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06.17.10

The Angriest Man on Cable

Dylan Ratigan rants daily about government’s shortcomings and tears into guests with a vengeance. Lloyd Grove on where his outrage comes from—and why it’s working.

Having lunch with Dylan Ratigan is a bit like being sprayed with a fire hose. Actually, it’s a bit like watching his television program.

“At first, people were like: ‘Who is this guy?’ ” the host of MSNBC’s The Dylan Ratigan Show says as we sit outdoors at the Rock Center Café, where he has presented himself unshaven, sporting a beige turtleneck and jeans. “Then they were like: ‘Why is he yelling at everybody?’ Then they were like, ‘Hang on a second, I think he might be here to try and help with honest intent!’ I think we are at that point where people are realizing, however you may feel stylistically, that our intention is to end game-rigging in the government, using 21st century journalism!”

“Racists and talking points piss me off,” Ratigan says. “And I will flip out.”

Ratigan, of course, is yelling—his default mode of communication, ever since his days as a maniacal stock market host on Bloomberg Television and CNBC—and he’s waving his arms in a semaphore of alarm, attracting the anxious curiosity of diners at nearby tables. And despite his resemblance to a budding Howard Beale, the angry anchorman from Paddy Chayefsky’s Network, the 38-year-old Ratigan is appealingly self-aware, happy to acknowledge his hyper-intensity. “Well, it is true,” Ratigan admits. “But we need that guy from Network. At some point somebody has to walk in the room and be like, ‘None of you are solving the problem!’ ”

Often, on the air, he loses his cool. Sometimes he bullies his guests. He notoriously did both to Florida Democrat Debbie Wasserman Schultz during a discussion of health-care reform last December. That train wreck of an interview (which took place on Morning Meeting, the predecessor to Ratigan’s 4 p.m. show) ended when he ranted at the shocked congresswoman that she was implicated in the rising share prices of health insurance companies, berated her for relying on “talking points,” then cut her off, muttering: “This is a waste of time!” A few days later he grudgingly apologized.

Watch Ratigan’s Interview with Florida Democrat Debbie Wasserman Schultz

“Nothing pisses me off more than somebody who has the audacity to come into the theater, if you will—which is what I consider that box to be—and be either intellectually dishonest or effectively just try to do talking points,” Ratigan tells me. “I apologized to Debbie not because of the talking points…I apologized to Debbie because I felt that my behavior was so abnormal for the medium, and was so upsetting to people, because people were like, ‘That guy just completely lost his temper on that congressperson!’ –which is true. I felt that while my anger and frustration were valid, it is not ultimately beneficial or appropriate for me to take it out on a particular politician—and so I regret losing my temper.”

On the other hand, Ratigan has no regrets about tossing Tea Party organizer Mark Williams off his show in March when Williams refused to repudiate “racists and Nazis.” "I don't want to continue with this, you're wasting valuable oxygen,” Ratigan informed Williams before pulling the plug.

Watch Ratigan Toss Off a Tea Partier

Video screenshot

Over lunch, Ratigan explains: “Racists and talking points piss me off. And I will flip out.”

This “caffeinated crusader” approach appears to be working: Since January, when The Dylan Ratigan Show debuted at 4 p.m., the audience has been growing, eyeball by eyeball. As of the May sweeps, he had 330,000 viewers—a 20 percent improvement over MSNBC’s performance a year ago in the same time slot. Although he trails both Fox News’ Neil Cavuto (1.3 million viewers) and CNN’s Rick Sanchez (543,000), Ratigan seems headed in the right direction.

He says he sees his mission as holding our political leaders’ feet to the fire—even if it means insulting and assaulting them. It’s hardly surprising that President Obama’s many spinmeisters—who are otherwise ubiquitous on MSNBC—are all but absent from Ratigan’s program.

“The White House is largely afraid to come on,” he says, adding that Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and top presidential adviser Larry Summers “are afraid to come near me…Because I am so hard on them for their economic policies that I believe are destructive to our country long-term. I think they are dishonest.”

