Lawrence O'Donnell

A Politics in Crisis

Air Date: July 22, 2017

Lawrence O’Donnell, host of MSNBC’s The Last Word, talks about the condition of American politics.


HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. One of my most admired veteran political analysts, host of MSNBC’s The Last Word, Lawrence O’Donnell has been a master student and teacher of American politics for decades.

A former senior advisor the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, chief of staff to senate committees on finance and the environment. And Emmy-award executive producer and writer for the West Wing, O’Donnell knows where the bodies are buried, so to speak. In our failed quest for a bi-partisan future, and in the real deadening of our democratic institutions. O’Donnell is also author of the forthcoming Playing with Fire: The 1968 Election and the Transformation of American Politics, an account of a watershed election that foreshadowed the present political tsunami. To be published by Penguin in the fall. I too should note an Open Mind connection to our guest. As his mentor, Daniel Patrick Moynihan appeared on air here with my grandfather in the 1970s and 80s to discuss ideas and politics. And now it’s an honor to welcome Lawrence here.

O’DONNELL: Well now you’ve made it a very tough act to follow.


O’DONNELL: I can’t…for all those viewers out there who remember the Moynihan appearances on this show, I’m, I’m not gonna live up to…


O’DONNELL: To what they’re expecting.

HEFFNER: Parts one and two, um, it’s really a pleasure to have you here Lawrence. As I think about your career, and your tenure as a writer on the West Wing, and as a junkie in the Nth degree right, the aspiration of our politics, the better angels, and then the cynicism of today, the demons, and of course, the partisan, polarization. That journey, I gather you’ve reflected on seriously in this upcoming book, but I wanted to get your insight into that evolution, devolution, deterioration from that aspiration. Um that you wrote in the West Wing to what seems to be that deadening of our democratic sensibility today. How did we get there.

O’DONNELL: Well, you know, as a… writer for the West Wing, and uh, and Aaron Sorkin hired me as soon as NBC ordered episodes. Uh I had a, a meeting with Aaron and, and you know in that situation uh, a writer has created a show. Uh that, in this case Aaron, writing a pilot episode alone uh, and then uh NBC makes the pilot episode. Which costs them, you know, in those days, eh, somewhere in the order of five, six million dollars, maximum, to make a pilot like that. Then they have a minimum of 50 million dollar decision to make, which is, should we make more episodes of this? And at that point it’s—they’re only gonna make, they’re only gonna order 13, they’re not going to order 22 which in those days was the full uh season run. Uh and so Aaron uh knew he’s, he need, going to need a lot of stories to fill up 22 episodes. And so I was the only writer in Hollywood at the time with any experience uh working in Washington, and uh working in the senate. And then as a result of the jobs I had in the senate, I ended up in the White House a lot, and in the Oval office a fair amount and cabinet room and serious governing meetings. And so what I was setting out to do, in, in the West Wing was to, to write both accurately… and fondly, about the work that I used to do, the work that I missed. Um… that… uh, that no longer exists. The, the, the work… that I used to do is no longer done. It doesn’t happen. Um. The people occupying the jobs are not the same people. Uh. I couldn’t possibly bring the same respect level uh to the characters uh if that, if the West Wing story was set in the present day in Washington politics. What I could say about… almost, almost everyone, um, and possibly everyone, that I encountered uh in the Senate and the House of Representatives and the White House… when I worked in government, was that they all uh… went in this direction. That, that ultimately led to being a senator or a member of the house or a high-level staff person… because they, they had… a feeling about how important government was, and how they wanted to make it better, and they wanted to make the country better. And the, the simple shorthand version of it is that they wanted to do good.

