Mika's Do-Over

Brzezinski told her agent to find her any TV job, even if it was low on the ladder: "Assistant to the assistant. Cleaning toilets."

By Amanda Robb
Brzezinski, Joe Scarborough (right) and MSNBC s senior political analyst Lawrence O Donnell (left)
Photograph: Peter Ross

IT’S FIVE AM on a Wednesday morning at MSNBC’s Manhattan studio, and Mika Brzezinski is trying to tell a story. It’s difficult because she’s also getting her hair washed and reading the day’s news-papers on her Black-Ber-ry. Brzezinski, head back, holds the device above her face while a stylist scrubs. “Your job,” I prompt. “How did you get your job?”

In a circus-worthy feat of multi-tasking, Brzezinski, who has to be on air in an hour, starts to talk—while still read-ing and being lathered—in almost perfect, ready-to-print sentences. She tells me that two and half years ago, she was facing the most stressful day in a television newswoman’s life: her fortieth birthday. It didn’t help that Brze-zin-ski was not, as she is now, cohost of both a highly rated morning show and a nationally syndicated radio show, and author of a forthcoming book. Her glory days at CBS News (as a correspondent for 60 Minutes and an-chor for the CBS Evening News) were over. She was, to put it plainly, well on her way to being another bit of blonde road-kill on the TV highway. Her family’s Christmas card that year depicted Brzezinski in a bathrobe, toting a bottle of vodka, with her two daughters holding up a sign that read, PLEASE FIND HER A JOB, PLEASE!  

Although she looks like one of those golden, gorgeous creatures (even before makeup) who think a business obstacle is having to give up the corporate jet, the reality is that Brzezinski’s path to TV celebrity status has been complicated. In 1997, when she was 29 and the mother of a two-year-old, Brzezinski landed a plum gig: anchor of CBS’s national overnight news program Up to the Minute. She was confident she could balance a grueling, high-powered job and family life the way her parents had—dad Zbigniew Brzezinski was national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter, and mom Emilie Benes Brzezinski was a successful artist—but having it all turned out to be cruelly stressful. “I was weeping every day,” she says. Then, only months into the new job, she got pregnant again.

During Brzezinski’s six-week maternity leave, WABC in Manhattan hired her husband, television journalist Jim Hoffer, as an investigative reporter. This meant that when Brzezinski returned to work, both parents were pulling crazy, intense hours, commuting from their suburban Westchester home and working flat out at their respective studios. “Jim never slept. I never slept,” she says.

Two months later, Brzezinski’s exhaustion took a horrible toll on the family. She hurried home to relieve her nanny so she could take the afternoon off. “I rushed upstairs and grabbed my baby. I was talking a hundred miles an hour, and I walked right off the top of the stairs. I fell down the complete flight.”

Brzezinski landed on top of her daughter. The baby was not moving from the chin down.

Instantly, Brzezinski began to repeat: “ ‘She’s got to be OK. She’s got to be OK,’ because I knew Carlie wasn’t OK,” she says, tearing up even now, years later. “Her cry was all wrong. I thought she had a head injury. I took her straight to the hospital.”

There, doctors strapped the baby to a board and began tests. Brzezinski realized they thought the child’s back was broken, which meant she might have made the prognosis worse by moving her. “I fell apart,” Brzezinski says. “I slid down the wall. My face was on the floor, and I wept.” It took eight hours for the medical team to determine that Carlie’s main injury was a broken femur.

Still, the incident was serious enough that child protective services investigated Brzezinski on suspicion of child abuse. She felt so guilty that “when the social worker came to our house,” Brzezinski says, “I told her, ‘Put the hand-cuffs on me.’ ” The social worker interviewed her nanny and husband, inspected the home and examined the children. Then she recommended that Brzezinski get some rest and closed the case.

That was it. Brzezinski told her husband she was quitting her job. “I had it all worked out,” she says. “We would downsize to an apartment, and I’d be a stay-at-home mom.” Hoffer agreed a huge change was necessary but believed if she up gave up the work she loved out of guilt and exhaustion, she’d be miserable. “We’ve been cheap,” he told Brzezinski. “Now we’re going to get all the help you need. If after six months you still want to quit, you can, but you can’t quit like this.”

“So we got help,” Brzezinski says—so much help that she is too embarrassed to reveal the details. “I started spending less time with my daughters,” she says, to go full-throttle on her career. “I missed things. School things. Moments.” There were times when her kids were “on the back burner,” she says. The realization that sometimes her dedication to her career would trump family concerns was an epiphany. “That’s a hard thing for a woman to admit. But that’s what I started doing.”

