What is it that fascinates about Up With Chris Hayes, MSNBC's almost 1-year-old alternative to weekend talking-points pit stops Face the Nation and Meet the Press? Is it that the bespectacled former go-to stand-in for Rachel Maddow with the enviably dewy complexion seems to genuinely care about drawing his weekly roundtable — pundits, experts and political officials — into a smart, clear-headed discussion of current events? Or is it that the literary references and fine-print factoids that flow like water from the fast-talking 33-year-old journalist make you long for him to be at your side or, at the very least, to supply you with a crib sheet of brainy, irrefutable comebacks the next time your crazy right-wing uncle brays anti-choice, homophobic, birther hogwash?
Either way, the fans of the morning weekend political talk show — they call themselves “uppers” and use that as their Twitter hashtag — have a bottomless supply of interest when it comes to a reliable fixture of the two-hour show: A ceramic platter of pastries that sits center stage on the orange desk that holds Hayes and his panel.
Once ascertaining that the baked goods aren't fake (and from Starbucks), his loyal audience moved on to obsessing about what happens to the leftover muffins and scones postshow (answer: The staff eats them) as well as meticulously noting who had the grit to reach out and grab a piece of sugary sustenance midshow and eat it on camera. How real is this preoccupation? An upper has established @UPPastryPlate, a separate Twitter destination for pastry discussions. (Intrigued yet? Check out a guest moving in for a snack at 0:55 as Hayes marvels over the lack of punishment for Bush-era war criminals.)
Hayes, besides hosting the weekly show and serving as editor at large at The Nation, is touring the country to promote his new book, Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy (Crown publishing). That said, he still generously found time recently to talk to us from his New York office. “Let me get up and close my door,” he said apologetically before peeling back the curtain on Pastrygate, explaining how fresh mozzarella-making is part of his birthright and sharing tips on where to eat on Arthur Avenue in his native borough. “It's noisy because I share a wall with an aerobics studio. Half the day there is Zumba happening next door.” Turn the page.
Squid Ink: Serving pastries and muffins while on air. Whose idea was it?
Chris Hayes: That was my idea. I wanted to create an atmosphere of breakfast-table conversation. Of course eating on live television is a bit dicey — so most people don't. So the pastries sit there and distract and annoy our viewers. But now I'm weirdly, stubbornly resistant to abandoning the idea. I feel like it's become an attribute of the show.
SI: How long had the show been running before a guest was willing to reach over and grab a blueberry scone or a banana nut muffin and let the crumbs fall where they may?
CH: [Political analyst] Reihan Salam, who is now unfortunately a contributor at another network, was never bashful about diving right in. There's also Sam Seder. There's a select few who just go for it.
SI: You're the host. Have you ever gone Amy Vanderbilt on your guests and picked up the plate and said, “May I offer you an eight-grain roll?”
CH: I have done that before. People look at me like I'm crazy.
SI: The baked goods are from Starbucks. What about mixing it up? What about getting irresistible albeit super-expensive croissant and pain au chocolat from Patisserie Claude on Fourth Street in the West Village?
CH: Mostly it's a logistical thing: Someone has to go get them. Starbucks is close. I don't want to make more work for the person who has to [buy the pastries] than is strictly necessary.
SI: Switching topics. On a recent episode of your show, Kansas' very Republican secretary of state, Kris Kobach, threw out an inflated number — that over the next 10 years the cost of creating a path to citizenship for all the people who are in the country illegally would be $2.6 trillion — and you instantly said, “That's $260 billion a year.” How did you crunch the numbers so quickly?
CH: I don't know. Decimal places are seared into my brain from working with budget estimates. If you actually do out the math, which I did with a calculator on break, because I can't do this in my head, the part where you divide $260 billion by 11 million people in the country illegally, that's almost $24,000 per person a year. What he is asserting is that creating a path to citizenship for these people would be the same as if the government were to write each of them a check for $24,000 a year for 10 years. Which is clearly a totally implausible claim. [laughs]
SI: The reason we bring this up is imagining how your dazzlingly fast math skills could be applied to settling a restaurant tab. Let's say you go out to dinner with your family and the bill comes and it's a staggering $5,203.49? What is the correct tip to leave?
CH: [no pause] A little more than $1,000.
SI: That is most impressive. How do you define being a good host — in every sense of the word?
CH: We forget the origin of the word, that it has two meanings — the host of a TV show and the host of a party. I definitely feel like what I do on the show is host in both senses. Like, I am the host and I am there to make people feel comfortable, to move the conversation along and to kind of enforce whatever social boundaries there are. To set a tone. And when it's not going well, I feel the same anxiety you do if you host a party and people are standing around awkwardly not talking to each other. [laughs] And I feel the same sense of triumph and satisfaction when it's REALLY good and everyone is going at it and everyone is having a really engaged good time. The same as when you throw a party and it's after midnight and everyone is drinking and laughing and dancing.
SI: Which kind of hosting do you prefer?
CH: Actually I really like hosting in both senses. And part of the reason that I love the show every weekend is that I love that social aspect of it. I like people. I like talking to people. I like listening to what people have to say. I like the convening authority that the show gives me: That different people from different worlds can come together.
