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Mika's Second Act

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 22, 2008 10:13 AM

Mika Brzezinski doesn't mince words about what happened when CBS dropped her as a correspondent two years ago.

"Nobody wanted me," she says. "I spent a year looking for a job. You spend 10 years at a place, you gave your heart and soul and blood for it, and all of a sudden it's over? I was 40 and, quote, fired, and I'm sure people were thinking, what's wrong with her?"

No one is asking that now. Brzezinski has parlayed her role as co-host of MSNBC's morning show, with Joe Scarborough, into a syndicated radio show with the former congressman and a brand-new book deal. She is, for the first time, bursting with opinions.

"I've been in a box as a journalist for 20 years," she says. "That is a very safe and lazy place to be. You can hide behind objectivity. It is much harder to put yourself out there."

Brzezinski's comeback occupies the eroding line between news and commentary, but it reflects more than that. In a fickle culture that swoons over celebrities and spits them out, media people can be hot and then, suddenly, not --particularly women who reach a certain age and are supplanted by younger rivals.

As the daughter of Zbigniew Brzezinski, who served as Jimmy Carter's national security adviser, she found her name to be a mixed blessing. For years, she says, "people made fun of me and assumed doors were opened because of my last name. In some cases it was true and in others it wasn't. I had to triple-prove myself and compensate for inbred resentment in newsrooms."

The move to radio seems a bit much, given that Brzezinski gets up at 3:30 a.m. for her three-hour stint, starting at 6, on "Morning Joe." Now the two move on to a separate New York studio for another two hours of blabbing at 10 a.m.

"We feel we've just got more to say," Brzezinski explains. "We're either at each other's throats or getting completely fired up." Even before the radio show launched two weeks ago, "we have not gone a day without continuing the conversation, sometimes on the phone, sometimes still fighting."

On Thursday they are dueling in a Washington studio, the morning dominated by a 5 a.m. incident in which the rail-thin Brzezinski was mugged by a man demanding money outside a Ritz-Carlton. Brzezinski had asked Scarborough not to talk about it, and she seems mortified when he returns to the subject again and again, ripping her for expressing sympathy for the robber -- whom she gave all of $6.

"This left-wing attitude of yours. . . . Isn't Mika responsible not only for her mugging, but for the mugging of everyone?" he asks one caller.

During a break, her father calls her cell. "I'm fine -- I'm on the radio. It's no big deal . . ."

"It's a huge deal, Doctor Brzezinski!" Scarborough shouts.

"Do not freak him out," she pleads.

There is a bit of old-married-couple slapstick in their act. He declares that "you are boring me." She punches him in the arm for calling her a "Marxist." She texts friends while he is talking, sometimes sharing gripes with Scarborough's wife, Susan. Brzezinski shakes her head and rolls her eyes, saying things like "stop it," "you're crazy" and "you're just absolutely sick." It's all part of the routine.

"She finds herself playing the straight man a lot of the time," Scarborough admits. But at times, he says, "she does stick it to me. You stick a needle in the balloon and let the air out and people love that."

Citadel Broadcasting, which debuted the show on its New York station, WABC, and will carry it on KABC in Los Angeles next month, is looking for other syndication deals. Washington's Citadel station, WMAL, is sticking with its Chris Plante show, so the company is hoping to sign up another station.

Several television hosts -- Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, Lou Dobbs, Rachel Maddow -- are successfully juggling radio shows. Bill O'Reilly recently dropped his radio gig, saying he was stretched too thin.

Brzezinski finds radio "more intimate" than television. She takes off her makeup and shows up in a T-shirt, jeans and scarf.

When "Morning Joe" began last year, after the controversy that knocked Don Imus off MSNBC, Brzezinski was installed -- at Scarborough's insistence -- as the news reader. She was uncertain how much banter she could engage in and still be viewed as fair.

The turning point came when Brzezinski refused to read a report about Paris Hilton -- "I hate this story," she declared -- setting a lighter to the script, ripping it up and putting it in a paper shredder. That was her YouTube moment, one that has been viewed 3.8 million times, and the reaction was overwhelming. A shtick -- and a co-host -- were born.

While their sparring clearly puts Brzezinski to the left of Scarborough, a onetime GOP lawmaker from Pensacola, Fla., she tries to resist being typecast as a liberal. She demurred when John McCain, during a September appearance, called her a "supporter" of Barack Obama. Brzezinski likes to point out that one of her brothers provided foreign policy advice to the McCain campaign and the other to the Obama team.

