Who in the hell is RJ Eskow?
That’s what I wanted to know when I received a feverish pitch some weeks back on doing some sort of interview with him. Why not? I’m open to new interviews with people I’ve never heard of. In an informal focus group fashion, I asked my newsroom if they knew who he was. “Greek to me,” said one. “Think he’s related to RJR Nabisco,” said another. And another, “Never heard of.” Couldn’t even get a “him” on the end of that one. Shortly thereafter, another coworker replied, “Never heard of him.” And finally, “No bells ringing.”
In a nutshell, no, you shouldn’t know who Eskow is.
But this may soon change considering the voracity of the PR operation pushing his brand. “We Act Radio has a new host, new name,”say his promotionals. “And apparently a new audience, because it premiered at the top of the iTunes chart this weekend– #1 podcast overall, and #1 podcast for ‘News and Politics.’”
Eskow hosts “The Zero Hour with RJ Esckow.” He replaces David Shuster, now at Al Jazeera America. He’s also a senior fellow with the Campaign for America’s Future, where he opines on economic and financial issues. His writing has been anthologized three times in Best Buddhist Writing of the Year. In the early 1990s, he led projects to help nations emerging from communism redesign their health economies.
His weekly show airs 12-3 p.m. on Saturdays. It combines “news and analysis with interviews and topics that range from politics to economics, from culture to computing, from the creation of the universe to inflated coaching salaries in the NCAA.”
The show launched May 1 with a reception at the AFL-CIO HQ. And what a success it already is! More from the promotionals: “In merely two-days, The Zero Hour has swept the charts, beating out podcasts by Bill Maher, Diane Rehm, and Ira Glass’ ‘This American Life.’” (Keep in mind that Glass has no idea who NYT ousted executive editor Jill Abramson is. And I’ll take a wild stab that Glass probably doesn’t know who Eskow is, either, even though he’s apparently kicking his ass.)
Toasting Eskow’s new show in person and in video messages were lawmakers and media personalities including Shuster, Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), Terry O’Neill, president of the National Organization for Women, Thom Hartmann, progressive radio host, and Nancy Altman, founding co-director of Social Security Works.
Yes – I’ve given Eskow a fair amount of ribbing on his name ID, but anyone who says he has never seen his own ass gets an A+ on this interview in my book. What’s more, his question for the next interviewee is unique and will live on for many more interview victims.
Now, let’s learn more about the mystery man, shall we?
Hometown: Utica, NY
Named for: There was nobody on either side of my family named Richard, so it was the only choice that wouldn’t offend somebody somewhere.
First job ever: Worked a flat press in a New York laundry which drycleaned clothes for a string of New Jersey laundromats; also put labels on the packages which said “All work done on premises” before putting them on a truck back to New Jersey.
Current employment: Host and Managing Editor of The Zero Hour, We Act Radio; Senior Fellow, Campaign for America’s Future; writer and policy analyst.
If someone wants to get on your good side, what candy or liquor should they ply you with? Any combination of chocolate and nuts will do, from the finest choco-pecan confections to a bag of Reese’s Pieces, with which I can be lured out of hiding as if I were E.T.
Most exotic place you’ve ever visited: I did economic development and investment consulting in more than 20 countries, but I’d say Albania. We were there on a mission one month after it opened to the West after being a garrison country for forty years. We saw some surprising and fascinating things there. Some tragedy, too.
Why do you think Washington is so polarized? And please consider your answer in terms of boring us. I don’t think it’s polarized enough. There’s too much mistaken consensus around wrong-headed economic platforms like the Simpson Bowles plan. The problem is that it’s polarized around the wrong things, like pointless issues of faux outrage. I’d like to see more economic polarization – which, in earlier eras, was called healthy political debate.
That’s how our system is supposed to work: two candidates offer differing visions, and voters get to choose between them. I like that model. It’s called “democracy” – and yes, it can be messy.
Who is your celebrity crush? Why, you, of course! Who else?
You’ve replaced David Shuster. Are those big shoes to fill and how do you think you’re doing so far? Yes, David is well-known and respected as a journalist and broadcaster. I have a very high opinion of his work. He is also an extremely decent and good human being. I think I’m a very different creature: I began my writing career, at least in its last iteration, with opinion pieces rather than journalism per se. But I have always held myself to a very high standard of accuracy. If I can approach David’s standards for honest reporting – and be half as decent a person – I’ll be pretty happy.
