By Emma Dibdin
Mika Brzezinski does not struggle to maintain her composure. As a co-host of MSNBC’s Morning Joe, she’s known as a reliably sharp and dignified commentator, dissecting the morning’s headlines alongside Joe Scarborough and Willie Geist while most of the country is still asleep. But in the early morning hours of Tuesday, September 19, in Rockefeller Center’s historic Studio 8H—where the show’s 10th anniversary special is being taped before a live audience—Brzezinski cracks for just a second while going over the day's news.
“President Trump will be addressing the UN assembly later today...” she begins, and can’t quite suppress a laugh. It’s a tiny moment, but noticeable enough that every time the headline is repeated thereafter (as is done periodically throughout the show) the audience chuckles. “It’s actually not a laugh line,” Brzezinski tells them ruefully. Like so many real headlines in 2017, Donald Trump addressing the United Nations does sound like it could be a rejected SNL skit from the early aughts. Brzezinski’s reaction hits on something universal: That incredulous laugh is all of us.
When I meet Brzezinski a few days later at Morning Joe’s offices, she confirms she’s had similar moments of incredulity "every day." "This is the most absurd presidency," she explains. "I think we used to joke around a lot more on the show, we used to have a lot more fun. Now it’s like, Oh my God, what I just said was not a laugh line. It’s the news."
Morning Joe began in what now feels strangely like a halcyon past, in April of 2007, as the Bush administration was winding down and the Democratic race between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton was heating up. Initially based in Secaucus, New Jersey, the show was pitched as “hard news for three hours, not formulaic, not focus-grouped, just intelligent people having intelligent discussions about major topics.” That essential mandate hasn’t really changed over the last ten years, Brzezinski says. “The only thing that's changed is the presidency. The conversation has changed, because I think we are in a much more dangerous place than we ever thought we'd be, domestically and in terms of our place in the world. It makes the conversation a lot more serious."
Morning Joe works on the assumption that everyone already knows what the news is before the show starts, she says, so the trio can kick right into analysis. “Instead of going through the basics like any other newscast—where you explain the nuts and bolts of what’s happened—in this presidency, you need the prognostication. People really want to know what’s going to happen.”
At the heart of that prognostication is the push-pull sparring between Scarborough and Brzezinski, who had been dubbed “the odd couple of morning TV” long before they became an actual couple. Their engagement was announced in May of this year, confirming long-simmering rumors about their off-screen relationship. Has the shift impacted their working dynamic? "I urge all your readers not to try this at home!" she responds with a laugh. "Having said that, we really like being together. It is the joy of my life…I feel really lucky to live and work with someone I love so much."
Being involved with a co-worker is rarely straightforward, but for Brzezinski, the blending of the professional and the personal hasn't been hard. "It's not like anybody on the set talks about it. We all really like each other and we all consider ourselves part of a family and it is the most congenial, fun, accepting environment. And the whole thing has been organic and certainly does not feel difficult in any way.”
Just as well, because Morning Joe relies on the pair's chemistry—and the genuine political debate that arises from their ideological differences: Scarborough, a dyed-in-the-wool conservative and former Republican congressman; Brzezinski, a moderate liberal and the daughter of a member of the Carter administration, former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski.
Scarborough declared himself an independent this year, but he’s “still conservative, he’s got a lot of Republican in him,” says Brzezinski. Though they meet in the middle on their despair over Trump, there is one aspect of his presidency that divides them, and about which they argue most off-air: “Joe has hope. He wakes up every morning knowing that the system will correct itself and the republic will be okay, and that what we have is a system of checks and balances. I am a lot more gloom and doom. I get really upset, and I feel that this president is going to do terrible damage to this country.”
Growing up in Washington during her father’s tenure under Carter gave Brzezinski an innate understanding of and respect for the political process. She was at Camp David during the 1979 peace talks, her family hosted Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping for dinner at their home, and through all of it, “I got a real sense of how much work went into being a part of the Washington process. Whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican, these people work hard. When our conversations on Morning Joe get critical, I have to remember that these people are all putting themselves out there for our country, and they love this country.” But under the current administration, her conviction has waned. “I didn't realize how comforting that was until now, when you really don’t feel that this president or his family is putting the country before their own interests," she says. "It's a scary feeling. I’ve never seen that before in my life. I know what politicians look like, sound like, and how hard they work. This is something very different.”
Brzezinski, who turned 50 in May, started out in 1990 as an assistant on ABC’s World News This Morning. By the time the Morning Joe opportunity came up, she was already working on primetime news updates at MSNBC, having spent many years at CBS: first as a correspondent and anchor, and later as a Ground Zero reporter (she broadcast live from the scene when the South Tower collapsed). "Morning Joe, I guess, was something I stumbled into. I was jobless and I took a freelance job at MSNBC, doing cut-ins during the evening and late at night."
The road to co-host was simple from there: "We bumped into each other in the hallway," Brzezinski says of Scarborough, "and I instantly insulted him, which made him think I would be a good co-host on the show. The rest is history.”
Despite Brzezinski's breezy competence, she and the show have had dark, challenging moments, like the Monday after the Sandy Hook shooting in 2012, when Scarborough—who received the NRA’s highest ratings during his four terms in Congress—delivered a powerful monologue calling for gun control. And November 9, 2016.
