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.”
A couple of days later, Scarborough blasted Crawford as “the only human being on the face of the earth” who didn’t believe Bill Clinton’s comments weren’t “inappropriate,” depicting Crawford as “eating glazed doughnuts” with Bubba. “You’re setting up Democrats here,” Crawford tellingly responded. “You’re propping up Barack Obama.” Crawford’s MSNBC appearances then dropped from 19 in January to four each in February and March, a decline that he partially attributed in a Voice interview to ankle surgery, though he had the surgery almost two weeks before his blowout with Scarborough. “There could be other things going on,” he acknowledged. Scarborough, for his part, alluded to a possible fee dispute, but Crawford said that he and the network had signed a new contract at the start of the year.
With Crawford seemingly on a short leash at the network, Scarborough has pushed on as the engaging man of balance, moving easily from a guitar performance with Mike Huckabee at an Iowa campaign rally to gushing over Obama’s “incredible inspiration.”
While he’s largely dropped the Limbaugh-inspired acidity that he was hired to bring in his early days at the network, and has increasingly cultivated an image as MSNBC’s morning-and-night centrist master of ceremonies, Scarborough has a remarkably partisan past that is steeped in deep Clinton hatred. And unlike his conservative colleagues at Fox and CNN, his message reaches far deeper into a party still considering a Clinton. It’s the network’s liberal image that camouflages Scarborough and allows him to influence an audience that he wouldn’t ordinarily reach at all.
“It’s funny,” he tells the Voice, “because I never get a Republican saying they’ve watched me. It’s actually Democrats who are coming up to me and saying they watch me.”
By his own account, 29-year-old Joe Scarborough changed his registration from Democrat to Republican right after Bill Clinton won in 1992, and was elected two years later to represent the “Redneck Riviera” of Florida’s panhandle, where his first MSNBC program, Scarborough Country, originated.
A Baptist who eschewed the mostly black public schools of Pensacola for a mostly white Catholic education for himself and his sons, Scarborough can race-bait the Clintons today, knowing that few remember his congressional efforts, for example, to urge the IRS to strip the NAACP of its tax-exempt status.
Many viewers block out—or simply don’t know much about—a résumé so partisan that top Republican leaders tried to recruit Scarborough to run against Democrat Bill Nelson in Florida in 2006. Senator Elizabeth Dole, chair of the Senate Republican campaign committee, flew to New York to try and convince him to run. Had Katherine Harris (of recount fame) deferred to him instead of insisting on running and losing, Scarborough—who now owns an $8 million home and a 32-foot Sea Ray called Genevieve in Pensacola—might have single-handedly kept the Senate in Republican hands. In 2004, MSNBC allowed him to appear—in the middle of a presidential campaign he was covering—at the side of George W. Bush and John McCain at a rally in Pensacola, where the president singled out Scarborough, his wife, and his daughter to cheers. “I appreciate Joe Scarborough,” Bush declared. “I’m glad to know he’s still standing and making a living.”
He then hosted a “Faces of Victory” panel for the Florida Republican Party during the inaugural celebration in Washington in 2005.
Scarborough’s wife, Susan, was one of the regional co-chairs of Women for Charlie Crist in the 2006 gubernatorial campaign and did Jeb Bush’s scheduling in 1999 and 2000. (She worked for Bush before marrying Scarborough, but after he had separated from his first wife.) Joe also remains involved in Pensacola politics, managing the 2007 Republican primary campaign of his brother George for the state legislature. George Scarborough’s campaign literature featured the endorsement of Jeb Bush, whom Joe called “a future president” in a local interview that year. Joe was so close to Jeb that he raised half a million dollars for him in 1998, by his own count, and then traveled to Austin a year later with a group of Jeb Bush donors to meet George W. Bush for the first time. That visit put him at the forefront of the 2000 Bush campaign in Florida—including his leading a raucous rally in Pensacola during the recount battle.
When George Scarborough narrowly lost the primary election, Joe attributed it to “a negative mailer filled with out-and-out lies” by an ally of the GOP winner, Clay Ford. “It’s indefensible to attack my family,” Joe told a local paper just a year ago. “You can tell he learned his politics from Bill Clinton”—a deeply personal indication that Scarborough still uses the former president as a low-water mark in the sewer of politics. Asked by the Voice about the quote, Scarborough says: “I didn’t just pull Bill Clinton’s name out of the air. Ford served in the Arkansas legislature when Clinton was governor.” (Ford did serve a term in the Arkansas House, but it was two years before Clinton became governor.)
