Decades ago, when I was new to the pages of the Voice and when my work actually appeared on pages, I was visited at the office by state investigators.
They had in their hands a campaign filing by Al Vann, then a young and ballsy assemblyman from the heart of Bed Stuy. I was astonished to see my name on the filing and the name of my colleague Jack Newfield. We were listed as having made modest donations to Vann’s committee, and to this day, I have no idea why the State Board of Elections thought that was grounds to interrogate us.
Keith Olbermann was a rookie sportscaster at the time on old WNEW radio in New York, and Joe Scarborough was coaching high school football in his hometown of Pensacola, Florida.
Jack and I had gone to a Vann fundraiser but we’d honored the freeloader tradition of all good journalists (someone apparently thought we paid). In those days, everyone on our side of a pad or camera understood you never gave a pol a nickel. I took it a step further. Even when there was steak on a banquet table set aside for journalists, I never ate their food.
Most of the time, the stories that followed my fundraiser appearances, listing every fat cat who gave and was getting, made the pol wish he hadn’t let me in. George Pataki, many years later, had me arrested at the Waldorf Astoria. He’d barred reporters from the fundraiser so I and Andrea Bernstein, then with the Observer, stood in the lobby next to the elevator collecting names and quotes from donors as they walked in to join a dinner limited to those who’d raised $100,000 for the governor. A judge later dismissed the charges, but handcuffs hurt the wrists and the soul.
I love Keith Olbermann but wish he’d known better than to donate to anyone he’s only met via satellite. Scarborough, on the other hand, insists he’s restricted his giving to relatives and close friends. If so, Keith is actually better at picking beneficiaries who are virtual strangers, like Arizona Rep. Raul Grijalva, than Scarborough is at picking friends he wants to subsidize.
When all of Scarborough’s transgressions are considered, I’m a bit astonished at how belated his suspension is. It just started this morning, three weeks after Olbermann’s.
Once the silencing of serial donor Keith hit the big screen everywhere, one would have thought that MSNBC chieftain Phil Griffin, who deserves our thanks for giving us some of the best TV news of our lives, would have made sure that everyone else on his set had complied with the policy he used to spank Keith. That would mean Griffin should have started then with an in-depth look at the conduct of the prime political suspect on his network, the charmer we wake up to every morning, who sometimes lapses into open celebration of his party’s comeback (even when it was only a threat months ago).
There is a reason why I in particular should be surprised that Griffin didn’t.
As much as Morning Joe’s check-writing tribute is now treated as if it is a major revelation, I wrote about Scarborough’s contributions in a Voice cover story in 2008. Scarborough talked to me extensively for the piece.
My focus was on a guy out in Oregon named Derrick Kitts. He was a state legislator running in a 2006 Republican primary for the House. Scarborough, then a Florida congressman, had met Kitts years earlier in another Oregon campaign and recruited him to join his House staff. By the time Scarborough contributed the $4,200 maximum to Kitts, Oregon papers had already reported his penchant for taking gifts above state limits from lobbying groups, a DUI arrest when he drove his Ford pickup over a curb (he promptly told the cop he was in the state assembly), and his use of $14,000 in campaign funds to reward his fiancee’s consulting company. A man about town, Kitts listed the State Capitol as his home address on a police report.
Joe was so impressed with Kitts, however, that he gave him precious national airtime on his show, which was then called Scarborough Country. Kitts appeared four days after Scarborough made the contribution and in the middle of the primary contest. That’s what makes the current MSNBC explanation of these contributions so curious. MSNBC says it is not suspending Scarborough for this donation. Jeremy Gaines, a network spokesman, says that this contribution “was made in accordance with network policy,” claiming that Scarborough “sought permission in advance” of making it. Oddly, when I interviewed Scarborough about it in 2008, he never said that to me. When I wrote two paragraphs about the contributions, no one from MSNBC said it was an approved contribution.
But even stranger, Scarborough never mentioned the donations when he had Kitts on the show. Apparently, network policy is to disclose a donation to brass but keep it secret from the audience.
And if ever an interview begged for an explanation, it was the Scarborough exchange with Kitts, who was put on as part of an “all star panel” to discuss the resignation of Tom DeLay. Presumably Joe could have found a Republican who actually served with DeLay and him in the House. Instead he put this kid from Oregon on who soon thereafter lost the primary by 30 points. The closest Kitts ever got to DeLay was when he took a walk on K Street while out chumming with Scarborough years earlier. Scarborough obviously put Kitts on for the same reason he gave to him: they hung out together. On Scarborough’s show, Kitts attacked “the culture of corruption” in Washington while he was aswirl in ethics charges himself back in Oregon. He has recently worked for an Oregon homebuilder that went bankrupt when the subprime crisis hit.