When Brzezinski was a teenager, her father would take her along when he was interviewed on such programs as "Today" and "Nightline." It was then that she decided she wanted to be a television reporter. While attending Washington's Madeira School, she and a friend started the "Mika and Melissa Show," which aired on a cable-access channel.

At 15 she tagged along when her father, by then out of office, met secretly in Tunisia with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, an encounter she remembers mainly for "being surrounded by men with guns."

The elder Brzezinski, a native of Poland, is not surprised by his daughter's newly combative role. "It reminded me a little bit of dinners we used to have at home, where she got her training," he says. "Her brothers were dominating. She had to fight, and she had to have something to say."

After serving as an intern at Washington's WUSA and WRC, Brzezinski launched her career at the Fox affiliate in Hartford, Conn., where she met her future husband, television reporter James Hoffer. Brzezinski joined CBS in 1997, left to briefly co-anchor an MSNBC afternoon show with Ashleigh Banfield, and then returned to CBS, where she broadcast live from Ground Zero on the day of the 9/11 attacks. Five years later, she had a fat new contract to take over the Sunday night news and contribute to "60 Minutes," and made a demo tape as part of a possible new anchor team. But she and other correspondents were dropped after a new management team hired Katie Couric for the anchor job.

Feeling "sort of battered" after a year of job hunting, Brzezinski took a freelance job at MSNBC that consisted of doing four 30-second news cut-ins every evening. She spent much of the time talking by phone with her daughters, now 10 and 12, at their home in New York's Westchester County, discussing homework or listening to them play piano. Ten seconds before air time, she would put down the phone, read the headlines and say, "Now back to 'Scarborough Country,' " lowering her voice to make the title sound ironic.

When Scarborough, who was based in Florida, came to the Secaucus, N.J., studio to try out for the morning slot, he asked Brzezinski if she was poking fun at the program. "I can't make fun of your show because I've never seen the show," she replied. But as they talked, something clicked.

"I could tell she was not a talking head," Scarborough says. "She wasn't like anyone I'd met in television news. She didn't take herself too seriously and was obviously very quick on her feet."

Scarborough called MSNBC boss Phil Griffin and said he wanted Brzezinski on the morning show. But there was resistance. Management wanted either a traditional newsman or a young news reader. "Nobody saw it," Scarborough says.

He kept pushing, and Brzezinski got her tryout. As the presidential election unfolded, "Morning Joe" gained traction as a kind of political salon, with long segments built around pundits and campaign aides. "No cooking, no lingerie, no missing girls," Brzezinski boasts.

One occasional guest was her dad, who had endorsed Obama. "I think she felt a little awkward about it," the former White House adviser says. "I once corrected something she said about me, and she said, 'Oh, here I am, 10 years old again.' "

Obama Adulation Watch

"You could call it 'Obamalot.' . . . Barack and Michelle Obama bear superficial similarities to John and Jacqueline Kennedy of the 1960s 'Camelot' White House -- charisma, vigor, her fondness for sheath dresses, for instance." -- Thursday's USA Today.

On the Blago front: My favorite three minutes of political theater of the year. Pay-Rod rips politicians who communicate in sound bites, then delivers a series of empty sound bites -- along with a Rudyard Kipling poem. Chicago Sun-Times columnist Mark Brown finds the performance all too typical:

"Meet our governor, the idiot savant. He can memorize the poem, but probably doesn't understand its meaning . . .

"The truth? He hasn't come to grips with it yet.

"I submit to you, though, that when Blagojevich says he's done nothing wrong, he absolutely believes that.

"It's not as if he's lying -- to anybody other than himself.

"Those who have watched him over the last few years know the governor is entirely capable of creating an alternate reality for himself, one in which everything is going to turn out right if he just keeps smiling and denying."

Chicago Tribune columnist John Kass says Blagojevich was sending a signal:

"You've heard of 'Dead Man Walking'?

"That was Dead Meat talking to the nation on Friday, letting America -- and the Beltway media that have willfully ignored political corruption in Illinois -- know just how low our politicians will crawl . . .

"The governor's message? Better make me a good offer, boys, and be quick, or this bucket I'm lugging will spill and everybody will get their loafers wet."

Meanwhile, George Stephanopoulos says Obama's internal review has cleared Rahm, who is George's former White House buddy, of saying anything untoward.

