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Lawrence O'Donnell, Prime Time Player

Stepping into Keith Olbermann's shoes won't be easy, but the host of MSNBC's "The Last Word" is ready to play his part.

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WWDStyle issue 01/26/2011

All men in makeup are playing a part,” said Lawrence O’Donnell from beneath a coating of thick, tinted foundation, following a live broadcast of his MSNBC show “The Last Word.”

For O’Donnell — who has worked as everything from a writer, actor and producer to a high-ranking Senate aide — the role he’s playing has just grown exponentially. The wiry, eloquent and occasionally gruff host has stepped into the shoes of the network’s highest-rated commentator, Keith Olbermann, and all the pundits are wondering whether he’s up to the task. Olbermann shocked viewers Friday night with the news that he was leaving his show, “Countdown,” and the network he’d made a strong number two to Fox.

MSNBC president Phil Griffin didn’t hesitate to swing O’Donnell into prime time — and naturally feels he chose the right man. Sidestepping questions about his relationship with Olbermann, Griffin told WWD Tuesday: “We’ve built a great bench of talent over the last several years. Lawrence has proven himself at both 10 p.m. and at 8 p.m.” — he filled in for Olbermann during his father’s illness — “and I’m thrilled to have him kicking off prime time. Our vision is unchanged, as is our goal — to beat Fox.”

That’s still a tall order. The left-leaning Olbermann managed to craft the formula MSNBC needed to overtake CNN and become the number-two cable news network behind the conservatively leaning Fox, but even viewership was less than half that of many of Fox’s stars.

So O’Donnell will need all his natural flair for the dramatic to close the gap. And he’s certainly on his Fox rivals’ radar. In November, the fire-breathing Glenn Beck described him as MSNBC’s “new, hot lover boy.”

That was several career steps ago, after O’Donnell dubbed himself a “socialist” on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” show. Beck’s response, which likened the “Last Word” host to a Communist, prompted O’Donnell to devote his program’s entire last segment on Nov. 9 to explaining why he, Beck, Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly and all Americans are, indeed, socialists.

“I wish I wasn’t saying it for shock value…because this is the only country where you can’t use the word; that word gets to live as a demonization tool,” O’Donnell smirked in a recent interview with WWD, going on to professorially explain that the U.S. government is a mix of socialistic and capitalistic policies. “I owe him [Beck] a thank you. I think his audience is 500 times the size of my audience, and the more he can say it the better.”

He turned to his friend, comedian and illusionist Penn Jillette, who was waiting to catch a late dinner with the anchor, and asked: “You know Glenn. Do I send him flowers? What do I do?”

“You could send him something, and he’d appreciate it,” joked Jillette, who noted that Beck’s television persona ranges from “zero and 100 percent” as a fictionalized character, depending on what views he’s espousing. It’s the same with O’Donnell and every TV personality “with the exception of Stephen Colbert, who plays a part” that bears no relation to his actual personality, he added.

Only a few months before ascending to the prime-time slot, O’Donnell had offered an overly modest self-appraisal. “I barely know what I’m doing. It’s an early experiment,” he said.

O’Donnell’s circuitous, introspective ramblings off the air, while profound, contrast with the often cutting and incisive style of his on-air questioning. And it’s that elegant, well-groomed O’Donnell who masterfully navigated himself to near the top of MSNBC’s ratings by invoking the wrath of the right-wing media sensation Beck.

The notion that an on-air personality is that same person behind closed doors is “nonsense,” because you “know you’re on TV and you’re still trying to speak from your heart, and both of those things are true all the time, and all you do is fail at one or the other, but you’re always doing both,” Jillette said. “It’s like when you’re sitting around talking. How much when you are with your friends are you absolutely telling the truth that moment from your heart, and how much are you f---ing around? That slider just changes all the time, and nobody knows, including you, where it really is because what you pretend to be is what you are, but it never feels that way.”

Engrossed, O’Donnell — clad in a black suit, light blue shirt and charcoal textured silk tie by Dolce & Gabbana, Tod’s loafers and Seize sur Vingt socks — grunted in agreement.

“I can tell you that my horse isn’t higher than [Rush] Limbaugh’s or anybody else’s. I think Rush is a very, very talented entertainer,” O’Donnell said. “Rush stays onstage longer than he’s supposed to” and “gets into things that he regrets.”

“I understand how that happens,” he said. “I don’t think he’s the devil. I understand why people hate him for it. I understand why they hate me. There’s a way to avoid being hated — I can do the f--ing weather.”

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