When Laurie Anderson hosted the video-art anthology series Alive From Off Center on PBS in the 1980s, she often shared the screen with her “clone,” a digitally altered, gender-reversed Mini-Me version of herself. Chris Hayes looks like a clone of Rachel Maddow, created with a slightly updated version of the same technology. Like Maddow, Hayes is cerebral and wonky, and as a writer and editor for such hard-left print journals as The Nation and In These Times, he comes by his wonkishness honestly. He’s a serious political journalist, which makes him the kind of person it might seem like cable news could use a lot more of, to break up the established pattern of people who seem to live in the studio barking opinions at each other.
That might be true if Hayes were on MSNBC to present actual reporting he’s done, but as a frequent fill-in guest for Maddow and other MSNBC hosts, as the star of his own two-hour weekend program, and now as the tent pole for the channel’s first prime time hour every weeknight, Hayes is sitting behind a desk, talking to the camera and refereeing panel discussions. It’s not exactly what he’s been training for all these years, especially compared to someone like Maddow; before showing the world just how hard a crush the camera could have for a liberal politics geek, she was making a name for herself in talk radio, a field that really separates the smart, well-informed, opinionated mortals from those charismatic and appealing enough to hold an audience in the palm of their hands with nothing but a prep sheet and a gift for gab.
The publicity surrounding Hayes’ ascension to the head of the MSNBC nightly lineup has centered on his age: At 34, he’s the youngest talking head on cable news. He’s only a year younger than Maddow was when she got her own MSNBC show, but when the media writers hanging around in front of the courthouse were deputized to find a promotable angle to attach to Maddow, they had so much to work with that nobody seemed to notice her age much; they were too busy talking about her sexual orientation, her phoenix-like rise from the smoking ruins of Air America, and that fact that MSNBC had a liberal star on the rise who didn’t seem to be on the verge of setting herself on fire and taking the building down with her. (Hayes has hitched a ride on Maddow’s tail wind in a way that recalls the way Maddow rose up in the shadow of Keith Olbermann, except that Hayes doesn’t have the same kind of smoking wreckage in his rear-view mirror.)
Hayes is young enough to begin his discussion of the death of Roger Ebert to reminisce about how, as a child, he used to see his parents watching Siskel and Ebert on TV and get upset because grown-ups were fighting. But he seems especially young because of the kind of guys he’s competing with, most notably Bill O’Reilly on Fox News, and the one he’s replacing: 59-year-old populist windbag Ed Schultz, late of The Ed Show, the only talking head on the current scene who might seem believably overjoyed to get out of his goddamn climate-controlled studio and go stand in the freezing cold with a bunch of working stiffs in Wisconsin, talking to them about their plans to take the fight to their union-busting governor. As MSNBC has settled into its current mode as the liberal alternative to Fox News, the channel has become clogged up with beefy-looking dudes heading for the wrong side of middle age, who are here to tell you kids a thing or three; Ed was the most florid-faced and leather-lunged of the bunch. Handing his time slot to Chris Hayes indicates that the network thinks that it’s time for the screaming Boomers to gravitate to the weekends and the daylight hours—the network programmer’s version of being set adrift on an ice floe—and that the future belongs to the data-encrusted policy nerds.
It’s an attractive idea if true, but during his first week as a prime-time headliner, Hayes hasn’t demonstrated that he might be the most exciting policy nerd around. Other MSNBC stars, such as Maddow, and Olbermann when he was in his prime, have brought some showmanship to the way that balance their segments and mix it up over the course of an hour. When Hayes has to fly solo, talking directly to the camera like a video blogger, he talks fast, sometimes hemming and hawing and stumbling over his own words, while his hands fly every which-away. He talks fast not in the manner of a spark plug with an infectious love of the sound of his own voice, but a born debate-class moderator who can’t wait to get to the part of the show he really enjoys: sitting at the center of a bunch of reporters and activists who think about the same way he does and chewing the fat.
These bull sessions take up most of the space during the first week, and too much of the chatter, supplied by familiar names from the MSNBC bookers’ catalog such as Senator Bernie Sanders, Michelle Goldberg, David Axelrod, and Ezra Klein, has the musty aroma of pre-chewed Beltway blather. I have no problem listening to politicians and political reporters talk about politics, but in there’s not much diversity of background or opinion among the folks who come on Hayes’ show to discuss what an oil spill in a suburban neighborhood (thanks to a busted, 80-year-old underground pipe) or the hurt caused to average Americans by the sequestration. It’s all pretty cozy. And even reporters have might have something to report tend to save their best sound bites for when they feel challenged to make their case, not just say what they were booked to say in order to make the host nod his head.
Maddow’s show took a while to find its secure footing, and it has to be said that Hayes’ best moments so far have taken place toward the end of the week. A conversation on Thursday about the strike by fast-food workers in New York City benefited from the presence of some people who don’t count on TV appearances as a regular part of their workload. It was also the first discussion that made room for someone who was clearly a member of the opposition, though the nice young man from the restaurants’ association looked as if he’d bent sent on the show as part of a hazing ritual. (Not showing much of an instinct for the killer instinct, Hayes reached over at one point and assured the poor guy that he liked him personally.)
And there were some actual fireworks and bits of usable information during the final segment of the week, a debate—among a former head of the Social Security Administration, an advocate for the disabled, and a representative from the Manhattan Institute— over whether federal disability payments have become a de facto welfare program. There was also the promise of fireworks in the long opening discussion, about the illogic of some of the laws governing reproductive rights and other issues of special concern to women, or, as Hayes put it, how this country has “real politics, and crazy vagina politics.” Hayes put together an impressive diverse, ethnically mixed panel of women to participate, but he lost the firm hand on the steering wheel that the host of a show like this needs, and as the panelists began to talk over each other too many times, it became too easy to lose track of who was saying what and tune out.
Hayes seems like a nice guy, and that may not be an act. If so, it's a problem, because hosting a TV show, especially one where people make unscripted conversation, isn’t really a job for a nice person, as Merv Griffin devoted his whole life to proving. Rachel Maddow seems nice, which is part of her appeal, but there’s a steeliness at her core, and Keith Olbermann didn’t even pretend to be nice. If Hayes is married to this format, he might be the first cable news host who needs to start pretending to be less nice than he is. Seeming to have a capacity for boredom and irritation might scare his guests into at least pretending to be interesting.