On a recent episode of Recode Media with Peter Kafka, political commentator Keith Olbermann said the journalists covering Donald Trump are on daily tsunami duty.
You can read some of the highlights from Peter’s interview with Keith at that link, or listen to it in the audio player above. Below, we’ve posted a lightly edited complete transcript of the conversation.
Transcript by Celia Fogel.
Peter Kafka: I’m here with Keith Olbermann who is looking at me quizzically. Hi, Keith!
Keith Olbermann: How are you?
I’m good, how are you?
Are you a real company with a real name?
I’m not a real company, I’m a one-man band.
It’s a real name, though.
And you are a real person. I saw you on the internet this morning.
You are calmer now than you were this morning on my MacBook.
Yes, that is a condition that will be corrected later in the week. [PK laughs] If/when I do these commentaries, the GQ things, they calm me down for a short period of time and then off I go again.
So we should tell people, you’ve done many things, we’ll talk about many of those things. Right now you are doing video commentary on GQ through YouTube and many other places you can watch video.
Yes, it’s called “The Closer;” it’s a series that we began basically at the beginning of the month. And it is, surprisingly enough, about the 2016 election, and I have a point of view going into this. I’m not one of those people who pretend to have objectivity in my analysis.
And not only that, but I really did mean it. I was struck, I was watching it last night and then again this morning, different episodes. You really are coming with heat and energy and not just a perspective, right? You’re a genuinely angry person when it comes to Trump’s stuff at least, in politics.
Get out, Trump. For once in your life recognize that something is not about you. Nor is it about your opponent, nor the Democrats, nor the Republicans. It is about the essence of the United States of America!
Yeah, I mean, with a sense of history. For instance, the one that we’re talking about that you saw just now was about the fact that there never has been a presidential candidate in this country who — before or after the election — has even hinted that he would not recognize the outcome of this. And when addressed by my old colleague Lester Holt in the debate, they finally got Trump to say, “Yes, I will support ...”
[Trump impression] “I would support it, I would support it.” And then when things started to go bad, that’s Monday night, by Friday night he’s telling the New York Times he’s going to have to think about that again, he’d have to rethink it.
And that got washed away with everything else he did three hours later.
Like everything else that would have made previous presidential candidates flee for Brazil. I mean, if you could have heard ... Imagine Richard Nixon at any point saying [Nixon impression], “I might not recognize Hubert Humphrey as president,” he would have been run out of town by the Republicans. But this happens now, there’s so many horrendous things that have happened in the Trump campaign from a historical perspective, that these things get lost. And my point in getting angry about something that happened several days ago is that we missed it. And it’s truly something that suggests he’s not in favor of democracy. And when you put it in those terms, like, I’ve got a perhaps flawed presidential candidate over here who believes in democracy and isn’t perfect by any stretch of the imagination but was endorsed by one of the Whitewater investigators who tried to put her in jail or whatever 20 years ago, and over here I’ve got a guy who has no idea what democracy is and is clearly not in favor of it. I don’t understand why there is a choice. That gets me angrier and angrier every day.
And there’s been this wave of stuff from him like we’ve talked about, everyone has talked about for months — for more than a year now he has said things — from the minute he came down the escalator and talked about dirty, rapist Mexicans, everyone said, “Well, you can’t be president, we’re not taking you seriously, you’re just a joke.” Do you think there’s a method to that from him that if I just keep piling on and piling on, none of these things can wound me by themselves, none of these things will be an outlier.
I used to think that there was a certain strategy to it and many of the people I know who cover the campaign on a daily basis believe that he is trying to, in the tradition of the great bull salesman of all time: “How does he succeed? Volume, volume, volume.” I’m not sure anymore. I think he has no attention span whatsoever and is distracted by the latest shiny object. I think that’s all it is. And there is also a lot of hate in this man and it’s spilling out.
And do you think the ability for the news media to keep track of this or focus attention on any one thing is a failure of the news media? Or this is just, “Look, this is what it is, there’s so much coming through, we can’t do all of it all the time.”
