It wasn't in his obit, but you can chalk up another TV innovation to the late, great NBC newsman Tim Russert. As Morning Joe host Joe Scarborough tells us, it wasn't until a couple of months after he replaced Don Imus as the star in the MSNBC morning slot that his three-hour political chat got its groove. "The show got its first big break when we were in Iowa,"says Scarborough, recalling the cold morning broadcasts leading up to the first presidential caucus. Russert was down the street, Scarborough recalls, and "he saw us on TV and said, 'Well, usually all the action's over there.' " So Russert walked over and took a seat on camera to jaw about politics. "It quickly took on that atmosphere as a place to drop in and give your opinion on the campaign and news of the day," says Scarborough. "We trace it back to that day where we really figured out what we are." For Scarborough, a popular ex-congressman, and his able sidekicks Mika Brzezinski and Willie Geist, that model has paid off. Imus, booted for making racially insensitive comments in mid-2007, averaged 358,000 viewers; Morning Joe just hit 547,000. "I think that people that run the network would have been thrilled to get anybody to help put that crisis behind NBC," says Scarborough of Imus. "I think everybody is really pleasantly surprised." What's helped the show is the election and the balance of views, especially compared with the partisan prime-time cable shows. Regulars include President-elect Barack Obama's communications guru Robert Gibbs and his McCain foil, Nicolle Wallace. "Doing Morning Joe is the most fun I have all day on the campaign," says Gibbs. "I can disagree with Joe and others, but we can do it without being petty and nasty." Adds Wallace: "MSNBC would be well served to air Morning Joe for 12 hours a day." Scarborough actually uses a CIA term to describe his New York-based show, calling it "a safe house where you could come in, say what you believe without being attacked." So what does Morning Joe drink? "I am going to have to cop a plea to being an Upper West Side effete. Iced latte," he says. "I usually need to put a straw in there and get it down very quickly, and I can suck down a venti iced latte in about 20 seconds to wake up instead of sipping very hot coffee." It irks him, though, that he has to buy it—from Starbucks. "We really need an in-newsroom barista."
Illustration by Joe Ciardiello for USN&WR