Behind the Story: Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski—United in Politics and in Life
Gabriella Schwarz / August 9, 2017
Publication: New York Magazine
Reporter: Olivia Nuzzi
Olivia Nuzzi has made a name for herself of late by profiling people most of us only know of and want to know everything about (think Kellyanne Conway and Jon Ossoff). She most recently turned her pen toward Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski, co-hosts of MSNBC “Morning Joe,” for the attention-grabbing cover of New York Magazine.
Nuzzi, the magazine’s White House reporter, sought to give readers a sense of who these quasi-cult figures really are, which was like sweet candy to me, an avid MJ watcher since 2009. She painted a picture of two “deeply strange people” who found love (they announced their engagement in Vanity Fair in May) on their way to fulfilling their dreams, on and off the air.
“It’s inconceivable to imagine them separately,” Nuzzi told me.
Joe and Mika have been notoriously private, especially about their personal lives. So how did this interview come to be? And why did you want to profile them?
I had reached out to Joe and their spokespeople months ago. The first answer was a “no,” pretty quickly. I just figured I’d convince them down the line. And then at some point I asked my editor to reach out. I think it was when we institutionally went about trying to get access that it became more feasible. There have been so many profiles of them just in the last couple of years, obviously. My understanding is that they have not been particularly happy about any of them, so I think that they were reluctant to give access for that reason. But at the same time, they obviously want publicity. You don’t live the kind of lives that they live or announce your engagement in Vanity Fair if you are not somebody who is inherently drawn to the spotlight, even if you are conflicted about that. I think they’re very complex people, like we all are, of course.Certainly when I was speaking to their PR people, it was very much about convincing them that the piece would be different than other pieces. That was my goal going in— that’s my goal going into any profile—but particularly with people who have been covered as extensively as the two of them.
So what are they like and what surprised you about them?
I don’t think we put it in the piece, but she [Mika] referred to herself as “kooky,” which is sort of not quite what I was expecting. A perfect example is I went to her mother’s house in Virginia with the two of them. I showed up there and I was happy I was going because most of our interviews were in pretty controlled environments, in conference rooms or green rooms, places where it’s difficult to open up and feel comfortable. I get to this house and at this point I know them a little; I’ve interviewed them a couple times. And Mika said, “Let’s go see my mom’s art studio.” In my head I’m like, “Jesus Christ, I’m going to have to spend my precious time with these people looking at this old lady’s fucking watercolors.” That was my first thought.
I get there and we go into this underground fortress and there’s a gigantic sculpture of a crucifix mounted on the wall that this woman carved with a knife. And then there are all these gigantic beautiful trees that are so much taller than her. I asked her how she carved them. She has a really thick accent and said “with a chainsaw.” It was so not what I expected.
Mika is just different than I thought she would be. Joe, I don’t find quite as compelling as Mika. Mika has a very maternal streak that’s apparent when you speak to her. There is sort of a warmth about her that I wasn’t expecting because I find her sort of ornery on camera. Both of them are quite funny, and they have a sense of humor about themselves, which is not always the case in a real way with people who are in media or politics.
When you see them together they look like sort of one moving part, and it’s inconceivable to me that either one of them could ever spend time with anybody else in any meaningful way. They are just these strange wonder twins. They’re completely bizarre. People in the White House who I talked to for this story were very dismissive beforehand. Like, “Oh, you’re just going to get spun like everybody else. You’re going to think they’re so charismatic. It’s just going to be a piece like everybody else’s pieces.” And I didn’t quite find them to be charismatic, but they sort of suck you into their strange little universe. It’s not something that I guess you know until you’re around somebody.
Could you talk about their chemistry? Reading their comments about their personal lives felt so raw, which was pretty foreign to me as someone who watches the show. Is “raw” how you would describe it?
What I told Joe and Mika was, “I don’t care about the origins of your relationship necessarily, and I don’t care if you guys have not been fully honest about it in the past.” It’s not as though they’re running for office on some kind of family values platform and are trying to judge other people’s personal lives. Then it would be a different case to me. But I’m never going to help somebody perpetuate a falsehood, no matter what it is. I completely understand why they would want a specific narrative. There are a lot of moving parts [in their relationship]; it’s not just about them. They have children and their ex-spouses involved. I didn’t really care about uncovering the origins of their relationship or reporting the timeline for the first time. I just wanted to know, truthfully, how they felt and what it was like for them.
The first day I met them…they were a little closed off, as you would be with a reporter. Then by the second day, I was thinking they were too comfortable in front of me. They were rubbing each other’s backs and playing with each other’s hair. It’s sweet. I’m someone who loves love and thinks it’s lovely that these two people found each other, God bless them. But I was watching them in the green room and it felt like, “Mom and dad, please stop.”
Whatever you think about them, you just have to appreciate that they have this connection. It’s a rare thing and even if it wasn’t ideal circumstances for everyone involved, it’s still something that you kind of have to marvel at. I marveled at it, anyway.
Did you find them defensive or at peace with where things stand with Trump now?