Scarborough’s disdain for Bill Clinton has actually been the single constant in his political life. According to his own memoir, when Scarborough started as an unknown, running for Congress in 1993, people were slamming doors in his face until he learned to quickly mutter the word “Clinton.” Once he did, doors “flew open again,” he wrote, “and the newly engaged Scarborough supporter said, ‘I hate the bastard. Gimme your card.’ Just like that, a new political marketing strategy was born.”
Craig Crawford, who is a former Orlando Sentinel reporter, says he met Scarborough at this time and had been told that Republicans called him “our Bill Clinton”—a reference to Scarborough’s engaging Southern style, not his politics.
Once Scarborough was in Washington and began doing the talk-show circuit blasting Clinton, a White House aide bumped into him on Capitol Hill and told him that the president hated his guts—a feeling he described as “mutual” in his book. “I can’t even look at the man’s face on TV,” Scarborough told his staff. The ever-flexible Scarborough now likes to say that he’s “spent the past five or six years second-guessing myself on whether I was unfair to Bill Clinton in the 1990s, why he bothered me the way he did,” and insists that he “tries to be positive” about him. He says that he voted for only two of the four impeachment counts against Clinton while in Congress, though he made regular appearances on the talk-show circuit, including Fox News’ Hannity & Colmes, to condemn the then president.
Pressed about his continued contempt for Clinton, Scarborough shifts to claiming how much he likes Hillary. But confronted with one of his January quotes—when he called her “disoriented” for “saying Martin Luther King wasn’t responsible for the Civil Rights Act”—he smiles, acknowledging the distortion of her words, and says: “You got me there.” In fact, he often lumps Bill and Hillary together—as in “the Clintons want the issue to be race”—just like many other commentators do.
But he also tries to hide his baggage of bias, refashioning himself as a good ol’ boy who has seen the light, a source of reasonable and open exchange. He tells the Voice that he’s even leaving Scarborough Country, moving his wife and family to New York, where he’s been spending most of his time since he signed a new MSNBC contract and launched the morning show in 2007. He’s selling his Pensacola home, but “will always” maintain a residence there.
His divergent worlds, however, do have a way of colliding. He is a favorite of the Media Research Center, a right-wing news monitor that gives “Dishonor Awards” to mainstream and liberal journalists at its annual fundraising gala in Washington. Scarborough was listed on the 2007 program, along with Ann Coulter and Sean Hannity, as a presenter of one its five major mock awards—although so was Keith Olbermann, who was a finalist for three of them, including the “God, I Hate America Award.” (Olbermann was nominated for his extraordinary commentary from Ground Zero on the fifth anniversary of September 11, when he charged Bush with forgetting “who left this hole in the ground”—an assertion the MRC gang apparently thought worthy of a joke prize.)
Scarborough went to the Grand Hyatt cocktail party that year, but he slipped out before the awards. It’s impossible to tell if he engineered that compromise out of respect for Olbermann or for Bill Maher, whose HBO show he frequently appears on. Maher was a finalist for the award Scarborough was scheduled to present: the “I’m Not a Political Genius But I Play One on TV Award.” But while Scarborough didn’t appear on the MRC stage in 2007, he did present the “Baghdad Bob Award for Parroting Enemy Propaganda” to Diane Sawyer in 2004. (Jeane Kirkpatrick accepted it for her.) Scarborough has also periodically entertained MRC guests on his MSNBC shows.
Al Sharpton is another Scarborough contradiction. Joe now calls Sharpton a “friend,” adding that he recently went to a Sharpton conference and participated in a media panel. But in 2000, Scarborough did precisely what he has repeatedly accused the Clintons of doing this year—race-baiting, as Bill Clinton supposedly did in South Carolina this year by comparing Obama’s campaign to Jesse Jackson’s—when he attempted to link Al Gore to Sharpton, simply because Gore went to a Sharpton event at the Apollo. Scarborough also introduced a resolution in the House condemning Sharpton. He called Gore “an Al Sharpton Democrat,” assailing him for “continuing to embrace the most mean-spirited, racist extremes” of the Democratic Party. “How can Mr. Gore go to New York City and embrace such a man?” Scarborough said on the House floor, dismissing the fact that Sharpton also had strong ties to New York Republicans like George Pataki and Al D’Amato.