Now that, the interesting dynamic of that from a character perspective is that that ideal of wanting to do good gets corrupted along the way by… various forces that come into our lives and, and that’s human. But. I can’t say now that the… the, the impulse, the, the, the driving force that pushes people toward working in Washington and working in government is to do good. And if it isn’t to do good, then you, there’s… you don’t, you don’t know what the possible objectives are. You don’t know what the possible outcomes are. Uh all, everything that happens in Washington loses the normal set of gravitational forces that used to be around it. And so it’s a… there, there are many reasons why you couldn’t write a show like the West Wing now, in, in the present climate. But the most important one is, the most basic, original motivation of the characters that set them off on the road uh that has led to where they are now, used to be they just wanted to do good. Without that… uh… you have… this kind of chaotic Washington world that we watch now.

HEFFNER: Fundamental decency and honor… were those the ingredients of public service? Now you have to escape the darkness of… House of Cards seems like ordinary America.

O’DONNELL: The President still doesn’t kill people and you know, the, they, the, the…


O’DONNELL: You know uh… the, yeah, though, those shows are… have, have been absurd from the start. Um and, and I don’t know how to watch shows that don’t have you know, normal uh…real dynamics to them. In other words, there’s no consequences. You know what I mean?


O’DONNELL: They’re, what makes drama is, is the what if, what, what if I do this. You know. What if I kill him? Well if you kill him they might kill you, or they might come and kill your entire family, or you might go to prison or in other words, there, there have to be risk consequences to what you do. And in, you know, the, in really cheap drama, which is what television has trafficked in in most of its [LAUGHS] existence, the consequences aren’t there. They, they, they will not, they, they don’t actually put the characters at risk, in cheap drama. And, and, and you know that whatever this person does, you know, he/she is gonna get away with, and one of the reasons you know that is that the actor has a seven year contract with the series and so the, obviously, you know, he/she has to stay in this role uh for seven years. And so… when you see them doing something in season Two for which they could to prison or something, you have the guarantee as an audience member, that person will not go to prison ’cause the series will end. And so that’s just cheap…


O’DONNELL: You know that’s just cheap drama.

HEFFNER: But political crimes or misbehavior of a real nature… we seem to be anticipating an answer to the question, well do they have consequences in real life. Aren’t we asking ourselves that question now.

O’DONNELL: Yeah and that’s what the Special Prosecutor is going to tell us. If there, if there, if there are any crimes uh, in this massive region that we now call… the, the, the two words Trump and Russia some, somehow encap, encapsulate. Um then there is going to be real consequences. And for Donald Trump, that’s kind of vexing because he, he has managed to live a life without consequence. Without any harm to what he cares about. And what he cares about is his wealth and his image, uh those two things. And when he got in trouble in Atlantic City with bankruptcies and when he was having trouble, you know, keeping one of the casinos afloat, you know, his father would come in with millions of dollars for the casino, to keep it afloat. Um, then some other casino operator without that father would have had to live with the consequences of not having the millions of dollars come in on the day when you needed the millions of dollars to come in. Um and you know, so the, this special prosecutor could be the very first real reckoning of consequences that Donald Trump has to face in his entire life.

HEFFNER: You said on your program, in an ongoing series of monologues, this is why, with confidence, some certitude, this is why this person who is beneath the dignity of the office will not be President.


HEFFNER: And I think that seeing you on election night with your colleagues at MSNBC and NBC news, there was a realization, well this had happened. And I wonder to what extent that… uh, inability or… that incapacity to see entertainment hijacking the political sphere in the way that it did, you know, how does that color the way you look at the current administration and the future of American politics.

O’DONNELL: Well the outcome of the election was hijacked by the electoral college. Which is now a…


