The O’Donnell Factor: A Hill Hack Goes Prime-Time Wacko

No guest is too benign or inconsequential to serve as Joe McCarthy to Mr. O’Donnell’s eager inner Edward R. Murrow, and, more important, no argument is too sound if Mr. O’Donnell is in the mood for a bout of self-righteous condemnation. If this sounds not too different from Mr. Olbermann’s blowhard fare, try to imagine Mr. Olbermann being impersonated by David Hyde Pierce’s character Niles from Frasier–and being contractually obliged to choose his targets on the basis of a strict 40-60, blue state-red state quota system. (For reasons as yet unclear, progressives too are a regular target of Mr. O’Donnell’s bile barrages.) Innocent sentences–“Gabby Giffords spoke for the first time since sustaining a gunshot wound to the head last month; [sneering] she asked for toast! “Sarah Palin has not exactly mastered the Reagan optimism thing yet”–issue from his mouth with a weird coating of contempt.

For all of Mr. O’Donnell’s bluster about baptism certificates and identification cards, details of his own biography are murky. A recent Women’s Wear Daily profile puzzled over the disparity in reports of his age; most sources list it as 59, but he graduated from Harvard in 1976, which, if true, would have made him nearly 25 years old at the time. That detail would be less troublesome had he not also reportedly eschewed all drugs and alcohol in youth. The few stories that have been written about Mr. O’Donnell over the years invariably mention his affiliation with Harvard’s venerable humor magazine, The Lampoon, where he reportedly met (among others) the future Saturday Night Live writer and television executive John Bowman, but Mr. Bowman later recalled that Mr. O’Donnell had not actually done anything for the magazine, and that the staff had merely considered him “cool.” (Granted, Mr. Bowman, who didn’t graduate until 1980, might not have known what he was talking about.)

That Mr. O’Donnell somehow emerged from an Irish Catholic upbringing in working-class Boston calling himself “Lawrence” in the age of Larry Bird dovetails with his other known affectations: His earliest recorded flirtation with punditry is a 1985 New York Times op-ed on the superiority of designer Italian suits to the Brooks Brothers numbers he wore before an episode of Miami Vice inspired him to tour Barneys. (More recently WWD touched off a predictable memelet by noting the provenance of his socks as something called Seize sur Vingt.) His life took a fateful turn around the time of his sprucing up, when he took a sublet in the apartment of Maura Moynihan, whose cartoonish dilettantishness–she was a performance artist in the midst of a conversion to Tibetan Buddhism–no doubt cast her roommate in a favorable light when she introduced him to her late and lionized father, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then senior senator from New York. By all accounts, he was smitten by his pompous pupil, and a reluctant politico-cum-pundit career was launched.

For the first five years of the 1990s, Mr. O’Donnell was Mr. Moynihan’s most trusted adviser, and he has been trading on the collected legislative failures of that era ever since. Having entered a minimalist and misanthropic phase of his career, Mr. Moynihan openly distrusted Hillary Clinton’s health care agenda, and together with Mr. O’Donnell he used his clout as chairman of the finance committee to water down the proposal, eventually destroying it. (Believing the “real” crisis was welfare, not health care, he tirelessly advocated welfare reform–until the Republicans took control of the process in 1994, after which Mr. O’Donnell counseled him to vote against it.) Most ignominiously, just before the 1994 election, Mr. Moynihan appointed Michael Boskin to chair the commission that eventually oversaw the re-jiggering of the consumer price index in such a way that served only to shortchange the poor, sick and elderly by permanently underreporting inflation.

Mr. O’Donnell resigned to embark upon full-time punditry in 1995, after (although not officially because of) a story in The Hill reporting on financial disclosure forms showed that he had made 30 separate round-trip New York-D.C. flights at taxpayer expense during the six most frenetic months of the health care debate. Pious, anachronistic Democrats with proven track records of antagonizing the Clintons were much in demand during the second half of the decade; and then Mr. O’Donnell got a job on The West Wing.

For its producers and fans, The West Wing offered refuge from America’s vicious atmosphere of permanent culture war, for at least an hour a week. Its bleeding hearts did not double as pumps for reckless libidos; it did not cynically exploit tragedies to harden hates. But terror attacks and rogue states, hate crimes and secret sexual proclivities set against a backdrop of earnest debates about affirmative action and school vouchers–culture war detritus, generally–was still the stuff of the plot summaries (economics, the historical distinction between the parties, was left out), and The West Wing, like the punditocracy in which Mr. O’Donnell plied his talents on nonfiction occasions, was an apologetic byproduct of the Clinton administration.