The RNC even set up a Sharpton desk at its headquarters. Stephen Marks, who has since written a book called Confessions of a Political Hit Man, claims that his “finest moment” was creating a television advertising campaign, funded by an independent 527 group called Americans Against Hate, that seared the Gore/Sharpton connection in the public mind, especially in certain key states. Even Bill O’Reilly denounced these ads, which flashed a photo of Adolf Hitler after claiming that Sharpton admired him. Scarborough doesn’t shrink now from his role in jump-starting the Gore smear, insisting that “it had nothing to do with race.”
Even when Scarborough tried, during the 2006 congressional elections, to put some distance between himself and the scandal-scarred Republicans, his past came back to haunt him. “How exactly does one convince the teeming masses that Republicans deserve to stay in power,” he wrote for The Washington Post, “despite keeping company with Jack Abramoff, raising cronyism to an art form, playing poker with Duke Cunningham, and repeatedly electing Tom DeLay as their majority leader?” He didn’t note that all three of those men had given money to his congressional committee, with Cunningham and DeLay—as well as Dick Cheney—donating to him before he was elected the first time in 1994. Nor did he note, when he put Oregon Republican congressional candidate Derrick Kitts on his show to comment on DeLay’s resignation, that he’d just maxed out with $4,200 in contributions to Kitts four days before he was a guest on the show. A former aide to Scarborough who had left Washington years earlier to become a state legislator in Oregon, Kitts was an odd guest on what Scarborough called his “all-star panel,” since presumably an actual member of the House who knew DeLay might have been available. Kitts’s appearance seemed designed more to give the 34-year neophyte national exposure for his own race than add to the DeLay discussion.
“I think the culture of corruption is spreading itself throughout the entire city of Washington, D.C.,” Kitts said, calling for campaign-finance reform. He even got to take a shot at his opponent “for accepting illegal campaign contributions.” In fact, Kitts was subsequently fined by a watchdog panel for failing to disclose free trips to Hawaii and accepting golf gifts from the Oregon Beer and Wine Distributors Association that exceeded the state’s gift limits. The Associated Press also reported another golf gift that Kitts had collected two weeks before he appeared on Scarborough’s show. He was subsequently trounced in the congressional race.
Scarborough has a history of nondisclosure on the air. A member of a prominent Pensacola environmental-law firm, Scarborough had his law partner on his show four times for a “Rat of the Week” segment without disclosing the connection (he did reveal it another seven times). A few months after The Washington Post‘s Howard Kurtz revealed the conflict, Scarborough resigned from the firm. The case that drew Kurtz’s attention—a suit against a wood-preservation product—was eventually thrown out of court. MSNBC said Scarborough hadn’t told them that he was still on the firm’s payroll.
While still with the firm, he brought a reporter from a Pensacola newsweekly that he owned to two depositions in a $500 million water-pollution lawsuit against Conoco. The reporter, whose stories slammed Conoco, reportedly signed in at the depositions, which were not public, as appearing “for the plaintiffs.” The depositions were Scarborough’s only real legal work in more than two years with the firm, according to Fred Levin and Mark Proctor, two of its senior partners. “He never really practiced law,” said Levin. “He was supposed to be a rainmaker, but it never rained.”
One Scarborough legend, more than any other, casts a long shadow over the public personality that hundreds of thousands of Americans now watch with their morning cup of coffee in hand.
The first two abortion doctors murdered by pro-life assassins were shot to death on their way to Pensacola clinics, both during Joe Scarborough’s first congressional campaign. In 1993, Dr. David Gunn was killed, and Michael Griffin was accused of his murder. Scarborough represented Griffin pro bono, attributing it, to this day, to a relationship between his then father-in-law and Griffin’s father—a relationship that neither would confirm despite numerous calls by the Voice. It is, by any measure, a strange “favor for a friend,” which is what Scarborough calls it, though he says he hasn’t seen Michael’s father, Thomas Griffin, since. Thomas Griffin contributed twice to Scarborough’s campaign, $200 each time.
