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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, the New 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.