MSNBC political analyst Lawrence Francis O’Donnell, Jr. was born to Irish-American parents in Boston in November 1955. After graduating from Harvard College in 1977, he headed west to pursue a career as a Hollywood screenwriter.
O’Donnell’s 1983 nonfiction book Deadly Force was adapted as a CBS television movie, A Case of Deadly Force, in 1986. The book and movie told the “true story” of how a policeman-turned-attorney, Lawrence O’Donnell Sr. (played by Richard Crenna), and his four sons fought successfully to prove the innocence of a black man who had been shot and killed by two white Boston police officers who claimed, falsely, that their victim was a robber. Writer son Lawrence O’Donnell Jr. was played in the movie by actor Tate Donovan.
Despite this flash of Hollywood success, by 1987 O’Donnell admitted that he was “unable to make any kind of living” as a screenwriter and sought financial help from his family back in Boston.
At that time, O’Donnell’s cousin Kirk O’Neill was a powerful figure in Washington, DC. Kirk was, along with Chris Matthews and two others, one of the “four horsemen” who controlled the staff of Thomas “Tip” O’Neill, Democratic Speaker of the House of Representatives. Thanks to this familial connection, O’Donnell soon found himself on the payroll as Director of Communications for the re-election campaign of U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-NY).
“I knew absolutely nothing about politics and thought I have absolutely nothing to contribute to this,” O’Donnell recalls, “but the way I read New York politics, the guy [Moynihan] doesn’t need any help. If I were to occupy a chair in that office, I couldn’t do any damage. He ended up winning with 67 percent of the vote in 1988 — one point higher than what his former Communications Director Tim Russert had gotten him in the previous election.”
After Moynihan’s reelection, O’Donnell stayed on the senator’s payroll as a Senior Adviser (1989-1992), and then was named Democratic Chief of Staff to the two Senate committees which Moynihan chaired — the Committee on Environment and Public Works (1992) and the powerful Finance Committee (1993-1995).
“I was more than in over my head,” O’Donnell reflects. “I was in an absolutely foreign territory. I had no idea how to advise anyone on anything political. But I knew that I had Kirk’s phone number.”
During his years as a Senate worker, O’Donnell built connections with fellow Democrat operatives like Chris Matthews. He parlayed those connections to become MSNBC’s Senior Political Analyst.
During the 2000 presidential campaign, O’Donnell wrote about politics for New York magazine. (He also has written essays and articles for such publications as The New York Times, New York Magazine, _People, Spy_, and Boston Magazine.)
Ultimately, politics provided the backdoor through which O’Donnell returned to his first love, Hollywood. As Bill Clinton‘s administration wound to a close, a group of Democrat Washington insiders gathered in 1999 to create the NBC prime time drama The West Wing, set in a liberal Democratic White House. O’Donnell, along with Jimmy Carter administration pollster Pat Caddell, wrote or contributed to at least nine West Wing episodes during its first two seasons. He also worked as the series’ executive story editor and producer, and he acted in one 2001 episode.
O’Donnell thereafter departed to create two short-lived TV series, First Monday and Mr. Sterling (about a U.S. Senator), both of which were set amid the politics and intrigues of Washington, DC.
On October 22, 2004, O’Donnell made a joint appearance with John O’Neill, a military veteran and a critic of then-presidential candidate John Kerry, on MSNBC’s Scarborough Country. O’Neill was the co-author of Unfit for Command, a book which reflected the views of 264 of Kerry’s fellow Swiftboat veterans by publicly challenging the Massachusetts senator’s claims of having been a war hero in Vietnam. A raging O’Donnell accused O’Neill of being a “liar” 39 times in the course of their brief interview — repeatedly interrupting and shouting down O’Neill. For a transcript of the interview, click here.
Commenting on Kerry’s then-recent criticisms of the manner in which U.S. troops had conducted themselves and had treated their prisoners during the Iraq War, O’Donnell said: “It’s not our job to lie about war to make troops feel good. And I don’t care what they feel…. If John Kerry thinks this war is a mistake and if the United States of America elects him president, the troops are going to have to live with that…. I don’t care if they’re demoralized.”
In a July 2005 appearance on The McLaughlin Group, O’Donnell made headlines by announcing that Republican strategist Karl Rove was the person who, two years earlier, had informed journalist Robert Novak that Valerie Plame (wife of U.S. ambassador Joseph Wilson) was a covert CIA employee.
In yet another McLaughlin Group appearance — this one in early December 2007 — O’Donnell turned to the subject of the Republican Party’s then-presidential candidate Mitt Romney, a practicing Mormon who recently had made a speech defending his religion as “the faith of my fathers.” Said O’Donnell:
“[T]he faith of his father is a racist faith. As of 1978, it was an officially racist faith. And for political convenience, in 1978 it switched and it said, ‘Okay, black people can be in this church.’ He believes — if he believes the faith of his fathers — that black people are black because in heaven they turned away from God in this demented Scientology-like notion of what was going on in heaven before the creation of the earth.”
A few days later, O’Donnell was interviewed by radio talk show host Hugh Hewitt. During the course of that interview, O’Donnell declared that the Book of Mormon was “an insane document produced by a madman who was a criminal and a rapist” — a reference to Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism. Hewitt then asked O’Donnell, “And … would you say the same things about [the Islamic Prophet] Mohammed as you just said about Joseph Smith?” To this, O’Donnell replied:
“Oh, well, I’m afraid of what the — that’s where I’m really afraid. I would like to criticize Islam much more than I do publicly, but I’m afraid for my life if I do. Mormons are the nicest people in the world…. They’ll never take a shot at me. Those other people, I’m not going to say a word about them.”