Blago isn't the only bleeper around. From "Fox News Sunday":

CHRIS WALLACE: Did you really tell Senator Leahy, bleep yourself?

DICK CHENEY: I did.

WALLACE: Any qualms, or second thoughts, or embarrassment?

CHENEY: No, I thought he merited it at the time. (Laughter.) And we've since, I think, patched over that wound and we're civil to one another now.

Bill Kristol is impressed: "No spin. No doubletalk. A cogent defense of his action -- and one that shows a well-considered sense of justice. ('I thought he merited it.')"

Why do I imagine some commenters using Cheney-like language against Kristol?

I'm surprised I haven't gotten an exit interview with Bush, given how many he's doing. Here's the latest one, with the Washington Times:

"Declaring Barack Obama's election a 'very hopeful moment for race relations,' President Bush asserts his own administration did much to empower minorities, calling the No Child Left Behind education law "a piece of civil rights legislation" and saying his call to overhaul Social Security was aimed at giving blacks a greater stake in the nation's future."

Wouldn't it also have given whites a greater stake in the nation's future? That is, if it had so much as gotten out of a congressional committee?

The inaugural preacher controversy is still bouncing around, and Joe Klein has some thoughts:

"I am not a big fan of Rick Warren's. He thinks I'm going to hell. He said so in mixed company, at an Aspen Institute forum. He was asked if Jews were going to hell. He said yes. He can go ahead and feed every poor child in Africa and I'm still going to think he's a fool for believing that. Reverend Rick is also not too big on gay or women's rights . . .

"But . . .

"I have no problem with Barack Obama asking Reverend Rick to deliver a prayer at the Inauguration. It will have zero -- repeat, zero -- impact on the policies of the Obama Administration. And it may do some good, especially if it gives pause to all those people who think that I -- and the crypto-Muslim Barack Obama -- are going to hell."

At Secular Right, Heather MacDonald says Warren's critics are "overreacting":

"Too bad Rick Warren isn't so open-minded. After his over-hyped and intrusive interviews of Obama and John McCain this last August, the best-selling author of A Purpose-Driven Life disclosed to his congregation at Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Ca., the one kind of person he couldn't vote for. 'I could not vote for an atheist because an atheist says, "I don't need God," ' Warren preached, according to the Los Angeles Times. 'They're saying, "I'm totally self-sufficient by [myself].' And nobody is self-sufficient to be president by themselves. It's too big a job." '

"It's hard to decide which is more laughable: Warren's conception of the presidency or of atheists."

The Caroline contretemps is still going strong, with the NYT finding that many people under 50 aren't quite sure which Kennedy she is. Andrew Sullivan is so exercised that he says something nice about Palin:

"In fact, Sarah Palin was more qualified to be vice-president than Caroline Kennedy is to be a Senator. Both are celebrities, but Palin made her own way herself, winning election as mayor and governor without the kind of raw nepotism now on display in New York State. The model now, of course, is similar -- finding a way to get elected without actually exposing your inadequacies. Hence the press shutdown. But Kennedy's self-defense is even more painful than Palin's:

"I just hope everybody understands that it is not a campaign but that I have a lifelong devotion to public service," Ms. Kennedy said as she left the office of the Monroe County Democratic Committee in Rochester. "I've written books on the Constitution and the importance of individual participation. And I've raised my family."

"Good for you. But so have millions of others. And why do you get to parachute in to the Senate? Who do you think you are, a Clinton?"

At National Review, Rich Lowry indicts the Democrats:

"We might be witnessing the most brazen bout of cronyism since Napoleon made his relatives and minions rulers of conquered Europe. Or at least since the Kennedy family arranged in 1960 to have John Kennedy's pliable Harvard roommate keep his Massachusetts Senate seat warm until Ted turned 30 and could inherit -- er, get elected to -- it. If the recent Senate maneuverings are any indication, the 'new politics' of the Obama Democrats is convenient cover while they take care of their own as the powerful have always done down through the ages."

Funny, he never gets around to mentioning George W., son of George H.W., in his anti-dynasty argument.

Finally, the Obama criticism that no one else has dared make, courtesy of Matthew Yglesias:

"It seems Barack Obama is giving us a cabinet with no Jewish members. Plenty of Jews in non-cabinet top spots (Axelrod, Summers, Orszag) so I guess we'll have to just run things from behind the scenes."

He doesn't even mention Rahm.

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