TheDC Review: Keith Olbermann’s ‘Pitchforks and Torches’

Ruth Graham Contributor
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MSNBC host Keith Olbermann’s new book, “Pitchforks and Torches: The Worst of the Worst, From Beck, Bill, and Bush to Palin and Other Posturing Republicans,” has a lot in common with Olbermann’s daily television show: It’s built around the overwritten, overwrought meanderings of a smart but lazy man better known for anger than substance, who fancies himself an avenger for justice but is really just a thin-skinned tyrant in pundit’s clothing. Also, both feature hilarious images of Keith Olbermann’s face.

There’s a reason “Pitchforks and Torches” so closely resembles “Countdown.” The new book consists entirely of transcripts of Olbermann’s tirades from “Countdown” — what the jacket copy calls “his most potent barrages,” which sounds vaguely disgusting.

The good news is if you thought it was fun listening to Olbermann tear apart a guy who wrote a letter to the editor of the San Diego Union Tribune back in November of 2008, just wait until you read a full transcript of the same tirade two years later! Like a fine wine, meaningless anger only gets better with time.

Can you think of another cable television host who would think his musings on the minutiae of the 24-hour news cycle should be printed verbatim, bound in hardback and sold for $24.95? Even former CNN host Rick Sanchez, whose cheerfully incompetent “Conventional Idiocy” I reviewed here last week, drummed up new content when it was time to write a book. “Pitchforks and Torches,” by contrast, seems to have been produced under the cynical premise that its real audience is desperate holiday shoppers who have a vague idea that Uncle Bruce might be a fan of Keith Olbermann and who won’t know any better when they make the terrible mistake of buying it. Sorry, Uncle Bruce. You deserve better.

Make no mistake: There is absolutely no “added value” in “Pitchforks and Torches.” There’s no introduction, no prologue, no preamble, no table of contents, no index, and no conclusion, afterward or post-script. Instead, Olbermann jumps right in. The first sentence in the book is “Number three: I could write a book–gate.” No, seriously, that’s it. Since that could have been written by a random word-generator operated by a sleepy chimpanzee, you might think you’re missing some context, but remember: That’s the first sentence, so there is no context yet. We’re all on the same page here. (Page 1. Try to keep up.)

The rest of the book is just page after page of monologue transcripts. There’s no organizational theme other than chronological order, beginning with just after the 2008 election and ending with April of this year. Most selections are “Worst Person in the World” segments, but there are also plenty of “Special Comments” and a handful of appropriately titled “WTFs.”

He also includes agonizingly detailed defenses of his extended periods of time away from the desk; during one such spell, the New York website CityFile suggested he had thrown some sort of hissy fit and refused to work, which prompted Olbermann to deliver a blisteringly self-righteous and agonizingly long defense of his vacation schedule on air. Now you can relive this important moment in our shared history for only $24.95!

Recent history makes “Pitchforks and Torches” even more of a historical artifact: earlier this week Olbermann made a great to-do about discontinuing his “Worst Persons” segment indefinitely.

“There is an institutionalization of [anger] that may no longer be valid,” Olbermann somberly intoned on air. “That is the ‘Worse Persons in the World’ Segment. Which started, of all things, as a way of defending Tucker Carlson. [Ed. note: !!!!!!!] Its satire and whimsy have gradually gotten lost in some anger, so in the spirit of the thing, as of right now, I am unilaterally suspending that segment with an eye towards discontinuing it. We don’t know how that works long term. We might bring it back. We might bring back something similar to it, might kill it outright, and next week we will solicit your input.”

I can provide some input right now: Put it out of its misery. I am sincerely glad to see Worst Persons go, not as a professional Olbermann-mocker, but as a human being. Worst Persons, meant as a laser beam trained on the foulest enemies of the liberal punditocracy – think Bush, Cheney, and Bill O’Reilly — has lately been less a laser than a broken Kalashnikov spraying bullets randomly into a crowd. Without the Bush crowd to pick on, Olbermann has been reduced to picking first on his fellow cable talking-heads, and eventually a series of small-town criminals and local political activists. “Worst Persons” in the book includes people such as Ricky Flowers, a regular guy who failed to signal at a stoplight in Ohio, and Joyce E. Thomann, “the president of the Republican Women of Anne Arundel County in Maryland.”

Are these really the “worst persons in the world”? They’re barely the worst persons in town. It’s especially jarring coming from a voice that fancies itself speaking for liberal America, supposed champion of the poor, the downtrodden, the kind of people who might be down on their luck and driven by desperation to, say, run a traffic light, or commit an act of petty thievery, or make an ill-advised comment at a county board meeting. As the book makes clear, Olbermann is often just a bully picking on a person who doesn’t deserve the outsize shame of nationally televised mockery. Good riddance.

Now if only we can convince him to indefinitely suspend the rest of the show.