03.06.11

MSNBC's Newest Pit Bull

Lawrence O'Donnell seems indifferent about his new career as a cable anchor. Howard Kurtz talks to him about his unlikely rise, why people hate him—and why O’Reilly can't get under his skin.

Lawrence O’Donnell doesn’t sound like he wants to be talking about himself or his prime-time cable show. In fact, he sounds rather indifferent about hosting a show at all.

Appearing on cable “was a hobby of mine,” the former Hollywood writer says in an interview. “It never occupied more than a few percent of my brain, except when I was doing it live. Screenwriting is my business; this thing was always a sideline.”

What’s more, “I can’t look up and imagine myself doing this for three years… I’m just filled with dissatisfaction about what we can squeeze into script form. It’s always my fault. I’m a very slow writer.”

You can’t accuse the 59-year-old journeyman of overselling himself. He never made a pitch for a show. And yet here he is, in Keith Olbermann’s old slot, carrying the MSNBC banner at 8 p.m.

O’Donnell, who grew up in Dorchester, Massachusetts, is built differently than most television personalities. He spent seven years working for Daniel Patrick Moynihan—at one point he was staff director of the Senate Finance Committee—and understands the innards of legislative sausage-making. He also spent seven years as a writer, editor, and executive producer of The West Wing. After the popular series wrapped in 2006, O’Donnell became a frequent MSNBC contributor—and was handed his own hour, called The Last Word, in September. The 10 p.m. program got moved up two hours when Olbermann’s sudden departure left the network with a gaping hole—and O’Donnell is holding the audience, drawing more than 1 million viewers.

Not that there’s much resemblance in their style. Based on his years in the Hill trenches, “I don’t think Republicans are evil,” O’Donnell says. “I think they mostly have a different philosophy of government than I do.” During the “ludicrous” debate about the Bush tax cuts in December, O’Donnell says, “it was impossible for me to get emotional about the tax rate”—because he’s seen the top rate fluctuate so often over the years.

Based on his years in the Hill trenches, “I don’t think Republicans are evil,” O’Donnell says. “I think they mostly have a different philosophy of government than I do.”

Izzy Povich, O’Donnell’s senior executive producer, says part of her job is “reminding him that it’s OK to put in your personal experiences. As a guest, he just did it naturally.” But as a host, “it’s an adjustment, and it’s a grind.”

Povich, who was Olbermann’s top producer for more than six years, begins to describe O’Donnell’s style as low-key, then corrects herself: “He knows what he thinks, but he’s going to let the guests tell us what they think and he’ll either agree or disagree. It’s probably methodical.”

While O’Donnell aims most of his barbs at the right, the self-described socialist gets exasperated with his party as well. On gun control, he says, “Democrats have surrendered, they do nothing, absolutely nothing. It used to be one of the tests of liberalism.”

He doesn’t seem overly sensitive to criticism—a good thing, in light of a New York Observer article that called him “a vigorously vacuous character whose insipidity of subject matter is matched only by his sanctimony.”

“There are people who hate me, there are people who like me, and they’re both right,” O’Donnell says. “I think people hate me for the right reasons, which is my politics and what they discern to be my personal attitudes.”

O’Donnell’s tone on the show, at least in the scripted portions, is that of a disapproving prep-school headmaster. When he recently chastised Bill O’Reilly, whose 3.2 million viewers are triple his total, O’Donnell did it almost impassively: “When I look at O’Reilly, I also see dozens of guys I grew up with just like him: overbearing, argumentative Irish guys who think they know everything and can back up nothing. Those guys have always been a joke to me, which is why O’Reilly almost never has the capacity to outrage me.”

O’Donnell explained his approach to me this way: “If I’m describing someone my audience already hates, the audience can do the hating—I don’t have to. I can under-describe the negativity that person has created in the world.”

But he admits that when it comes to interviews and debates, “I can be as crazy as anybody and go over lines I should not go over.” When that happens, O’Donnell sounds less like the former editor of the Harvard Lampoon and more like the son of a Boston cop.

Case in point: When O’Donnell was interrogating Republican Congressman John Culberson on Hardball, he went off on a rant. “You lie to America about the evils of government-run health care because you people, not one of you liars about government health care is willing to repeal Medicare, to stand up and be consistent... That is a lie that you perpetrate every day.”

Last month, O’Donnell ripped into Republican Congressman Steve King for saying he takes Obama’s word that he is a Christian. The host berated the Iowa lawmaker for refusing to acknowledge that he should correct people who mistakenly believe the president is a Muslim. King said Obama was partially responsible for the perception by talking about having lived in Muslim countries in his 2009 Cairo speech—which is certainly fair game for argument—but O’Donnell limited the debate by constantly talking over him.

“Do you have a Christian ID… How do we know you’re not a Muslim?” O’Donnell demanded.

King says in an interview that “his motivation seems to have been premeditated to try to trap me. He was completely disrespectful. He would not listen to an answer before he interrupted with another question.”

Such moments are rare because, as on Olbermann’s Countdown, most of O’Donnell’s guests are Democrats and liberals. He views the show as an op-ed column in which he uses the lineup to help make his strongest case. O’Donnell recently invited conservative provocateur Ann Coulter, an old pal, mainly because she had ripped most of the GOP’s potential presidential candidates and he wanted her to do the same on his program. (Once on the set, she wouldn’t play).

It is hard to imagine Rachel Maddow or Ed Schultz making the case for Tim Pawlenty, as O’Donnell did last month. “No amount of media attention paid to Republicans who aren’t going to run, like Chris Christie and Sarah Palin, or two losers like Romney and Newt Gingrich, will prevent more serious-minded Republicans from joining the Pawlenty for president movement,” he said.

Rather than playing the role of infallible host, O’Donnell has already delivered two apologies. He accused Michael Steele of “never losing sight of his real master and paycheck provider: the Republican National Committee.” O’Donnell expressed regret for the wording after Steele called him to complain. He also apologized for referring to NFL players as “juiced-up millionaires.”

Could MSNBC’s prime time be a mere pit stop in a long and winding career? O’Donnell has a half-hour comedy in development at HBO, and when it comes to being in front of the camera, views himself as lacking basic broadcast skills: “I know where the teleprompter is and that’s it,” he says.

In the same diffident tone that permeated our conversation, O’Donnell makes clear he is dissatisfied with the product. “It’d be a lot better if we had another day to prepare,” he admits. “At 7, I just say, ‘All right, this is the best we can do.’”

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.