Media Maven Mika Brzezinski
In Mika Brzezinski’s 2010 New York Times best seller All Things at Once, she says that as a teenager, when she imagined her career, she had an “end date” for it all at age 40. Raised in Washington since age 9, the daughter of former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski and an artist mother—who instilled in her that she could accomplish anything she set out to achieve—Brzezinski planned to be on television news, then retire into motherhood. But that’s not how her life unfolded—at least, not quite. As a CBS News anchor and correspondent to 60 Minutes, she felt that she was living her dream career—until she was shockingly fired from her role at CBS on her 39th birthday.
After trying to be a stay-at-home mom, the Williams College alum and Council on Foreign Relations member returned to journalism and landed her current job at MSNBC, cohosting Morning Joe with Joe Scarborough. Sparring with Scarborough on a daily basis for the past five years, the outspoken media maven appreciates the friction of debating, respects the opposing views of her conservative counterpart, and feels that she has finally found her true calling. Her 2011 book, Knowing Your Value, was also a New York Times best seller, and her third book, Obsessed, will be released this May. Here, in a candid discussion with Scarborough, Brzezinski explains how her upbringing informed her character, muses on what Washington needs to move itself foward post-election, and talks about how she found contentment in juggling career and family.
JOE SCARBOROUGH: When your dad got the call that he was going to be running national security for the United States of America [in the Carter administration], how did he break the news to you that you’d be moving to Washington?
MIKA BREZEZINSKI: I was on the second floor of our little Victorian home in Englewood, New Jersey, and he said, “Congratulations! We’re all moving to Washington—next week.” My parents found an old farmhouse [in McLean] that they bought for like $135,000—five acres, overgrown, and just a complete dump.
JS: You all did not fit into the Washington social scene immediately.
MB: We still don’t! My parents are from Eastern Europe. My mother cooks, grows, and shoots everything herself. They raise chickens and have gardens, and do everything the slow way. They have an Eastern European point of view, and [Polish] was their first language. There were language barriers and attitudinal barriers.
JS: Did they make that decision to [settle in] McLean based on their backgrounds and wanting to live on a farm, and to separate themselves from the culture?
MB: Not sure if that’s why they did it, but it certainly did separate them. The whole back acre was completely overgrown, and we went there with saws and literally did it ourselves. We did things together as a family—and the hard way. There are lots of wild-game stories that are now family lore, as well. We’re hunters. There were so many times I’d come home from school with a friend and there would be a dead deer hanging from the tree, gutted.
JS: My guess is girls from the Madeira School were not used to visiting friends who had dead deer hanging from a tree or thrown in a bathtub.
MB: [One time] Mother dragged one in the house and ran out of time [to prepare it], so she threw it in the tub and opened the window, so the winter air could make the bathroom a mini refrigerator. She went off to do whatever it was that distracted her, and she was going to get back to it, but not before a friend that I had brought home from school walked in to go to the bathroom and had the sight of her life. I will never forget that!
JS: The bloody corpse of a dead deer in your mother’s bathroom…. Did she ever come back?
MB: No… and she was so pretty. I always wanted to be like [that girl], and my mother horrified me.
JS: Let’s talk a bout the way your parents interacted with people in Washington. Your home became a must-stop destination for dinner parties.
MB: Yes. Gosh, my family history is the Morning Joe table. It’s bringing people who don’t agree over for dinner and celebrating in the joy of debating our differences. My father had a staff at the NSC that was incredibly diverse and made up of thought leaders on both sides of the aisle. Bob Gates, Condoleezza Rice, Madeleine Albright, US General [William Eldridge] Odom, to name a few. He enjoyed the friction of that. But also with the position came a lot of access to world leaders. We had dinner with the Pope; we would travel around the world.
JS: That had to be a great moment for your family: the first Polish pope, Pope John Paul II. How was your dinner with the Holy Father?
MB: Well, I had a great dinner with [the Pope], but I’m not sure my father enjoyed it because my mother engaged him in talk of birth control and the role of women in the church because, again, we like to celebrate differences. The day started with my brother refusing to go because he wanted to go the high school football game. He walked in with big untied Timberland boots on and a hole in his jeans. I thought my dad was going to keel over. Then, cut to my mom challenging the Pope on birth control. It was quite a night!
JS: In 1978, when China officially opened relations with the United States, instead of having a State Dinner at the White House, Deng Xiaoping wanted to come over to your old farmhouse in McLean. How did that go?
MB: The night started out with my mother lighting the fire without opening the flue, and the house getting full of smoke. Then, the three of us kids were serving appetizers and cocktails; I tripped, and I spilled caviar on Deng Xiaoping’s crotch. I was so nervous that I immediately started wiping it off. And it was the most awkward moment that I can think of to this day!
JS: What difference do you see between the Washington of your father’s day, back when he worked in the White House, and today? You said that you would have Republicans, Democrats, and Independents over, and there was a free flow of ideas and great respect for the other side. How has that changed?