Why do you think you landed your job? That’s the part that never ceases to amaze me: apparently some people appreciate what I have to say and how I say it. And before you accuse me of false humility, please be aware that I share the same character defects as many other writers and broadcasters: I see myself as both larger than, and smaller than, I really am. Whenever something of mine is published, half of me wants to flagellate myself in public like the penitentes in Mexico on Good Friday. And the other half of me wants to strut around like Wile E. Coyote, looking at my reflection and muttering “Super Genius.” In other words, I have no idea how I landed my job.
A thought that makes you want to cry: Jane Goodall says that she’s seen chimpanzees get a tear in their eye looking at a beautiful sunset. And I complain when net congestion causes the pixels to break up on a Netflix movie. As the great DC soul singer William DeVaughn said, “Be thankful for what you’ve got.”
Weirdest habit you’ve observed in a newsroom (workplace) setting? I’ve seen people put those hula-dancer dolls on their desk – you know, the kind that dance when you play music – and then get obsessed with them. I mean, unnaturally obsessed. And what they do with the square-dancing dolls can’t even be repeated.
If you had to kiss a politician who would it be? If I had to? You mean, it wouldn’t be consensual? I sense a new scandal brewing. It would have to be either Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders, and Bernie has too much five o’clock shadow.
What’s next for you? What would you do with your life if absolutely nothing could stop you? I just started this job, so I’m not really thinking about the next one. But I hope more long-form writing is in the cards. I’m also a musician and songwriter, so I’d like to do more of that. And a lot more work in Africa and elsewhere throughout the world.
Pick one: House of Cards, Scandal or Veep: House of Cards. It’s a great metaphor for the profound corruption of our current system. We don’t literally (spoiler alert!) kill people by pushing them in front of moving trains, but we let thousands die because they can’t get health insurance. Besides, it’s great fun to watch Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright work.
Pick one: CNN’s New Day, Morning Joe, GMA or the TODAY Show: I’d have to say the TODAY show, because the backstage drama is almost as exciting as House of Cards. Viva Ann Curry!
If you had to have a U.S. senator or congressman as your father who would it be? A rich one – and there are plenty of those to choose from. If we approach it emotionally rather than in a mercenary fashion, Rep. Keith Ellison seems like he’s probably a good dad. But I don’t think he’s got that much money.
Since this is The Mirror Questionnaire, what would you change about yourself physically if you could? I’d probably deal with the thinning hair, like many another middle-aged male would do. But on the other hand, the fact that I don’t take Rogaine or do anything else feels like a radically anti-consumerist statement when you’re in my line of work.
And your personality? I’d learn how to be objective enough about myself to be able to answer this question. I know I’m far from perfect, but change one thing? I don’t know. If I can name everything I’d change, how much time do you have?
Preferred beach anywhere in the world: I’ve seen some beautiful beaches, but I’d say Coney Island. In 1965. With “Help Me Rhonda” playing on every transistor radio, teenagerdom in my future, and the Summer of Love right around the corner.
Guilty pleasure TV show: Battlestar Galactica. My wife and I watched all 76 episodes in as close to a marathon as two overworked people can get. But I don’t know how “guilty” the pleasure was. It’s a brilliantly written and acted show. I used to enjoy watching Project Runway with my daughter – so much talent! so much drama! – but unfortunately she aged out of it. I don’t think I did.
On a scale of 1 to 10, how self-obsessed are you? (10 being you can’t tear yourself away from your own daily Google search and 1 meaning you often spend time in the country away from your computer and don’t give a crap about your Klout score.) 5.
Workout regimen: I ride my bicycle whenever I can. My gym regimen, when I get to it, is usually stretches, weights, then cardio on the elliptical. I have to do special back and neck strengthening exercises as the result of past injuries.
Pick one – flabby thighs, cankles or love handles? Cankles, because they’re furthest away from the typical person’s line of sight. Is that horrible to say?
Choose: Beautiful eyes, best personality or perfect legs? I’d say “beautiful eyes” and “best personality” are really the same answer, because the most beautiful eyes are those which reflect a beautiful soul. Perfect legs are awesome too, but I’m going with two out of three on this one. Editors note: Who said RJ could pick two?
