The Middle Man: a Q&A with Joe Scarborough

 Courtesy MSNBC

Nine o’clock on a recent Thursday morning: Joe Scarborough, the former Republican congressman from Florida and current MSNBC talk-show host – a kind of fox in the henhouse of the left-leaning cable network – has just finished taping ‘Morning Joe‘ and is ready to begin the second part of his workday, the eight hours or so he devotes to lining up guests and planning the next day’s show. In the hallway, there’s one of those now ubiquitous posters that read “keep calm and carry on.” Scarborough says it’s his motto, though he doesn’t keep to it all the time. Inside his office, Mika Brzezinski, his blond, hardly dumb co-host, sits at his spacious desk, pecking away at a keyboard. On the show, she plays the liberal to Scarborough’s conservative, the straight ­woman to his maverick. She keeps the peace offscreen, too. “Mika’s a lot better at reaching out to people than I am – and just better with people in general,” says Scarborough. “When I was in Congress, lobbyists would come in to talk, and I’d just point them to my chief of staff. Pretty soon they figured out they’d rather talk to him anyway.”

Like most cable-TV hosts, Scarborough can come across as offhanded and brusque. But with Morning Joe, which replaced Don Imus‘s show five years ago, he’s also managed to create the most intelligent, thoughtful morning political show in the country. At 48, with round tortoiseshell glasses, a preference for collared shirts without a tie, and a preppy haircut, Scarborough’s persona resembles that of a Beatles-obsessed boarding­-school kid who spends class time snickering with his friends in the back row but somehow aces every test without studying. These days, though, it feels as if he does little besides work. “Last night I got five hours of sleep,” he says. “I try to get in bed by nine, but a lot of times, that slips to 10:30. Unfortunately, my eight-year-old girl is a late-night person, and so is my wife.”

You’ve been very critical of the Republican candidates. The New York primaries are in April. Who are you going to vote for?
If things don’t change pretty soon, I may have to vote for Ron Paul in protest. Sometimes he wanders off the reservation and you wonder where he’s going, but big picture, he’s for small government and less wars, and those are two potent campaign planks that will lead us in the right direction.

How is your relationship with Newt Gingrich now?
It is an ever-changing relationship.

Not really. I’ve been very critical of Newt when he’s compared bland bureaucrats to Joseph Stalin, and I’m not saying Kathleen Sebelius is bland, but a former Kansas governor doesn’t strike me as being capable of systematically massacring 35 million people. If you just sit there and listen to Newt for 60 minutes, for 59 of them you think, “This is a really smart, forward-thinking guy.” And in the last minute, he’ll set himself on fire.

What does he think about you?
He said a couple of months ago that he once considered me his friend. I’m not sure when he considered me his friend – maybe in 1997 when a group of us tried to overthrow him and run him out of town, or maybe 1998 when we actually succeeded in doing so.

Why do you think the primary field this year has been full of such loonies?
The 24-7 culture has given them a lot more oxygen, but I don’t think it’s that different from a lot of other years. Despite what you might read in the national media, at the end of the day, Republicans never vote crazy. They just don’t. Every four years, kooky candidates come out, and then Republicans pick someone like John McCain, Gerald Ford, or Bob Dole. Politically, Nixon was a moderate. The process usually ends in the middle, even though it starts way out to the right.

Which world is more competitive and ego-driven, Congress or broadcast news?
Everyone’s a lot crazier in TV than they are in politics. In politics, you go out, you knock on doors, you raise money, do the basic blocking and tackling, and if you do it right, you have a really good chance of getting re-elected. In TV, to quote the famous old movie-biz line, “nobody knows anything.” No one has any idea why certain shows get better ratings than other shows, and it drives most people absolutely crazy. So the level of fear and loathing in television is much higher than it is in politics. In TV, the people who are actually reporting on the politicians are far crazier than the actual politicians they try to say are crazy every day.

Do you feel that more serious candidates, like Chris Christie, aren’t running because they know they can’t win against Obama?
No, I think they are very concerned, and rightfully so, about the crazed political culture out there. Jeb Bush, if he jumped out, would win the nomination in a walk, and he’d probably be president of the United States, but he’s thinking, “Do I want to put myself through this?” I know Jeb, and Jeb’s people wonder if the Republican Party has changed too much. In 1998, when Jeb ran, he was considered a right-wing, small-government conservative, and by 2011 standards, he’s a moderate, which is an absolute joke.

When you were a congressman, you were among a group of Republicans who bid to impeach President Clinton in 1998.
You know, this year I went to the Clinton Global Initiative, and there we were, talking about the good old days – how Clinton and I worked together, balanced the budget, passed welfare reform. Later, David Axelrod e-mailed me: “Hey, wait a second, didn’t you guys impeach him?” I said, “David, it was the nineties. It seemed like the thing to do at the time.” I just don’t go there anymore. I don’t debate the start of the Iraq War, and I don’t debate impeachment. I think a lot of Republicans wish that they had one back.

In one of your books, ‘Rome Wasn’t Burnt in a Day’, you put much of the blame for our current woes at the feet of President George W. Bush. Do you feel as negative about him today as you did when he was in office?
It’s easier for me to say I like him now. He’s a nice guy when you meet him personally. I just think his eight years as president were disastrous: disastrous for the conservative movement, disastrous for the Republican Party, disastrous for America. But you know this if you read the book – though I have to say, reading it is probably a lot like watching C-Span. “Honey, I can’t sleep. Well, let’s read Rome Wasn’t Burnt in a Day again,” and half a page in, you’ll be down.