MB: I think the joy is lost in it all. The edges are sharper, and the divisions are deeper. [No one relishes] the friction of debate, the intellectual challenge, the joy to really try to exchange ideas and work something out—or agree to disagree, and still be friends. I don’t think that ability exists, and I wonder if there’s an influx over the past couple of years of people who don’t have that quality—or maybe don’t have enough quality. Because in order to really be able to do that, you have to be a quality person. You have to focus on the right things; you have to want the right thing. I’m not sure as many of those people exist. I’m not sure the media environment helps—or hurts—and maybe even feeds into those divisions. It’s kind of sad.
JS: As we’re going around together, I’m struck by how many women come up to you and say how your last book changed their lives. Where are women in the workplace across America, in terms of getting their value and the battle to get what men get?
MB: We’re not where we should be—obviously. I’ve been following closely and have taken part in events with the White House as it pertains to equal pay, women getting access to capital, and other ways in which they can “lift themselves up.” In my last book, I talk about our part—women’s part—in being able to negotiate for ourselves, speak for ourselves, and get what we need. We often think it’s going to come to us, and that’s been part of the problem. Women need to have a clear, strong voice in terms of getting what they want. A lot of women have come up to me and said that that book has helped them get raises.
I have a book coming out in the spring that addresses another weakness women need to work on: self-image. It addresses food, diet, and body image. It’s called Obsessed. It’s really revealing and raw; I hope that it has a similar impact that Knowing Your Value had. That is the intention, but it’s a riskier venture because I’m going to tell stories about my own personal struggles in this department. And I think, while many women have the same issues, they will be disappointing to people.
JS: You’re talking about how women in our culture obsess about their looks and the unrealistic expectations that are placed on women. How does that pertain to the profession you chose to work in: the news media?
MB: I think I have more material than [most] to write this book because I’m in the news media and I have struggled with [the] impossible goal to look a certain way. I wrote this book while it was happening, and it’s really my final page-turning experience in terms of not trying to look a certain way anymore, and understanding that the unrealistic expectations that are put on women, in terms of how they look, are also untrue.
JS: In the process of writing Obsessed and talking to a weight counselor, have you altered your behavior?
MB: Yes. I collaborate with a friend who’s also in television and whose fortunes were very different because she became morbidly obese, and I did not, even though we had the same issues with food—which is fascinating. I’m going to take the perilous journey of drawing an exact parallel to women who have eating disorders with women who are obese—which is also an eating disorder—and see that there are similar problems. And it all pertains to how we eat, what we eat, and how we focus on it. I end up heavier at the end of this book, and she ends up 100 pounds lighter. It was an interesting journey; it’s extremely unconventional and risky.
JS: Of all the things you’ve done professionally, what are you most proud of?
MB: One thing that always makes me so happy is to be able to be a woman in television who is really happy with the job she has and wants to go nowhere else. I think women are always trying to manage up and navigate to the next thing, and they’re always on this hyperventilating roller coaster trying to get to the next thing. I don’t want to go anywhere; I love what I have. It’s a great feeling. That is a “finest hour” kind of feeling.
JS: What are you proudest of, personally?
MB: My girls. I think being a mother is the most incredible challenge you can take on in life. I tell women who ask for career advice not to forget to have a family, because what is any of this if you don’t have those relationships that really give it all a reason? I would be nothing without my family, without my girls [Emilie, age 17, and Carlie, age 14]. Both of them challenge me every single day. And that is the incredible, fantastic—and also difficult—challenge of having children. Who would want to live without that!
JS: Tell us about your dog.
MB: Cajun is a rescue pet from Hurricane Katrina. He’s red, and he doesn’t like rain. I found him at the North Shore Medical Center on Long Island, while I was working at CBS when Katrina hit. I was on camera, and I called Jim [Hoffer, Brzezinski’s husband and investigative reporter for ABC News in New York] and said, “We wanted to teach the girls about Hurricane Katrina…. We could adopt a dog. Are you going to say no?” And he had no choice. So I brought home this little red puppy with a curly tail, and he has turned out to be the most popular one in our house.
JS: Let’s end by talking about your hometown, Washington. Every time we fly into DC, you reflexively say how much you love it. What is it about this city that is so endearing?
MB: It’s just home—in every way. When we go on Capitol Hill, when we go to the White House, when we go to the most iconic places in Washington, it feels like home to me because it’s where I grew up—running around the halls of the White House with Amy Carter. I was a page on Capitol Hill back when Strom Thurmond was still in power. I worked for a senator when I was a junior in high school. I know Washington through the eyes of a child who got to see parts of Washington that [most people would] live their whole lives only imagining. I also got to see it as a young person, working, watching these thought leaders making decisions while stuffing envelopes behind them. I grew up with it flowing in my veins. And so, when I go back to Washington, I feel very, very comfortable.
additional reporting by danine alati; photography by eric ogden (portraits), getty images (scarborough); Styling by Justin Min; Hair and makeup by Wilbert Ramos
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