The Sunday Conversation: Lawrence O’Donnell


Political pundit Lawrence O’Donnell, a former writer and producer of “The West Wing,” has hosted “The Last Word” on MSNBC for 21/2 years, often kicking up a ruckus for his blunt opinions.

What’s your connection to L.A.? Are you bicoastal?

I live in Los Angeles.

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Why here if MSNBC is based in New York?

Because MSNBC was an afterthought in my life. I’ve never designed anything in my life to accommodate MSNBC. I’ve had to squeeze it in. And so most of my workdays for MSNBC now are in New York probably, but last week I did the show in L.A. the whole week.

I know you’ve worked on several shows in Hollywood. Do you have any interest in going back to that?

Oh, absolutely. And I came very close to going to work on a show this season. I just couldn’t figure out how to budget the time for it. I’m toying with different writing projects right now.

You’ve said you don’t consider yourself a liberal but a “practical European socialist.” What exactly did you mean by that?

Practical European socialists have embraced the idea that the government has a role in healthcare and in supporting strong transportation systems that do not depend entirely on individual motor vehicles. And it turns out we’re all socialists now, and there are very few Americans who understand that. Bill O’Reilly is a socialist. He is in favor of Medicare, he is in favor of Social Security. Those are socialist programs. There is no socialist country, and there is no capitalist country on Earth. They’re all what we call “mixed economies,” and the question is how much of your economy is capitalist and how much of it is socialist. And because we have a phobia about the word “socialist” in this country — which is unique to this country, by the way.


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Why do you think “socialism” has become a dirty word in this country?

Sen. Joe McCarthy. This is the country with the culture that lies to itself relentlessly about its self-reliance and about the joys of capitalism. Other countries are mature enough to recognize that capitalism is a rough and cruel system that needs moderation. And they’re also wise enough to recognize that capitalism is a system full of energy and creativity and dynamism, and you want it. But you don’t want it in an unbridled way. And because none of us admit that we are at all socialist, I embrace the word for myself to counterbalance the other 300 million people in the country.

One related trend in this country is the escalation of CEO pay, and Switzerland recently passed a law to limit that. Do you think that CEO pay will ever be rolled back in this country?

No, I think America has resumed a worship of the rich that it had turned away from for a good 50 years, and the new worship of the rich is permanent because it seems a bit more democratic than it used to be, meaning there are more ways to get rich than just Rockefeller style. You can now be super-rich by playing baseball very well or by directing a series of movies. The kind of giant wealth we used to have was largely a function of inheritance and family, but now I think American society has gotten tricked into thinking that wealth is a much more likely outcome for people than it actually is. And now the ethos of a corporation is no longer a kind of collective success that most of these corporations actually did embody in the 1950s and 1960s; it’s now more a matter of CEOs as rock stars and they live totally separately and apart from everyone else in the company and we’re all supposed to glorify the CEO.

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The broadcast punditocracy in particular is considered an important cause of the country’s political polarization. Do you think that’s true?

There is a mathematical proof for it, and it’s cable news’ darkest secret. We don’t want you to know this. No one is watching. And if no one is watching you cannot have influence. We live in a country of over 300 million people. And cable news on its very best nights doesn’t get 1% of the population watching. So when 99% of the American population is not watching cable news, everyone who is watching cable news, every single one of them has their mind made up about every political issue before they bought their TV. Cable news has absolutely no effect on what people think.

Do you think that holds true for radio as well?

More true. No one listens to radio.

Why do you think then that the country is so polarized now?

I don’t think the country is so polarized. I think you can find polarized people, but in a country where half of the eligible voters don’t vote, one of the things they’re saying to you is, “I don’t think it’s that important to my life.” Our politics in their lives don’t even rise to the level of being worth voting on. None of those people have ever watched a cable news show and never will. And those people are not polarized. So when we talk about political polarization in America, you’re talking about a very small subset of people, very small, on both sides. I think what’s true is that the overlap of the parties has diminished to the point of being just about nonexistent on the national level, but there’s still an awful lot of overlap in Democrat and Republican thinking in places like Massachusetts. But in Washington, the overlap is disappearing, and that is a real phenomenon.

Did you initially think you were going to have a career in politics, either as an elected official or staff?

No, I never wanted to have anything to do with politics. I grew up in an Irish neighborhood in Boston where, if you could tie a necktie, you were suspected of running for city council. It’s a cliché of my culture that I wanted nothing to do with. And it was an accident of the writers strike of 1988 that I ended up in politics. I was in L.A. the day it started. And Sen. [Patrick] Moynihan, whom I knew, was also in L.A. that day. And he called me up and asked me if I wanted to have lunch.... The writers strike lasted six months to the day. In that six months, Sen. Moynihan asked me to come into his reelection campaign, which I refused to do, but I did hang around in a kind of observational way. He’s such an interesting character, and I thought of him as writing material. Eventually they started giving me a paycheck for hanging around the campaign. He won ... and then he asked me to come to the Senate, which I found even stranger. It was actually the writerly part of me that was drawn into politics and government through the fascination with this character. And that ended up being eight years working in the Senate at the highest level.

Did that change your view of Congress?

Oh, completely.

From what to what?

Oh, utter confusion about it and not really caring anything about what they did and having no respect for it to a complete understanding of it and having some very strong respect for it. It really is an honor, it really is awe-inspiring, and nothing else I’ve ever done has been as awe-inspiring. There’s never a waking moment that you have the slightest doubt that what you’re doing is important.... Everyone I knew working in the Senate were great people. But everyone I cared about lived outside of Washington.

I noticed that you’re labeled as “hot-tempered” and full of rage by the conservative media. Do you think that’s fair?

If you go on television and you do this stuff, it’s not up to you what people saw. Anything anyone wants to say about me is fair. There’s not a single thing that any viewer has ever said about anything I do on television that has bothered me in the least. And every single person has the right to hate whoever they want to hate on television, whether it be singers, actors, pundits. That’s the deal.


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