The rewards came swiftly. Rival network NBC hired her away in 2000, and in 2001 CBS snatched her back. Soon, she was working with every news show at the network. “I felt like such a bright shiny penny,” Brzezinski says. “I would bring in my young daughters, and they’d play under the desk while I anchored the news. I thought it was cute. I drank the Kool-Aid.”

Before long, it turned sour. In 2005, Sean McManus became president of CBS News and, the following year, hired Katie Couric to replace Dan Rather as anchor of the evening news. That week, the network told Brzezinski they were not going to renew her contract, which was set to expire six months later. At the same time, Brzezinski heard that someone at the top of the company didn’t find her attractive. “I don’t think that played a part in my being let go,” she says. “But it is a hard thing to hear when you’re in TV and you’re 39, and you’ve just been fired.”

For the record, a spokesperson for CBS News says that neither Katie Couric’s arrival nor Brzezinski’s looks had any-thing to do with the network’s decision not to renew her contract. Its on-air needs just changed. “TV news is an unforgiving craft,” says Dan Rather, who was the CBS Evening News anchor for 24 years (and has a lawsuit against CBS involving his own dismissal). “It’s filled with mysteries and unexplained things.” Bottom line, he says, “There are only two kinds of correspondents: those who have been fired and those who are about to be fired.”

Maybe it was growing up around pol-itics or maybe it was having spent years covering them that caused Brzezinski to spin her story to her children.

“Mommy has good news,” she told her daughters, “Mommy is going to leave CBS. I’m going to have more time with you!”

“No, no, no. You can’t do that,” Emilie, then 11, said. “That’s the only reason the library lady likes me!”

The next day, her younger daughter’s school called saying eight-year-old Carlie was lying on the floor in the fetal position.

“Honey, what’s wrong?” Brzezinski whispered when she got there. “I’m here for you.”

“That’s actually the problem,” a teacher said. “Your daughter told me you’re leaving your job, and she’s very upset.”

“Mommy, you love [work] so much,” Carlie said. “I don’t want you to have to leave your job.”

There are probably a dozen ways to analyze these mother-daughter scenes. The way Brzezinski interprets them is, “Kids can see that their mother is more than mom or wife, that she has things that define and make her happy and bring her joy, and they want her to be able to have those things.”

Brzezinski, who has been an avid runner all her life, tried to get back in stride. She had her agent set up high-level interviews. But one after the other, executives would sit Brzezinski down and ask, “So what really happened?” Brzezinski had no dastardly tale. “In the news business, having no story . . . well, what use are you?” she says.

“I had this one interview with Jon Klein, president of CNN News,” Brzezinski says. “I kept imagining on my forehead, in bright red letters, FIRED. And under that in parentheses, LOSER. And under that in double parentheses: BTW: DON’T HIRE HER.” As she was talking to him, “I just sort of petered out.”

She knew she could either fall into a pit of depression or dive into what she did have—a ton of time to bestow on those she loved. She dove. Her family became her project and distraction. “My daughter Emilie had an issue with her vision,” Brzezinski says. “My husband’s mother was diagnosed with ovarian and stomach cancer. [Caring for family] helped me feel alive.”

Meanwhile, the couple’s coffers were almost empty. Brzezinski explored other fields. In late 2006, she got to the final round of interviews for a six-figure public relations job. “I’m sitting there thinking, ‘Salary! Salary! Salary! I can’t wait to tell my husband I got this job!’” But she had zero interest in PR. In the last interview, she blurted out that she knew someone better for the po-sition.

The friend she recommended got the job. As bad as Brzezinski felt about let-ting the opportunity go, it made her realize how much she wanted to be back in TV broadcasting. Brzezinski told her agent to find her any TV job, even if it was low on the ladder: “Assistant to the assistant. Clean-ing toilets.”

Her agent found an on-air, entry-level position at MSNBC as a substitute graveyard-shift news update reader. The job paid less than one-fifth what Brzezinski would have made at the PR firm. Despite that, “I was thrilled,” she says. She read updates on then Congressman Joe Scarborough’s weeknight program, at the end of which she’d lower her voice to a sardonic purr, “Now back to Scarborough Country.”

In April 2007, when Scarborough was in New York putting together a morning show, the two met for the first time. “I know you’re making fun of my show every time you toss back to me,” he said.

