More from Keith Olbermann: Special comments, and reuniting with Dan Patrick
But while I had Keith poised in front of my voice recorder, I wanted to ask him some questions about the origin of his Special Comments, how he thinks people determine their perception of each of the news networks, and what it will be like to sit down and do highlights with his old SportsCenter partner Dan Patrick on NBC's Football Night in America. The remainder of the interview is after the jump; we pick up with Olbermann talking about Wallace's "In the tank" line.
Keith Olbermann: The "in the tank" for Obama line is... I thought it was hilarious because as late as January I was regularly accused of being "in the tank" for Clinton.
Joel Keller: Until you started talking about the Clinton campaign...
Olbermann: Well, but, again, if you criticize somebody, it does not mean you're "in the tank" for the other candidate, as if you criticize somebody it doesn't mean you're biased against that person or that... I don't think that everybody who was critical of Obama was a racist. And I don't think that anybody who was critical of Hillary Clinton was a sexist.
Personally, I could not make it... I was supposed to go to the Clinton Foundation Christmas party last December. I mean, that I was (on the air) criticizing them, was deeply, personally painful to me. I'm sure they will say not as deeply personallly painful to you as it was to us, but I really agonized over it and in many respects, I held fire on it. A lot of the subjects that she did early on in the campaign did not strike me as particularly in concert with the rest of the Democratic feel, so, you know, it wasn't personal – it really wasn't.
JK: How did those special comments start?... Were you able to go to your bosses and say, well, 'Give me ten minutes just to talk pretty much free form?'
Olbermann: Well, it's a crystallized version of something I had done right after hurricane Katrina. When the Secretary of Homeland Security referred to Louisiana as a city, and I said, you know, I know he knows it's not a city, but this kind of mistake underscores sort of what's wrong here. If the government did not really respond well to that environment and I did it just about five and a half minutes or so. The response to that was, from management, anytime you want to do something like that, go ahead.
And really, the next time that it struck that deeply was when Donald Rumsfeld got up on and said those of us who were critical of the administration were the equivalent to Nazi appeasers, which was, you know, so wrong historically. I'm surprised Neville Chamberlain did not come back from the grave and slap him for it. So, really, I have license before and I just hadn't done it.
JK: Are you kind of looking forward to a change in leadership, no matter whether it is McCain or Obama, just because it's different and you might be able to freshen the coverage a little bit?
Olbermann: I can tell you honestly that my reaction to what happens in this presidential race is first and foremost about what it means for the country. People have said, you know, "What would you do without George Bush?" And I say, "I would have enjoyed the last seven years a little more than I have." I would have happily traded what we did and what I've been able to do for what I would think to be a good presidency and a responsible president from either party. So I really... I know, a lot of people think... It's like somebody wrote a piece saying I should be rooting for McCain, so I have something to criticize.
I twice came very close to hearing special comments being critical of Obama. One was, I didn't think he was moving sufficiently on the Reverend Wright story. And then he gave that speech. It's like, well, I do a special comment, it's going to be a nitpick here after that. And the last one was FISA vote. So there was very good reason to suspect that President Obama, if that (his election) happens, will be subject to the special comments periodically, too.
JK: That he might go back on more of the sweeping stuff he said...
Olbermann: Well, I mean it's not even that. My first experience in interviewing with him was the night before the 2006 World Series. He said, and I didn't really catch the impact to this until after we were done with the interview, but the last thing he said, "I didn't watch you on SportsCenter all those years to not ask you how the World Series is going to turn out." And I made a bad prediction, and he came back and agreed with me. We both picked the Cardinals to beat the Tigers (I think he meant the reverse, given the context -- Joel) and he explained why, and it's sophisticated explanations... we were both wrong.
But what struck me was as we were in the commercial break – this was either the smartest politician I've ever seen or the dumbest. He picked against the Cardinals. He's from Illinois. Downstate Illinois is Cardinals territory; it's possible he just lost 50 or a 100 votes. In other words...
JK: Isn't he a Cubs fan?
Olbermann: That's not the point. Rudy Giuliani once said he's rooting for the Red Sox at the World Series. The arch Yankee fan. He was willing to sell that out, and you know, something as stupid as baseball predictions. My point being, this guy was willing to go on the record with an opinion that might alienate some of his supporters. I have great respect for that and I expect also that that will mean he will be doing things that will alienate me if he's elected.
So there's no particular reason why I shouldn't be sort of ready to pounce, if you will, but more importantly, I did not want to go and become the national scold or you know, the kvetch whichever term you want to use but if I've been doing this to this president, whoever the next one is, I feel honor-bound to do it to him... or her if (Hillary Clinton's nomination is) still happening.
JK: Do you think that people get an idea the personality of a news network because they cherry pick moments? You do it as well as with "The Worst Person of the Week." For instance, I asked the Fox News chief (earlier in the week) about the "terrorist fist jab" comment. Do you think that's how people get their idea about the news networks, that they cherry pick the moments and put them all together and not look at the overall picture?
Olbermann: Yes, and on the other hand I would defend that. It's like... it is very much like looking at people assessing the political campaign. They're saying, "Well, it's so obvious how could you vote for Obama? It's so obvious how could you vote for McCain? It's so obvious how can you vote for Clinton? Here's 97 reasons." Most people don't have time for 97 reasons. I don't really expect the viewers of MSNBC to know the complete history of my show or even remember what was on five minutes ago. It's not their responsibility. Their responsibility is to watch. If they're participating in any level better than that, I am gratified. They are doing a great service to themselves, I think, and to me. They keep me on my toes.
Yes, I mean, that's the way people see things. They see it in dribs and drabs. It's like our understanding of things is really like I'm trying to read during a thunderstorm. You will see intense ray of light for a couple of seconds, maybe nine in ten times, then you're all wet.
JK: On a lighter note: I know you and Dan Patrick worked together on his radio show, but how's it going to be when you and Dan sit down and start doing the highlights again?
Olbermann: It's gonna be pretty silly.
JK: Do you think you're going to fall right back into when you did SportsCenter? I mean that's over 10 years when you left.
Olbermann: Well, yeah, but when we went back on radio it was only (back in) 2005 and went through last year. Anything where you can stop and presume it's not possible to recreate If you're trying to, it is impossible. We'll let it happen, as we did then. The radio show, I think reflected a radio version of what SportsCenter was.
So since the goal... the reason things turned out the way they did, there were two fundamental things that viewers would not have known about what we did on SportsCenter. One was that unlike the many people who work together on television, we each had this sort of Johnny Carson approach; that's an undue comparison, but his line was, "Hey, I don't care if I don't get a laugh all night as long as the guests do, because every laugh on my show becomes my laugh." It's a collective enterprise. If Dan was ever doing a highlight and I had a good line for him or a fact that he didn't know about, I handed it to him. I literally would write it out longhand and go "Don't forget these guys is" and he would do the same for me. So we covered each other and tried to help each other's performance without being asked to.
The second thing we did was whenever possible, I knew what his buttons were; he knew what my buttons were. The attempt was to make the other laugh uncontrollably on air. So, as long as those two things are still present I'm sure, from just sitting down at the press conference with him I know they're there.