As soon as I heard the news, I thought back to the fall of 1993, when Billy Joel began hinting in the wake of the release of the River of Dreams album that he wouldn’t be releasing any new material, and Michael Jordan announced his retirement from professional basketball. Yes, the Piano Man did return to the studio, and the Chicago Bulls icon did return to the game, but things never really felt the same again.
Keith Olbermann’s announcement that he is retiring from political commentary is nothing short of disheartening. Olbermann’s crusade against the malevolence of the Trump administration was a breath of fresh and clean air amidst the foul and undrained swamp of modern American politics; he encouraged so many of us to keep fighting, believing, hoping, resisting.
There are many activists who are too young to remember how just important Olbermann and his voice has been to this country. 2003 was almost as grim as 2017 has been; George W. Bush had hornswoggled our country into war, and virtually every major figure in broadcast and cable news had their pom-poms out, treating the 43rd President like a conquering hero, acting like his mission had indeed been accomplished.
Olbermann didn’t immediately become an icon of anti-Bush America when he returned to MSNBC that year to host Countdown. Yet from the outset, he provided a fair forum to voices of patriotic dissent, and by the fall of 2005, Olbermann had emerged as the sole voice of reason on cable news.
Olbermann performed a national service, forcefully calling out the lies of the Bushies, exposing the habitual falsehoods of the Fox News Channel, pushing back against the forces of false balance in the mainstream press. His 2008 call for marriage equality was impassioned. His 2009 show-length commentary about the moral urgency of reforming health care was as riveting as cable news gets. His 2010 denunciation of the Citizens United vs. FEC Supreme Court decision was masterful. Had he remained on MSNBC during the course of the 2010s, he would have continued to raise hell against the enemies of social and economic progress.
Of course, Olbermann was unceremoniously forced out of MSNBC nearly seven years ago. It was a half-decade before he returned to the center of the American political conversation, through his commentaries for GQ. A case can be made that Olbermann’s GQ work represented the peak of his career as a political commentator; his essays on the existential threat Trump and his minions pose to our democracy were flawlessly written and skillfully delivered. One couldn’t blame MSNBC executives if they privately regretted cutting a franchise player from the team.
Every progressive-minded political commentator in this country owes Olbermann an immeasurably large debt of gratitude. He did the impossible and made it look easy. He opened up doors of opportunity, both directly and indirectly, for an entire generation of progressive pundits. He changed the game.
As Olbermann declared in 2010:
The anger [expressed on Countdown] was not an original part of it, nor was it an artifice that we added to it. It was a response to a threat to this democracy posed by Mr. Bush, and now by his lineal descendants. The anger happened, it will still happen. It is not for ratings and it is not “get angry first and find a reason later.
The threat Mr. Trump poses to this democracy is far, far greater than even the threat posed by Mr. Bush. As right-wing powerbrokers gain more and more control over our media, voices like Olbermann are needed now more than ever. Maybe, like Jordan before him, Olbermann will “unretire.” If he ever gets back on the court, he’ll be sure to again demonstrate the courage of a champion.