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November 3, 2008

Mika Brzezinski '89 of MSNBC's Morning Joe is still running

Make no mistake about it – Mika Brzezinski '89 is still running.

Watching her navigate her morning on MSNBC's Morning Joe, keeping in touch with her family, staying on top of the latest election news, preparing for a conference call, and doing an interview almost simultaneously is pretty exhausting. Then you realize, while she headed to the office at 3:30 a.m. and it is now approaching 10 a.m. she's a long way from concluding her day.

Good thing Brzezinski was a long distance runner for the Ephs, lettering in indoor and outdoor track & field and cross country, and not a sprinter because her day takes continued effort, patience, and pace.

The first chance she gets after the show, the interviews, the phone calls, the follow-up questions to and from staff and handlers she is going out to run at least 5 miles, maybe 6. It's her only form of relaxation and also one of the primary reasons she desperately wanted to go to Williams.

Visiting older brother Ian, Class of 1986, convinced Mika that Williams was where she wanted to go to college. "My God, all the great hills to run up and down and those wonderful open spaces; they were just calling to me," said Brzezinski.

Unfortunately for Mika it was not love at first site with the Williams Admission Office when she graduated from The Madeira School in McLean, Va. "I was rejected," she said, "and ended up at Georgetown."

"Look, I've never been a great student, in fact math and biology were trouble for me, but I was willing to work at it.

Mika Brzezinski '89

"I spent my first two years at Georgetown hoping to do well enough to transfer into Williams. You have my permission to check this out any way you can, but I'm pretty sure I graduated last or pretty near last in my class. I failed biology, but I would not let that stop me. I struggled to reach the middle of even one class and yet I loved every minute I was at Williams. Williams made me fight. It made me fight to get in and fight to keep up and I love Williams for that."

There's plenty of action on the Morning Joe set even though the hosts and guests don't move around. From a vantage point of maybe 20 feet from behind Mika you can see all the monitors, the action at the national and international news desks, the election center, and even meteorologist Jackie Mauretsky working on her weather updates, as well as monitors for other NBC offerings and CNBC. Standing there you get the feeling you're kind of close to the action, but NBC News PR person Ali Bane assures that it's not a problem as everyone on the set is wearing a mic and the concept is to feature an open set.

From here you can see the faces of Willie Geist, a regular, and the day's guests, and the back of Brzezinski, who's sitting, facing the others with her shoes off, bouncing her feet up and down. Today she's more of the show's quarterback since on Mondays Joe Scarborough has been coming into the studio via satellite link from Washington, D.C., so it's up to her to keep things moving.

It's not unusual to see her check her BlackBerry when she throws a question to Scarborough in Washington or today's guest, William Weld, the former governor of Massachusetts who's come out in support of Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama.

She's not being rude to those in front of her, she's just doing her job as a newsperson and mother of two. She gets important news info and updates frequently both from the staff at MSNBC and from the home front.

Shortly after 8 a.m., when a commercial break arrives, she's descended upon by a trio of women who freshen her look with a little makeup, brush her hair, and check her clothes, and moments before going back on the air she whirls around and says, "Oh good, I'm glad you made it. I'm sorry I don't have much time today, maybe 20 minutes, but let’s get right to it when I'm done."

"And we're back now with Governor William Weld, former Governor of Massachusetts" and so it goes for another hour as she balances questions for the guests and Joe Scarborough and gives her take on the best op-ed pieces of the day and checks her blackberry often for news from home, the office, and maybe even the world.

A car picks up Brzezinski at her home north of New York City every Monday through Friday around 3:30 a.m. to bring her to the studio at 30 Rockefeller Plaza.  On the ride in she reads all of the top opinion pieces in the press that day so she can select a few for the show, a process that continues while she's getting her hair and makeup done.  That takes an hour, if you need to know – "I'm a nightmare for them [makeup folks], a complete nightmare as I try to read the papers and they're running around me doing their thing."

Morning Joe normally runs from 6 to 9 a.m., but it's not unusual for it to be extended for an hour or to have an evening edition during this busy election season, and then she might also be called on to fill in for Andrea Mitchell at 1 p.m. or appear on Race for the White House at 6 p.m. and/or who knows what else can happen in the course of a day.

It's widely known among Brzezinski's friends and neighbors, though, that when she's at home it's not a good idea to contact her after 4 p.m. because she needs time with her family and because she has to get up so early.

