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Meet MSNBC's Next New Host, Christopher Hayes

On television, Hayes is so likable and so quick at distilling the politics of the day, that it's easy to miss just how radical he is.
 
 
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This is one in an occasional series of profiles of progressive leaders in Washington, D.C. Since we published this story on Saturday, theNew York Timesreported that MSNBC is developing a new show that will feature Hayes as the host.

Christopher Hayes, The Nation's Washington editor, didn't set out to be a TV pundit; to hear him tell it, it's something that just kind of happened to him. He was your basic progressive journalist, doing appearances in wonky media like NPR and C-SPAN when, in 2008, The Nation's publicist sent MSNBC a clip of Hayes on C-SPAN. "It's like oh, yeah, good talker -- it's what they say, so-and-so's a good talker," Hayes explains. Since then, Hayes, now 32, has been a steady presence on the MSNBC airwaves, initially as a frequent guest, and more recently as the go-to guest host for the channel's most popular personality, Rachel Maddow.

And a good talker he is. But Hayes' road to punditry wasn't paved simply with some glib lines and pleasing looks, though he possesses plenty of each. Had he never set foot on a television set, his writing alone would have yielded plaudits that other scribes might wait a lifetime for. As the Washington Post's Ezra Klein once wrote, "sometimes I think Chris Hayes exists simply to write pieces I wish I'd written."

One of his earliest articles, a 10,000-word cover story for the Chicago Reader, co-authored with his wife, Kate Shaw, resulted in the granting of clemency to Joy Brown, a victim of domestic violence who was sentenced to six years in prison for pouring hot grease on her abuser, who had been charged several times for his assaults on her, never spending more than a night or two in jail.

When Brown was gained her freedom three weeks after Hayes' piece published (it bore only his byline; Shaw chose to remain anonymous because she was working for a domestic violence clinic at the time), " I thought, 'This is great! This is how it works!' Of course nothing like that ever happened since."

Even More Rad Than He Looks

On television, Hayes is so likable and hip -- in a stylish, ever-so-slightly geeky sort of a way -- and so quick at distilling the politics of the day, it's easy to miss just how radical he is, compared to the average liberal TV pundit. Asked to pick the most promising avenue for progressive change, Hayes says, over breakfast in noisy Washington coffee shop, " You have to just go after the banks," he says. "You have to just confront the banks." He cites the work done by National People's Action, a group that launches creative protests, such as its visit to a J.P. Morgan Chase building that is surrounded by a moat: protesters donned Robin Hood costumes and crossed the moat over a collapsible bridge they had brought with them.

"There's the financial industrial complex and the military industrial complex," Hayes explains, in his customarily energetic way. "The twin pillars that are the enemies of a just, humane, equitable society are, basically, the warfare state and the financial state."

When pressed to offer his prescription for a progressive revival, Hayes grows a tiny bit irritated. "You have to keep in mind when writers talk about what the progressive movement should be doing, the fact of the matter is, writing's a pretty...cushy job," he says. "And it's really hard to organize people. I've tried to do it. My father did it for a living. My brother does it for a living. It's not glamorous. You don't get your like name on the top of the Web site or get to go talk on TV." He's bothered, he says, when writers, "who, in the ecology of the progressive eco-system, have a pretty prime spot on the top of the chain" serve up their orders for what the grassroots leaders should be doing.

Not Your Normal Washington Journo Background

Hayes hails from the Bronx, where his Italian-American mother grew up, the daughter of a delicatessen owner. His father found his way to New York from Chicago via the Jesuits, while studying for the priesthood. While in seminary, his Irish-American father, Roger Hayes, did his first community organizing "for people who had trained with Alinsky," Hayes says with a chuckle. When he was finishing up his degree at Fordham University, Roger Hayes moved into the apartment building where his mother, Geri, lived with her parents, beginning a courtship that prompted the young seminarian to leave the priesthood.

Today his parents both work for the City of New York: Geri, a former schoolteacher, works for the NYC Department of Education, and Roger, after many years of community organizing, does health advocacy work in East Harlem for the NYC Department of Health. His younger brother is the Nevada state director for Organizing For America, the grassroots group built from the lists of the 2008 Obama campaign.

"My parents are totally amazing, heroic figures," Hayes says.

All the World's a Stage

Hayes found the path to political journalism by taking the long route (which he completed at a sprinter's pace), studying neither journalism nor politics in college. He met his wife while attending Brown, where both sat on the board of a student-run black-box theater called the Production Workshop. They were 19 years old. Though a philosophy major, Hayes says, "I did a lot of theater. That's mostly what I did. I directed in plays, I acted in plays, I wrote plays."

After graduation, the Hayes and Shaw landed in Chicago, where both had family ties. "It was cheaper than New York," Hayes says. It was in Chicago that he first tried his hand at journalism, freelancing for the Chicago Reader while working a variety of jobs that ranged from waiting tables to writing brochures, and then winning a Schumann Foundation writing fellowship at In These Times.

But his was not the only star rising in his family. Two days after they were married in 2007, he and Shaw moved to Washington, D.C., where she commenced her clerkship with Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens. (She's now associate counsel in the White House Counsel's office.) Newly arrived in the District of Columbia, Hayes signed on with The Nation as a contributing writer in the magazine's Washington bureau. When Washington editor David Corn moved on to Mother Jones, Hayes won his current spot. The next year, he he began appearing regularly as a guest on "Countdown With Keith Olbermann" (who left the network earlier this year and is about to relaunch his show on Current TV) .Last year, Hayes signed a contract with MSNBC as an on-air contributor.