A thought that brings you great joy: We have always had venal, greedy, selfish, and stupid people in human societies, and we’ve always overcome them. We are evolving toward something better, even though there will be setbacks along the way.
A regret (of any kind): I’ve felt in the past that I spent too much time just trying to make money – with only moderate success – but I’m putting that experience to good use now. Other than that, I’m not big on regrets. Where I’ve done wrong, I’ve tried to make amends.
Any brushes with death? If so, please describe. I was in a small school bus than spun out of control when I was 14. Then I was in a pretty spectacular car crash in Michigan, when my car and the tractor-trailer behind me lost control on an ice-covered hillside at the same time. The truck jackknifed, or it would have killed me. My car rolled over three times and landed upside down in a ditch. In both cases, time slowed down and I became extraordinarily serene, able to do what was needed and unafraid of any possible outcome. I’m trying to replicate that state without risking my immediate death. I’ll let you know how that goes.
Just a preference Q: Bo or Sunny? I can’t tell them apart. Can you? I love animals, but I’d have to get to know them better.
Most annoying thing your editor (boss) does: I plead the Fifth.
Rank how hairy your butt is: 1 to 10? I’ve never seen it.
Go for a stroll in the park with one of the following and explain the reason for your choice. 1. Barbara Walters, of ABC and most recently, The View. 2. CNN’s Chris Cuomo. 3. FNC’s Megyn Kelly. Megyn Kelly. I have a good idea what makes the other two tick, but I honestly don’t know what’s inside her head. Maybe I could get a sense of who she really is. Sometimes we learn most from those who are most different from ourselves.
When was the last time you were, if ever, naked outside? When I was two my brothers dared me to run out into the street with no pants on. I went to one of the marches on Washington when I was 14, and a lot of people got naked in the Reflecting Pool, but I didn’t join them. Then Rep. Wilbur Mills jumped into it a few years later with a stripper. I don’t know what it is about the Reflecting Pool and nudity.
From The Sunday Times’ Toby Harnden: If you could tell one person to their face that they’re full of shit, with no consequences, who would it be? I’ve had something of a charmed life in that I’ve been able to go down my wish list and tell several of them already – in a polite way, of course. They tend to disagree, by the way.
From Al Jazeera’s David Shuster: If you had to watch or read a news report in a language you didn’t understand, what language would it be and why? Japanese, because it’s such an animated and exciting language.
From lefty radio host Bill Press: Where’s the one place in Washington you’d love to have sex, but can’t? Under the Capitol Dome. Unfortunately, the Capitol Police are very good at their jobs. Which isn’t to say I haven’t been screwed there a few times, legislatively speaking.
From former Rep. Weiner’s ex-phone sex partner Sydney Elaine Leathers: Who is the worst journalist on your favorite news channel? I don’t have a favorite news channel.
From Washington Free Beacon’s Lachlan Markay: Which universally acclaimed piece of literature, art, film, or music can you simply not stand? The movie 21 Grams. It seemed pretentious and boring. There’s a line where Sean Penn tells Naomi Watts (spoiler alert!) “I have his heart.” My wife and I burst out laughing because it was such bad writing. Everybody glared at us, so we left.
From freelancer and journalism prof Steve Friess: If you were the opposite of your sexual orientation, name three people you’d sleep with. I’m not that easy. They’d have to buy a fella a drink first.
From Stateless Media’s Peter Savodnik: Why do you matter? Because I’m alive.
From New York Post’s Tara Palmeri: If you could give one politician or talking head a makeover, who would it be and what would you do? Sean Hannity. Here he has one of the best heads of hair in the business (here we are with the hair again) and he’s moved the part way too far toward the center of his head. He looks like he’s in a barbershop quartet. It would be so easy: Just move the part!
From Mediaite’s Editor-in-Chief Andrew Kirell: Which book would you bring to a book burning? [Don’t say you’re against book burning. We all are.] The telephone directory. Why do they still print them when we have the Internet? It’s a waste of the rainforest.
Please provide a question for the next lucky victim of The Mirror Questionnaire. Make it good. If you could have just one of your sins forgiven, right now, what would it be and why?