Ratigan goes on: “For me, it is not about the politics of Obama versus Bush or Democrat versus Republican. In my mind, I represent the taxpayer and fairness relative to the government. When the government solves problems in an explicitly unfair manner that doesn’t address the actual problem, I feel like it is my obligation professionally to explain that, and try to address it. But, to that end, the White House doesn’t like me.”

Revving himself into his usual state of voluble passion, Ratigan goes on: “The fundamental problem right now is that you have conflict resolution, or problem resolution, that is predicated on bad motivations, where politicians are trying to keep their jobs with the strategy of explaining to everybody why everything is fine, no matter what...What if your economic plan—where you monetize the entire future with no money and create a giant credit casino—doesn’t work? No plan! Oh, OK—so that means we’re going to spend a few extra trillion and do no reform? Interesting concept, my politician friends!

“Same thing in the Gulf of Mexico. So, OK, we’re going to try and plug the hole this week? Next week? I tell you what: You talk to [oil company executive] Matt Simmons, you talk to T. Boone Pickens and their geologists, they say: ‘Listen; there is a reasonable chance that this goes for 9,000 days.’ That’s almost a decade! [In fact, it’s more like a quarter century.] You are doing work on the moon! This is just another example of: ‘It’s fine, it’s fine, it’s fine.’ But we have no contingency for the fact that it might not be fine! Why is that? It is because the politicians want to keep their jobs! There is a motivation towards self-preservation that takes over almost immediately with all human beings—even the president of the United States….I mean, WHAT ARE WE DOING, PEOPLE? This is a joke, right? This is a f------ joke – OK?”

It was just that sort of rage-filled outburst with which Ratigan stormed out of CNBC last year, when he was hosting Fast Money and Closing Bell on the popular financial network, reportedly shouting at his producer, Susan Krakower: “Don't ask me to talk about every f------ email that comes up on the screen! I'm not going to host a f------ TV show that consists of reading f------ emails to f------ traders!”

Refreshingly, Ratigan owns up to the incident. “All that’s true,” he tells me. “None of it has anything to do on whether I stayed at CNBC or not—whether I yell at Susan Krakower? Yes, I did! I don’t even care. I also lost my temper at Debbie Wasserman on TV. OK?”

Ratigan says he decided to leave CNBC for more substantive reasons. “I was a huge presence on CNBC at that time. I left because I felt that the opportunity to deal with the crux of the problem, which was a dysfunctional government, was at MSNBC. Because CNBC was predicated more on the ‘how we navigate the money, short-term,’ OK? I was like: ‘The money isn’t the problem right now! The problem is a dysfunctional government that’s manipulating the entire system to the detriment of the entire country!’”

Where does all this sound and fury come from? As Ratigan tells it, he is a combustible mix of hard-drinking, bare-knuckled Irishmen, on his father’s side, and volatile Italians and Hungarian Jews, on his mother’s. He grew up an only child whose closest friends were adults. His single mom hauled him away from Saranac Lake, New York, where his grandfather Frank Ratigan was the mayor, after his father John abandoned the family and tripped the light fantastic to become a competitive bobsled racer in Alaska. Dylan’s mom Adrienne, who later became a psychiatric social worker, dragged him to various cities around the country to work in the restaurant business, ending up in San Francisco.

The towering influence on Ratigan’s upbringing was his Hungarian grandfather, Lazlo Deutsch, who landed on Ellis Island in 1926, got work laying carpet for New York’s finest hotels, married a recently arrived Italian girl, changed his name to Larry Dodge, and got rich as the owner of Mayfair Carpet, which serviced the Waldorf Astoria and Leona Helmsley’s properties among other hotels. Ratigan spent his summers at his grandparents’ mansion on the North Fork of Long lsland, where Larry Dodge was a larger-than-life patriarch, a manically driven, charismatic charmer who collected guns and liked to shoot varmints from his bedroom window. When he was killed in 1986 at age 75—breaking his neck in his Astoria, Queens, warehouse while climbing a three-story mountain of carpets—Dylan was devastated.

