Interview

'He understands Washington': Joe Scarborough finds echoes of Truman in Biden

in Washington
joe scarborough
Joe Scarborough says he regrets his show having focused on the Hillary Clinton email story. Photograph: Steven Senne/AP
Joe Scarborough says he regrets his show having focused on the Hillary Clinton email story. Photograph: Steven Senne/AP

The Morning Joe host, author of a new book on Harry S Truman, sees parallels in the two presidents’ efforts to rebuild

David Smith

Last modified on Thu 3 Dec 2020 13.58 EST

Joe Scarborough had been discussing Joe Biden’s cabinet, Donald Trump’s delusions and America’s battered claim to be the indispensable nation when the conversation took an unexpected turn.

“I knew yesterday morning it was Mika’s and my anniversary and she said nothing and about five o’clock in the afternoon I walked in and I said, ‘Is today a special day for you?’” Scarborough shared with his TV guests last Wednesday. “She goes, ‘Yeah, I guess, whatever.’”

Mika Brzezinski, his wife of two years, winced and said: “Stop it, this is too personal!” Undeterred, Scarborough pressed on, eventually dabbing his eyes with a tissue.

It was the type of gear shift that makes the MSNBC network’s Morning Joe programme compelling and, for some viewers, a little cringeworthy. At its best, the daily 6am to 9am show is America’s equivalent of BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, with highbrow analysis and agenda-setting interviews making it a must-watch for politicos of all stripes.

But Scarborough, 57, a garrulous, outsized personality with his own dad-rock band, is not everyone’s cup of tea. The former Republican congressman from Florida and Brzezinski have been parodied multiple times by Alex Moffat and Kate McKinnon on Saturday Night Live. Brzezinski’s eye rolls and peeved expressions have become comedy gold in their own right.

Yet somehow the formula works. Co-hosted by Willie Geist, Morning Joe just had its best year yet, averaging 1.62 million total viewers in the second week of November and beating Trump’s beloved Fox & Friends on Fox News. Scarborough admits to being pleasantly surprised.

“At the time we started in 2007,” he says by phone, “the news hole was shrinking as lots more cable news shows were doing stories about Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan and news-you-can-use type segments.”

“So we decided that we were going to go on and sort of be the anti-cable cable show and let people know on both sides that when they came on, as long as they didn’t just spout out talking points, they would have safe harbour and that we weren’t going to have shouting matches like you’d see on primetime cable shows.”

Among those seeking safe harbour five years ago was Trump. Scarborough and Brzezinski – the daughter of the former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski – faced criticism for an overly friendly rapport with the celebrity businessman. After winning the New Hampshire primary, Trump told them on air: “You guys have been supporters, and I really appreciate it.”

Scarborough reflects now: “Mika and I have a lot of regrets, not so much on the Trump side. We were criticized for having him on, and we had him on dozens of times during his ascent, but at the same time in early December 2015, after him talking about having a Muslim registry, I said on the air: this is what Germany looked like in 1933, I could never vote for this man and Republicans shouldn’t vote for the man. And we of course pushed him on Putin.

“My bigger regret is that we focused as much as we did on the Hillary Clinton email story. When you look at it in its totality, I certainly understand why the [New York] Times and so many other outlets were following the story but, looking back, putting it in proper context, my God, for us to be worrying about that while you had a guy who was shattering every political norm, it does seem out of kilter with what we should have done.”

The Trump campaign tried to repeat the trick this time around with baseless conspiracy theories about Biden’s son, Hunter, but the mainstream media wasn’t going to be fooled twice.

Scarborough recalls: “We had conservatives saying, ‘Why aren’t you guys talking about this?’ I said, ‘You really want me to talk about Hunter Biden when the president of the United States just called on his attorney general to arrest Joe Biden?’ I said, ‘It’s kind of hard to get past the 12 stories Donald Trump gives us every day.’”

To say that Scarborough and Brzezinski’s relationship with Trump turned sour would be an understatement. In June 2017, the president unleashed a Twitter tirade at “Psycho Joe” and “low I.Q. Crazy Mika”, whom he claimed was once “bleeding badly from a face-lift”. A month later, a disenchanted Scarborough announced he was quitting the Republican party to become an independent.

By 2020 Trump was tweeting lies accusing the former congressman of murdering an aide two decades previously. It was perhaps poetic justice that Scarborough was live on air to deliver the breaking news of Trump’s election defeat. “Certainly it will be considered the worst presidency of this century and probably even of the last,” he says now.

Scarborough, a child of the cold war who hung portraits of former presidents Harry Truman and Ronald Reagan in his congressional office, is clearly more at ease with a Biden administration that promises moderation in all things and a repudiation Trump’s nationalistic isolationism.

A guest on Wednesday’s Morning Joe, the Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson, pointed out: “Joe, you have good timing. You’re fortunate to have a book about Harry Truman coming out this week, because this could be a Truman moment. I think of the Marshall Plan. I think of the building of the western alliance, the rebuilding of the western world.

Harry Truman throws out the first pitch at baseball game in Washington, 1949.
Harry Truman throws out the first pitch at baseball game in Washington, 1949. Photograph: William J Smith/AP

“And I think of the rebuilding that Joe Biden is necessarily going to have to do and the rethinking of our relationships. He’s going to have to figure out what is our relationship going to be with China. How do we move forward at this point with our western allies? What does the post-pandemic, post-Trump world look like? This is that sort of moment.”