If you had a tsunami every day, how good would your coverage of the tsunami every day be? Because frankly many of the people who went out to cover the first one didn’t come back. I mean, I hate to be as blunt in that imagery, but that’s what you’re seeing. I think of the people who’ve been working on this campaign, between those in the studio and those in the field, the ones in the field have done a fantastic job compared to the ones in the studio. It’s the analysts, it’s the people in comfortable rooms like this one — slightly cleaner rooms than this one, but you know what I mean. They are sitting there as if this was just a normal campaign. “Well, this is much more extraordinary than Romney vs. Obama.” No, no, no, this is unprecedented, this is at least unprecedented since the 1860 election.
I mean, there’s some debate — the 1864 election in the middle of a civil war, just by the nature of it, the democratic candidate wanted to give up. That was kind of extraordinary. But 1860, where Lincoln wasn't on the ballot in 12 states and the losers decided, “Well, our remedy is to start our own country and have a civil war,” that may still be more extraordinary. But since then, none of this lines up with the rest of American history. And there are people calmly, intellectually discussing this, in places that are supposedly of a liberal bent. And they’re just discussing this mildly rather than throwing things at the screen, which is where we should be doing.
And so like you said, Trump is suggesting he’ll cause a Constitutional crisis. You’re sort of suggesting he’s already caused one just by saying it.
The focus for the last week has been the way he treated a Miss Universe pageant winner reprehensibly. If you’re the media to go, “Look, Constitutional crisis, Miss Universe,” of course they don’t weigh out, except the Miss Universe thing is hitting, it’s what people are responding to, that’s what’s moving the needle, that’s what seems to be damaging his chances, that’s what’s moved the polls, that’s the story. We can’t get high and mighty about not picking up on the Constitutional crisis part.
It may be either or. And I’m not saying they’re wrong in which they take of that equation. Against my will, I covered the Monica Lewinsky story for 218 consecutive shows in 1998. And the last week we were on, two of the guests, there was a fellow who was a strategist, I don't remember his name, but the other one was Dr. Richard Haass who later worked in the Bush Administration. And we were talking about anthrax and Al-Qaeda. This is 1998 and it’s like, “Wow, that’s terrifying, let’s revisit this.” And we didn’t. We changed topics. So I’ve been on the wrong side of it. I did not stop in the middle of a Lewinsky conversation and say, “I just get this sense there’s something more important happening in the immediate future maybe we should be talking about.” I’m not talking about that. It’s a choice and it’s a business, and one of the interesting things about this business is they’re not making the money that they probably should be on this campaign via the ratings, which are not what they’re saying they are.
Can you imagine what it’s going to be like next year?
Well, yeah. “Crater,” I think, is the term from John McCain’s time. What my complaint is is the nature of the coverage. If we were invaded, the parallel to this coverage would be, “Let’s discuss whether or not there might be something good about the Russians coming in via Alaska as they move down the Canadian west coast.” There’s not enough ... you know that line about Woody Allen talking about, I guess it’s in “Manhattan” where they’re at a cocktail party talking about Nazis. They’re talking about some Nazis wanting to march in Central Park and Michael O’Donoghue is saying, “You know, I read a devastating piece about that in the New Yorker,” and he’s going, “Yeah, that’s great. I always think at some point we should use baseball bats. Baseball bats is the solution.” No one’s saying baseball bats, and I’m not saying literally. But there is something to get mad about. Especially considering so much of what the Trump side is using is anger and this kind of amorphous discontent from people who really have it fairly good in life. And they’re being responded to by, “Oh, I read a devastating piece. Keith Olbermann did a great commentary on that in GQ.” That’s when I started swearing. It’s like, no, you have to get angry about this.
Did someone talk to you when you said, “I’m going to do this thing at GQ,” about, “Look, it’s great that you’re angry but it’s not really how web video works. I don’t know if you’ve seen Facebook but it’s all about sharing penguin stuff.” And/or, “By the way, the sound’s going to be off so we need something visual.” Yelling. You literally were yelling at Trump in today’s clip.
Yeah, I wasn’t using a microphone, that was me coming in through your window.
You were projecting very nicely. It’s really anomalous, to at least the way video is being made and/or consumed today.
Did anyone say, “Maybe not do that, Keith.” Or did you say, “This is what I’m going to do.”