“How can I make fun of a show I’ve never watched?” she re-plied. Scarborough’s next thought was, I’ve found my cohost! They were both smart-asses. His conservative politics plus Brzezinski’s Democrat bona fides had the potential for stunning TV.

The position was freelance, essentially a tryout, but Brzezinski went for it. When the red ON-AIR light blinked on for their first show, “I was, like, ‘Wow. Of all the thousands of wavelengths out there, [Joe and I] are on the same one,’ ” she says. “I felt I’d known him for 20 years and he was like one of my brothers at the dinner table, fighting the way we fought in our family.”

Brzezinski isn’t exaggerating. Weeks into her gig, she did the newscaster equivalent of sucker-punching the host. She refused to read the lead story about socialite Paris Hilton’s release from prison after serving five days for driving with a suspended li-cense. “I hate this story,” she said on the air, “and I don’t think it should be our lead.” The now-legendary YouTube footage of her try-ing to set the script on fire with a cigarette lighter and, later, running it through a shredder turned her into a news hero. Brzezinski told the net-work, “No more tryout. You need to marry me.”

“She got the contract she wanted,” says Morning Joe executive producer Chris Licht. “Right away.”

Today, Brzezinski’s currency is at a peak because she’s not afraid to speak her mind. Nothing gets liberal blog-gers spewing more than when Brzezinski discusses another unconventional working mother, Sarah Palin, whom she’s described as “interesting,” “exciting” and “important.” “She works 150 percent and doesn’t have a shred of guilt,” Brzezinski says.

“Joe is extraordinary, but Mika makes him even better,” says Rick Kaplan, the current executive producer of CBS Evening News. “She gets under his skin. She is a catalyst for some of the show’s most interesting conversations.” And viewers feel a connection with her. As Dan Rather puts it, “Mika gets through the glass.”

MY DAY with Brzezinski winds down. When the red TV studio light goes off at nine AM, the cohosts—after three hours of banter and bickering—depart without a word to each other. Brzezinski clicks down the hall in her four-inch heels to her closet-size office, where she wiggles out of her skirt and into size 4 peg-leg jeans. Then she clicks back down the hall and onto an elevator, which she takes to a radio studio. There she eats two bowls of cornflakes. The two-hour Joe Scarborough Show with Mika Brzezinski starts at 10:00 sharp. She is back reading her BlackBerry.

I could not do this, I tell her—this being “on” for five hours straight, five days a week—all on less than five hours of sleep a night (she says that’s all she needs), cornflakes and BlackBerry drags. It wouldn’t matter if I had a fleet of nannies, housekeepers, assistants and stylists. I am two thirds of the way through just one of her mornings, and I feel skinned alive. “If I were trying to do it the way I used to, without enough support, I couldn’t either,” she answers. “I’d rather spend one good hour with my kids a day than eight bad ones. It’s called restraint, transfer-ring pow-er and control, and admitting what I’m not good at doing. I probably still couldn’t do this unless I loved it. But I really love my job. And I didn’t think this could happen again.”  

In her forthcoming motivational book, All Things at Once, Brzezinski writes that there is no magic formula for latter-day success. She believes, however, there are two keys to hers: her willingness to take a huge step back-ward, professionally, and her brutal honesty about her priorities.

“Sometimes things suffer,” admits her husband. “Like when Mika covers an election: the kids suffer or our relationship suffers. But then we come back together and appreciate each other more than ever. And I think Mika is a great role model for the girls. Find something you love. Work really hard. Be the best at it.”  

But she doesn’t meld family and work the way she used to. She allows her girls to come to MSNBC’s studio at 30 Rockefeller Center “maybe once in the summer.” If she loses this position, she doesn’t want her kids to get upset again. “All these TV jobs are very bad boyfriends,” she says; the net-work could decide any day that they are not that into her. At the same time, she takes comfort in the fact that some of the most visible high-level anchors are women over 40: Katie Couric, Meredith Vieira, Ann Curry, Barbara Walters, Campbell Brown, Diane Sawyer and, yes, Mika Brzezinski. She knows that no penny can shine forever, but she’s too busy reading her BlackBerry to worry about that now.  

AMANDA ROBB won a Planned Parenthood Maggie Award for her 2008 More profile of abstinence activist Leslee Unruh.

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First Published Fri, 2009-09-18 06:57

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http://www.more.com/reinvention-money/second-acts/mikas-do-over