Just Getting Warmed Up

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 2, 2007

SECAUCUS, N.J. -- At a horseshoe-shaped desk in an aircraft hangar of a studio, Joe Scarborough jokes with his sidekicks during the commercial breaks, and when the red light comes on, keeps chatting without so much as a "welcome back."

During a three-hour MSNBC morning show, the former Florida congressman says he hails from the "Redneck Riviera," mutters about "stupid Chinese" after news of a recall of tires made in their country, declares that "I want to get the hell out of Iraq" and says, "I would be drooling over myself" if the surviving Beatles appeared on the program.

MSNBC executives have decided that Scarborough is the next Don Imus -- not that anyone could replace Imus -- and are finalizing the details for "Morning Joe" to permanently take over the 6-to-9 morning slot. The network this week is removing the "Scarborough Country" name from his old 9 p.m. program, now being hosted by MSNBC's general manager, Dan Abrams. And CBS Radio, which syndicated Imus until his April firing, is negotiating whether some of its stations will carry the "Joe" show, as well.

How did a little-known lawmaker become a hot media commodity? Scarborough, 44, is a recovering Republican politician who, while a committed conservative, misses few opportunities to slam his party. A guitarist who plays in a band, has written 300 songs and tells his producer such things as "we prefer you play Bowie, pre-1972, 'Ziggy Stardust.' " A former high school football coach who loves sports. And a self-described "regular Joe" who just bought a big house on the bay, with swimming pool and boat, in his home town of Pensacola.

On morning television, he says in an interview, "I get to be myself. In the evening, you start out reading the teleprompter, do the intro, go to three guests, ask the questions, and if you want to reveal yourself, you've got 10 or 15 seconds to make a pithy comment and go to break."

Scarborough recently revealed himself by announcing on the show that he wanted to have lunch with New York Times television critic Alessandra Stanley, declaring: "I saw a picture of her and I thought she was kind of hot." Asked about the admission, he says: "It was fine with my mom. I'm not sure what my wife thinks."

His freewheeling style can mean trouble. Phil Griffin, the NBC News senior vice president who hired Scarborough, urged him to be careful after the host jokingly accused MSNBC newswoman Amy Robach of leaking rumors that she might be recruited by the "Today" show.

"If that is how low the bar is set in the morning, let's go back to 9 o'clock at night," Scarborough recalls telling Griffin. But he did apologize on the air to Robach.

He is relentless in needling Mika Brzezinski, the former CBS correspondent who is part of the supporting cast, a floating group that has included Willie Geist and John Ridley. Scarborough carries on about her Polish heritage and her life as the daughter of former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski -- sometimes to the point of making her uncomfortable. He laughed uproariously after arranging to have the weatherwoman deliver a detailed forecast for Warsaw.

When Brzezinski repeatedly refused to make Paris Hilton the lead story, Scarborough kept mocking her as she ripped up the script, fed it into a shredder and tried to set it on fire.

Brzezinski calls the morning show "part debate, part intellectual conversation, part runaway train." She says Scarborough "is a force of nature. You never know what's going to come out of his mouth. He really beats me up about my family and my so-called elitist upbringing."

If there is one constant in Scarborough's career, it is his positioning as the outspoken outsider. The University of Alabama graduate was practicing law in Pensacola in 1993 -- "I hated it," he says -- when he abandoned the Democratic Party. Citing his disgust with the newly elected Bill Clinton, Scarborough decided to challenge a 16-year Democratic House member, Earl Hutto.

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