Yeah, well, we had an understanding when I signed up for this project with them, we had an understanding of what they wanted and what I wanted, and they happened to coincide. And there have been factors internal that made complete sense from their point of view, which is they have an established online presence. And there are rules that, as you say, fit. The first script I submitted was 17 minutes long [PK laughs] and it consisted of me looking into a camera and reading, and because of the production techniques we needed to cover about 30 seconds of the 17 minutes with pictures of Donald Trump. The rest of it was just me. And the people who were experienced in viral video and everything on the internet now who are not old enough to have seen what happened the first time I put things like that on the internet that were produced at MSNBC where we had more people watching it on the internet in 2006 than saw it on MSNBC, they didn’t see that the rules are fine except when the material is about something — and I’m not talking about quality — but it’s about something that is atypical and exceptional. In other words, people at home understand how different this election is from anything they’ve experienced previously. And they’re willing to watch this thing. So when the first one got to three million views across all platforms, those who thought, “Well, there’s a rigid set of rules that apply to all viral videos,” rethought that.
And you got to say, “Yeah no, what I’m doing works for this thing.”
And to be absolutely fair, many of the things that they suggested were things that had not occurred to me or questions or reservations that I had in which I said, “Okay, how about if we meet it this way?” and they went, “Okay, great.” So they’re not all 17 minutes long. Some of them have been as short as three and four minutes.
I saw a five-minute one on dogs.
But you also ended that with, “Fuck you, Don.” So there’s also some anger there.
Yes, I did. Yeah.
So I want to go back in time for a second.
But to your overall point, to understand where this came from, I was looking for a good, responsible platform to essentially produce these things for me and share branding. Me and them. A place that had some authenticity in the marketplace. I was looking, and there were some people who were interested and I put it out to a lot of places. And at the same time, GQ was wondering why I wasn’t doing commentaries, so when we met it was, “Can we do this?” Not, “What are we going to do?” I think so far out of the first 14, 15 scripts that I have written, there have been, eh, 15 words changed.
Why would they bother, right?
Well mostly just, you know, what you can’t say, it’s not technically treason. And what are we going to come up with instead? All right, morally treasonous. Okay. Roll tape. But literally, you sit there going, “That actually improves it,” because then you can’t be accused of just wildly throwing around unsupportable charges, even though it’s treason.
So you’ve been a guy on TV shaking your fist, wagging your finger. You mean it. It’s not an act for you.
For a long time.
But my initial memory of you is as a SportsCenter guy. And it’s hazy because it was a long time ago and I was probably high and drunk a lot, but my memory was you and Dan Patrick were doing this really cool thing which is you were delivering us sports highlights because that’s what we wanted, but you were also saying, “We get that it’s funny to talk about sports highlights, we get that it’s funny to talk about sports seriously. We’re in on the joke. And we’re going to be a bit wry and a bit detached.” It was a brand new way of talking about sports. Different from the persona I think a lot of people think of you now.
Do you ever think, “Maybe I should go back to some of that?” Or do you think you toggle back and forth between the two?
On a net effect of the entirety of the career, I’ve toggled back and forth because I’ve spend, you know, I went back to ESPN for a third time in 2013 and did commentaries every night that ranged from rage to laughing my way through reading a story or a press conference or something like that, a transcript of a press conference. So yeah, I understand that, a lot of people look at it and go, “How the hell did this guy become that guy?” My argument was it’s the same guy. When I was in local news, my career path was national radio, then CNN in its infancy as a street reporter for sports, and then I went into local TV. When I was in local TV in LA in 1989, in the middle of the World Series, the San Francisco earthquake hit. And I argued, I went on and did a commentary, or I just asked this question a couple of times on my local Channel 2 News at 6 o’clock, when baseball said they were going to give some of the proceeds from the World Series to the cities of San Francisco and Oakland — who happened to be playing in the World Series and had San Francisco and Oakland on their chests — what did that mean? When the Series resumed, why didn't they play an exhibition game and give all the money to these people who were crushed to death beneath the Nimitz Freeway? And I did a version of this, which I now recognize was a special comment that would have fit in perfectly with MSNBC, and it’s 1989. So my point always was, and I think you touched on it, my point whether it was ESPN or local news or MSNBC later, or the stuff I’m doing now. Well, the stuff I’m doing now is very pointed and fixed. Humor is still used as part of the process.
The one with the commentary about the dogs is largely humorous until I get to the “fuck you” part. But he is then talking about poisoning dogs so I think you need a change, you can’t make a joke about that. What I’ve always thought was that the thing that I brought that other people did not have and might be my only skill would be the ability to — within a matter of a couple of seconds — convert from very angry to very funny to sort of poetic about something sad. And that’s life. I mean, life is not all anger and then it’s tragedy and then it’s happy: It’s a mix.
