Keith Olbermann is Ready to Referee a Presidential Debate
Sports and politics often converge. President Bush once owned the Texas Rangers. Former vice-presidential candidate Jack Kemp is also a former NFL quarterback. Conservative columnist George Will is a chronicler of baseball history. So it should come as no surprise that Keith Olbermann
— host of the news program Countdown with Keith Olbermann
and onetime ESPN SportsCenter
anchor — has been tapped to moderate tonight's AFL-CIO Democratic Presidential Forum
on MSNBC (starting at 7 pm/ET). TVGuide.com spoke with the dry-witted journalist about the event.
TVGuide.com: What was your first reaction when they asked you to take the reins of this thing?
Keith Olbermann: "Yes, I'll do it," was my first reaction. It's not something I've done before. It's a little different from my experiences with news coverage, but you can't miss an opportunity like this. I think it's also the price — and I mean this in a positive light — of putting myself in the political arena with my commentaries. The authenticity of those commentaries is, in some respects, achieved by doing things like this, and involving myself in the political process in a way that's hands-on.
TVGuide.com: This is an AFL-CIO sponsored forum. As the moderator, will you be focusing the conversation on predominantly union-related issues?
Olbermann: There will be a lot of that. As I understand it, we're working off of three half-hour blocks. In the middle half hour, nearly all the questions will be directed from the audience, which will be predominantly AFL-CIO membership.
TVGuide.com: Do you have any experience with unions that makes you uniquely qualified to moderate?
Olbermann: Well, I've pretty much always been in a union, except for the time I was at ESPN. I've been a member of AFTRA, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, off and on since 1980. Frankly, my entire career I might owe to my union membership, because in 1980 I had a boss who didn't like me. I was 21 years old and I had a lot of pepper. My direct boss and I used to have really heated arguments, but he treated me as an equal. One day he was cooling off after one of our spats in his boss' office. His boss came back from a very liquid lunch and said, "What's wrong?" My boss goes, "Oh, that Olbermann..." So this senior guy staggers out of his office and goes, "You don't give the managers lip. You're fired!" The wire-service guild stepped in and said, "You can't fire a guy for having a heated discussion. There were no threats. He didn't refuse to do his job. You can't do that." So I didn't get fired. If there had been no union, I would have been unemployed at age 21 with the reputation of a guy who yells at his boss.
TVGuide.com: And now you're addressing presidential hopefuls.
Olbermann: Isn't America great?
TVGuide.com: Indeed. Depending on where you look, polls have Hillary Clinton with a marginal to sizable lead over Barack Obama, with all of the other democratic candidates lagging behind. How much stock should be put in these numbers?
Olbermann: At this stage in the 2004 campaign, the numbers gave a similar lead to Howard Dean. No disrespect to Governor Dean, but it really is like sitting here trying to predict who's going to win the 2008 World Series. It really is useful to have a sports background in these things to know how foolish it is to assume that this is a fait accompli. There are so many different circumstances that could occur between now and then that could change the field utterly.
TVGuide.com: But just like the Yankees in baseball, you can guess who's likely to be competitive by who has the money.
Olbermann: You'd think that would be the case, but the Yankees are struggling to stay on the radar this season. There's clearly a two-tiered system in politics as there is in everything else in life. Clearly money separates one, two or three people from the pack, but again, simply having the money — my point underscored by the Yankees here — doesn't mean you automatically spend the money wisely or to effect.
TVGuide.com: Thanks to some differences in how they'd approach foreign policy, things have started to get heated between Clinton and Obama. Do you believe the verbal jabs will continue to fly during the forum?
Olbermann: I think cooler heads will prevail. The irony to all this is that the quotes that the Obama people put out to point out that Senator Clinton had said the same things regarding dealing with unfriendly nations that he did during the debate was from an interview I did with Senator Clinton. So I've already gotten involved in this. I think that helps in terms of cutting through the name calling and getting back to the substance. You want illumination. The natural inclination of television is to go for heat. I'm much more interested in light.
TVGuide.com: As a former sports broadcaster, is there any chance you can get the candidates talking about corrupt referees, dog fighting and/or Barry Bonds' alleged steroid use?
Olbermann: Unless the turnstiles at Michael Vick's dog-fighting pit were put in by union labor and the union guys bring it up, I don't see a way of doing it.
TVGuide.com: Fair enough. So does it really seem necessary to have all of these early debates and forums?
Olbermann: I think we may have a lower percentage of Americans involved in the political process than we ever have before, but whatever that number is, those who are involved are 99 percent involved. I think they know what they want and as the next year goes along, they're going to get their wants further and further refined. So there are people who are interested and sophisticated. They are the ones who watch these things and make them necessary and relevant.
There's no debating it: Our Online Video Guide has some great Keith Olbermann clips at the ready.
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