When asked to consider how his theater background informs his work as a political writer and a television personality, Hayes, who is currently at work on a book about the breakdown of authority in American society, doesn't have a ready answer, but if you weren't paying attention, you'd never know that -- because he synthesizes his thoughts into spoken word at a dizzying pace.

"It's allowed me to see politics in a way that like is a little less shackled by the kind of confines of [the typical] Washington description of things," he says. But now the wheels are really turning, and he talks of the limitations of different kinds of dramatic conventions -- whether in television dramas, sitcoms or book-length fiction -- in his work.

"There are certain genre constraints of the murder mystery, of the detective novel, of the romance novel, of the sitcom. Everything around covering politics of Washington has heavy genre constraints. It has its own version of a laugh track, of the two sets, of the wacky neighbor...," he explains. "What's nice is to be able to totally get rid of that genre constraint in writing the book."

But in his TV and day-to-day journalism life, genre plays its part. "Then the challenge...is just to make really good genre. Like 'The Wire' has genre constraints. And 'Seinfeld,' which was clearly a wonderful show, had genre constraints. And 'The Rachel Maddow Show' has genre constraints. But it sort of somehow operates within them and transcends them."

If there's any one broadcaster who's served as a model for Hayes, it's Maddow, of whom he's an unabashed fan, and who he sees as one who's pushed the boundaries of the cable-host model with her in-depth reporting and often humorous disquisitions on how things work.

"One of the most radical acts you can do as a journalist right now -- the most important act you can do as a journalist -- is the simple act of explanation," Hayes says. "And you see this on a micro scale, [for example, in] financial regulation on the Hill, where it's like the complexity and the arcane details are the friends of the entrenched powers."

For all his success, Hayes admits that he misses doing theater and making art. But his guest-hosting stints for Maddow make up for some of that. "It feels like it used to feel [when] making a play," he says. "It's like we're going to make our play together, we're going to do this hour-long play tonight, and then have your meetings with different people about we're going to do this, here's the graphics, these different elements..." The script-writing process is a collaborative one between the show's writers, researchers, producers and the host, he explains.

"There's a certain real adrenalin rush" to the process, he says. "It's a fix."

Through a Dark Glass, Brightly

On television, Hayes' lighthearted delivery takes the edge off the stark realism with which he views the world. "I think you've seen over the last 10 years, particularly -- there's been a violence done to the basic social compact" that "binds citizens" to the the major institutions of society, he says, because the people who govern the system and run those institutions have often "been so profoundly wrong." He asserts, "There's been a lot of good-faith errors and bad-faith corrections."

"When I get in a doom-and-gloom mode about the economy, or whatever, it is important to recognize there have been periods in the mid- to late '70s, people were like, the American economy's going to be moribund forever," Hayes says. "And it wasn't. And people thought that in the early '90s."

A problem Hayes sees in the modern psyche is a certain comfort taken in a negative view of the world. "We enter this sort of spiral of invigorating weakness," he says. "I even do it myself -- meditating on the impasses...I don't think it's particularly productive, but I understand the allure of it. And Washington is really profoundly broken. It's true. Society is broken in certain very deep and important ways."

Still, he contends, breakthroughs can come in unexpected ways, and from unexpected places. "Science is locked on one question for a long, long time, then there is a breakthrough, and then all sorts of innovations take place...which is also something I think to think about in terms of politics -- that it's not necessarily going to be people that we think are progressive leaders [who will make the breakthrough]...," Hayes explains. "Good ideas can come from terrible people, and there's more that we don't know than what we know about the future political trajectory of the USA at the moment."

The comfort taken in negativity, he suggests, is its air of certainty, or "surety," to use his word, versus the uncertainty in accepting that we don't know what might come next. It's a view that suggests in Hayes an outsized capacity for wonder in a media world where the rewards are generally reserved for irony and cynicism. That sense of anticipation of a transformational moment is something very close to the Catholic theological notion of grace.

It's the more common longing for surety, Hayes suggests, that has the public clamoring for opinionated commentary in the place of hard-news reporting. Opinionators express certainty in their views; a good news report displays the messy moral ambiguity inherent in the human condition. "Look at The New York Times," he says. "Look at the most-emailed, the most read -- they're all columns. They're all talk. It's not like Jeffrey Gettleman basically risking life and limb to sit down with a Somalian pirate."

To Thine Own Self Be True

As a player in "this information age," Hayes sees himself, he says, as sort of "an information DJ."

"I honestly can't remember the last time I had an original thought," he says, laughing. "It's just like total pastiche. It's like if you steal from enough different sources, you can look original."

It's a charming bit of self-deprecation for a guy who is an info vacuum, and who takes the info into the little Warhol Factory of his mind, and synthesizes it into a form that is at once accessible and artful.

"Look, the hardest thing to do, the thing that I struggle with every day, that everybody I think has to, is to be principled and committed without being dogmatic and closed-minded. Right? Those two things are in constant tension.

"So you can't be a blank slate," he continues. "Because you're a sucker if you are, right? You have to approach everything with a set of philosophical, moral, ideological commitments about the kind of world you want to see. But then, with that commitment, then you also have to make sure that you're not just being hermetically sealed and, you know, a confrontation bias machine that goes out and hears what you want to hear."

That's a tall order in an opinion-driven media environment -- especially in cable news -- where opinion is king, and context is too often optional. But Hayes is undaunted.

"It's an amazing platform," he says, "and the reach of it is unlike any other medium I've ever worked in. I think I've been on a learning curve in how to operate within it and feel more and more like I'm at the point where it's something I'd want to explore in more depth."

 

Adele M. Stan is AlterNet's Washington bureau chief. Follow her on Twitter: www.twitter.com/addiestan