New MSNBC Host Admits to Being a Socialist

Lawrence O'Donnell doesn't mind competitors mocking him

Lawrence O'Donnell is a writer, producer and actor known for his work on "The West Wing." He's also a political commentator on MSNBC whose own show on the cable news network, "The Last Word With Lawrence O'Donnell," starts Sept. 27, going up against Fox News Channel's high-rated, "On the Record With Greta Van Susteren." He spoke with THR.

The Hollywood Reporter: Are you a liberal?

Lawrence O'Donnell: Yes. And I've been a liberal for so long that I still call myself one. I didn't change to "progressive."

THR: But you have referred to yourself as a socialist.

O'Donnell: Yes. A practical European socialist which, as it turns out, we all are, if you know that Social Security ... is a socialist program, and that Medicare is a socialist program and that all economies of the world are mixed with some capitalism and some socialism and they just vary in their degrees.

THR: So you have no objection when conservatives call President Obama a socialist?

O'Donnell: No. But if they're honest about it, they would call themselves socialist, too. Newt Gingrich preserved the socialist state. He never once introduced a bill to repeal Medicare.

THR: Would you object if a Republican introduced such a bill?

O'Donnell: No, because I think it's an honest position. I hope Rand Paul does if he becomes a senator. There are people who honestly hold themselves in opposition to socialism. But there isn't a single one in the U.S. Congress who does.

THR: You're a producer, actor, talk-show host. Which do you like best?

O'Donnell: I like writing TV drama best.

THR: Did you infuse liberalism or socialism into your writing and producing of "The West Wing"?

O'Donnell: No, I actually wrote most of the Republican material in the show because my own opinion didn't interest me.

THR: Didn't they have any actual Republicans on the staff to do that?

O'Donnell: There were.

THR: Who?

O'Donnell: There was a former Reagan White House chief of staff, Kenneth Duberstein, as a consultant. And there was a writer. There were 50 writers on the show total.

THR: There were 50 writers on 'The West Wing' and only one was a Republican?

O'Donnell: One I can remember. But look, the Writers Guild is 95% a liberal organization, so on the writing staffs of TV shows you begin with a 95% liberal pool.

THR: Are the conservatives mistreated in any way for being different?

O'Donnell: Well, they're hired and paid a lot of money, so if you can find mistreatment in that ... . And remember, they're hired by liberals.

THR: Why is it 95%-5% liberal over conservative?

O'Donnell: It's clear that the arts attract liberal participants. This phenomenon has pre-existed our time.

THR: What do you think of the Tea Party?

O'Donnell: It's an interesting phenomenon, like Ross Perot's movement, which I thought would be a long-lasting one. Perot's movement was actually based on more specifics than the Tea Party. But I think all movements that try to crack the monopoly that the parties exert over other sections of their parties are good developments for this democracy.

THR: Then you're in disagreement with those I've seen on MSNBC who denounce Tea Partiers as racists?

O'Donnell: You can find in large crowds people who cross the line and would come across as racist, but I don't think there's an indictment to be made of everybody associated with the Tea Party.

THR: Will your new show's ratings beat Keith Olbermann's?

O'Donnell: We'll do what we can. But we're not trying to beat anyone at MSNBC. We're going to continue, I hope, to beat CNN.

THR: What about Fox News?

O'Donnell: Fox is a higher mountain for us to climb. Greta has a big lead, and I think she can rest easy because she'll probably hang onto it.

THR: How does Fox get such great ratings?

O'Donnell: I don't know why people watch what they watch on TV. If I did, I'd be worth a lot more money.

THR: So how much is MSNBC paying you?

O'Donnell: I believe I'm sworn to secrecy. They made me an offer I couldn't refuse.

THR: Speaking of Fox: You said on air that Glenn Beck's rally a few weeks ago in Washington basically attracted zero people -- that it was just "flow-through traffic."

O'Donnell: I accepted the estimates of 80,000, and I've seen estimates that, on a weekend with good weather, that's how many people will flow through there. The question we'll never know is, how many were French tourists who stopped and turned when people were talking into a microphone and had no idea what they were listening to?

THR: It looked like a pretty massive crowd from the photos. Have you seen them?

