Lawrence O’ Donnell Jr. holds a cell phone to his ear, dictating lines for an episode of the White House drama “The West Wing” as he sits waiting to tape the weekend show with the other pundits on the set of the “The McLaughlin Group” at WRC-TV in Washington, D.C. “You’re talking to me on a red-eye day,” he explains. “On red-eye days I get a little weary.”
That’s understandable. Author of Deadly Force(the 1983 book about his attorney father challenging the Boston Police in a wrongful death suit), once a writer for the Harvard Lampoonand Democratic chief of staff to the finance committee under former U.S. senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the bicoastal and multitalented O’Donnell now confronts the political realities of national politics in his column for New York Magazine, as MSNBC’s senior political analyst and as a panelist on the “McLaughlin Group.” He also deals with the fictional side of government as written and produced on NBC-TV’s “The West Wing.”
SHUTTLE SHEET: You wear so many hats – do you think of yourself as a pundit, a writer or a producer?
LAWRENCE O’DONNELL: I think of myself as a screenwriter.
SS: Although you think of yourself as a writer, many see you as an on-camera personality. How do you prepare to be a pundit?
LO: I think being a pundit is a difficult thing to do on the usual track. Pundits have worked hard as journalists, normally print journalists, for a very long time before they show their face on television. By the time they do, they know a thing or two. That’s a very hard route, because the things they’re learning about are behind closed doors. I cheated. I was in the room for seven years. Working for Moynihan, in the Cabinet Room, in the government.
SS: How did you get there initially?
LO: I knew the Moynihans socially and sublet an apartment in their building in New York. I didn’t know anything about politics at the time – 1988. The Moynihans asked me to come into the election campaign. I said no, but then he invited me backstage: “We’re going to look at television commercials; do you want to look in the cockpit?” That’s an awful big thing for a writer to resist, so I go backstage with him and have this impossible experience. This person who is great onstage in his public role is actually more impressive in a multidimensional role backstage. I never have known anyone in any other walk of life to be more impressive. The Moynihans needed people around with whom they felt comfortable, and they were comfortable with me.
SS: You were Senator Moynihan’s top staffer on the Finance Committee. How did you make the leap to television?
LO: I was like Robert Duvall in The Godfather. I worked for this one guy, and I wasn’t trying to be anything else in politics. I didn’t need anyone to like me, and I was never going to ask the government for anything. I parachuted in. This wasn’t my life, but I was primed for it. One night I was on Charlie Rose – an unusual booking then. They would book a congressman or a senator, but never a staffer. Then an agent came to me. Here’s a guy out there trying to make money off me at something I’m not trying to make money at. Why not?
SS: Did you learn any valuable TV tips from Pat Moynihan?
LO: What I can’t commit on television is silence. If I’d give a one-word answer on “McLaughlin,” that would be the end of that. But if you’re Pat Moynihan, and you’re alone with the moderator of “Meet the Press” and you give a one word answer that is abrupt and snappy, it is going to be provocative.
SS: Do you feel you have to entertain when you’re in front of the camera?
LO: No, I don’t. “The McLaughlin Group” is one show where I can just be myself. That’s because of the way it’s shot. It’s a human setting and a human conversation. It’s not on satellite. And John has fun with it. Whether it’s a dinner party or a TV show, you take your cue from the host. The reason “The McLaughlin Group” is No.1 in the ratings in the history of political talk shows is that John, whether deliberately or not, has to be the entertainment piece.
SS: Do you think that’s the secret to his staying power?
LO: Yes, he’s the character. It’s the great ratings secret of talk TV.
SS: So where are you on the political spectrum?
LO: One of the fun things for me as a pundit is that I get mail and viewer reaction that says I’m just one of those awful Republicans, and then I get mail that says I’m just one of those awful Democrats. I’m a journalist and an MSNBC political analyst. I’m not a talking head from one corner.
SS: What route would you recommend to aspiring pundits?