But sports is usually all light, right? Occasionally there’s an earthquake, but generally when people are whipped up when they’re talking about sports it’s fake. It’s pro wrestling. They’re not really angry about … pick your NFL quarterback controversy.
I will tell you a story that suggests that’s not always true.
And when I watch it I think, “Whatever, it’s harmless entertainment.” It seems sad to take this stuff at face value. I was just talking to Horowitz who used to do ESPN SportsCenter, is now doing stuff for Fox 1.
One of my good friends.
He said, “What people don’t get is you can’t joke about sports. You’ve got to take this stuff seriously otherwise the whole thing sort of crumbles.” But you did.
You have to take the details seriously. In other words, if you took every joke that Dan Patrick and I made on SportsCenter, any joke I made in my years at local sports or when I went to Fox or when I went back to do NBC “Sunday Night Football,” any of these things. You take the jokes out, it’s still a good sportscast. It is — something my mother once said about the piano, you want to play jazz piano, you have to play “Chopsticks” first. You have to learn and be able to succeed at the basics. Which is hilarious because she never played the piano in her life, but she used to use this analogy and it stuck in my head. And I don’t play the piano either but I think you know what I’m talking about. I will say this: When I was back to LA in 1987-88, something like that, in addition to the sportscasts I used to do there, I used to do the afternoon sports on the CBS all-news radio station.
I did the all-news, in that case it was KNX radio. And one time I said something about an outfielder named Kal Daniels of the Los Angeles Dodgers who was a marvelously gifted hitter who couldn't have cared less what happened once he hit the ball. Just hitting the ball was his entire experience. And because he loafed down the first base line and the third basemen who picked up the ball dropped it, dropped it again, and threw it to first, Kal had gotten about a quarter of the way down, he should have made it and the tying run should have scored. But he loafed. He wasn’t injured, somebody didn’t hit him with a rock from the crowd, he loafed. And I said on the air, “He loafed,” and the phone rang when I came back to my desk and it was a guy who said, “I know where your office is, I know when you leave and I know when you go to the other office at KTLA, and I'm going to be down there and I’m going to cut your tongue out at the end of the show for saying bad things about the Dodgers.” So the idea that it’s all fun and games, some people do take it psychotically seriously.
One of the things that occurred to me later was that if I was going to be physically harmed in any way, it would be much better if it were for criticizing a president who, say, was an advocate of torture than, say, “Yes, and he was shot and killed because he said something about Kal Daniels of the Los Angeles Dodgers.” It’s like that’s a waste of my skills to get killed over Kal Daniels rather than thrown into the back of a black limousine and wind up at Gitmo.
I do miss the jokes, though. I miss your kind of jokes, and again I’m old and maybe I’m pining after my favorite indie band before they got too big, but it seemed like you guys created this thing, it was great, it was very of the moment, and then subsequently people who followed after you picked up the make-a-joke part, or have a catchphrase.
But they didn’t seem to be in on the joke, just the catchphrase part. And I think that’s fairly close to where we’re at now.
Yeah, I used to always joke with Dan as we saw this. You know the friends that I worked with, at a certain point you get to be about 35 or 40 and suddenly the people that you broke in with are in charge of things and they’re news directors and things.
Yeah, it’s exciting and scary.
And I got a call going, “I’m looking for a news sportscaster,” from a friend of mine in Los Angeles who was a news director. He goes, “I got two piles. I got Dans and I got Keiths. Will you stop this already?” And I used to joke to Dan, if any of the world’s major religions were correct we were going to be like Robert Oppenheimer. We were going to be sent — not necessarily to Hell — but to Purgatory where somebody would say, “Now go over there and sit on that hard wooden bench for a thousand years and think about what you did.” And Dan used to say, “Just because Dad gets to use a chainsaw doesn’t mean the kids get to play with the tools, too.”
But it makes sense, right? No one’s doing any harm. It just seems like the kind of thing you guys did is something maybe only you guys could do.
