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It already seems like an age ago, but on March 5—the morning after Hillary Clinton sailed over the bar the media had set for her, winning the popular vote in Ohio, Texas, and Rhode Island—the New York senator was joking with Joe Scarborough on MSNBC. In that heady moment, Clinton was asked if she would consider Barack Obama as a running mate, and she instead offered the vice presidency to the former four-term Republican congressman himself. Scarborough flirted and demurred, but the moment was precious—after all, the politician-turned-TV-pundit had spent the first month and a half of primary season beating Clinton up as badly as any of his more liberal sidekicks at MSNBC or his competing conservative commentators elsewhere.
Though Scarborough's ratings can't compare with network behemoths like Today, Clinton's visit to Morning Joe appeared to bolster MSNBC's claim that it has become "the place for politics"—at least for the slice of Democrats captivated by this presidential contest. She made the pilgrimage even though Scarborough had pummeled Clinton while boosting Obama throughout the early primary season, mirroring the strategy of GOP partisans like Rush Limbaugh (who gave Scarborough's 2004 memoir a blurb quote) and Bob Novak, a much-praised Scarborough favorite. (See "Hillary and the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy," March 11.)
Scarborough had been following that game plan in a place where the message might be heard loudest by Democrats—a network that was experiencing a 400 percent boost in its under-35 fan base, a 46 percent overall rating rise, and several two-million-viewer nights, particularly when Evening Joe was wearing his other hat and leading MSNBC panel discussions analyzing debates and election returns. With Fox so thoroughly associated with the GOP, and CNN trying so hard to appear "balanced," upstart MSNBC has become the cable network for Democratic voters by default and, like many of the Democrats themselves, was tilting toward Obama very early.
Despite Clinton's recent wins, Scarborough's fellow MSNBCers have kept up their bruising treatment of her. Chris Matthews started things off with a roundhouse blow in January, when he said that she had become a senator and had a shot at the presidency only because of her husband's infidelities. More recently, Matthews has been beating the drum for Clinton's withdrawal as if it has become of a test of her honor. Even the network's usually most detached reporter, David Shuster, got into the Clinton-bashing when he wondered aloud whether the Clintons were "pimping out" daughter Chelsea, costing him a two-week suspension. Tucker Carlson declared that he found Hillary so "castrating" that he "involuntarily" crossed his legs whenever she came on TV, a reflex that neatly contrasted with the "thrill" that Matthews said he felt creeping up his leg whenever Obama spoke.
Meanwhile, Keith Olbermann (who, it must be pointed out, occasionally invites this writer on his show) tried for months to stay above the scrum, but lately has been taking on Hillary night after night—never trash-talking like his teammates, but eventually deriding Hillary in one of the "Special Comment" editorials he'd previously saved for acts of war and official treachery.
Yet as punishing as each of these voices has been, it's Scarborough—the man for all time slots—whose partisan background makes his Clinton hatred worth examining more closely. The six-foot-four, 220-pound ex-quarterback is so versatile that he has replaced, years apart, both Phil Donahue and Don Imus in the network's lineup. When he was hired in 2003, the network positioned him as its prime-time conservative counterpoint to Fox, but now he's MSNBC's morning table-setter and election-night leader. It was on Morning Joe that Chris Matthews delivered his comment that Hillary's political career was merely a result of her husband's betrayal. (Scarborough later proclaimed the outcry that resulted in Matthews's coerced apology for that remark "outrageous.") And it was on Joe's show that Shuster had to make his own mea culpa. But Joe himself landed a telling uppercut in January: He declared that the Clintons were "at war against African-Americans, and now they are at war against the Democratic Party."
The only other time that Scarborough played a role in MSNBC's presidential coverage, in 2004, he praised John Kerry's early debate performance while a member—not the leader—of its post-debate panels. But he subsequently boasted that he was "the first political commentator to call this race for Bush following the third presidential debate." Meanwhile, in a single month he devoted parts of 16 shows to the so-called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and their attacks against Kerry.
When he's challenged about his biases, Scarborough is quick to whip out an e-mail he received from Clinton campaign mouthpiece Howard Wolfson: "If everyone at your network were as fair," wrote Wolfson, "we would all be better off." But Scarborough's "fairness" is of recent vintage.
Ironically, the person who has confronted Scarborough on his biases most publicly is one of his own guests, Craig Crawford. On one show with Scarborough and Mike Barnicle, another MSNBC regular, after Scarborough blasted Bill Clinton as divisive, Crawford said: "I really think the evidence-free bias against the Clintons in the media borders on mental illness. We've gotten into a situation where if we try to be fair to the Clintons, if you try to say, 'Well, where's the evidence of racism in the Clinton campaign?', you're accused of being a naïve shill for the Clintons." Crawford, who was hired as the network's first outside contributor 11 years ago, went on to call out Scarborough and Barnicle personally, saying: "You guys make Clinton stronger with this bashing."