Every time I see Keith Olbermann's nightly "Countdown" on MSNBC, I think somewhere in heaven Howard Cosell is beaming from one sideburn to the other. But then I also think -- maybe he's throwing his toupee at the TV screen in a snit. (There is, no doubt, no high def like the high def they have in heaven.)
It's hard to figure.
I was lucky enough to interview Humble Howard some years ago. I importuned him during one of this Buffalo visits for "Monday Night Football" and wheedled him into giving me one-on-one time on a huge couch at the Hearthstone Manor.
The old haranguer wielded his cigar at me and threatened to inundate me with pomp and palaver for 40 minutes. He asked me about my educational career, then sneered at it when he heard. "That's nothing compared to what my parents felt about it," I told him, "and they paid for it."
He liked that. He laughed and loosened up.
I honestly don't know whether Olbermann -- the sports anchor turned buzzing liberal political gadfly on MSNBC -- would be the fulfillment of Cosell's fondest dreams or his worst nightmares. I suspect a little of both.
Olbermann is the big sarcastic loudmouth who drives the loudmouths on the other side of the aisle nuts -- especially Bill O'Reilly.
Olbermann's show every night counts down the days since George W. Bush declared "mission accomplished" in Iraq.
Once upon a time, he was the ESPN co-anchor who, with Dan Patrick, inspired the brilliant sitcom "Sports Night." And, before that, he went to the same Tarrytown prep school as Chris Berman and became a recognized baseball card maven -- a hopeless loudmouth sports nerd, in other words.
So how on earth did he also get to be the bete noire of the bullyboy right, too? And the author of such books as the upcoming "Truth and Consequences: Special Comments on the Bush Administration's War on American Values" (Random House)?
And, even more interesting, why isn't it enough for him? Why does the hopeless sports nerd also insist on co-hosting NBC's modestly titled "Football Night in America" with Bob Costas on Sunday nights?
On every show, he does the bit Cosell helped invent -- running his mouth loudly and sarcastically over football highlights. In Olbermann's case, you can get everything from references to novels by Nobel Prize winners to the "Jeffersons" theme song ("movin' on up to the East side" etc.) He isn't merely as loud doing it as his old prep school mate Berman but he takes the same joy in rhetorical overkill and semi-private jokes.
During those few minutes of Cosell-hood, he's obviously communing with a kid's vision of himself that isn't satisfied by bashing the bejabbers out of the Bush administration and its friends every night.
Most interesting about all of this is that no one really minds. Everyone expects sports commentators to have opinions at the drop of a puck and he's good enough at everything he does that everyone politically compatible accepts it as a perfectly logical thing to be.
That's where I wonder whether the secret, captious establishmentarian heart of Cosell would be pleased at what his example hath wrought. When Cosell's boss, Roone Arledge, became the boss of both ABC News and ABC Sports, he didn't set up Cosell to do reports and commentaries on the nightly news. That authoritarian label-bound "a place for everything and everything in its place" side of Cosell, I think, would be appalled at Olbermann constantly mashing up his turkey, potatoes, peas and gravy together on the plate without any frowning in his direction.
Meanwhile, with "The Daily Show" still out of business due to the writer's strike, Olbermann's very big and joyously partisan mouth has moved on up even more. He doesn't just have a piece of the pie at the moment, he's just about got the whole pie. And now he's waiting patiently for someone to top it off with whipped cream.