Scarborough’s eerily timely book is Saving Freedom, a fluently written and engaging account of the Democrat Truman in 1947 winning over sceptical Republicans in Congress to end 150 years of American isolationism and unite the west against the Soviet Union. Winston Churchill praised the 33rd US president for doing “more than any other man” to save western civilisation.

Critics on the left are likely to regard Scarborough’s celebration of the Truman doctrine as an idealistic apologia for American imperialism. He does acknowledge its “darker consequences” in Vietnam and Iraq but contends that Truman cannot be judged by the actions of his successors. He is also alive to the parallels with Biden inheriting a world in crisis.

“The thing about Harry Truman is after he became president, he wasn’t just acting on impulse,” he says. “Truman believed that the United States had a responsibility in the world and was saying it publicly long before FDR [Franklin Delano Roosevelt] had the courage to tell Americans that we were going to have to get involved in stopping the spread of fascism across Europe.

“He wasn’t quite as bold as Churchill in the mid to late 30s but Truman did start giving speeches in ’38, ’39, ’40 warning that the United States needed to be ready and so when he became president he was an avowed internationalist. And the United States has profited from it.”

The author continues: “It’s what’s so ridiculous about this ‘America first’ mentality. Donald Trump and a lot of Republicans act as if the United States helping allies and working in tandem with allies is somehow taking away from what’s in our national interest. Time and again, Truman and other presidents who have engaged in the world proved that when the United States helps allies, allies help the United States.

“The Marshall Plan did help rebuild Europe and yes, Europe was a beneficiary of that, but who was the bigger beneficiary of that? The United States. We rebuilt trading partners, we rebuilt strong alliances and we also built up a strategic fortress, a bulwark against the spread of communism into central and western Europe. The ‘America first’ approach, even though it’s the one thing that Donald Trump really does believe in and has believed in for decades, it is also perhaps the most shortsighted of his viewpoints.”

Truman and Biden are kindred spirits in other ways too. Both were underestimated for much of their lives (Truman was dismissed by Time magazine as “the mousy little man from Missouri”; the BBC’s Alistair Cooke later recalled in his Letter from America: “Well, from the first day of his presidency to the last, we need have had no fears about his mousiness. We staggered out of that first press conference after taking a drubbing from a rubbery sergeant major.”)

Scarborough says: “Joe Biden tried to run [for president] in ’87 and just had an absolutely miserable run, became a punchline for political jokes for years to come. But he kept fighting and pushing back. Truman was mocked and ridiculed by his contemporaries often enough. But what both men had in common, other than being underestimated by their peers, is the fact that they were creatures of Washington.”

That kind of experience has been missing from both Democratic and Republican administrations for the past 20 years, Scarborough argues. “We’ve been so determined to elect outsiders, which has always baffled me because if I ever needed spine surgery or brain surgery, I wouldn’t want somebody who just sort of wandered in and picked this up and decided, like George W Bush decided at 40, that he wanted to be president of the United States.

“Or like Barack Obama who, when he got in the United States Senate, Harry Reid said, ‘Hey, it’s obvious you don’t like being here, why don’t you just run for president?’ Or of course Donald Trump, who ran for president and it’s a branding exercise that went horribly wrong; he was the dog that caught the bus and we all suffered for it.”

He contends that Biden’s ability to harness personal relationships and make deals give him a chance to avoid Washington gridlock, just as Bill Clinton did in the 1990s when Scarborough was part of a Republican majority in the House of Representatives.

“Here you have Joe Biden, the guy who understands Washington, understands the United States Senate and can sit down with Mitch McConnell and actually get things done. I think there’s a gross oversimplification of how Washington works and how difficult it is to make things happen.

Joe Biden delivers a pre-Thanksgiving speech in Wilmington.
Joe Biden delivers a pre-Thanksgiving speech in Wilmington. Photograph: Joshua Roberts/Reuters

“So many people think, well, Mitch McConnell has stood in the way of any legislation passing and Republicans stood in the way of Obama passing legislation. Politics is the art of the possible. You have to know what you can get done and that’s something that Truman understood. That’s something that Biden will understand and it’s one of the reasons why I’m hopeful.”

Scarborough is also more optimistic than many that the Republican party can break the fever of Trumpism once the 45th president has left office. “I don’t know that they can reinvent themselves but I’ve been around Washington long enough – for a quarter of a century now, off and on – to know that when a politician loses, they’re cast to the side.

“I was attacked by a lot of conservatives for criticising George W Bush’s foreign policy and his deficits and his debt. All the usual suspects called me a leftwinger and a socialist, which is pretty funny considering that I was writing books attacking Bush’s big-spending habits. And the second he left office, they started saying the same things that I’ve been saying.”

He adds: “I’ve thought for some time that when Donald Trump left the White House, we would be flooded with biographies of people writing about how they won the war, how they how they saved America from the worst instincts of Donald Trump. Washington is a very small town and people are going to want to get back in the in-crowd and that’s usually the party or the president who’s in power.”

Trump merits only one mention in Saving Freedom. Scarborough had been planning to write a book about him but realised that he would get trampled in the publishing stampede. And as things turned out, it looks like the mousy little man from Missouri is in for a longer shelf life.