LO: You need to do enough to make the viewer know why he or she is listening to you. If I have a bias, it’s toward those who have been in “the room.” On balance, they’re more valuable than those who have not. The White House is a good place to get that experience.
SS: Which are the best think tanks to be affiliated with as a talking head?
LO: If you’re with the Heritage Foundation, you have an advantage when they’re deliberately trying to book pro-and-con arguments. You’re going to be reliably booked. If you’re with the Brookings Institution, for which I have a great deal of respect intellectually, you are a very unreliable booking in the pro-and-con argument game because we don’t know what you’re going to say.
SS: What is the future of “The West Wing”?
LO: We’ll never be ‘ER.” We’re not “Law and Order.” But “The West Wing” will run a long time – at least eight years.
SS: Do you think that “The West Wing” glamorizes government?
LO: No, it doesn’t. I think you see people who are not making a lot of money, but are working late and failing to get what they want. What they want as citizens watching in the grandstand is different than when they’re in there dealing with the real levers of government. They end up with results that involve a lot of compromises and disappointments and, occasionally, a win.
SS: Will the change of style and tone of the Bush administration have an impact on what you do with the show?
LO: It won’t. Our president is Josiah Bartlet. We have his behavior down pat.
SS: Do you think he could get elected in real life?
LO: No, because he wouldn’t raise enough money. He wouldn’t debase himself enough to become the financial front-runner, and his message would appear weak because the press would say so. At times he would appear muddled because the press would say he wasn’t empathetic or clear and definitive about something complex and perplexing.
SS: Could he ever be a pundit on a talk show?
LO: Yes, and he could be a senator from New York. And in my head, he is.
SS: Have you ever considered offering Bill Clinton a cameo on “The West Wing?”
LO: No, we’d never do that. We’re not comfortable with much real-world reference because we’re asking the audience to accept a parallel fictional universe.
SS: Since you knew the Clinton White House so well, is Josiah Bartlet’s White House modeled after the Clinton White House?
LO: I don’t think it’s even close to a portrait of the Clinton White House. We don’t have an obsession with fund raising. We haven’t sold the Lincoln Bedroom, and this fictional president doesn’t have a single friend he met through money.
SS: What is it that drives you to keep such a hectic schedule and so many irons in the fire? LO: It’s fun. I’m not doing anything that isn’t fun. That’s the way I always wanted to have my life organized.
SS: Do you ever tire of such a hectic schedule?
LO: The biggest pressure I have in my schedule is my daughter Elizabeth. When I’m away I can e-mail material to “The West Wing” or dictate over the phone. But the one thing I can’t do from out of town is be a parent. I can talk to my daughter each day, but I can’t help her with her homework or teach her how to ride a bike on the phone. This is the thing in my schedule that I am constantly worried about; the other pieces simply move around it.
SS: Now that you’re spending most of your time on the “other coast,” what do you miss most about Washington?
LO: I thought the day I left the Senate was going to be difficult, something like leaving a school you love – you miss the campus, the professors, your classmates and friends. I thought I’d be sitting home watching C-SPAN. But it wasn’t like that at all. The day I left was like getting the last flight out of Saigon – relief and deliverance. Unexpected and astounding. I was floating. I didn’t weigh anything. What you don’t know when you’re in it is how tight and heavy a harness you’re in. Now it would never occur to me to put it back on. That was an accident, and when you see me on television, you’re seeing the remains of an accident.
SS: Where would you go to smoke a cigar with Chris Matthews?
LO: I wouldn’t know which end of the cigar to light, but I’d like to be in the Senate cloakroom.
SS: Is the real-life drama in Washington more intriguing than what anyone could write?
LO: To send a fiction writer of today into American politics for drama is very difficult. We know too much. I think writing a one-shot movie drama about Washington is very difficult. You have to move off-center into a territory we don’t know, especially after all the Nixon madness and the Clinton madness. Those are our best Washington dramas. We don’t have a good dramatic Washington movie that is fiction. All the President’s Men andThirteen Days are the best Washington dramas, but they’re actually true.