From Hasselbeck to McCain, "The View" needs the "right" hook when casting its conservative co-host

Meghan McCain says "The View" needs a "real conservative." But what does that mean in daytime TV terms?

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published October 22, 2021 7:00PM (EDT)

Meghan McCain on "The View" (ABC/Lou Rocco)
Meghan McCain on "The View" (ABC/Lou Rocco)

Dunking on Meghan McCain may be this week's national pastime since, as ever, she makes that easy to do. Even Bravo's Andy Cohen got his licks in during a "Watch What Happens Live!" conversation that might as well have been a mouth full of sour sweets to her haters.

Despite all that, she's right about one thing. "My take on the show is that working at 'The View' brings out the worst in people," she said in an excerpt from her audio memoir "Bad Republican" published by Variety.  She goes on to opine that the staff and hosts are working under conditions "where the culture is so f**ked up, it feels like quicksand."

Only the people who work there and folks with trustworthy inside goss know whether that second part is true, but the truth in that leading take is obvious. One point of clarification, though. "The View" doesn't necessarily bring out the worst in all people, only some of them. This is precisely why we watch.

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Before McCain joined the show Whoopi Goldberg, Joy Behar, Sunny Hostin and their rotating selection of co-hosts still sparred. Emotions flared. But it only occasionally got truly nasty.

McCain's addition in 2017 kicked up the tension, and Behar's blood pressure, on a more regular basis. She came to the show from a short-lived tenure on Fox's "Outnumbered" (ironic, no?) and immediately ruffled feathers by defending then-Vice President Mike Pence's pandering stunt of walking out of a football game in response to players kneeling to protest in defense of Black lives.

McCain offered that because of her deep patriotism the moment gave her solace, adding that she believed it was possible to "have a conversation about both things" – as in, the righteousness of protests against police brutalizing Black citizens and respecting "what the national anthem and the American flag mean to people like me."

This was the first of countless times that McCain derailed conversations with false equivalency, offering misinformed Fox News talking points as the counterweight to whatever her co-hosts were saying and then appearing dismayed when they clapped back.

She's right to blame some of the adversity she faced on being the show's sole Republican representative during the Trump years but neglects to mention that the reason she took so many on the chin is because she often parroted some skew of the administration's stances in the name of representing a "real conservative" viewpoint.

"They want someone who is not a real conservative because they will be easier to get along with — you don't fight as much," she told "Ladies Who Punch" author Ramin Setoodeh in a related Variety interview. "What they need is someone who's actually representing people in Kentucky and Arizona."

How well did that work out for her?

RELATED: Meghan McCain isn't the champion of pregnant people her book claims she is

"The View" mimics gatherings of women where conversation turns from the purported business at hand to opinionated dish about whatever is top of mind. Its rotating salon wouldn't naturally occur in the wild, and viewers understand that. Barbara Walters designed the show to be a carefully curated aquarium filled with telegenic, aggressive personalities drawn from a wide spectrum of age, backgrounds and political differences.

Headlines drive its famous "Hot Topics" segments, and unlike the freewheeling buzz Hoda Kotb and Kathie Lee Gifford calibrated and maintained over 11 years of co-hosting on "Today," there's no wine on that table to lubricate the inevitable social friction that arises.

Every time we peer into this closed ecosystem we watch Darwinian forces at work. A few members have managed to thrive over its 25 season reign; with Behar being the longest tenured co-host among the current cast and Goldberg coming in second. Anyone else who enters is obligated to assert themselves as best they can or lose some scales and fins.

Stalwart conservative Elisabeth Hasselbeck made it a full 10 years before deciding she'd had enough. And she outlasted a number of contenders including Rosie O'Donnell, who joined the cast in 2006 and lasted a year.

It's worth bringing this up in the context of McCain's famous self-description as the show's "sacrificial Republican" and her recurring theme of victimhood in the various preview excerpts of her memoir circulating right now. O'Donnell and Hasselbeck shared that table during the early days of the Iraq War and the second administration of George W. Bush. That made the comedian, not Hasselbeck, the sacrificial figure.

At that time a certain orange game show host busied himself with instigating a feud with O'Donnell in the media by disparaging everything about her. The Republican establishment and right-wing pundits also smeared O'Donnell for speaking out against the war, falsely accusing her of not supporting American troops. This was at the heart of that famous 2007 blow-up between Hasselbeck and O'Donnell that brought the performer's time to the show to an abrupt end after a year. (O'Donnell gave "The View" another go in 2014, but this time she butted heads with Goldberg. This tank can only sustain so many alphas.)