O’DONNELL: … perverted version of what Hamilton wanted it to be. The electoral college was supposed to be uh the wise men and only men, ’cause of course women can’t vote, uh in those days. But the wise men who would bring their considered judgement to who should be President. Uh, and so the, you know, the, the name George Washington was never on a ballot that any voter could go put, put a mark on. That never happened. Uh all they did was elect electors. That’s the only thing the voter did was elect electors, and the electors all said oh we want George Washington you know, and they all, they were unanimous about it. It was easy for a while. Um and the one thing that Hamilton warned against was the idea that factions oh uh would break out within the Electoral College. And actually, as, as the, the founders started to watch the Electoral College actually slip a, slip into politics as they saw it. In a, in a way that they didn’t like. Uh M-Madison actually worked on an amendment to correct uh elements of the Electoral College, to prevent it from becoming what it’s become, which is this thing that doesn’t think. Uh that just uh, ratifies vote totals as they occur in states. And, and, and so when we were saying, many of us were saying, uh, you know, Donald Trump can’t win. We meant what they mean in every other democracy in the world: Donald Trump cannot get more votes than the opponent. This is the democracy where you can come in second and win. And it’s the only one. And when we go around the world as election observers, which I used to do, and I don’t believe I have the right to do anymore, because I come from the anti-democratic country that has the Electoral College but when we go around the world as a, as election observers, uh if we had ever came across something like the Electoral College, which is, you know, here in Azerbaijan, the people will vote on Tuesday and then many, many weeks later a special group, no one knows their names, uh will meet, and they will decide. We go no, no, no it can’t be that. It has to be what comes out of this ballot box today. That has to be the outcome. And so, um… when political analysts are saying, you know, who’s gonna win, the, what they mean is who’s gonna get the most votes. There’s no one, there is no one, and no one did uh do the kind of analysis that tells you, here’s how the second place finisher can win the electoral college because of Wisconsin or this state, no one does that. Uh and so um, so that’s how we got where we are. Uh and the hope for the future of this country, uh, as a country that can say its President has been democratically elected, which it cannot say now, uh… is the virtual elimination of the Electoral College. Which is, which might happen, impossible to do through a Constitutional Amendment but, but might happen uh… if enough states agree to simply say uh we pledge all of our electors to whoever wins the most votes in the country. And so you know, California’s already agreed to this and, and uh and, and a few states have. And once they get it up to a number of states that equals 270 electoral votes, they will all then enact that law together, uh and you will have eliminated the Electoral College and, and in the future the, the person with the most votes will actually be President of the United States. Uh so, so you know none of us saw the, the weird Electoral College outcome you know, that, that’s true. And it’ll always be true.

HEFFNER: But there—

O’DONNELL: No one, no one’s ever going to predict…


O’DONNELL: …successfully…


O’DONNELL: …that the second place finisher will win the Electoral College.


O’DONNELL: No one’s going to have that prediction.

HEFFNER: When you said that, though, it resonated… for me… in terms of thinking about the dignity of the office. And when you would say that on air…


HEFFNER: The moral corruptness, beyond ineptitude, the the corruptness and the idea that that would be inconsistent with the values of our founding, of our Constitution, of our governance, to the voters of Pennsylvania and Wisconsin… sufficient to…


HEFFNER: … deny him the presidency because I still am on that same page with you, and for the party that famously… attacked the character, assassinated the character of Bill Clinton on the moral values plank in the ‘90s… two decades later… nearing two decades later… eh, it seems like the democrats are unable to successfully use hypocrisy or, counter what they see…

O’DONNELL: Well, well…

HEFFNER: …as a void of morality, which is accurate.

O’DONNELL: Well, you, you have to recognize that they, they didn’t mean it the first time. That, that they, the attack on Bill Clinton from a moral perspective or from a good husband perspective uh, was not real. Uh that was being waged by sequentially divorced men in the House of Representatives.


O’DONNELL:Uh… some of whom started their subsequent marriage during their current marriage.

HEFFNER: Subsequent, divorced, and philandering men, right.

O’DONNELL: Right, so, that wasn’t ever it.


