Dylan Ratigan: Revenge of the Cable Guy
Credit: Photograph by Chris McPherson

Ratigan's most epic meltdown came on August 9, 2011. It was a typical day on the 'Dylan Ratigan Show,' with a panel of three talking heads each there to deliver and defend their party line. Ratigan got a steady head of exasperation, which carried him out of the realm of cable news shouting and to a place of centrist outrage, to the source of congressional gridlock, campaign contributions, and why the U.S. had $70 trillion in debt. "I've been coming on TV for three years," he spews, "and the fact of the matter is, there's a refusal on both the Democratic and Republican side of the aisle to acknowledge the mathematical problem, which is that the United States of America is being extracted – it's being extracted through banking, it's being extracted through trade, it's being extracted through taxation – and there's not a single politician that has stepped forward to deal with this."

He finished the show and walked off the set and into the dressing room, where his longtime mentor, producer Steve Friedman, a godfather of MSNBC, sidled up to his chair and shoved his hands in his pockets. "Probably not going to do that again, eh?" Friedman said.

"Yeah, probably not." Ratigan told him. "And that was the only conversation I ever had with management."

The rant went viral and put Ratigan on the radar of anyone with a growing sense of despair over where the country was going. But in his mind, Ratigan was already gone.

The next day, he and Spees fled to Sag Harbor to keep writing. Exasperated, he told his friend: "There's no fucking way I can keep doing this fucking job." He decided that he wouldn't be renewing his contract later that year after all. So he finished the book, fired his agent, and worked the next eight months until his contract ran out. Then he packed up his stuff and headed to Spees' house on the Vermont side of Lake Champlain to standup paddle and figure out what to do next.

A few days after the informal future-city get-together in Santa Barbara, Ratigan is in the greenroom of the New York studios of 'The View,' gesticulating under a sign that reads: Please use your indoor voice. If Ratigan possesses such a voice, he's not using it as he holds up his iPhone to a producer he's buttonholed. "Do you wanna see the city of the future?" he asks. The guy pulls down his headset and listens as Ratigan, pale-gray pinstriped suit jacket flapping, a bright-tangerine tie loosened to half mast, launches into his pitch. "It's all about circles," he begins, but he's cut off by one of the production assistants.

Shhhhh. It's a couple of days before Thanksgiving, and he's come on 'The View' to talk up the creation of a portal where returning veterans can connect with job opportunities. Huddled on one couch is a couple whose first date was a three-week trip to Europe, which they blogged enough about to get them on 'The View'; on another is the blond assistant of Dan Abrams – whose own MSNBC show was bumped for Rachel Maddow's in 2008 and who's filling in for Whoopi Goldberg – talking about his 18-month-old son and the time he touched Donny Wahlberg's ass.

"The problem with television," Ratigan says, as he signs the paperwork for a $524 appearance fee, "is it attracts people who just want to be on TV."

In walks Abrams, looking lean and tidy, spray-on scruff beneath salt-and-pepper hair. He's just looking up from sipping his tea when Ratigan pounces. The former colleagues exchange the usual niceties, then Abrams asks: "So, tell me, what are you up to?" Funny you should ask, Dan. I'm actually busting my ass, basically living out of my car, using every resource and connection I have to gain some traction on big, unwieldy, improbable ideas like connecting thousands of veterans with jobs they wouldn't otherwise know existed, replicating a low-energy hydroponic agricultural program to grow kale and arugula and beefsteak tomatoes using a fraction of the water of traditional methods, and promoting this self-sustaining city so that one day we won't go broke sending young men to kick down doors in foreign countries so we can heat our McMansions and tool around in our SUVs. How 'bout you, Dan?

Instead, he just shows him the city model on his phone and takes him through the main points. "That's very cool," Abrams says, sipping his tea and almost imperceptibly backing away. "Very cool."

After Ratigan does his segment, the proselytizing continues. Milling around are Jenny McCarthy, Sherri Sheperd, and Barbara Walters, and yet it's Ratigan who's generating all the heat. "Everyone loves the city-of-the-future idea," he announces. He says Barbara Walters gets it entirely, and gets him, too: "She said to me, Dylan, most people who do this, who come on TV, they don't care. But you actually care." Ratigan stands in the hall outside his dressing room, arms raised in triumph. "City of the future, baby!" he calls out. "It's on. We just need the Department of Defense to hook it up."

Ratigan is no less effusive inside the dressing room. He's waving his arms, his banker's suit still flapping around. I try to nail him down on a clear turning point when he stopped being Dylan Ratigan and started being a guy who thought he could change the world, but he says the process was messier and more gradual than that.

Then a few minutes later, he mentions meeting Marines who'd been stuck in Fallujah for months under almost constant fire, and comparing the risks they took every day to anything he stood to lose as a TV personality. "Considering the risks those guys took," Ratigan says, "if I don't take risks at this point in my life, what kind of person am I?"