr. Scarborough was hungry.
He picked up a turkey sandwich, leaned back from the microphone. One of the advantages of radio over television, he had learned recently, is that you can get away with snacking while on the air. He took a big bite, and listened to a caller.
A few minutes later, Ms. Brzezinski welcomed Scott from the Tappan Zee Bridge.
Scott was in no mood for niceties. He had a bone to pick with Mika. “She makes me sick,” Scott seethed. “I just want to puke every time I listen to what she says.”
Mr. Scarborough chuckled. Ms. Brzezinski clucked. Currently, The Joe Scarborough Show airs in New York under the same call letters as Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham.
Even after several years of employment at MSNBC, Mr. Scarborough has plenty of bona fides with conservative audiences, most notably because of his years in Congress as a Republican representative from Florida. But two months into the fledging radio show, the station’s conservative listeners were still trying to wrap their brains around Ms. Brzezinski’s slightly left-of-center political views.
“You didn’t even answer his question,” Scott continued. “You’re just like all the liberals. Barack Obama never answered a question, either. … You make me sick. … You’ve been spoon-fed your whole life. You make me sick every day. … I have to turn it off sometimes, because it makes me want to puke.”
Mr. Scarborough commiserated with Scott. Sometimes Mika made him puke in his mouth, too.
Radio is a slow-developing medium compared to television. According to Michael Harrison, the editor and publisher of Talkers magazine, it will take at least three to six months to know whether The Joe Scarborough Show is off to a good start.
But there’s no doubt that the program arrived at an opportune moment. In December, Bill O’Reilly announced that after some seven years, he would be giving up his popular syndicated radio show sometime in the first quarter of 2009, to focus on his work at Fox News. The imminent departure will leave hundreds of stations around the country with a hole to fill. The Joe Scarborough Show will likely be a strong contender as a replacement. But, according to Mr. Harrison, it will face stiff competition, particularly from CNN’s Lou Dobbs and Fox’s John Gibson.
Whether the show makes the all-important leap into national syndication in the coming months may ultimately depend on the extent to which conservative listeners learn to enjoy their raging feelings towards Ms. Brzezinski, and how long Ms. Brzezinski can soldier through it.
WHEN HE WAS 18 years old, during his freshman year at the University of Alabama, Mr. Scarborough pledged Pi Kappa Phi. It was the early ’80s, and young Joe was enamored with Ronald Reagan, Alex P. Keaton, Duck Head khakis and Polo shirts. Joining a fraternity, he thought, would be just the thing.
The experiment didn’t last long. After three weeks, Mr. Scarborough dropped out. That’s how long it took, he later wrote, to “figure out that I was paying good money to suffer the indignity of having … rednecks drop Scotch bottles on brick patios from three stories above while yelling, ‘Hey, queerball, pick dat up!’”
Over the years, according to Mr. Scarborough, his contempt for frat boys has gradually diminished as his personal success has grown in leaps and bounds.
The world of conservative talk radio offers a suitable proxy. At times listening to Mr. Scarborough wade into WABC’s conservative audience is like witnessing the prodigal Pi Kappa Phi man crashing a frat-house reunion with a skip in his step, an attractive liberal media star on his arm and a gaggle of slack-jawed, right-wing whiskey hounds drooling in his wake.
For any red-blooded conservative male, the first encounter with Ms. Brzezinski is bound to provoke curiosity; her mix of sex appeal and brainpower and liberalism bound to spike the blood pressure. A confrontation—a hasty fumbling for her attention—becomes a burning necessity.
But how to do it? What’s the right approach? Exaggerated repulsion? A backhanded compliment? Chivalrous civility? Flirty condescension?
Throughout the day, WABC callers test out their game.
“Mika, I don’t agree with almost anything you say substantively,” said Barry from Stamford, Conn. “But I really enjoy listening to you. You have one of those voices that no matter what you say, it’s hard not to listen. Kind of like Tokyo Rose.”
“Mika, Helen Thomas’ got nothing on you, dear,” said Rich from Scarsdale, N.Y. “You’re fine just the way you look it.”