The contributions Scarborough is being suspended for instead relate in part to his brother’s 2007 unsuccessful campaign for the state legislature in Florida. I wrote about that race too, but I was more intrigued by the fact that Joe Scarborough actually ran George Scarborough’s campaign, even though he was then doing a national news show. Kitts actually says in his bio that he managed George Scarborough’s campaign, but the local press at the time said Joe did. The Kitts bio also says he managed Joe Scarborough’s 2000 run for congress, so the two were used to doing races together.
Scarborough is dismissing these contributions as just good family fun, claiming that the candidates were all running in “local noncompetitive races.” Actually, Governor Jeb Bush, whom Scarborough has branded a future president, endorsed Joe’s brother (it was a very close race). Joe also gave to State Senator Don Gaetz, chair of the education committee and a health care company multi-millionaire who is one of Florida’s GOP giants. He gave to Gaetz’s son too, helping to make them the only father-son team in the Florida legislature.
In fact, Scarborough, whose MSNBC show was frequently televised then from his Pensacola home, was building his Florida base. His wife was the regional director of Charlie Crist’s gubernatorial campaign in 2006. He hosted a “Faces of Victory” panel for the Florida Republican Party at George Bush’s 2005 inaugural. The AP reported that he was “seriously considering” running for the U.S. Senate against Democrat Bill Nelson in 2005 and 2006, at the very same time that he was making some of these contributions. Elizabeth Dole, who chaired the Senate Republican campaign committee, flew to New York to discuss a race with him. He said he was going to the White House to discuss it and was meeting with RNC chair Ken Mehlman.
Congresswoman Katherine Harris of recount fame announced her candidacy for this senate seat very early and was so concerned about Scarborough getting into it that she started spreading the worst kind of gossip about him, warning donors not to back him. Promising to put $10 million of her own money in the race, Harris rejected all the GOP establishment’s efforts to get her to step aside, which continued deep into 2006.
For Scarborough to contend that his maneuvers in Florida politics then, partially embodied in these contributions, were “simple acts of friendship” and that he had “no interest” in these campaigns besides friendship sounds true now only because he didn’t run, and because the shaky show he was anchoring at the time has morphed into his far more successful one today. He was keeping his Florida options open in part because he had no idea how long he’d last on cable, and in part because he’s never gotten the politician side of him out of his system.
The MSNBC policy used to punish Olbermann and Scarborough does not just ban contributions. It bars anything that might “jeopardize” an MSNBC talent’s “standing as an impartial journalist” because the actions could “create the appearance of a conflict of interest.” How about the victory panel for the Florida GOP? Or how about Scarborough’s appearance in the middle of the 2004 presidential campaign at a rally for George Bush in Pensacola? Bush knew to single him out and say how much he appreciated Joe being there.
The same network that is putting Scarborough on the sidelines now apparently approved the unmistakable message sent by that rally, with John McCain, Bush and Florida party bigwigs joining the Pensacola Prince in a sunny salute. That’s at least what I was told in 2008 when I wasn’t told that the contributions were approved. The network also seems to accept the revisionist version, offered by Scarborough sidekick Miki Brezinski, of why he appeared at a 2009 GOP dinner in Alabama (honoring another old friend).
Everyone who watches MSNBC — and that presumably includes the network’s executives — knows who the one pol is that they have anchoring a show. I see him as the closest commodity the GOP has now to Reagan, our next 20 Mule Team Borax, one soapbox to another, presidential candidate. At 47, he’s a likeable, ostensibly principled, conservative, with mass appeal to independents and flexible Democrats, as well as many years to make the run. Keith’s fantasy, on the other hand, is play-by-play at a Little League World Series.
Suspending Scarborough for the same two days as the network suspended Olbermann is to make a false equation of what they did and who they are on the air. In my cover story, I examined countless conflict of interest appearances by Scarborough’s law partners on his show, which must be, to Country Joe and his compliant overseers, just one more understandable example of buddying up. He’s used this same friendship excuse to justify his worst conduct — when he rushed down to the Pensacola courthouse to volunteer to represent the nation’s first abortion-doctor killer pro bono. I blew away all the alibis he offers for that grandstanding at the start of his first run for congress in 1994, which was largely bankrolled by right to life groups.
But Scarborough is MSNBC’s conservative cover, and the network had to be embarrassed into punishing him too. They are more inflamed by Olbermann’s token gesture than anything their rightwing token could do.
I turned on the show this morning and missed Joe. Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, was on and Joe wasn’t. Holbrooke rightly called the show “the epicenter” of the national debate over this war. Scarborough’s Florida friends are smugly telling reporters that Scarborough is disappointed the suspension isn’t for three days because then he could get a full week off for Thanksgiving. But I could feel Scarborough choking at home during the Holbrooke pitch, dying to engage war policies he eloquently questions.
Scarborough is an asset to homeviewing, and he is much more careful now about conflicts than he was just a couple of years back. It’s the network itself that’s schizophrenic, preferring its undercard to its star, as if it’s more comfortable with Scarborough’s folksy conservatism than Olbermann’s prickly passion. We can all expect, and fear, that these predilections will only grow darker when Comcast takes over.