I think they are kind of full of shit about Trump…I’ve covered Donald Trump for two years. I find it very difficult to believe that Donald Trump, the man who in the second grade punched his music teacher and gave him a black eye because “I didn’t think he knew anything about music,” was different two, three years ago than he is today [as they allege]. It’s ludicrous, the premise. So I find that very difficult to believe. They’re sticking to that, I’ll give them that much. But I think it was a matter of they were friends with him and they got access from him. I don’t think the quote made it into the piece, but one of their friends who spoke to me for the piece, and is quoted in the piece, put it to me this way: it’s not so much that they’re acting out because they lost access, which is what the White House suggests, it’s that a lot of times journalists will strategically not say things that are negative about subjects or sources because they’re getting access to them. But if you lose access, well, what do you have to lose? They are free now to say perhaps what they thought in the first place, but they were holding back because of their access.
How do you think they’re juggling their role as journalists and hosts with their fame only increasing?
It’s an interesting question. She has a background in journalism. She started in newsrooms; she always wanted to be a reporter. He has no journalistic background whatsoever. He ran this tabloid in Florida that I’ve written about with all of these pseudonyms and it wasn’t really journalism. I couldn’t find any copies of the paper, but the impression I got was that he was just fucking around basically.
I asked them if they consider themselves journalists. They don’t. But they have a narrow definition of what it means to be a journalist. They think that being a journalist means that you have to just be objective. Obviously, I am the furthest thing from objective, but I consider myself a journalist. We had a big conversation about what exactly that meant. They consider themselves to be analysts, which is the distinction that they were making.
But they’re also very defensive if you suggest that there’s anything different about what they do than what past media figures have done. They brought up Tom Friedman as an example of somebody who did exactly what they did but in the Obama era. They brought up a number of other people. I thought that was a smart way of them to get out of their being judged for their conduct in the beginning of the primary, but I don’t really think it is intellectually honest.
That may be a difference between people who grew up in a different era of journalism versus people who grew up in this era of journalism.
It is a throwback. The way that they have behaved is a throwback to the Kennedy-era where people would be at dinner parties together and hang out in Georgetown in smoke-filled rooms. In some ways it’s interesting that the Trump era seems to maybe be bringing that back a bit. There was this article about how Kellyanne Conway bought a house in Kalorama, which is kind of a posh neighborhood in D.C. There was speculation of her hosting these grand parties that were going to be a throwback to a different era. I think Trump is sort of ushering in perhaps a throwback era in a lot of ways. It’s like he’s bringing ’80s New York to D.C., basically.
You talk in the piece about how strong Joe’s convictions are. What do you think drives him?
The way I always look at it is if you think people need to read your opinions, like if you’re a journalist, you’re probably a base level of insane. It’s insane that I write things and I think thousands or millions of people should read them. We’re all a little nuts in that regard. If you think people should watch you say those things, I think you’re a little bit more nuts. If you think you should be ruling people and dictating how they live their lives, then I think you’re completely off the charts insane. Anyone running for any office more powerful than mayor I think is completely nuts just as a general rule. That’s my view of politicians.
Joe is interesting because he does seem rather self-aware. He does seem to have a sense of humor about himself. He’s not a self-serious guy who can’t laugh when Stephen Colbert tells him that he’s having a mid-life crisis as he did on the show when I was with them in the green room.
But in terms of what drives Joe, I have this quote in the piece from one of his friends saying he’s a politician. Joe thinks, “Well, I could be doing this better.” He thinks his judgment is better than almost anybody else’s. And I think that’s kind of how you have to look at his criticism of Trump. Surely Joe [thinks he] would be making better decisions even if he doesn’t necessarily want to be president right now (which he claims he doesn’t although they didn’t rule out him running in the future). I think he’s just someone who looks at the things that are happening in Washington and thinks, “These people are fucking idiots. Why would they be doing it this way? Or why would we have this law if we could have that law?” He’s just somebody who trusts his own judgment more than he trusts probably anybody else’s, which is what being a politician is generally all about.
One of my favorite lines from the whole piece was: “Together, they achieve a kind of strange aesthetic perfection—the decorative figurines topping the bunny cake that is political media in Trump’s America.” Thinking of them as the toppings, what do you think is next for them?
It’s difficult to say. CNN took my article and wrote a hot takes on it saying that it sounds like Joe is going to run for office. I disagree having heard him. The show is doing much better ratings-wise than it had been—I think it’s up 50 percent from last year. But maybe that’s just a function of MSNBC’s ratings up broadly. It’s much easier to be in the opposition than it is to be supporting the party in power. It’s obviously still feeding Fox News, but their ratings are not doing as well as they had been. That happens in any administration—there’s a change in cable ratings that reflects that.
I imagine they’re quite happy with their profile right now. They claim that they don’t think about it. They claim all sorts of things that people who are famous claim, that they’re uncomfortable with their profiles. But I think that they’re probably very satisfied with the fact that they’re extremely relevant right now. Imagine if you were a guy who loves music and had this very straight-laced life and was a lawyer and then was in Congress and then had this TV show. And then you got to have a major label [release your album] and perform on Colbert. He’s really living his best life. He is totally living the dream, his own dream.
I can’t overstate how in control they are and how much they want control of their image and that is sort of at odds with their desire to be seen as these cool, chill people who don’t really care about Trump. They want to have a fun profile written about them but they don’t actually want to be in a situation in which they would have fun. That would require relinquishing some control. It was interesting to watch that conflict play out on their faces in real time. It’s why they were so successful. I have a former tabloid reporter in my piece talking about how they mastered the art of taming the gossip. They really were savvy beyond belief in doing that for so long. That was the part of it that was so interesting to me. At the same time, Mika would have me FaceTime with her chickens. I swear I FaceTimed with like three of her chickens. Have you ever FaceTimed with a chicken before?