Two of Lawrence O’Donnell’s admissions may sound surprising, especially for a guy who has made a good living in the television world. First, he claims he doesn’t like attention all that much. For that reason, among others, he didn’t name his show the Lawrence O’Donnell show, but instead calls it The Last Word.
“It will sound odd given this choice of occupation, but I didn’t like the attention of that,” he said. “I’d rather be on TV with a fake name.”
Second, Mr. O’Donnell is an enthusiastic fan of print news. He gets some of his best tips for his show’s content from print journalism, which he reads religiously. “I start the old-fashioned way with the newspaper that I hold in my hands,” he said.
Mr. O’Donnell had a former career as an aide to Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, serving as his senior advisor from 1989 through 1992.
On a recent show, after a newsreel of clips from the day’s breaking story, he gets into the meat of the issues of filibuster and bipartisanship with two political analysts. For a discussion of the Zimmerman verdict, he brings in two opinion writers to talk about the intersection of law and race, and the implications of the acquittal for young black men. He assumes his viewers are active consumers of news who have been listening, reading or watching news programs all day, so the segments offer little introduction to the issues, and instead probe further into interpretation and opinion. The show airs live at 10 p.m., after his viewers are already familiar with the news, and Mr. O’Donnell is in a position to bring the “last word” to his audience. “I want to be in that last position,” he said. “One of the main things I do is I take information out.”
The same might be assumed of the audience members he expects at the Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center where he speaks next Thursday night as part of the Summer Institute Series: that they are aware of current issues and are also thoughtful, smart, challenging and civic minded. “The audience is what interests me in a situation like this,” he said. “I just know that this is a place where it’s absolutely worth going out of your way and bending schedules.”
Mr. O’Donnell’s show runs four weeknights including Thursday, when he will be on-Island. He almost never skips a night of his show, he said, but the opportunity was too good to pass up.
It’s a rare opportunity to see Mr. O’Donnell in three dimensions, a form that differs significantly from his television persona. “It’s completely different,” he said. “No one should think they are watching the real person [on television]. Television is an approximation of human interaction. It isn’t real human interaction.”
At the Hebrew Center, he and audience members will benefit from, “higher levels of understanding and clarification.”
Mr. O’Donnell has been visiting the Island since he was 10. His brother, who is 10 years his senior, has owned a small wooden sailboat for many decades and brought him to the Island for his first visit in the late 1960s.
“It was a magical place to arrive at,” he recalled. “I had never been to an inhabited Island; the only other island I had been close to and set foot on was in Boston Harbor. This was coming into a real place. It was just incredibly exciting to get off the boat, and walk down the streets of Oak Bluffs.”
Mr. O’Donnell still comes back on his brother’s boat, but now they usually moor at Menemsha before walking to the Outermost Inn, his favorite place on the Island, he said. “That’s the farthest from the boat we get,” he explains. “Whenever we are in Vineyard Haven, we don’t get much beyond the easy walking.” Though he will arrive instead by plane from New York next week, he hopes to spend time with his brother and his boat at some point. Though the network has offered him the Friday night slot as well, he has repeatedly turned them down. “I just kind of stared at it and thought about it, and decided, nope, the Fridays are not for sale,” he said, settling in favor of some “breathing room.”
The last segment in his Tuesday night show refers to his other career in the fictional television world. It’s an interview with Tony Hale, who plays Gary Walsh, an eager assistant to the vice president in the new HBO show Veep. Mr. O’Donnell knows a thing or two about political sitcoms; he wrote episodes in the first two and last two seasons of the series the West Wing. He also produced, and edited many of the episodes. In one flashback episode to the president’s childhood, he played the role of father to President Bartlett, played by Martin Sheen. He wasn’t the first choice for the role; four more experienced Hollywood actors had turned it down by the time they offered it to Mr. O’Donnell. It was his first professional acting role.
His talk Thursday, titled The Lost Art of Politics, communicates a nostalgia for a time when senators were open to working cooperatively with members of the opposing party. Now, he says, they are more concerned about their divisions than about what compromises may be possible. “Too many of them don’t have in their heads and hearts and personalities the qualities that allowed governing to work among a group of people who had a lot of disagreements,” he said. “One of the big things that America is watching and wondering about is how did politics become so dysfunctional.”
Still, he said, all is not lost. “There are plenty of reasons to hope because you don’t have to be that old in this country to remember things that seemed absolutely impossible and in retrospect now seem inevitable,” he said, citing the end of the Cold War and the legalization of gay marriage in many states. “There is nothing in America’s history that is supportive of long-term pessimism,” he said.
Lawrence O’Donnell on the Lost Art of Politics is part of the Summer Institute Series at the Hebrew Center on Thursday, July 25 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets can be purchased at ticketsmv.com beginning Wednesday morning.