“It was horrendous beyond comprehension,” Ratigan says. “He wasn’t sick. It wasn’t anticipated or anything. And he was the centerpiece. It brought the fairy tale to a conclusion because there was still a portion of my life that was fantasyland, where literally anything that you wanted to do, it was all possible. Once he died that was no longer the case. My grandmother got cancer the next year and she couldn’t handle it.”

Dylan returned to upstate New York to study political economics at Union College in Schenectady.

If Ratigan’s life were a play, it would be Eugene O’Neill meets David Mamet, with a dash of Horatio Alger. His first gig after graduating in 1994—obtained from a college friend’s father, Richard Chapman, a fabulously wealthy New York parking garage mogul—was a graveyard-shift job thwarting parking attendants from stealing money.

“My hours were 10 p.m. until 4 a.m,” Ratigan says. “It was me, this Russian guy, and this Haitian guy, and we would just drive around New York, buy chicken, smoke cigarettes and harass parking attendants in the middle of the night. I then would use my days to interview for jobs…The insanity of this was that I was living in [the parking mogul’s] brownstone, a mansion on 62rd Street between Lex and Third, to which I had the keys, although I did not have a penny to my name. So I am living in this house with butlers, and they are like, ‘Mr. Ratigan, this and that.’ I was like: ‘Does anybody have $2 for an iced coffee and a pack of cigarettes?’ ”

Serendipitously enough, also living in the townhouse were the mogul’s girlfriend, Susan Bloomberg, the ex-wife of financial media billionaire Mike Bloomberg, and the Bloombergs' teenage daughters Georgina and Emma. They befriended Ratigan, and kept in touch after he moved to a group apartment on the Upper East Side.

“At that point, Susan and Georgina and Emma start harassing Mike to hire me at Bloomberg,” Ratigan recounts. “I get a phone message after Thanksgiving of 1994. I am living with three roommates on Third Avenue and it is like: ‘Your mom called, she’ll drop off the dry-cleaning.’ ‘Mike Bloomberg called.’ I go to my roommate: ‘Do you f------ know who Mike Bloomberg f------ is?’ I am like: ‘Did he just f------ call here?’ So I called Mike Bloomberg back and he says: ‘My ex-wife and my daughters tell me that I am supposed to hire you.’ I was like: ‘They’re right.’ And he loved it. So he then was like: ‘OK, go to New Jersey, $20,000 a year, start re-writing press releases and just do everything no one else wants to do. Whatever is at the bottom of the pile is yours.’ So I moved to Princeton, New Jersey, and did that. And I took to it like a fish to water.”

Ratigan quickly became a star at the fast-growing company, where he covered capital markets, initial public offerings, mergers, and spinoffs—and got to know everybody who was anybody on Wall Street and corporate America. He helped start Bloomberg Television, where he launched the program Morning Call. When he left, he was barely 30 years old, with the fancy title of global managing editor for corporate finance—a senior management position that required him to travel the world, hiring and firing his elders.

“It was miserable. I hated it,” Ratigan confides. “I had been going to Davos for years for Bloomberg, I had been hosting TV shows and events for Bloomberg. I was a big external representative of that company, and an effective one at representing that company’s brand and being a journalist. And I suddenly found myself living inside the company as senior management. I was in meetings all the time, I was on the phone all the time…I also was like: 'I am going to kill myself if I get another call from somebody in Sri Lanka who works for me that I don’t even know how to pronounce their f------ name.’ ”

Ratigan jumped to CNBC after a brief stint as a business consultant, working in Seattle for his good friend Philip Condit, then the chief executive of Boeing. At MSNBC, he seems happy in his work, never mind that he seems to live at a constant pitch of righteous indignation. For the past two years, he has been in a serious relationship singer-songwriter Aprille Goodman, who often can be found at Ratigan’s house in Brooklyn’s posh Park Slope neighborhood.

“One of my problems is that I tend to absorb responsibility for whatever the problem is that I feel like I am working on, whether it is the bank thing or the inefficient government thing, then I will get frustrated with my inability to solve it, even though I didn’t really create it,” Ratigan says. “Aprille is actually a calming influence. She is more like, ‘It’s OK.’ ‘Worry less about everything and enjoy your life.’ Then let the cards fall where they may.”

Lloyd Grove is editor at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for the Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.