Z on TV: Michael Steele promises to do right on MSNBC

Former lieutenant governor says he won't be the channel 'conservative punching bag'

  • Michael Steele recently joined MSNBC as a commentator.
Michael Steele recently joined MSNBC as a commentator. (Alex Wong, Getty Images )
June 03, 2011|By David Zurawik, The Baltimore Sun

One thing about Michael Steele: He's not afraid to mix it up. Push the former Maryland lieutenant governor in an interview, and he'll come right back at you.

That's how it went last week with the Johns Hopkins University graduate when he was asked for his reaction to those who say MSNBC hired him recently to be the channel's token conservative — a right-wing, Republican version of the role Alan Colmes played on Fox News.

"What's my reaction?" Steele said. "Tune in, that's my reaction."

Steele went on to say he has no intention of being "a conservative punching bag" in his new job as a political analyst on MSNBC.

And after two years of battling members of his own party as chairman of the Republican National Committee, he firmly believes he's more than ready to take on any and all liberals at the cable channel that Rachel Maddow, Ed Schultz and Lawrence O'Donnell call home.

"I think people kind of look at it, and they go, 'Oh, gee, you know, yeah, he's the Alan Colmes,'" Steele says. "But I don't think it's that at all. I think I bring a very different style. If you've covered anything that I've done, certainly since my days as lieutenant governor, you know I'm not a wallflower. I don't hold back my views. ... I want to engage people."

Steele, who had been in talks with the 24/7 cable news channels so long that the TVNewser website was running polls on where and when he would land, said his Republican friends urged him to join liberal MSNBC.

"It was surprising to me how many of my Republican friends — not even knowing what the status of the discussions were, or who I was talking to, and how hot and heavy those discussions were — would voluntarily say, 'Go to MSNBC,' the resident of Upper Marlboro in Prince George's County said in a telephone interview last week with The Baltimore Sun.

"They thought if there was anyone who was going to go take that flag and plant it [in liberal territory], it would be me, because I'm not afraid," he added. "Look, after the two years I had fighting, dealing with the establishment within my own party, I'm ready for liberals. I'm ready. I am absolutely ready. So I thank the establishment for the warm-up."

Based on his talks with MSNBC chief Phil Griffin, Steele said, "I have every confidence that MSNBC will treat me with the level of respect they have obviously shown by hiring me. I mean, why would you bring me on board just to say, 'OK, this is now our conservative punching bag for the next year'?"

"That's not going to achieve the goals that I know Phil Griffin and the Comcast team have in mind for expanding the reach and the depth of the discussion on the network," he explained. "It certainly doesn't achieve my goals, to be a punching bag, because Lord knows, after two punches, you get the joke. 'Like I'm done. Enough already.'"

This is not Steele's first shot at cable TV punditry. In 2007, he signed on with right-wing Fox News as a contributor. That yearlong gig came between his posts as lieutenant governor of Maryland and chairman of the Republican National Committee.

He was, of course, all over the news media in both political jobs — especially the latter, to the point where some in the party complained about his ubiquity and penchant for stirring the pot when he appeared on camera.

Last July, for example, a YouTube video showed him calling the war in Afghanistan a conflict of President Barack Obama's "choosing" — a conflict that the country essentially did not want be engaged in.

The backlash to those remarks from establishment Republican senators like John McCain, Jim DeMint and Lindsey Graham was instant and angry. It was not the first highly public flap Steele found himself in with fellow Republicans.

Steele left the RNC post in January after seeing that he did not have the votes needed for another term. Politico described his departure at the time as an "unceremonious ouster," pointing to a further "perception" among some that the party's finances were a mess with Steele in charge.

"My goal at the beginning was to take a party up off its knees, and get it back into a standing position," Steele said of his performance at the RNC. "And once I got it into a standing position, teach it how to run again. And once it was running, teach it how to win. And over two years, we did that."

Steele said his marching orders in the new job at MSNBC are largely based on being himself — the same guy who led the RNC and served with Bob Ehrlich in Annapolis. As a resident of Maryland, he will be working mostly out of MSNBC's Washington bureau — appearing on all of the channel's shows as a political analyst. He has already started the new job with appearances on "The Rachel Maddow Show" and "Hardball with Chris Matthews."

"First of all, let me be clear: No one said to me, 'OK, we now need you to start thinking a certain way, or responding a certain way, or presenting a certain way,'" Steele said.

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