Have liberals found their combative new leader in … Keith Olbermann?
By Ben Terris
“IF YOU'RE GOING TO travel with me, you cannot precisely characterize the area I live in," Keith Olbermann wrote in an email. "Nothing more detailed than 'midtown' . . . I get death threats and, in the past, fake anthrax, and take as many precautions as I can to keep my address secret."
You may have forgotten about Olbermann. It's been more than six years since the fiery liberal tirade artist left his signature show on MSNBC. But he's got a Web series now. With a polarizing new president to fulminate against, he's calling his new show The Resistance, and he's more than happy to play to type.
The concept is simple: The veteran broadcaster, dressed as usual like a Mad Men anti-hero, sits behind a desk against a stark backdrop and rants for about seven minutes in bleak and blunt terms about the dangers of having Donald Trump as president. The recordings have the feeling of something smuggled out of a country under siege, a last-man-standing beseeching the camera I don't have much time, so . . .
"This is about a man not in his right mind who now has nuclear weapons," Olbermann says in one video, staring directly at the viewer.
"Donald Trump has branded himself a traitor to everything this country has stood for," he declares in another. "We will remove him."
On a recent Monday, Olbermann, 58, emerged for another taping - not in a wooded hideaway, as it turned out, but at the headquarters of Condé Nast, on the 24th floor of the new World Trade Center. The show is brought to you by GQ magazine.
Olbermann first arrived at the lobby of the Plaza Hotel, a place he determined was a safe meeting spot with a reporter, in baggy jeans, a vintage baseball jacket, a sweatshirt emblazoned with the word "Henchman" and what appeared to be rose-colored sunglasses.
"They're orange, actually," he said. Not the color of naive optimism, you see, but of hazard warnings, atomic blasts and our new president. "It helps with the disguise."
Olbermann may have claimed The Resistance as his show's title, but it's also fashionable shorthand for the emerging, amorphous community — career Democrats, masked anarchists, Hollywood liberals, conservative Never Trumpers — working to topple, or at least rein in, President Trump. Not working together, mind you: The movement has only the barest organization and no true leaders. But plenty of people are looking to fill that void and, in some cases, pave their own path back to relevance.
The celebrity faction of the Resistance is all over the map: A-listers like Meryl Streep who rebuked Trump's attacks on a free press in a stirring Golden Globes speech; hangers-on like actor Tom Arnold, whose Twitter feed and podcast are filled with dark conspiracy theories about the president; and smart-aleck comedy stars like Sarah Silverman who recently tweeted:
WAKE UP & JOIN THE RESISTANCE. ONCE THE MILITARY IS W US FASCISTS GET OVERTHROWN. MAD KING & HIS HANDLERS GO BYE BYE❤❤❤❤ https://twitter.com/jeffmueller/status/ ... 9491085317 …
11:41 PM - 1 Feb 2017
Then there's Olbermann. After a couple of unlikely career shifts — from longtime sportscaster to cable news pundit and back again — he's ready for another spotlight. And his video commentaries have been getting more than 2 million views an episode.
"More people are paying attention to my message at the moment than they would be if I were some other host on MSNBC or CNN," he said. (An MSNBC spokesman reached for comment on the network's former star asked: "Why is Keith in the news (or of interest) right now?")
Olbermann has always had a healthy ego. He used to hang on the door of his MSNBC office a list of famous people who tuned into his show -- including, he claimed, all the living ex-presidents and Mel Brooks. He jokes that the reason HBO's drama The Newsroom was canceled was because "they must have run out of things to cut and paste from my emails and commentary."
Yet he has maintained the attention of at least one influential player: David Brock, the mega-fundraiser behind various Hillary Clinton-affiliated super PACs. After Clinton's surprising defeat, critics blasted Brock for being good at bilking rich Democratic donors but not much else. That criticism reached a peak last month when about 200 Democratic leaders attended a Brock fundraiser at a golf resort outside Miami on the same weekend as the Women's March on Washington.
It wasn't a great look for top Democrats to miss one of the biggest grass-roots demonstrations in history. And then, Brock picked Olbermann -- a white guy who gained fame yammering about sports -- as the keynote speaker.
"Some folks thought he would be too much of an acquired taste," Brock said. "But I went with my instinct . . . His speech was so good I forgot to eat that night."