No, but our overarching point was do something that you look at the culture and you say, “I can fulfill its needs and also satirize it at the same time.” Do your own version of that and it’s the Monty Python “Life of Brian” movie where he says to his flock that is standing out there, Graham Chapman as the false prophet figure who says, “You’re all different, you should all lead independent lives!” And they all chant in unison, “We’re all different!” And then one guy in the back goes, “I’m not.” And “I’m not,” of course, is the person we hoped all the sportscasters would aspire to be. Like, “Come on and do a satire of what we’re doing.” And nobody got that part.
It’s easier to repeat. We did Oppenheimer, we did Monty Python, we did you getting stabbed to death, we should take a break for a minute, come back.
Back here with Keith Olbermann, who is still here. He has not been stabbed for saying seditious things or insulting sports.
Yeah, I always worry about bringing that topic up. Like people will go, “Oh, good idea.” But I’ve gotten fake anthrax at my house and other things have happened, so it’s like, okay.
Do you miss the time that you were on TV during Lewinsky, during the Gulf War, being on screen every day talking about stuff that was important? Are you happy doing what you’re doing now where you sort of get to pick and choose how and when you’re on the screen?
This is very satisfying for very many different reasons. But the primary one is that so far the viewership, based on an average from show to show, would exceed anything being shown on MSNBC or CNN, so I’m actually talking to a larger audience [laughs].
That’s the beauty of the Facebook instant video, probably.
Exactly. The first of these, the 17-minute one that broke all the rules of virality, was at three million as of the beginning of the month. So I’m perfectly satisfied with that. It’s a new environment, but I think what’s going to happen in the future in terms of what we consider television news, it’s going to look a lot more like this than the “CBS Evening News” or MSNBC or Fox News or whatever. Those formats are dying. And I’m the youngest old guy who was actually in the business when cable blossomed. The day I started at network radio at UPI in this city, ESPN had not yet started, it was still a few months away, and CNN was a year away. And those would be the first two television networks I ever worked for. So they didn’t exist yet. And I saw how cable took over things and I think some form ... I don’t see it exactly. Could be downloads, could be news flicks, could be a combination of brands. The GQ folks are ahead of the curve on this. They see that perhaps the future of the whole thing is, get a brand and get an online presence that is downloadable, uploadable, however it’s going to work. Maybe every day it’s live at 8 o’clock and you just keep refeeding it or whatever you do. It’s going to be some sort of pick-and-choose menu for the news consumer who will watch 16 different things from 16 different origins and will be able on their watch to hit what they want and then it will be there for them.
The TV model is: This thing is on now, you have to watch it now.
You have to watch it now or, “We’ll let you record it,” but maybe not.
And if you’re a 24/7 news channel, “We’re going to repeat it every 15 minutes because we’ve got to fill time,” or, “We’ll have a version of this conversation all the time.” And then up until a couple of years ago the internet model was, “You got to go get it when you want it.” It was pretty cool. And now Facebook is, “We’re just going to push it at you and maybe you’ll stop and look at it in between pictures of your dog or your kids.” Do any of those make more or less sense to you as a way to consume information?
Let me tell you another quick story. So I get to Cornell at 16 in 1975; Cornell University is in Ithaca, New York.
And you went to Cornell because you went to school there, not because you were visiting? At 16.
Correct. Yes. They let me in.
So you’re precocious.
Well, yeah, that’s one word for it. They thought I was above average in intelligence, which is something I disproved by working in television for 30 years [PK laughs]. So I get there, and I had grown up in the suburbs of New York and we had the world’s largest selection of local television. We had seven different stations, and on a stormy night you got channel 10 from Philadelphia. You had eight different stations. And I get to Ithaca, New York, which is in a naturally created pit in the ground. It’s got these Alp-like hills on every side. To this day I don’t think there’s been a TV signal broadcast into Ithaca, New York.
So in 1954 they built a cable system. They put a big antenna on top of the hill and put some wires next to the phone wires or something and everyone had cable. I got to Ithaca, New York, and I saw 25 channels, 25 blank spaces on the little device on top of the little box. And I went, “Oh my goodness.” When I was a kid, when I was a teenager, I thought maybe there would be an all-sports TV network and maybe there’ll be an all-news TV network someday. It’s like soon. Who will run it? CBS? NBC? ABC? Who will do this? They’ve got to be one of the bigs ones, they’re going to jump right into this, right? They’re going to see the future, it’s here, it’s in a box in my dorm room. And the answer was, there was a guy in Atlanta who was buying a TV station there and hated the news so much that he moved the 6 o’clock news to 3 a.m. and called it the 6 o’clock news at 3 a.m. And five years later he’s launching the first all-news cable network and six years later he’s hiring me.