O’DONNELL: Uh that was,


O’DONNELL: It was simply um, you know, we hate this guy and we want him out. And that, that dynamic in our politics… the seeds for that dynamic in our politics were, were planted in 1968. Because prior to 1968 uh the word Democrat and the world Republican did not tell you what I think. The Mayor of New York was a liberal Republican. John Lindsay in 1968. Um. You know, the, the, the most uh… right-wing uh segregationist type thinkers in America in the 1960s were Democrats, uh in the south. Uh and so, George Wallace was a Democrat. Um. So the, that, those words told you nothing. You’d have to you’d have to say something beyond that. You’d have to say oh well he’s a liberal, he’s a, he’s a Kennedy, he’s a, something else is gonna have to tell us what you think. Now the word Democrat and the word Republican tell us almost everything that you think. Almost everything. Um because um… we, we have gotten into a, a pure separation of uh, of conservative and liberal. Uh John Lindsay was literally the last liberal standing on a convention stage in a Republican Convention in 1968. Um there’s never been a liberal on a Republican Convention stage since. Uh there have not been conservatives on Democratic Convention stages since. Uh and, and so once we separated out these parties into basically uh… you know, liberal and their affiliates and conservatives and their affiliates, um, then you could simply say: everything you think is wrong. I am a Republican. Everything you, as a Democrat, think is wrong. Once we’ve had a few decades of that, uh, you, and then a kind of hatred starts to build among you know, the, the extreme most uh fanatical feelers of these feelings about the other party. And so you get to the 1990s and Bill Clinton, and this was a huge part of his problem in Washington, it was never specifically talked about. But Bill Clinton was elected President with 43 percent of the vote. Uh Bill Clinton was elected President um having evaded the draft during Vietnam which many people did, with honor by the way, I, I would add. Nothing wrong with that. Uh that—the evasion of the draft and the resistance to the draft uh helped end the war in Vietnam. He won the Presidency against a World War II war hero, whose plane was shot down, George H.W. Bush. You have to remember that the United States senate, the House of Representatives, was mostly populated in those days by people of the World War II era, many of them veterans. They were deeply personally offended by who this person actually was. That offended them much more than anything they ever heard about his marriage. Then, you, you throw in the fact that he won with 43 percent of the vote, because Ross Perot was in there as a third-party candidate, and that’s all you needed. Was 43 percent to win. They considered him illegitimate. They, they believed that if Ross Perot wasn’t there, George H.W. Bush would still be President. And so those feelings were very, very intense, and no one went onto the senate floor and made a speech about either one of those things. But those feelings were really intense and personal to this person. And so that’s part of the dynamic that left him uh in an impeachment proceeding. The other part was committing perjury, which he actually definitely did. And uh he lived his life in such a way that he managed to get himself cornered to a point where his choice was to commit perjury. You’re not supposed to do that. You know, if you go into that line of work, you’re supposed to live your life more carefully. He, he didn’t. Um but it was this… oh, and what you watched in the impeachment process I thought was, if you simply reverse the parties, the other party would be saying exactly the same words today. That, that this party is saying, uh if it was a republican President, the Democrats would be outraged, utterly outraged, by perjury and sex with an intern. Outraged. Um and so that dynamic has developed in our politics, which is, the only thing we have to know is what party you’re in, and I hate you. Uh and that’s how you ultimately end up with a President Trump, uh who also, you know, got this, this uh, uh eh, a 40, you know, 4 percent level of vote, something like that on, on the vote. He managed to get in without a majority vote. Uh but you know there’s a rational base to the, the, uh… Trump vote. Uh and this is the part of the vote that you cannot argue with. And that is for single issue-voters, of which there are many. And sometimes the single-issue voters’ secondary issue is also an important issue that’s, that is held by that candidate. But if you are a single-issue voter who believes that abortion is murder, it’s inconceivable to me that you would vote for anyone but the Republican. And you don’t care if this guy is lying about his own personal opposition to abortion. All you care about is that he will appoint somebody like Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. That’s all you care about. That is within its realm a rational vote. If all you care about is: I hate taxes and I wanna pay less taxes and I don’t care if it bankrupts the country and I don’t care if mass transit systems have to sh-shut down. I don’t care, I just want to pay less taxes, then it’s crazy for you to vote for anybody but the Republican. There’s a logic.


O’DONNELL: To a, to a series of policy votes, as single issues, that gets you, that gets the, uh any Republican up to a minimum, minimum of you know, 35, 38 percent of the vote. If you, say, if you add in every racist who votes in America, if you add in every person in America who hates Muslims. You get, you know… where Donald Trump got to. That’s where you get.