“The days leading up to the election were already very trying, because everybody thought Hillary was going to win, but we had been warning people that Trump could.” It clearly still frustrates Brzezinski that because she, Scarborough, and Geist took Trump and his voters seriously, they were accused of supporting him. “We were like, ‘No, we're trying to tell you that there is a swath of the country that feels disenfranchised, and is hurting, and Trump is touching them. He's reaching them in a way that Hillary's not.' She was the worst person in the world to run against Donald Trump. Had we had a Biden, had we had a Bernie, they would have beat him.”
By election night, anger at the hosts' perceived support for Trump had boiled over, and “things had gotten kind of personal," Brzezinski recalls. "The morning-after show was hard to balance, because we had a live audience which we don't usually do, and...it was hard to find the words, and that’s not usually hard for us. I walked out there and just felt like I was walking on Mars.”
And then, on June 29, a new low. Morning Joe’s hosts had been increasingly critical of Trump since his inauguration, prompting an enraged series of tweets in which the president called the pair “crazy” and “dumb,” before claiming that “low IQ Crazy Mika, along with Psycho Joe, came to Mar-a-Lago 3 nights in a row around New Year’s Eve, and insisted on joining me. She was bleeding badly from a face-lift. I said no!” It was a personal attack so bizarre and vicious that even GOP leaders recoiled.
A Politico poll showed that Trump’s tweet had hurt him with voters across the board, but three months on, Brzezinski remains unfazed by the attack—though she is deeply disturbed by the dysfunction it represents. “Are you kidding me? Bleeding from a facelift… What? It's deranged. I will tell you, the month after it happened I got mobbed in the streets by people saying ‘I am so sorry.’” Initially Brzezinski assumed that they were offering condolences on the death of her father, who passed away a month before Trump’s Twitter attack. “Everyone’s coming up to me, they're hugging me, and I say, ‘Yes, he was a great man, my father,' and they're like, 'No! The President's tweets!’ I really don’t care if he wants to say that I look…whatever. I'm worried that he's doing it!” Trump has a long and telling history of going after women for their looks, I note, and she nods: “It's some strange sexual thing.”
Next spring, Brzezinski will reissue Knowing Your Value, her bestselling 2011 self-help book for women, which has now taken on a new meaning (“I have to tell you, we need it more than ever”). She is writing a new chapter for the 2018 version “on knowing your value in the age of Trump.” Pegged to the re-release, Brzezinski has launched an entrepreneurial competition inviting women to send in videos pitching their personal brand in one minute or less. During her workshop tour around the country, which begins on October 30 in Manhattan, finalists will have the chance to pitch Brzezinski live in front of an audience. “Most of the women who have pitched to me in the past are shaking, and that's what a negotiation feels like. You have to put yourself out there. The most amazing things happen when you do.”
So how—in an era when an alleged sexual predator is in the highest office in the land and sexual harassment remains endemic in workplaces nationwide—can women feel empowered? This is not a hypothetical question for Brzezinski. “I’ve had examples, lately, where someone has touched me a little inappropriately, and I'm just like, 'What are you doing? That’s a no.'”
I bring up a strange moment from the anniversary taping, when the hosts were interviewing New Jersey Governor Chris Christie about his infamous “Bridgegate” scandal and his ongoing support of Trump. It was one of the show’s more tense conversations, with Christie semi-jokingly slamming MSNBC for its coverage of the scandal, and when Brzezinski offered to “change the subject and make it even more awkward.” Christie responded, “Are we gonna talk about our odd attraction? Is that what you wanna talk about? That will make it very awkward.”
It was hard to parse this moment when it happened—Brzezinski clapped right back with “He went there! Usually Donny does that stuff,” before barreling on with the show unfazed. When I ask how she felt about the remark, she’s quick to clarify that she thinks "he was just trying to be funny on television, He was trying to be lively—I do not think he was hitting on me.” Brzezinski knows a true red flag when she sees one—this wasn't—and says that she finds calling out the behavior immediately to be the best approach. “We’re in a day and age where it is okay to say, 'That's not okay.' There are situations where you need to go to HR, and you shouldn’t think twice about doing that. You can also communicate directly to the person that it's a no. I've done it, and I feel that women have more freedom to do that now—we just need to know that we do.”
But there’s another moment of the Christie exchange that stood out: when Brzezinski acknowledged the awkwardness of the situation and said, “I love awkward.” I ask her about that aside towards the end of our conversation, half-expecting her to not even remember it, but she immediately lights up. “I love awkward! I think awkward is really powerful, and I think women tend to think awkward is weak. If you're making a presentation, if you're trying to accomplish something in the room with a boss, or make a deal, it’s much more effective to slow down the pace of your talking. Let what you’re saying hang a little bit.” Women feel compelled to fill silences, to smooth things over, to do the emotional labor, she says. “That’s not our job. Our job sometimes is to leave things a little bit uncomfortable. The most awkward moment in a negotiation can be a winning moment.”
This year, Brzezinski’s own negotiation has been asking for more days off: “I’ve been really tired since I lost my dad, and sent two kids off to college, and dealt with this presidency.” She, Scarborough, and Geist are now the longest-running anchor team on television, but the way things are going, she’s just grateful to still be standing. “We’re just trying to keep up with it all. I don’t know about ten more years—I’m just happy to be here another day.”
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