Molly Jong-Fast has known great success as a writer but over the last year on The New Abnormal, her podcast on politics in the time of Covid, she has become both half of a crackling double act and an interviewer with a habit of making news.
The double act formed with Rick Wilson, a former Republican strategist and the co-founder of the Lincoln Project who is now taking a spell off-air. The producer Jesse Cannon has stepped in but the interviews remain largely the realm of Jong-Fast.
Years ago, Molly and her mother, the author Erica Jong, gave a joint interview of their own. Molly, the Guardian wrote, was “loud, arch and snappishly funny [with] the mien of a runaway train, words hurtling forth, helter-skelter.”
It remains the case. Before the pandemic, she threw famous dinner parties which brought unlikely people together. Now a contributing editor for the Daily Beast, she throws politicians, scientists, policy wonks and comedians together on a podcast, a form of broadcasting well suited to pandemic life. Down the phone – or up it – from Wall Street to the Upper East Side, appropriately socially distanced, I appropriate one of her own ways to start any interview. A few introductory remarks, then …
“Talk to me about that.”
And she does.
[the Conservative Political Action Conference] in Washington DC. As I was coming home, I got an email that said, ‘If you were at CPAC, you may have been exposed to a super-spreader, and you need to quarantine.’ So I actually called the school nurses at all my kids’ schools and I said, ‘You guys, what I do?’
“Since nobody really knew anything about the virus, they said, ‘Look, you can do whatever you want, but we would really appreciate if you would just keep your kids home for two weeks.’ I was like, ‘Absolutely. We don’t know anything.’ As someone who is not a doctor but who is completely obsessed with my own physical health in a totally deranged and neurotic way, I’m proud to say I’ve worried about every pandemic that comes. I was worried about H1N1 before.
“And you could see this coming. I have friends in Milan … You saw these stories about Milan, and you knew we were a week behind or we were two weeks behind. I had a friend in London … her mother had a fancy private doctor and the fancy private doctor would send her these letters about who was going to get treatment in the hospital and who was going to be left at home to die.
“So I had a sense that that stuff was coming, so I really made sure that everybody locked down way early in my house. Then I had nothing to do.
“So I said, ‘Let’s start a podcast.’ I had sort of been the driver behind it because I had wanted to do a podcast. Everybody has a podcast. It’s a thing. But I’m always interested in what other people have to tell me. So … I get a lot from it.
“Another thing about me is, besides being dyslexic and a horrible student, I have terrible, terrible ADHD, which has never been medicated. I don’t take medicine for it because I’m 23 years sober, so it just would be too complicated for me. And I’m a person who was, in my heyday, a terrible cocaine addict, so I would not trust myself for a minute with ADHD drugs.”
novels and a memoir about being the daughter of a writer who wrote a lot about sex. In the 1970s, her mum invented “the zipless fuck”. But I digress. As Jong-Fast likes to say to interviewees: “Continue.”
“But I’m super ADHD, so I get very bored very easily. So we get these people, and if they don’t say interesting stuff, I’m like, ‘Eh.’ I’m like, ‘This is very boring.’ So I think that has made the pod good, because I do these interviews and I get very bored. Then I’m like, ‘Come on. Get going here, people.’”
New Abnormal interviews are fascinating and often hilarious. That’s down to a mix of the ethics of podcasting, looser than for talk radio – as Cannon says, “FCC guidelines would never be able to handle what we do” – and the ethics of the Daily Beast, a New York tabloid in website form, pugilistic and intelligent, taking the fight to the man.
Another Jong-Fast interview technique, very much in the vein of the podcast’s one beloved regular segment, Fuck That Guy, is to ask key questions in the bluntest way possible. Take two recent examples. To the White House Covid adviser Andy Slavitt: “Can you explain to me what’s happening with AstraZeneca, because that seems to me very much a clusterfuck.” To Ian Dunt of politics.co.uk, there to discuss Brexit: “What the fuck is wrong with your country?”
What the fuck is that all about?
“Well, as someone who was interviewed a lot when I was young and would sit through endless mother being interviewed, grandfather [the novelist Howard Fast, who wrote Spartacus] being interviewed, always watching, I always think that the worst questions are the questions where you tell the person what you want them to say.
“Look, I get it. I write things all the time where I want people to say stuff, but you can’t really get them to say it anyway … Part of it is I always think you should make it so they’re comfortable enough to really tell you what’s going on and to let you in. Also, I think they know that I don’t have a malicious intent. I just want people to see who they are.”
What they are, in many cases after a year of lockdown, is suffering.
“I had Mary Trump on the pod again today,” Jong-Fast says, of the former president’s niece. “She’s a psychiatrist, so she and I always talk about mental health because I’m just a sober person, and when you’re sober you’re always in your head thinking about mental health. We were talking about how we really are in the middle of this terrible mental health crisis, and everyone is just in denial about it.”
Donald Trump has left the White House. The Biden administration is flooding the zone with vaccines. But we are still in the new abnormal.
“I’m always surprised no one sees that. So it’s like, ‘Well, I don’t understand why I have a terrible headache. It can’t be because hundreds of thousands of Americans have died.’ So it is weird.”
‘I wish we could get more Republicans’
The New Abnormal has featured Democrats – senators, representatives, candidates – and bureaucrats and technocrats too. But in both the very strange election year in which the pod was born and in the brave new world of Biden, few Republicans have followed.
“I wish we could get more,” Jong-Fast says. “I think I got one Republican guy who was running for Congress, but it’s not so easy.”
That was John Cowan, from Georgia, who ran against Marjorie Taylor Greene and her racially charged conspiracy theories – and lost.
“Yes, and he’s going to run again. He’s a neurosurgeon. I was thrilled to get him. But they’re not so interested in coming on, even the sort of moderates.”
She does the booking herself, so perhaps Congressman Adam Kinzinger or Senator Mitt Romney might one day pick up the phone to find Jong-Fast full blast.
“‘You are a fucking genius. Why are you so brilliant?’ I’m very good at schnorring people into doing things for me. I’m very able to just endlessly schnorr people. I think that’s key to getting the guests.”
I don’t know what schnorr means.
“It means you sort of just put the arm on people to get them to come on the pod. The guests are the big thing because the people who want to come on are often not people you really want.”
A lot of listeners want Wilson to return. Jong-Fast, formerly an unpaid adviser to the Lincoln Project, calls him “a very good friend” but is uncomfortable talking about his absence from the podcast – which was prompted by allegations of sexual harassment against another Lincoln Project co-founder and reporting on fundraising and internal politics.
Cannon calls Wilson “one of the most politically astute people in America” and “a genius”. And he may well be back, one day, to reconstitute the double act, the Florida Republican and the Upper East Side liberal lobbing spiralling profanity at the extremity, inanity and insanity of Trumpism and life under Covid-19.
But it’s not all about fighting back.
“I wish there were a little bit more good-faith want for people to interact with the other side,” Jong-Fast says. “Look, there are people on the other side, like Marjorie Taylor Greene, who are not good-faith actors, and you can’t even try. But there are people like Mitt Romney who, while I don’t agree with him on a lot of things, he’s a very good-faith actor. So I think there’s a real chance.”
If you’re reading, Mitt, if Molly calls … pick up the phone.