HEFFNER: Can the Democrats…

O’DONNELL: And, and, and you have to—and you, and then you add in…


O’DONNELL:…every person who hates Hillary Clinton.


O’DONNELL: And you earn hatred, it’s a very simple way you earn hatred in our politics now. You simply hang around. You don’t have to do anything. She wouldn’t have had to set up a complicated uh semi-legal uh e-mail server at the state department…


O’DONNELL:… uh to be hated. She was hated before she got to the State Department. And, and, and part of why she was, she, she was hated is simply time on the stage.


O’DONNELL: We allow you a certain amount of time on the Presidential stage and then we hate you. And she entered [LAUGHS] the Presidential stage in 1992 basically as a campaigner for her husband. Um and so if she had committed no mistakes at all in her own political career, she’s was on the stage so long, that she’d picked up a certain level of hatred that, that flows through our politics. So you throw in the Hillary hatred and you end up with the Trump number.

HEFFNER: Looking towards 2020… are they only poised to succeed in the way that, that Trump did, which is to rally their base?

O’DONNELL: Well you’re not going to change minds. Uh, ch-uh changing a mind is the hardest thing you can try to do. And, and you know, people expect miracles from politics. They expect, and politicians do, which is really funny to me. Uh that, well, wait the, you know, President Obama just gave a great speech about this, how come people didn’t change their minds, you know.


O’DONNELL: Uh well just take it home. Just go home and pick any member of your family and take something that they care about a lot and try to change his or her mind about that. And take your time. Take weeks if you want to. Take hours on end of personal one-on-one communication. And the likelihood of you changing his or her mind hovers somewhere around zero, as everyone knows from their own life experience in trying to change minds. There’s, you, the only success you have with it at all, within the family, tends to be with children, uh where they, and I’ve seen kids who refuse to do their homework in fifth grade and then for some wonderful reason

O’DONNELL: … decide by ninth grade that they’re going to do their homework. I don’t know what that was, but it’s a good thing that you stuck with it and tried to convince your kid to do the homework. But try to change an adults mind.


O’DONNELL: Try to change a 37 year-old’s mind about taxes. I don’t… I don’t know that that’s possible in America.

HEFFNER: It’s the economy shifted, to, it’s the culture, stupid, to some degree in our orientation around this election. When you look at these special elections—congressional elections that have occurred: Montana, South Carolina, Georgia… Democrats defeated. I think to Thomas Frank’s work, it’s… now Kansas is experiencing the resurgence of, of… progressivism or liberalism in response to austerity. Which might be something we’ll see nationally soon.

O’DONNELL: There’s no good news for Republicans in it. When you go from winning a Georgia district by 25 points to winning it by 5 points uh, months apart, just months apart, not years apart, that’s a, that’s a scary thing, especially in a place that’s supposed to be very, very safe for your party. The cautionary tale is this: Tom Foley, in 1990, Speaker of the House, won his district eh with a 35 point spread over his competitor. That’s the way it was supposed to be for a Speaker of the House. Just two years later, Tom Foley won his district with a ten point spread over his challenger. No one thought anything. No one in national politics looked at that and thought anything had happened, no one painted attention to the voting returns in a campaign for the Speaker of the House back in his home district. Two years after that he lost, 1994. Um. He lost his own reelection. And if they’re lucky, if they’re lucky, the reason they’re losing these points is only because of Donald Trump. And all you have to do, all the Republicans have to do is get past the Trump phase of their politics, which is probably only going to be four years. And then the Georgia district goes back to being a 25 point winner, uh, for the Republicans, uh, if they’re lucky, and Donald Trump is their only problem.

HEFFNER: The last word with Lawrence O’Donnell airs on MSNBC, 10 o’clock p.m. Eastern Standard time. A pleasure being with you.

O’DONNELL: Great to be here.

HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then keep an open mind. Please visit The Open Mind website at to view this program online or to access over 1,500 other interviews. And do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.