O'Donnell: Yes. And I accept the smart estimates of about 80,000. You look at the aerial photos, and you see a lot of grass.

THR: But you don't accept the estimate of 300,000?

O'Donnell: No

THR: But that was reported by NBC, your own sister network.

O'Donnell: It's all guesswork. What we don't know is how many were actually supporters of Glenn.

THR: Did you hear Beck goofing on you over your remark about "flow-through traffic"?

O'Donnell: No.

THR: Do you like it when your competitors belittle you?

O'Donnell: Absolutely. Glenn has much bigger ratings than I do. The more he says my name, the better.

THR: You like his show?

O'Donnell: What Glenn Beck does is fascinating from a performance standpoint, and I suspect that's what a lot of the audience is there for because it is unpredictable. The best TV is when you don't know what's going to happen next, and with Beck, you don't know.

THR: Will you have regular bits on your show, like Olbermann's "worst person" or Bill O'Reilly's "pinheads and patriots"?

O'Donnell: If we do, they will develop over time. It's not something I'm setting out to do.

THR: Got any criticisms of President Obama?

O'Donnell: (Very long pause on phone).

THR: You still there?

O'Donnell: Yeah. That's a much trickier question for me than for most people, having worked with presidents. . . . I don't think Obama has made any tactical or policy mistakes that have put him in this unpopular situation. He is stuck with the worst economic picture that a modern president has had to deal with, while dealing with two wars.

THR: So nothing he has done has prolonged the economic situation?

O'Donnell: Absolutely not. I'm a Keynesian.

THR: So he needs to spend more money?

O'Donnell: Look. The thing about economics is that nothing is proven. So no one can prove to you what the stimulus did or did not do.

THR: Well, they can prove it put us in bigger debt.

O'Donnell: No. You will not get the result of it for another few years, and even then you can look at the stimulus dollar cost on our books, but you won't be able to say, "This is what it actually stimulated, and this is how much tax revenue through that stimulation was returned to our books."

THR: So you can't look at tax cuts under Reagan or JFK that brought in more money to the Treasury and conclude that tax cuts would work again?

O'Donnell: No. Would you at the same time look at the Clinton tax increase and see that revenue to the Treasury skyrocketed beyond anyone's expectations? Would you attribute that to the wisdom of the tax increases or to the luck of the business cycle?

THR: Are the Democrats going to keep the House and Senate?

O'Donnell: I am much more modest in trying to make those predictions than most people are. But I wouldn't want to be running the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee or the Democratic House Campaign Committee. I don't think they've ever faced more difficulty than what they're facing right now.

THR: But that's not Obama's fault because he has made no mistakes, right?

O'Donnell: That's what you call putting words in my mouth.

THR: Didn't you say earlier that the president has made no tactical or policy mistakes?

O'Donnell: The political predicament he's in is the result of the worst economic conditions a president has walked into while conducting two wars. No president has ever, ever had problems of that scope.

THR: Should MSNBC hire more conservatives and Fox News hire more liberals?

O'Donnell: They're both succeeding with what they're doing.

THR: I watch both, and I see a lot more debate on Fox than on MSNBC.

O'Donnell: There's a certain amount of faux debating. I get a kick out of it when Bill O'Reilly brings on Laura Ingraham and has her take a position wildly to his right, and then Bill gets to sound like the reasonable man. It leaves Bill on the right side of the discussion, but he's got a foil playing the extreme, crazy right-winger.

THR: But I'm talking about liberals on Fox like Al Sharpton, Juan Williams, Geraldo Rivera. I don't see many conservatives on MSNBC.

O'Donnell: Well, Joe Scarborough holds up his end for three hours a day. He has more airtime than anyone else at the network.

THR: Didn't Scarborough kick you off his show once, or cut your mike?

O'Donnell: No. You should watch the whole show. He went to a commercial, we came back and laughed about it, then I went on his radio show.

THR: So why haven't you corrected that on your Wikipedia page?

O'Donnell: I love everything Wikipedia has that's wrong about me. The more public information that is wrong, the more privacy I have. So I have never, ever, ever attempted to correct public information that's wrong about me, and I don't actually see Wikipedia, so I don't what's there.