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.
His father's reaction: "That's great, Joey, but I'm voting for Earl."
But Hutto decided to step down, and Scarborough, who knew no one in politics, bought time on a public-access station, spending hours taking calls on the air. The party establishment was against him in the conservative district, which includes several military bases, and he was one of five Republican candidates in the primary election. But he pulled off an upset.
In 1997 he was one of the GOP rebels who led an unsuccessful coup attempt against Newt Gingrich, the divisive House speaker. "Newt Gingrich was becoming more of a liability," Scarborough says. "We couldn't do anything without the Democrats wrapping Newt around our necks."
Not content just to practice politics, Scarborough started the Florida Sun, a free weekly, writing many of the stories himself. He bailed out after the paper became a financial drain.
In spring 2001, Scarborough faced a personal crisis. He had gotten divorced two years earlier, and the older of his two teenage sons was having problems. Scarborough says a counselor told him that "Joey needs you in his life as much as possible." The congressman resigned, moved back to Pensacola and had Joey move in with him.
"It was the hardest decision I ever made and the easiest decision I ever made, because there was no choice," he says.
Scarborough went back to practicing law but became a frequent television guest. He caught Griffin's eye after a series of appearances on "Hardball," including one in which he predicted that Trent Lott was toast as Senate Republican leader after having praised Strom Thurmond's segregationist 1948 candidacy for president.
"We took a guy that was pretty raw and took a risk with him," Griffin says. "I tweak him all the time: 'Don't try to be like everybody else.' Cable demands a certain rawness in who you are. We don't want formality. . . . He's comfortable talking about everything from Shiites to Paris Hilton."
At first, Scarborough admits, "I was horrible." Referring to Fox's Bill O'Reilly, he says, "Some people here thought I would be Little O'Reilly. They wanted me to be stridently pro-Bush, pro-war. That wasn't me. I was playing a role."
As a congressman, Scarborough championed George W. Bush's election in 2000, and as a commentator he backed the Iraq war. But he has turned against both, and MSNBC now runs commercials touting him as an independent voice.
"The Republican Party has been corrupted by power," Scarborough says. "George Bush and the Republican Party have done more to hurt the conservative cause in the last seven years than Ted Kennedy ever could."
Such comments have cost him friendships, says Scarborough, who recalls receiving a "nasty e-mail" from a White House aide after one broadside against Bush. But he is accustomed to that: "When I went after Gingrich, I lost most of my friends" in the party.
Scarborough hasn't completely gotten politics out of his bloodstream. In 2005, when Elizabeth Dole asked him to run for a Senate seat in Florida, he considered it -- but his current wife, Susan, and one of his sons was opposed. Scarborough also concluded that he would have to run against his own party's record.
When Scarborough first joined MSNBC, he said he would help counterbalance the left-leaning media. But now that he has gotten to know more journalists, Scarborough says, "saying they were liberally biased was an ignorant statement to make." He believes, however, that most journalists are culturally out of touch with red-state America.
On this particular morning, his guests range from liberal New York Times columnist Frank Rich (they find themselves agreeing on Iraq) to Johnny Cash's son, John Carter Cash (Scarborough gushes that he once met Cash's parents at Washington's 9:30 club and keeps a photo on his wall).
Scarborough delights in being able to conduct 15-minute conversations -- an eternity in TV terms -- and has chatted up such presidential candidates as Hillary Clinton, Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee (even eliciting the revelation that the former Arkansas governor is a Jimi Hendrix fan). Big-name guests are easier to snag when all they have to do is phone in, the radio technique pioneered on television by Imus. Scarborough was an occasional phone guest for the I-Man, who once said Scarborough looked like "they grabbed him out of an Ace Hardware store and took off his red vest."
"Morning Joe" has not been a box-office smash. Its average audience last month, 210,000, is 42 percent below that of Imus earlier this year. But MSNBC, which tried out several possible hosts before settling on Scarborough, hasn't made a major promotional push. The program will shift to NBC's New York headquarters this fall when MSNBC, in a budget-cutting move, closes its offices here.
Whatever the numbers, the show is attracting attention. When Dan Rather accused CBS and Katie Couric of trying to "tart up" the evening news, he did it in a call to Scarborough. In a chat about former senator Fred Thompson's wife, Jeri, Scarborough drew flak for asking the seemingly suggestive question of whether she "works the pole" -- although this followed a chat in which a traffic reporter said she used a pole for exercise.
Fronting a three-hour show is no easy task, but Scarborough barely exhales as he holds forth for another hour afterward.
"My biggest challenge is getting everything into the three hours," he says.