But the largest donor to Scarborough’s cash-starved campaign was the National Right to Life Committee, which donated $15,210. The second-largest donor—at $8,113—was the Eagle Forum, founded by Phyllis Schlafly, the chair of the Republican National Coalition for Life. Scarborough became quite friendly with the Florida head of the forum, Carole Griffin (no relation to Michael), during the 1994 campaign. Scarborough’s GOP opponent, Lois Benson, charged then that Scarborough “sought headlines by trying to defend Michael Griffin.” (Benson, who watches Scarborough from afar these days, likened his attacks on her then to his recent blasts at Hillary.) A University of West Florida political scientist, James Witt, told the Associated Press that abortion was “a factor” in Scarborough’s win, though Scarborough insists that it wasn’t.
Scarborough minimizes his ties to the case, saying that he was only trying to “get [Griffin] a lawyer.” There was “no way in hell I could sit in at a civil trial, let alone a capital trial,” he claims now, referring to the prospect of prosecutors seeking the death penalty against Griffin. But Griffin already had a court-appointed attorney, and when that attorney made a motion to substitute Scarborough at a June hearing, Scarborough said: “I understand that I come in this case if another attorney is not brought on board, that I will be responsible for representing Mr. Griffin at trial.”
In fact, Scarborough began representing Griffin shortly after the March murder and didn’t find a trial lawyer, Bob Kerrigan, until late June, when he wrote a letter withdrawing from the case. Kerrigan didn’t return the Voice‘s calls, but Griffin, who is doing a life sentence, sent two handwritten letters in response to Voice inquiries, maintaining that Scarborough tried to stay on the trial team. He says that Kerrigan and Scarborough brought motion papers to him, which he signed, that would have kept Scarborough on as co-counsel. He maintains that “the judge rejected it” at an informal meeting outside the courtroom. According to Griffin, Joe told him “several times” that he would represent him at trial and that he “had three friends still in law school who would help him,” adding: “I have an exact memory on this point.”
Pat Doherty, an attorney Scarborough interviewed for the job, says that Scarborough “toyed with the idea” of doing the case himself and never offered it to him, though he had “done a lot of death-penalty work.” Doherty said twice that his memory was that “some people in Griffin’s church”—a church that was deeply involved in the abortion-protest movement—”knew Joe, and that’s how they got in touch.”
Within five weeks of Scarborough’s arrival in Washington in 1995 (as part of Newt Gingrich’s “Contract With America” revolution), Democrat Pat Schroeder tried to amend a law-enforcement block grant bill to permit—not mandate—the use of the funds to protect abortion clinics. Not only did Scarborough vote against that unsuccessful amendment, he opposed one introduced by a Republican that called for protecting “medical or health facilities.” Henry Hyde, the Republican Judiciary chair, said: “If abortion clinics are having a problem, they ought to hire guards, like banks do.”
The Griffin case was Joe Scarborough’s introduction to public life, the first time he ever made a news clip. Fifteen years later, the lawyer who volunteered to represent a man who shot a doctor three times in the back on his way to a clinic is the easygoing, sweater-draped, wake-up confidante for Democrats sifting their way through the presidential-primary morass. They turn to his network as the anti-Fox, “the place” for their politics—and despite Scarborough’s frequent reference to his party roots, they can’t know how far from their worldview he is.
He is not “evil,” which, he says, is how liberals view Republicans. He is also clearly not the same man who rushed to defend Michael Griffin in 1993. Since that time, he has helped engineer the naming of a street in Pensacola after Martin Luther King, pushed the Clinton administration to cut off relations with the brutish regime in Sudan, helped find funding to relocate over 300 African-American families whose homes were damaged by a Superfund site, and created a funky independent weekly paper in his hometown. Those achievements are the other side of a congressman who proposed bills to shut down the U.S. Department of Education and withdraw from the United Nations, and has gone on, in this season of Democratic choice, to become a whisper in the subconscious of many.
He is a man with a history and an agenda, and neither Hillary Clinton nor his audience may know it, or much like it.