“Are you saying that Mika looks like Helen Thomas?” Mr. Scarborough responded.
“No, no, no, it was, uh, just, a, uh, bit of a sarcastic remark,” said Rich. “Mika, you look just fine.”
“Um, thank you?” said Ms. Brzezinski.
At one point, a liberal interloper called in with some advice. “Mika, not only do I think you’re hot, but you have a great voice,” said Robert from Paramus, N.J. “And you’re pretty smart. What you have to do is, you can’t let these conservatives try and use you as a punching bag. Don’t become the Colmes of the former Hannity and Colmes show.”
Mika Brzezinski looks like sterner stuff—and, it probably makes a difference that she is a woman, something that she does not shy away from reminding the knuckle-draggers who surround her. One moment, she rules the Morning Joe set, playing strict disciplinarian, bullying grown men back into line. The next minute she can interview U.S. Senator Jim Webb, with her executive producer’s baby sitting on her lap.
And Mr. Scarborough might be the last person in the world who would underestimate Ms. Brzezinski’s intellect. For the most part, he reacts to the disparaging phone calls with bemused sarcasm. But at one point on the morning of Feb. 5, all the conservative male angst toward Ms. Brzezinski inspired Mr. Scarborough to tell a story.
Years ago, Mr. Scarborough explained, when Mika was a young co-ed at Williams College she had dated a guy at Dartmouth, who happened to be the editor of The Dartmouth Review.
One rainy night, Ms. Brzezinski drove up to Dartmouth to rendezvous with her boyfriend at an outdoor bench on campus. Ms. Brzezinski arrived at the scene. The guy wasn’t there. She waited and waited. The rain turned to snow. The guy remained AWOL.
Where was he? Mr. Scarborough cut to the punch line. As it turned out, the conservative guy had stood her up for drinks with … Laura Ingraham!
Yes, that Laura Ingraham—the brainy blond conservative political commentator, who, as it happens, hosts a nationally syndicated talk show, which in New York airs weeknights on WABC.
Ms. Brzezinski gave an exaggerated sigh. “She was prettier,” said Ms. Brzezinski, “she was smarter, and she was more conservative.”
“So you were dating a right-winger at college?” said Mr. Scarborough. “What was that like? You’ve got to be a hard-core conservative to run The Dartmouth Review.”
Ms. Brzezinski said they had almost married. You know why she liked him? Tell me, said Mr. Scarborough. “He stood by his beliefs,” said Ms. Brzezinski. “And he wrote beautifully.”
And so the parable came to an end.
A few days later, The Observer asked Ms. Brzezinski how she was coping with the male pattern aggression from callers. Ms. Brzezinski fielded the question gamely. “There’s nothing bad about it,” said Ms. Brzezinski. “It’s either criticism in fun. Or it’s funny. Or on a really good day, someone will explain to me why I’m wrong. I’m way open to being wrong.
“I’ve evolved on certain issues and so has Joe,” Ms. Brzezinski added. “When someone calls me a moron, that doesn’t bother me. I think it’s amusing. To me, it’s a fabulous part of the process.”
And on television, Mr. Scarborough looks a lot like the last conservative standing at the network of Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow.
“I live on the Upper West Side when I’m up here,” said Mr. Scarborough. “I always have little old ladies coming up to me saying, ‘You’re my favorite Republican. You’re the only Republican I like other than Pat Buchanan.’ I like Pat, too!”
The next day, on Friday morning, the radio show was humming. Joe and Mika played a clip of Chris Matthews criticizing President Obama. Ms. Brzezinski marveled that the press was beating up so badly on Mr. Obama. Mr. Scarborough called Paul Krugman “grumpy.” A caller accused NBC News of liberal bias. Mr. Scarborough insisted that Mika was practicing the politics of division. Strains of Arcade Fire drifted onto the soundboard between them.
Only one thing was missing. “Where are the ‘Mika is a moron, Mika makes me want to puke’ callers?” said Ms. Brzezinski.
“Where’s the hate?” said Mr. Scarborough.
“Maybe I won them over,” said Ms. Brzezinski. “Do you think that’s possible?”