In 2005 O’Donnell described his politics as follows: “I’m a European socialist, believe me — I’m far to the left. But I understand. I’m a kind of practical socialist. I know we failed. A lot of our ideas have failed, so I’m not with them anymore. I’m willing to take from a grab-bag of stuff that works.”
In November 2010, O’Donnell again stated unequivocally that he is a socialist: “I am not a liberal who is so afraid of the word that I had to change my name to ‘progressive.’ Liberals amuse me. I am a socialist. I live to the extreme left, the extreme left of … mere liberals.” O’Donnell added that if he had the authority, he would “ban all guns in America” and would “make Medicare available to all in America.”
Also in November 2010, O’Donnell condemned “the cruelties of unbridled capitalism” and “the truly lethal cruelty of capitalism.”
In October 2012 O’Donnell was angered when Tagg Romney, the eldest son of Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, said in a radio interview that he had wanted to “take a swing” at President Obama after the latter called Mitt Romney a liar in their second presidential debate. On camera, O’Donnell addressed Tagg Romney directly:
“OK Taggart. Let’s have a little talk, just you and me…. When I hear you talk about taking a swing and taking punches, why do I get the feeling you have never actually taken a punch, or thrown a punch. I didn’t have that luxury in the part of Boston I grew up in. But in your rich, suburban, Boston life, with your father filling a $100 million trust fund for you. I don’t know, I just get the feeling things were kind of different for you…. You’re mad at President Obama for calling your father a liar? Let’s get something straight. He didn’t call your father a liar. I did. I’ve been saying all year that your father is a liar…. So, you want to take a swing at someone for calling your old man a liar? Take a swing at me. Come on. Come on…. And I’ll make it easy for you. I’ll come to you. Anytime, anywhere.”
On December 4, 2012, O’Donnell and several other “influential progressive” advisors (as described by White House deputy press secretary Josh Earnest) met with President Barack Obama to strategize on how to best sell the American public on the need to raise taxes on people earning $250,000 or more, while extending the Bush-era tax cuts for all other U.S. residents. Also in attendance at the meeting were Arianna Huffington, Rachel Maddow, MSNBC host Ed Schultz, and Al Sharpton.
In early January 2013, O’Donnell reacted to the news that Passion City Church of Atlanta Pastor Louie Giglio had been stripped of the honor of giving the benediction at President Obama’s upcoming inaugural ceremonies because it had recently been learned that Giglio had delivered a number of sermons critical of homosexuality. Said O’Donnell:
“The truth is that homosexuality is a sin in the Bible…. As I’ve pointed out … no one accepts all of the teachings of the Bible. No one. … Still, the president, following one of our most absurdest traditions in the government that invented the separation of church and state, will put his hand on this book filled with things he does not believe – filled with things that no one in the United States of America believes – and with his hand on this book he will recite the oath of office. Now, wouldn’t it be better if the president’s hand was on the shoulder of one of his daughters, suggesting that he was honoring the oath of office as much as he honors Sasha and Malia?”
On November 9, 2016 — the night after Donald Trump had defeated Hillary Clinton in the presidential election — O’Donnell lavished praise on outgoing president Barack Obama as “the most noble man who has ever lived in the White House.” “I have never once in any of the public record of President Barack Obama’s life and his time as president,” added O’Donnell, “seen anything about him as a person that is not fully deserving doing of respect.” By contrast, O’Donnell disparaged most previous American presidents as racists and moral degenerates:
“… There is nothing noble about owning slaves. George Washington became a slave owner when he was 11 years old. Thomas Jefferson owned slaves. Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves and won the Civil War, but he also played his part in the genocidal war against Native American tribe. That is the forgotten part of the Lincoln presidency. That’s the forgotten part of American history. Native American blood on pres’ hands. There is nothing noble about genocide. But our presidential mythology insists that most of the 44 of them have been noble men, despite the fact that most of them tried to exterminate Native American tribes. Most of them were racists. Many, if not most of them, were anti-Semites. Donald Trump will take his place now among the racists who have lived in the White House….”
During the July 7, 2022 broadcast of his program The Last Word, O’Donnell derided the Electoral College as “the most grotesque institution ever imposed on a so-called democracy.” Said O’Donnell:
“Today, the most clownish British prime minister of our lifetime [Boris Johnson] announced his humiliating resignation pending the choice of a successor and thereby demonstrated, once again, the superiority of the British parliamentary system over the system chosen by our Founders, who believed they were smarter. And deciding to lock the country into fixed four-year terms, of presidents, who we now know, for partisan reasons, cannot be removed no matter what crimes they are caught committing. The Founders’ obsession to avoid all things British in government led them to the creation of the most grotesque institution ever imposed on a so-called democracy, the Electoral College. The only reason to worry about the fairness of the next presidential election is the Electoral College. Without the Electoral College, no problem. The Electoral College is one of the Founders’ many crimes against democracy.”
“Other crimes against democracy by the Founders include two senators per state, not allowing anyone other than a small percentage of white men to vote, and not allowing anyone to vote for United States senators. The founders were experimenters in democracy. Not true believers in democracy. They were dabblers in democracy. Many of their obstacles to democracy that they put in the Constitution have been removed. Women are now allowed to vote. Black people are allowed to vote. Everyone now, at least, has the right to vote, theoretical right to vote.”