Fourteen is the age at which she decided she wanted to be in TV news, only she didn't just decide it – she took action. Who among us would not want to see her with her childhood friend Melissa Slackman doing the Mika and Melissa Show on local access cable in Fairfax, Va., where they discussed teen issues. Unfortunately over the years Mika has lost track of Melissa, "Ya know, I'm just not sure I know what's become of her."

Brzezinski also dabbled in the local cable access scene while at Williams as she did a show called Hidden Issues – The High Rate of Teen Pregnancy in Northern Berkshire County, out of the North Adams cable studio.

It's easy to think that once a newsperson has made it to a regular program on a recognized network that that person was always a prodigy just waiting to be discovered and never had to struggle. Not so for Brzezinski and not likely for most others in the business, which thrives on competition.

The list of jobs she undertook, pursued, and completed in her trip to Morning Joe pours forth from her with qualifiers that impose a realism that has had a profound effect on her. She worked as a Capitol Hill page and volunteered at news stations every summer she was in college just to get experience. You have to do what you have to do to get noticed in TV news and volunteering gets you in the door, but alas, does not pay any bills.

WTIC desk assistant in Hartford, Conn., Ch. 3 news anchor in Hartford, overnight desk assistant at ABC News, was a newsperson at MSNBC, hosted CNBC's Home Page and election coverage. She then left MSNBC for CBS where she was later squeezed out by the arrival of Katie Couric. Brzezinski was out of the business for an entire year and it was not because she asked for time off.

"This is a difficult business to get into and it's even harder to get back in, but the year off forced me to step back and take stock of myself and where I wanted to be and what was right for me and my family.  I had some offers, but nothing I felt good about and nothing that fit into the family situation."

Eventually she was able to work in doing some 30-second cut-ins for CBS and she started to get back into the business, but it was a far cry from what she'd previously done at ABC, CBS, NBC and her first experience with MSNBC.

"You know what I learned from all of that?" she asked rhetorically. "Never be afraid to take a step back or a huge step back and work hard to find the right situation." Working hard and fighting are traits that have characterized Brzezinski for a long time and are also the traits that made her a successful competitive distance runner.

To succeed in long distance run you have to focus on the final product, but most importantly you have to do all the necessary steps in between – all of them, because you have to cover miles of ground. You have to train consistently and work hard on form and strength and patience and speed and then you have to give your body just enough time to rest so you are at your peak at race time.

Hint: Mika is in the second row

"Mika is the only female I've coached who's crazy enough to want to run 10K," noted Larry Bell, who coached the Eph cross country team at the time. "She couldn't wait for me to stop talking at practice so she get out there and run. You could not give her too many miles to run. I had to threaten to steal her shoes to get her to taper."

It was that kind of toughness that helped Brzezinski run down a Trinity All-American and win the 5,000 meters at the NESCAC Championships, winning by two seconds.

Peter Farwell '73 who now coaches men's and women's cross country and the distance runners in track had Brzezinski as one of his track charges. "She was ideally suited for the longer distances because she was disciplined and could run a steady pace forever."

The head track coach at the time was Dick Farley, who also earned Hall of Fame honors in football coaching at Williams. Asked today about Mika, he chuckled and said, "Her brother Ian never stopped talking around the track team and I did not hear her say two words, so it's kind of ironic that now Mika gets paid to talk."

Little known fact department: the Eph women's track team has presented the Brzezinski Award, donated by her mother Emilie and her father Zbigniew, since shortly after Mika graduated. Typical of the Brzezinski family, the award goes not necessarily to the top athlete on the team, but to the athlete who's persevered to overcome adversity and has displayed the highest form of team loyalty and dedication in coming the closest to achieving her athletic potential.

Mika has heard it all before that she lets Morning Joe host Joe Scarborough push her around and not let her speak her mind. "That may have been the case early on, but not so much anymore," she says with a look in her eye that conveys the toughness of a woman who's fought long and hard to be where she is and isn't about to be anything less than a solid newsperson. "We work on getting our points across and we really do get along and respect each other. Joe did a wonderful thing for me when he asked me to join him on Morning Joe and have a great time doing this show."

Those who saw her put her foot down one day and refuse to do yet another story on Paris Hilton and the celebrity's endless list of troubles got a taste of what happens when Brzezinski gets pushed too far.

When asked by Scarborough to read yet another Hilton story because Joe wanted to run footage of Hilton walking out of jail, Brzezinski first tore at the script, then tried to burn it, and finally walked over and put it through the shredder. This simple act thrust her into instant fame on YouTube where more than 3.6 million folks have viewed the incident.