That ferocious Hasselbeck-O'Donnell on-air brawl remains one of daytime TV's most iconic 10 minute-plus stretches and did its part to redefine "The View" as we know it.  Producers refused to throw to commercial, splitting the screen to ensure nary an iota of the furious exchange escaped the audience's sight.

It also sparked gossipy buzz and conversation. Loud, passionate disagreements between women often do. As such, producers recreated this acidic chemistry in hiring McCain who obviously failed to understand she was coming in as the heel.

Hasselbeck rebukes the "sacrificial Republican" designation with her actions in that 2007 scene, by the way. The lasting image of Hasselbeck is that of a woman who represented the conservative white woman constituency, for good or ill, whether sensible or irritating, and gave as well as she got.

Her refutation of O'Donnell's assertion at the time, which was that the media would spin whatever she said as "big, fat, lesbian, loud Rosie attacks innocent, pure, Christian Elisabeth" wasn't to break out in tears or retreat into her silent scowl. "Poor little Elisabeth is not poor little Elisabeth" she shot back, reminding the world that she wasn't some withering flower.

This isn't to say that Hasselbeck didn't ply the timeless conservative tactic of claiming victimhood and playing that "innocent, pure, Christian" card. But she knew how to debate and maintain the illusion of cordial disagreement on that set, landing her hits on a regular basis.

McCain never figured out how to do that. She approached her seat with the tactic that the only way to win respect was to haphazardly assert her dominance. Maybe that's the only move one has in a no-win situation like "The View," which is stacked with liberals and moderates.

Nobody asked McCain to win anything, simply to represent a conservative paradigm realistically and honestly. Instead, she established a habit of talking over her co-hosts while saying little to nothing of substance and expecting them to accept her unmoored drivel as a legitimate point of view.

Even when her co-hosts gave her the floor – well, consider this instance she cites in the first excerpt from "Bad Republican," which she shares as an example of Goldberg's supposed meanness in her final days.

Another time she answered something I said by blurting out 'O.K.' in a tone that declared she was both baffled and disgusted by what I had just said. This reaction also went viral and left a scar on our relationship.

Nobody has a right to tell McCain how she should feel about Goldberg's reaction. But the very fact that it went viral means that millions of people saw the "something" she said – i.e. some babble about Meghan Markle and Oprah Winfrey "single-handedly finishing what George Washington and our revolutionary counterparts did" – and agreed that Goldberg's "O.K." was the most politic reaction she could make.

Still, when one scans the various "View" co-host rosters it's easy enough to land on why the show has such problems replicating the success it had with Hasselbeck and why McCain, although publicly detested, is likely to be the bar by which future contenders for her vacated slot will be evaluated.

In that same Variety interview McCain adds that producers assured her they were looking for a "real conservative," which raises the question of how one defines such a thing in 2021. Does being a "real conservative" mean clinging to the lie that the 2020 election was rigged, as two-thirds of Republicans do despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary? One can safely guess that a lot of Americans would say yes.

But that person cannot engage in informed good faith debate. She can only lob the verbal equivalent of mud pies only to visibly retreat when her cohorts return fire with heavy artillery, and then weep when the cameras are off at the meanness of her liberal co-workers.

Honestly, it's impossible to imagine Goldberg and Behar agreeing to work with a MAGA nut of that caliber or how such a hire would serve the show's purported intent to contribute to the culture's dialogue.

Without conflict or combat, "The View" becomes "The Talk." The short-lived stints of the very reasonable Nicolle Wallace and Hallmark Channel-wholesome Candace Cameron-Bure prove that. Steady-to-boring doesn't work here, because total agreement is dull.

There's no danger of the show losing out to its CBS rival, which is still a mess despite recently hiring the very likable Natalie Morales from NBC's news division. The audience for "The View" is down from where it was last year, but that's true of nearly every TV show in daytime.

Nor does ABC appear to be in a rush to fill McCain's chair, which is as it should be. Finding someone who has a decent right hook and works well with the others is not going to be easy.

As for McCain's "Bad Republican" ride, lots of folks are getting a kick out of watching the princess of Arizona take her bruises on tour, even if most of the mediasphere doesn't seem terribly bothered by what she's selling.

That's probably because she isn't telling the public anything it doesn't already know and accept about "The View": Discord beats level-headed discourse every time.

More on Meghan McCain:

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

MORE FROM Melanie McFarland

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Commentary Elisabeth Hasselbeck Joy Behar Meghan Mccain Rosie O'donnell The View Tv Whoopi Goldberg