I’m going to say the words “Ted Turner” in case our audience is not up to speed.
And we all thought he was crazy. We used to race to the bank with the checks. We thought maybe when you signed them, when you endorsed the check, we were assuming that much of the debt. We didn’t know what was going to happen. It was like, “Oh, now they found him, he was in a dumpster somewhere. You owe us $8 million.” And he was ahead. He saw it, and we didn’t see it. I don’t see what the next thing is now and you know, in 1979 I sure wouldn’t have picked Ted Turner to be the guy who did see it. So I don’t know who has it.
But you’re flexible enough that you’ve adapted to this world or you’re working with people who know how to get views for the thing you’re doing now, so you’re good.
You know anybody in the news business who’s gotten a new job in the last year? If you’re not looking ahead to what the next format is ... I used this analogy to a couple of the people at GQ. The last train has just clunkered out of the station, there’s steam coming out of it and maybe the back wheel is not on the track entirely, no offense to what happened in Jersey. But they’re going nine miles an hour and it’s just going “screech” down the track. And you’re told there’ll be a bullet train here any moment. You don’t know when, you don’t know if you’re on the right track, but there is going to be a bullet train and it’s going to look like — I think the template is going to look something like Netflix.
On demand. “Okay, here’s Keith Olbermann with 30 minutes of news,” but it’s actually three 10-minute components. You don’t have to watch the whole thing. You can take one of them. You want the commentary? There it is. You want the hard news? There it is. You want to worst persons in the world? There it is. Build your own show. And if you’re not satisfied with that, over here next to it is Glenn Beck. Next to it is whoever the next crazy person is. And then the next crazy person. And then over here we have a robot reading the news.
And are you the kind of person who says, “That’s awesome,” because everyone’s going to get everything they want? Or are you the kind of person who says, “I liked it better when there was a couple of voices and when everyone at least got something of the same information, we didn’t have to worry about outliers.”
There’s two answers to that. One is, yes, I loved the idea when there were three evening newscasts. There was a great understanding of what news was and it was an art form, it was who is going to paint the best picture of the sunset. It really was. It was, “I got my six correspondent painters over here and you’ve got your six guys,” and, “Ah yes, but we have Walter, he’s the best painter of them all.”
But the major point is, who cares what I like? And frankly, who cares what you like or anybody listening. We’re not going to make the decision individually, it’s going to be a marketplace decision. And you wonder who’s the guy who’s going to come up with the real format for it. Given my druthers, I would like there to be one newscast and be done by me. But it’s not going to happen that way either.
Do you think Trump would have risen in an earlier version of TV news where there really were three main newscasts and those were the guys and their teams sort of filtered out what you saw and didn’t see. Or do you think, “He makes irresistible TV, he would have been on TV regardless.”
Well, look at Huey Long. Huey Long is sort of lost in American history because he got shot. But he was making a Trump-like rise through the American political system in the '30s where he was sort of able to suspend the rules and essentially be senator from and governor of Louisiana at the same time, taking 10 percent off the top of every transaction in the state and running for president and planning to replace Franklin Roosevelt by offering people cash. He had no political agenda whatsoever other than the advancement of Huey Long.
Yup, made a great book out of it.
Right. And he was this personable individual who just charmed everybody, and clearly in retrospect he was a psychopath and he was just interested in power for its own sake. There was no TV there, but there was radio. And just the power of his voice commanded people to say, “Well maybe this is the solution to our crisis.” Now, the difference between the thing that enabled Trump in particular to sell the idea that he is a solution to a crisis, is the fact that there is no crisis. There are many things wrong in this country, but at the bottom line, at its worst in the last certainly 50 years, it’s been great. Could we make it greater? Lots of different ways to make it greater. Many of them conservative, many of them liberal. It’s great. It doesn’t have to be great again. But that is the conceit, the fiction in this, that I think is unique to television. To portray a world in people’s minds, viscerally and with video, that there is some sort of cataclysm that is about to ruin their lives in Presque Isle, Maine, or, you know, in North Platte, Nebraska.