Willie Geist, who has a regular segment on Morning Joe called "News You Can't Use," commented about the Paris Hilton incident, "I like to say I had a front row seat to history." Geist can be seen in the clip grabbing the copy from Brzezinski along with a lighter that she'd found to use.

Willie Geist loves the Ephs

Geist is a genuinely funny guy, whose best friend is none other than Eph football legend Mark Kossick '97. Geist and Kossick were football captains at Ridgewood [N.J.] H.S. and Kossick was best man at Geist's wedding in Puerto Rico, where we will end this reference just shy of the bag piping incident.

Disclaimer: Geist likes Williams so much that he actually has Eph Christmas tree ornaments and frequently wants to know how Williams made out last week in football. You get the feeling that Geist cannot believe that Williams continues to win even though Mark Kossick isn't playing.  Kossick is the all-time leader in points scored for Williams (268) since Division III play began in 1973.

Geist had never met Brzezinski until they started working together on Morning Joe although he'd seen her frequently. "When I was working nights for CNN Sports in Atlanta, by the time I got home the only thing on TV worth watching was the CBS overnight news with Mika as the anchor.  We'd been friends for a long time, we just didn't know it."

Morning Joe replaced the Imus Show that got dumped when the host made disparaging and racially-tinged remarks about the Rutgers University women's basketball team and his show was dropped from MSNBC.

Geist, through his friend Tucker Carlson, had gotten the opportunity to work a little with Scarborough on Joe's first MSNBC show – Scarborough Country.   "All the credit for Morning Joe goes to Joe," said Geist. "It was his call and he helped sell it to MSNBC."

"When Joe saw tape of Mika doing news, he said he wanted her because she was smart, had personality and a sense of humor, and as we like to say – 'the rest is history' -- or at least it has been for the last year or so."

You never really know what you're going to get when you tune in Morning Joe each day other than some news, weather, a brief look at sports, Geist's "News You can't Use," and Courtney Hazlet talking about Hollywood, celebrities, and movies. "We don't take ourselves too seriously and we walk a fine line between being a wild morning show that gives away trips and free prizes and a show that lets guests talk," noted Geist.

Assistant producer Peter Breen chimes in: "Our approach has allowed our guests to relax and feel comfortable and let their guard down a little. They know we're going to ask some questions, but they also know we're just as likely to follow whatever their response is." Geist added, "Our producers are very good at letting us take the direction that's most appealing to the viewers as we don't have a hard time for each segment and we can adjust or invite guests back another time."

"We all generally like each other on the show and that helps make us stronger," notes Brzezinski. "We have confidence in our abilities and we have confidence in each other and we know we all want a good show. No one is trying to outdo the other person – we're a team."

Asked how she sees the Presidential election shaping up, Brzezinski responds with the NBC, MSNBC, and CNBC party line: "After what happened in New Hampshire [Clinton and McCain upset wins] we don't make any predictions. I can tell you this has been the most exciting and interesting election season I've ever seen. It's going to take a while for all of us in TV news to come down from this. We've invested so much time and effort to bring these campaigns to the voters in an important time for our nation and we feel good about that."

Peter Berek was the best teacher Brzezinski had at Williams and she was so glad that she was an English major so she could get all of his classes that her schedule would allow. "He was tough but inspiring and I was a little saddened when I learned he'd left for a position at Mount Holyoke."

Two classmates that Brzezinski has kept in touch with over the years are Debbie Snyder and Missy Crouchley. "Recently I had to interview Missy's husband Lars Hem for a business piece on NBC News, so that shows you how small the world is and how involved Williams is."

This past summer Brzezinski stopped by the Williams campus to drop off one of her daughters for a summer camp based at Williams and while she was there she made time to run up Bee Hill Road, long a favored training place of Eph cross country and track and field. "It was so great to run up Bee Hill again and so beautiful," stated Brzezinski. "When I got to the top, I called my brother Ian and told him it was just as beautiful as ever."

On her return trip to pick up her daughter Mika didn't have a chance to run Bee Hill. A newly converted Red Sox fan, Brzezinski was on her way with her family to Fenway Park to watch her favorite team play her family's favorite team – the Yankees. Asked if she really is a Red Sox fan now that she has hobnobbed at the games with the Red Sox owners, and frequent guests Jack Welch and Mike Barnicle, she replied "Yes, and it's caused some issues at home… but nothing we can't handle… I love my Red Sox."

While Brzezinski has a new-found love in the Boston Red Sox, it doesn't take long to realize that her love of Williams will never be challenged. After all it was Williams that made her fight and taught her toughness and let her bring that out on national TV weekday mornings.

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