For years, some Democrats have been saying they need a feisty tea party-type wing of their own to motivate the base. But when former congressman Alan Grayson (D., Fla.) issued a news release comparing grass-roots Republicans to the Ku Klux Klan, for example, his own party accused him of going too far. Olbermann, though, told his keynote audience that it's time to embrace just such tactics.
"We know that we must play by the rules that sicken us, against which our souls cry out," he said. "We have to fight him on his own terms."
Brock, who has said he wants to create a new "Breitbart of the left"-style media enterprise, couldn't agree more.
"I think he can really be a critical voice of the opposition," he said. "And he's freed up to do it."
Granted, this free time isn't exactly by choice. Over three decades, Olbermann has earned a reputation as difficult. Both Fox's Rupert Murdoch and MSNBC's Phil Griffin have publicly called him "crazy."
In late 2010, MSNBC suspended him from his popular show, Countdown, after reports that he had donated to Democratic campaigns. He left shortly after that and landed at the now-defunct Current TV, which fired him about a year later; he sued before reaching an undisclosed financial settlement.
After bouncing around in sports programming again, Olbermann began taking meetings in search of another show. In 2016, Geoff Gagnon, an editor at GQ, called.
"I said, 'It's a shame that you're not out there, that there's this crazy election and where's Keith Olbermann?'" Gagnon recalled. "And he was kind of like, that's exactly something I've been feeling as well."
Within weeks, the Web series, originally dubbed The Closer, was up and running, filming as many as three episodes a week. After the election it took on a new name — and mission.
From the Plaza Hotel, Olbermann took a W train toward downtown, exiting near the World Trade Center, where he worked years ago as a young reporter for CNN. Now he said he feels an existential dread he hadn't felt since 9/11.
"I only took one government class at Cornell," he said as he approached the new skyscraper. "And I swear the professor said on the third or fourth day: Never give nuclear weapons to a guy with multiple personalities."
The left has been accused of crying wolf in the past, and Olbermann may be guiltier than most. For years he spent a chunk of his show dubbing various media and political figures — Bill O'Reilly, Rick Santorum, George W. Bush — as the "Worst Person in The World." He's got no regrets.
"I don't think people who were critical of Napoleon lost the right to be critical of him the second time he came back," he said, boarding the elevator to a cavernous Condé Nast studio. He greeted a clutch of handlers and plopped in front of a makeup station to have the back of his neck shaved and his face touched up.
He put on a suit jacket, skinny tie and pocket square over his baggy jeans, and sat behind a lone desk. He stared into the camera and, in one take, delivered an emotional message about Trump's executive order banning large swaths of Muslim refugees from entering the country.
"Permit me to apologize on behalf of the citizens of the United States of America for the unforgivable actions of the man who has assumed power here," Olbermann said. "I speak for those unlike Trump, unlike the sycophants who surround him, unlike the hate-filled souls and the conscious optional bigots who applaud him, unlike the Russian puppeteers who may be manipulating him."
Yes, Olbermann can be hacky and pompous, but he's always had a knack for connecting with an audience. His monologues have a writerly touch, and he at least appears to truly believe what he's saying.
Some of Olbermann's commentaries are infused with a frenetic energy akin to the right-wing conspiracy theorist Alex Jones. But for this taping, he solemnly spoke of his great-great grandfather, Friedrich Olbermann, who emigrated from Germany — and of Trump's grandfather, Friedrich Trump, who did as well.
Trump, he said, had "betrayed" both of their ancestors. His eyes welled with tears as he cited the famous Emma Lazarus poem engraved at the Statue of Liberty: "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free . . ."
After filming, Olbermann sat by a window overlooking the Hudson River.
"The connection between my great-great-grandfather and his grandfather does make Trump seem more human, in that it makes me understand how easy it is for all of it to go wrong, how fragile democracy is," he said.
There are nights, he said, that he awakens with a lump in his throat, like he's "swallowed commemorative coin." But there is one thing that helps him sleep: These moments he sits in a studio, and spews dark warnings that might, he hopes, make a connection or inspire a movement or, at the very least, lead to his next comeback.
"If I ever see the mushroom cloud," he said, "at least I will not be sitting there thinking I didn't do enough to try and stop it."
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