But I think initially especially there were a lot of networks, CNN among them, that said, “Obviously Trump a clown, but he’s an entertaining clown, he gets great numbers, we’re going to put him on TV.” There was an active decision to put him on.
Then there was Twitter, which has no one running it, really.
And his brain, which has no one running it. So you put those things together, yes.
So there’s no guidelines there, just do whatever you want. And he went up, at the same time, sort of on both. And maybe they worked with each other. I don’t know that in a Cronkite era he gets through. But you’re saying, “Look, Huey Long did.”
Yeah, well, Huey Long, obviously that preceded things. Network news was nascent then. NBC’s network news in that period of time was still John Cameron Swayze sitting in front of a giant pack of cigarettes. Literally, the desk was a giant pack of cigarettes. Not only that, but Camels, which are essentially, you know, just one puff and you’re dead, and John Cameron Swayze sitting there giving you the news. But what rose during that time? Joe McCarthy. And Joe McCarthy never even ran for president and was the most powerful man in the country in 1952.
So there’s this undercurrent and it’s going to build up periodically.
It is instructive that as late as the first of September, 1864, Abraham Lincoln thought he was not going to be reelected because the Civil War was not going well for the North, and even though basically nobody in the South had a vote at all, they anticipated they were going to lose to General McClellan, the worst general in American history perhaps, and possibly a Southern spy on top of everything else, whose platform was to give up the Civil War no matter where they stood and just get out. And by the way, repudiate the Emancipation Proclamation and get rid of the greatest president in the history of the country who’d held the country together almost single-handedly for four years, to the point where the Republicans were considering, some of them were saying, “Let’s have another convention and get someone besides this Lincoln idiot.”
Then Sherman won Atlanta and everything swung the other way, and after all this, Lincoln only won 55-45! 45 percent of the North voted to give up a war they were clearly now winning. So we have always had — and I made this point a lot more last year when there was more time between Trumpian events than I have this year — but we always have had in this country, as much as we go nostalgic about, “Oh the informed electorate. Listen to the Lincoln/Douglass debates where they spoke for an hour and a half and then everyone went to the bathroom in the woods and then they came back and listened for another hour and a half of one guy talking.” 40 to 50 percent of the country’s voters have always been wrong!
I was always struck by that during Obama’s first run. He’s running in a Depression, like we’re eating out of cans. And this, the equivalent of the Vietnam War, two of those things, and the incumbent party still nearly won, or came close.
Well, yeah. But even starker choices in the past, there have often been, “He’s the greatest president of all time.” He nearly lost reelection in the middle of the Civil War, we’re going to change presidents for this idiot, McClellan. Now it’s another period of time and we have another idiot and another reason for idiocy upon the part of the electorate.
You should do a spinoff video where you do history lessons. This is great.
Thank you. Well if you’ll notice carefully, these are often woven into the piece.
Yes, I did notice.
I was told I was going to be a history teacher as well so it comes out every once in awhile.
You wised up though, that’s good. My wife’s a history professor, it’s a bad route to go. Don’t do it, kids. We’re recording this on a Tuesday, the VP debate is tonight, which means when you hear this it’ll have happened. No one cares.
By the way, anytime anybody says that something comes out of it.
You think it’ll be a Lloyd Bentsen?
Yeah, I don’t think we’re going to have anything as good as Sarah Palin winking and all the conservatives getting aroused and writing about it. If you’re going to watch something, if you have two minutes, go and find Rich Lowry’s piece about Sarah Palin from the vice presidential debate in 2008 where it’s just short of porn.
All right, you can pause the podcast now, go find that, come back.
[laughs] It still makes me laugh. So something might happen tonight. It’s Pence, so who knows? He’s going to say, “Okay, you’re right, this is not real hair. Okay.”
He did say, “Shit.”
“I’m actually Roger Stone.”
He said “shit” yesterday. NBC had to bleep it out, but again, in a Trump era, who cares about that? But going forward, we do have the next presidential debate. If you were covering this as day-to-day news, what lessons would you take from the first debate that would inform your coverage?
I don’t know that Hillary Clinton and the people who prepared her for the last one need any advice, they seem to have [it down]. I think it was well known in their circles — to the point where I even heard about it — that the idea was, “Say something to bait him early. If it does not immediately produce results give it about half an hour, he’ll come back to it and he’ll implode.”
