Lawrence O’Donnell’s short national nightmare is over.
But—to hear MSNBC’s 10 p.m. host tell it—America’s longer one, the presidency of Donald Trump, is only just beginning.
“A majority of Americans were hit with a trauma on election night that they didn’t expect to happen. They were reeling from it for weeks,” said the namesake of The Last Word With Lawrence O’Donnell. “There was a feeling of alienation from the country they lived in, with people wondering, how could this have happened? How could this goofy reality TV star have conned his way into the White House? And there was a kind of massive depression.”
“Trauma,” “alienation,” and “depression”—words that characterize O’Donnell’s reaction to Trump’s rise—are perhaps too lurid to describe his months of angst and uncertainty concerning whether NBC News and MSNBC Chairman Andy Lack even wished to continue airing O’Donnell’s nearly seven-year-old program.
“Tense” is probably as good a descriptor as any for the down-to-the-wire negotiations in which O’Donnell and his William Morris Endeavor agent, Hollywood powerbroker Ari Emanuel, finally concluded a new contract this week, mere days before the old one was set to lapse on Sunday.
O’Donnell’s show, along with the rest of MSNBC’s prime-time lineup, has been enjoying historically high viewership in recent weeks—winning its time slot against the once-dominant Fox News Channel and CNN in the all-important advertising-friendly 25-54 demographic—yet management was in no rush to sweeten or even renew his deal, leading to public speculation that The Last Word was on the chopping block.
In what might have seemed like competitive schadenfreude, CNN media reporter and Reliable Sources host Brian Stelter mused two weeks ago in his nightly newsletter: “Why is MSNBC treating Lawrence O’Donnell so shabbily?... Who let it get to this point? How did it get to this point, a messy public drama between a primetime host and his bosses?”
“I remain completely horrified and uncomfortable by the fact that it became public,” the 65-year-old O’Donnell told the Daily Beast on Friday—notwithstanding that he had been keeping his 1.8 million Twitter followers informed about his awkward circumstances after a May 14 Huffpost article suggested his show was on the bubble.
“Contract expires June 4. I'll let you know where you can watch me June 5 if it's not msnbc. I'm sorry this situation has become public,” he tweeted last month.
While news stories about high-profile television contracts are fairly routine, “I’ve never been in one of those stories, and suddenly I’m in one of those stories—‘Oh Jesus. This feels horrible,’” O’Donnell said.
Given O’Donnell’s M.O. as a voluble pundit and pugnacious debater, it came as a surprise when the fervent Democrat added: “It left me speechless. I struggled to try to see if there was something I could say, and I couldn’t figure out how to do it.”
Even today, O’Donnell insisted, “I literally do not know how to talk about it.”
As of this writing, MSNBC had yet to trumpet O’Donnell’s renewed contract in a formal press release, but the network confirmed the 10 p.m. host’s announcement on his Wednesday night program: “I will be sitting right here talking about the James Comey hearing and everything else that happens next week and everything that happens for the next couple of years”—although apparently his contract runs longer than that.
“Yes I will be saying hi to Rachel @ maddow at 10pm for the foreseeable future,” O’Donnell later tweeted, referring to his top-rated 9 p.m. anchor who generally opens The Last Word with a brief colloquy with her colleague.
O’Donnell spoke by phone Friday before he headed to the publishing industry convention, Book Expo 2017, to promote Playing With Fire, his exhaustive study of the tumultuous 1968 presidential campaign roiled by a raging war in Vietnam, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, race riots, violent protests in the street, and the rapid disintegration of previously accepted societal norms. Penguin Press plans to publish O’Donnell’s book in November.
“It was the darkest moment in the history of presidential elections since the Civil War,” he said, noting that the book explores a variety of incidents and situations that foreshadowed the current polarization and incivility in the American body politic.
“The first sentence of the book is about Roger Ailes meeting Richard Nixon in the makeup chair of the Mike Douglas Show," O'Donnell said. "Ailes became a much more important influence than the man he helped elect president of the United States; he had a much more lasting effect on our politics and what’s become of our politics than any other person in that campaign.”
O’Donnell’s career, up till now, has spanned politics, policy and showbiz: He was, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, a top staffer for New York’s late Democratic senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, helping formulate tax policy; a writer and story editor for the hit ‘90s series The West Wing, and creator of NBC’s short-lived 2003 drama Mr. Sterling about an idealistic freshman senator portrayed by Josh Brolin.
O’Donnell has even worked as an actor, notably playing polygamist Mormon leader Bill Henrickson’s attorney in the HBO series Big Love. Two decades ago, it was Andy Lack, in his previous incarnation as president of NBC News, who recruited O’Donnell as an on-air political analyst when MSNBC launched in 1996.
“I’ve been signing contracts my whole life—I’ve certainly been signing MSNBC contracts since it started—and no one’s ever known it,” O’Donnell said. “That’s the way it’s supposed to be.”
Asked if he’s happy with his new MSNBC deal, O’Donnell parried, “I don’t even want to put an adjective on it.”
Repeating what has become his personal maxim since he survived a terrible car crash in 2014, O’Donnell declared: “I’m lucky to be alive—that never goes away. I now feel lucky to be doing this show because of our times. This kind of show has never been more important. Before the last election, if you’d asked me about the importance of this kind of show, I would answer, ‘That would depend on the day.’…Now there is no doubt about the importance of the kind of coverage we’re doing.”
In the aftermath of the shocking election outcome, O’Donnell said, he was in a state of mind that—in his description of it—sounds very much like grief.
He had been telling his viewers for years, ever since Trump’s noxious birther campaign in 2011 that questioned the legitimacy of President Barack Obama, that the reality show billionaire was a liar and a clown who never had any intention of running for the presidency, let alone any chance of winning it.
“I really did not know how to do that show after that election—and I knew I had to do it,” O’Donnell said, explaining that he didn’t even recognize his own country, a strange and disturbing nation that could put such a man in the White House. “I also knew I didn’t feel like talking about it. I would have preferred talking about anything else.”
But, working his way through his stages of grief—moving from sorrow to anger to acceptance—“I made the discovery that doing the show every night was pretty good medicine,” O’Donnell recounted, “because I really didn’t have time to slip into the mood of loss.”
O’Donnell said his breakthrough moment came on Jan. 12, when a Quinnipiac Poll was released indicating that a plurality of Americans, even some Republicans and Trump voters, didn’t much like, respect or trust Obama’s successor.
“It was hugely important to me when I saw that poll. It crystallized for me how the country saw this president—and, in early January, people did not know that they were not alone,” O’Donnell said, noting that, after all, Hillary Clinton received three million more votes than Trump, who became “an accidental president” courtesy of the quirks of the Electoral College. “People had gotten overwhelmed by a country they did not understand, that elected this person they don’t understand.”
That night, Jan. 12, O’Donnell devoted the top of his show to the theme, “You’re not alone”; channeling the resistance to the 45th president has been his organizing principle ever since.
“Now we don’t have to tell anyone in America that you’re not alone if you disapprove of Donald Trump, and now the country is living with a suspense in their presidency that it has not had since 1974”—when Nixon was forced to resign to avoid impeachment amid the escalating Watergate scandal.
“The dynamism of the news day is unlike anything that has ever existed in the history of cable news,” said O’Donnell, sounding genuinely energized by the prospect of owning a ringside seat and bully pulpit over the next couple of years. “I’ve often wondered what it would have been like if we’d had cable news during the Vietnam War and Watergate,” he said. “And now we know.”