SI: When Up With Chris Hayes is at its very best, it loses a produced quality and suddenly your guests seem like a group of friends talking excitedly over a dinner table: It feels like they've forgotten where they are.
CH: That's exactly what we're going for. Forgetting where they are is the key. The first thing I say to people in the green room is, “The first rule of the show is that you're not on television.” If you've done media training, you've learned to view the opportunity to speak as an opportunity to get talking points out or make a point, then go off and wait and then make another point. But that's not the way conversation works. If it did, it would be bizarre. The reason humans converse is that there's a kind of social reciprocity that is involved in it, and that is vital and human. Good conversation forces you to wrestle with ideas that you hadn't anticipated or to think of new thoughts or even to find out things about what you believe that you didn't realize before you went into the conversation. Because being exposed to the other person in the conversation makes you realize, “I didn't realize that I thought this — but I do think this.” The spontaneity of that is why we engage in conversation. Why it's an enjoyable thing to engage in. And why it's a pretty compelling thing to watch when it is actually happening in an honest way.
SI: So cordiality is part of your hosting game plan. We find this refreshing.
Turn the page for the rest of the interview…
CH: I wonder sometimes if we're delusional or whether it can last or whether what we're trying to create on the show can survive the strain of the election season. People sort of naturally polarize and dig in a bit. I'm not above that myself. Obviously, I have a favorite candidate in this race and feel like there's pretty high stakes.
What ends up happening is, I think, we're often presented two models in this conversation about what our media is going to look like in the future. Either everything is going to be the AP — neutral and objective and “unbiased” — or it's going to be like Fox News and Drudge Report. Just complete propaganda stick, hackish, slavishly devoted to forwarding an agenda.
There's a lot of space between those two extremes. We're trying to carve out a space in there. I have a pretty strong set of beliefs and principles and ideology and worldview and things that I want the world to look like and care passionately about. But I also try to be curious and humble about what I know and don't know. And also just engaging good faith. That seems to me to be the important thing. That's a pretty key concept to the extent that, when the show works, it works because we've managed to get people to come on the show who are willing to engage with each other in good faith
SI: Do you and your wife have dinner parties?
CH: We have a 7-month-old so we don't have a ton of dinner parties. But we do actually host brunch at our place a fair amount.
SI: What should one expect to eat at a Hayes family brunch?
CH: Quiches. Bagels. Lox. I can't say that I've been doing an amazing job of keeping up my end of that. Unfortunately, it ends up getting outsourced to my wife, because it's usually right after the show.
SI: You grew up in the Bronx, correct?
SI: Arthur Avenue is a street in the Fordham section that is considered the Little Italy of your borough. Can you give us a quickie tour?
CH: There's a place called Borgatti's that we'd go all the time for fresh pasta. Like fresh ravioli with cornmeal on it. It was on the same block, across from Our Lady of Mount Carmel School, as a small mozzarella shop and deli that was owned by my grandfather — which no longer exists. I don't have first-hand knowledge of how to make fresh mozzarella, but there's a familial legacy. It was called Loffrado's — that's my mom's maiden name and my middle name, actually.
SI: After Borgatti's you go to …?
CH: … There's a place called Tony's, which is now around the corner from Borgatti's. It's an amazing deli where my mom still gets sandwiches. When I go back up to the Bronx, the fridge is stocked with lots of stuff from there.
SI: You once held the position of D.C. editor of The Nation. When it comes to food and parties, which administration had the edge? The Bush era? Or the Obama White House?
CH: People say that food is better in D.C. during the Obama years than the Bush years — although it is unclear to me how much [the quality of the food] is driven by the administration. There's some caricature that Democrats have a higher percentage of foodies.
SI: D.C. is not known as a restaurant town. Why is that?
CH: With some notable exceptions, the food tends to be expensive. In places like New York, probably L.A., you can get really good food for not that much money. There's a whole world of food that's affordable and delicious. In D.C. there's a lot of food that is cheap and fast food-y. Then there's a lot of high-end food: There are so many events that are being thrown by trade groups or lobbies. The premium isn't really on the quality and [those making the food] can charge an arm and a leg because the person paying for it isn't really paying for it. I think it creates a not-great market for food in D.C. Tyler Cowan writes about this in a book called An Economist Gets Lunch.
SI: Recently the Los Angeles-based group Drinking Liberally hosted a party to help promote your book Twilight of the Elites. Recap please.
CH: We went to a place called TRiP. I thought there would just be a few people — but there were 150 people in the bar when I got there.
SI: What's your drink of choice?
CH: Usually I drink bourbon.
SI: What brand do you prefer?
CH: If I'm mixing it with Diet Coke, which is often, it's Jim Beam or Maker's. Or if it's whisky, I'll have Jack. If not, I'll have Basil Hayden.
SI: Jim Beam and Diet Coke? Is this a calorie-conscious TV host cocktail?
CH: I know. It's such a lame drink. I'd like to say I drink something more sophisticated. But is that why I drink Diet? Yes. Having your image out there all the time cannot help but make you more aware.
Up WithChris Hayes airs on MSNBC on Saturday and Sunday mornings, from 5 – 7 a.m. on the West Coast. That's why they invented the DVR, right?
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