The ongoing battle between cable’s Fox News and MSNBC sometimes makes TV’s Ultimate Fighter seem tame. MSNBC’s latest weapon is Lawrence O’Donnell, one of the gutsiest, most fiercely intelligent and entertaining hosts on any television network, cable or otherwise. So when ratings king Keith Olbermann parted company with MSNBC, O’Donnell was the natural choice to fill his chair. Each weeknight on his show, The Last Word With Lawrence O’Donnell, the host, who is so far to the left of the political spectrum that he has described himself as a socialist, discusses the issues of the day—clashes between unions and state governments, Afghanistan, Charlie Sheen—with a sharp focus on what he calls “Republican folly.” He delights in skewering conservative media figures and politicians. He called Vice President Dick Cheney’s speech on counterterrorism policy “sleazy.” He slammed Fox News commentator Glenn Beck’s “fake biblical literalist piety.” He has criticized Minnesota Republican congresswoman Michele Bachmann’s “breathtaking demonstrations of ignorance levels previously unimaginable in a member of Congress or a graduate of an American elementary school” and has called Fox’s Bill O’Reilly “a joke” and a liar.
O’Donnell, who is from Boston, is to the political left what O’Reilly and Rush Limbaugh are to the right—that is, if either were also a Harvard graduate and political wonk versed in the minutiae of health care policy and tax codes. After college O’Donnell worked for half a decade, first as communications director and later as senior advisor, for Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who once said of O’Donnell, “He’s maybe the smartest man, and he sure as hell is the toughest.” In addition to his inside-the-Beltway political career, O’Donnell, who is 59 and married to actress Kathryn Harrold, has written a book, worked as writer and producer on the TV show The West Wing and acted on that show and on Big Love (he had a recurring role). On MSNBC, he guest hosted Hardball With Chris Matthews, The Ed Show, The Rachel Maddow Show and Countdown With Keith Olbermann, which led to The Last Word.
Playboy sent Contributing Editor David Sheff, who conducted last month’s interview with Congressman Barney Frank, to New York to talk media and politics with O’Donnell. Sheff reports, “O’Donnell is the rare television host who talks beyond bullet points about almost any issue you can name. Ask him about health care, and along with analysis of the Obama plan you get a detailed, nuanced history of the issue as it has evolved since the Nixon presidency. O’Donnell seemed sincere when he said he prefers serious debate to the kind of shouting matches many cable news hosts are famous for, but that didn’t stop him from ripping into former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who that day gave an interview in which he blamed his marital infidelities on his passion for America. O’Donnell, on a tear, said it had less to do with Gingrich’s passion for America than it had to do with Viagra.”