It was her calling him “Donald.”
She threw in a few digs at the beginning that implied he was a crazy liar — since that’s the truth it wasn’t hard to imply those thing — and he wasn’t rattled for half an hour and then he came back to it. You could see the anger crossing over one eye through the empty head and then out the other eye and out the ear. So I don’t know that they need anything to do, they can play it fairly conservatively and wait for him to do something where he goes too far. Because I think he believes he can knock off her presidency and her campaign because he’s so far ahead that one more good shot and she’s done. And the problem with that is, the people around him who are living in our dimension believe that he is this close — my fingers are right next to each other — this close to losing by 10 or 15 points, and he might as well go for some sort of traumatic, gigantic statement, just short of throwing a punch at her. The same thing from two completely different points of view. I suspect he will go in, and I think he may have telegraphed this punch. I don’t believe any of this stuff about he’s not going to mention Bill, he’s not going to mention infidelity. When he said, “She has not been loyal to him,” what do you think he was talking about?
I didn’t really process that.
Yeah, what is he talking about? He’s talking about infidelity. But I think there’s a next thing he can say to her that he thinks would be the end of her presidency, about that subject. Like who would that be with?
I just learned that she assassinated a WikiLeaks guy today. That was news to me. Some of this stuff is washing past me as well.
Let me just put it this way: If you’re talking about Assange, I wish.
No, no it was her staffer.
And that’s why they didn’t release the great secret that ... the October surprise was Roger Stone’s hair is not his own. Okay. I used that joke on Twitter and there it is again [PK laughs]. But what I’m saying is, when you’re talking about Bill’s infidelity, this was as the Times story was about to break Saturday night, a week ago, he says, and not only has she attacked all the women in his life but, “she wasn’t loyal to him, I mean, would you be loyal to him? I don’t think she was loyal to him.” And so he’s implying some sort of infidelity. And then there’s another stage of that which is who the infidelity was with.
Oh, there’s something he said? I did not pick up on that one. That one just came by in a rush.
I think that’s what’s next. Something like he’s going to accuse her of an affair with — I don’t know — a polar bear.
It seems like the big lesson from the last debate is if it’s a tie onstage, you can trust Trump. The real issue is what Trump does afterwards. Because immediately after that debate he goes into the spin room and starts making it worse for himself.
He’s still litigating it five days later. I would have won if you hadn’t listened to this spin, and I went into the spin room and spun.
So all he’s got to do is walk offstage and then shut up. Or have someone take the phone.
It’s been 70 years now and there’s no indication anybody could get him to shut up, so I wouldn’t worry about that.
Speaking of Twitter, you told me off-microphone before we were talking, I want to get this on here: You use Twitter. You no longer get in Twitter fights because you’ve figured out a magic trick.
Yes. I would spend up to an hour a day arguing with people who would respond. I would be trolled successfully, and what I found out was if you reconfigure your Twitter to not automatically present you your @ replies and other sundry messages from people you’re not following, your blood pressure will drop and you will have a free hour and you will not get suspended from any jobs because you started swearing at people and inadvertently trashed a charity, which happened to me at ESPN.
How long have you been able to exercise this kind of control?
Well, let’s see, that was February 2015, so it’s been that way ever since.
That’s pretty impressive.
Every once in awhile I will go and look. And then after five minutes of looking at it I will say, “Why did you do this?” and I will throw the phone. Or shut off the phone. Or disable the phone in some way. I came to this about 10-15 years ago, having been one of these compulsive [types]: You’re working in an ephemeral business. How do you verify that you actually exist? Well, what do the critics say? It’s not good, bad or indifferent? Its like no, I exist here because there’s an article about me in the LA Times.
Right, and Twitter’s even better at the dopamine rush.
Right. So what you finally say is, “Hey, I don’t think this is likely to be positive.” So don’t read it, moron! And then you’re not pretending it doesn’t exist, you’re not pretending you’re perfect, you’re just saying, “I’m going to keep my blood pressure low and devote myself to something else.”
You seem pretty chilled out. I’m winking as I say this.
No, I got chilled out by doing that and by getting dogs.
Keith Olbermann’s tips for better living: Don’t look at your @ replies, get dogs.
Get dogs. Two of them if possible.
Thank you, Keith. This was great.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.