The Straight Gay World of Steve Kornacki
By Joe Pompeo
“I’ve read stories from people who say they always knew they were attracted to the same sex, or that they figured it out at a young age,” his article began. “I’m not one of them.” Kornacki’s pulse raced as his parents pored over the confessional. After a few minutes, his parents broke the silence with words Kornacki was hoping to hear: “We’re proud of you.” His shoulders felt lighter. “He was so careful not to let anyone in on this secret,” recalls his sister. “Whenever you keep something a secret for so long it becomes bigger than it really is. There was a lot of relief that he was finally comfortable enough to be open with us.” The icing? Kornacki’s imperiled relationship got a second try. (They split upa gain six months later, but remain friends.)
Kornacki was happy at Salon, where he enjoyed the freedom to write about all manner of political arcana. But the more cable news hits he did, the more he hoped it would turn into something permanent — “Or at least some kind of paycheck that would get me out of debt,” he says. Then, in June 2012, Kornacki did get some big work-related news to share with the folks: MSNBC hired him full-time as part of the cast of a new afternoon program called The Cycle. It was a chance to prove his value as a talking head, and he nailed it. Eight months later, when Hayes made the jump to prime time, MSNBC tapped Kornacki to host Up.
Kornacki immediately distinguished himself as an idiosyncratic anchor. In addition to his encyclopedic knowledge of political history, he also has a propensity for monologues. “He can bring you from zero to 200 miles per hour in a very succinct amount of time, and in a super heroic way that I’d put up against anyone else on our network including myself — or anyone at any of the other cable news networks,” says Rachel Maddow. (Along with Kornacki and Roberts, Maddow is one of MSNBC’s three openly gay hosts.) “I think he really is the next big thing.”
On the morning of Jan. 18, Kornacki’s ascent went from measured to meteoric. Ten days earlier, the “Bridgegate” scandal that was engulfing New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie had erupted into the national media. Kornacki had been covering the saga closely. Now he was about to blow it up even more with a major newsbreak of his own: He had learned that the mayor of Hoboken, N.J., was accusing Christie’s lieutenant governor of bullying her into a development project by threatening to withhold Hurricane Sandy relief funds. Pen in hand, sleeves rolled up, eyebrows raised, Kornacki delivered his scoop with the giddy intensity of someone who lives and breathes political drama. The segment went viral, ricocheting around the media sphere and eliciting head- lines for much of the following week. “Steve Kornacki...is at the center of one of the most consequential political stories of the year, [with] the potential to eliminate Chris Christie as a contender for the Republican nomination for president,” gushed the local newspaper in Kornacki’s hometown of Groton, Mass.
Career-wise, Kornacki isn’t entirely sure what the future holds, although he confesses he’s not enamored of the idea of spending his life waking at the crack of dawn every Saturday and Sunday. MSNBC President Phil Griffin says Kornacki’s ratings are strong when he fills in for the network’s evening hosts, most of whom also started out as humble contributors. For his part, Kornacki says he still has a lot to learn before he’s ready for prime time, and a lot more work to do with the show he already has. “I don’t want to be on TV for the sake of being on TV,” he says. “I think we’re still kind of figuring out what we are, and what we can be.”
Kornacki wrote a weekly politics column when we worked together at The New York Observer in the late aughts, one that offered a sharp dose of inside baseball for the power brokers who read the paper. He struck me as quiet but affable, maybe even a little shy — nothing like the commanding, loquacious, presence I’d see on my TV screen a few years later.
He can be really funny, too. In a hokey recurring bit called “Up Against the Clock,” he pays homage to the classic game shows that have capti- vated him since childhood. “I would watch these shows at 8 years old and feel like the most important thing in the world was about to play out,” he says. “The drama, the pace, the race against the clock...” The segment is deliciously campy — a paradox for some- one who once recoiled from P-Town drag queens. Kornacki usually plays host, but in a special Jan. 4 installment, those duties were handed over to a graying Marc Summers, of Nickelodeon’s Double Dare fame. Kornacki put on his contestant cap, laughing sheepishly to the sounds of ’70s-esque theme music and the hyperbolic announcer who introduced him: “He’s come a long way since wearing the same sweater three times in a week on national television. Here is a clearly uncomfortable Steeeeeeeeeeve KooorNACKI!”
Coming out was a huge change for Kornacki, but it didn’t change who he is. He’s still that guy you see watching baseball with his buddies in a bar. He’s a sporty prep who loves comedies like Airplane, has musical tastes that skew more Motown than modern and can drop knowledge about Mondale and Hart’s 1984 primary battle as if he hadn’t been 5 years old at the time. This makes Kornacki precisely the type of guy who does not match the reductive image of a guy who’s into other guys.
“I’d say the old stereotypes never really applied,” Kornacki tells me when I ask him about this contradiction. “People who don’t necessarily fit the stereotypes now feel less or no pressure to conform. I think of the small town I’m from and wonder how things would have turned out if I’d been born, say, 20 years earlier. I’m not sure I would have reached adulthood with a willingness to even start exploring this side of me, and I can imagine ending up getting married to a woman, having kids, and settling down just because that was the only thing to do.”
For someone who spent nearly 15 years suppressing a core part of his identity, Kornacki finally feels comfortable being himself in every aspect of his life. “The biggest revelation has been just how much of a nonissue this is to just about everyone else,” he says. “It used to be that when I was around people, I was constantly on guard not to say or do anything that would make them suspect I was gay. It was a little scary to realize just how ingrained in me that kind of deception was. It’s a pretty big relief not to think like that anymore, and now I understand what I just couldn’t believe for all those years: that it really isn’t a big deal.”
Photography by Clayton Cubitt