Do you think he did anything right?
Look, even though I was discouraged by his foreign policy – and Obama’s, in [nearly] tripling the number of troops in Afghanistan and launching drone attacks all over the world, dropping bombs everywhere – I understand that there’s been success. There’s just no doubt that if Al Qaeda leadership could get their hands on a dirty bomb or chemical weaponry or biological weaponry and put it in the middle of Manhattan’s water supply or Times Square, they would do it in a second, and they haven’t been able to. Obama and Bush together will be remembered, a lot more closely than Obama’s supporters will like, as the two presidents that gutted Al Qaeda.

So what’s the answer to these wars?
It’s time to end them. We’re spending $2 billion a week in Afghanistan. I have a great idea – let’s spend $2 billion a week building infrastructure, improving America’s broadband capabilities, building roads and bridges, investing in R&D, doing the types of things Dwight Eisenhower did in the late 1950s that caused the economy to explode over the next 20 years. Are we going to invest in Afghanistan, where you blow buildings up and rebuild them, or are we going to invest in America?

Why do you think Obama hasn’t done that for the most part?
Despite Republicans calling him a Marxist or a Nazi or a radical, I think he’s just moderate in all the wrong ways. He’s not a big thinker – he governs by a hodgepodge, the opposite of FDR and Reagan, who had big ideas and pursued them vigorously. If the president had decided instead to use the moment that he got the stimulus to rebuild infrastructure, to try to build a power grid, a grain power grid, he could have transformed our economy like China’s transforming its economy every day.

You’ve said that you left Congress because your sons, particularly the one who has diabetes and Asperger’s syndrome, needed the influence of their father in Florida. You’ve since remarried and have two more children. How is your family now?
My kids have changed my life in every way. There’s an old saying that you’re always only as happy as your saddest kid, and I think that’s true. I have a checklist of the different kids in my mind: How’s kid number one? He’s good today. That’s great, but what about two and three and four? The truth is that my oldest is 23, my youngest is three, and I worry just as much about the 23-year-old as I do the three-year-old.

Do your kids listen to the Beatles, or do they want to listen to pop and Justin Bieber?
I’ve indoctrinated my eight-year-old daughter, Kate, into the Beatles. The other night, at a restaurant, she recognized “Martha My Dear” on the stereo. I thought, “My eight-year-old girl recognized songs from the White Album – that’s pretty cool. I’ve done my job.” In return, I will gladly listen and sing along to Katy Perry. Unfortunately, as a dad, I have to deal with the fact that every song that she sings encourages 13-year-old girls to take their clothes off and streak and have sex or whatever. I guess you can talk about getting laid every 15 minutes as long as you have a Jesus tattoo, right?

Your parents ran beauty pageants for a while in Florida, and you worked the mic. What was that like?
It wasn’t like working in the coal mines, but I’d get bored to death. I’d mix things up every once in a while. One girl’s hobby was that she collected pigs. So I said, “And her hobby is collecting pigs. How exciting. She brought one with her tonight to escort her.” And it happened to be her father, who was very insulted. [He laughs.] I’m laughing at my own dumb jokes 30 years later – it’s so pathetic.

Do you think you’ll run for office again?
Probably not for a while. My wife says no. We’ll see. And Mika has absolutely no interest in finding another co-host. So I have two forces pulling me against that. This year, I’m looking forward to the production company I’m starting with Mika. I’m also going to start recording my songs. I have a studio at home and an Internet connection, so distribution is not the challenge it was when I was a kid trying to get a record contract. I’ve got about 300 songs. They’re in the mode of the New Pornographers and Stars: alt pop/rock, pretty melodious. I’ve got some political songs, but it’s not right-wing rock. I have a song called “Contract with Bulgaria” that could be adopted by Occupy Wall Street: “We can’t change the world, we can’t change the world, but baby’s life is rich, at least it will change our market share.”

What are your short-term goals then?
I grew up playing sports, and I played football, basketball, and baseball in high school, but I’ve had back surgery, a double lamin­ectomy, and it’s taken me a couple of years to get back in an upright position again. So my New Year’s resolution was to get in shape. Pensacola has something called the McGuire’s St. Patrick’s Day Run, and my goal is to be running 5-K by St. Patrick’s Day.

What would you do about reviving the economy if you were still a congressman today?
If we scaled back our war efforts, if we cut down Pentagon spending, if we slowed down the rate of growth for Medicare and Social Security, and told people who are 50 and younger “You’re going to be getting your Medicare when you’re 70” – we’d send a message to the markets that the United States is serious about taking care of our obligations, that we’re not going to be Italy or Greece. That would actually cause investment to flood into the United States, and we’d be the safe haven in a chaotic world right now. Then we could focus on reinvesting in the economy, which we’re not doing right now. The federal government has basically turned into a big health-insurance company.

When do you think the country might turn around?
I think we’re going to be in a holding pattern through the next election, and we’ll just have to see after 2012. But I’m very optimistic in the long term. It’s like Bismarck said, “There’s a special providence that protects fools, drunkards, and the United States of America.” We always win in the end, America. There’s always a happy ending.