Ever heard of something called Dada?”
Rachel Maddow is trying to make an analogy. It’s mid-October, two weeks before the election, and the MSNBC host is comparing the McCain campaign’s recent fixation on “Joe the Plumber” to the anti-bourgeois cultural movement of the early-twentieth century. But this is prime time, and Maddow first has to define Dadaism in as colloquial a way as possible. This is something of a challenge considering she only has about twelve seconds.
“Deliberately being irrational, rejecting standard assumptions about beauty or organization or logic,” she begins. “It’s an anti-aesthetic statement about the lameness of the status quo … kind of?” She twists her face into a cartoon grimace that morphs into a wide smile. “Why am I trying to explain Dadaism on a cable news show thirteen days from this big, giant, historic, crazy, important election that we’re about to have?” she asks with a self-deprecating laugh, as she recognizes the Dadaishness of her own quest. “Because that’s what I found myself Googling today, in search of a way to make sense of the latest McCain-Palin campaign ad!”
It’s hard to imagine many other cable news hosts going down that particular rabbit hole. (Can you picture Glenn Beck referring to the existentialists to make a point?) But then again, Rachel Maddow is not like other cable news hosts. A self-described butch lesbian with short hair and black-rimmed glasses, off-camera she resembles a young Ira Glass more than the helmet-headed anchoresses and Fox fembots who populate television news. Doing the press rounds when MSNBC first announced her show in August, she’d show up to interviews looking like, she says, “a 14-year-old boy” in puffy Samantha Ronson sneakers with iPod headphones dangling from her ears—but then she’d easily segue into an informed foreign- policy or economic discussion that ended with a Daily Show–worthy punch line. Her résumé is similarly unexpected: A Rhodes scholar and an Oxford Ph.D., she’s done stints as an AIDS activist, barista, landscaper, Air America host, and mascot in an inflatable calculator suit. She’s a civics geek who reads comic books, goes to monster-truck rallies, likes to fish, calls herself an “amateur mixologist” of classic cocktails, and even Twitters.
There’s something about the mix of personal details that is—to a young, educated, left-leaning, cosmopolitan audience—instantly recognizable. As one New York acolyte told me, “She is more like one of my friends than anyone else on television.” And her ratings have been astounding, especially in the coveted 25-to-54-year-old demographic. Maddow averaged a higher rating with that group than Larry King Live for thirteen of the first 25 nights she was on the air, enabling the network to out-rate CNN in that time slot for the first time. It’s an impressive feat, even given the fact that the show started two months before the election when political interest was at a fever pitch.
“You come out of the gate as fast as she came out, it gives me incredible excitement,” thunders MSNBC president Phil Griffin. “We are stronger than we’ve been in twelve years. We have more swagger today than we have ever had. It’s because of Rachel. And trust me. The other guys see it. They are watching. And they are scared.”
Over drinks after her show at one of her regular spots, the St. Regis’s red-velvety “old-man bar,” Maddow seems as surprised as anyone by her success. “It’s like winning an ego lottery,” she says. Scrubbed clean of the makeup she wears on television, her features are finer and more feminine, set with big, liquid brown eyes. She finds it hilarious that anyone could think she’s cool. “I’m such an old man! Maybe it’s geek chic, I don’t know.”
Since the show started in September, Maddow’s schedule has been brutal. Weekdays, she wakes up at eight in her West Village apartment—“the size of a van”—to work on the book she’s writing for Crown: an exploration of America’s relationship with war. “Writing makes me want to blow my head off,” she says. “I was very open with Crown about that. They assured me it wouldn’t happen.” At eleven, she heads to the Flatiron district to tape her Air America radio show from noon to one, then climbs into a waiting Town Car, where she uses the 25 minutes in traffic on the way to MSNBC to go over potential material with Vanessa Silverton-Peel, her Air America producer who also sits in on staff meetings at MSNBC. Usually, The Rachel Maddow Show’s 1 p.m. meeting has already begun by the time Maddow gets to 30 Rock and plops on the floor in front of executive producer Matt Saal’s desk.
On a Wednesday in September, executive producer Bill Wolff is regaling the room with a story about George Bush confusing Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. “He praised Kazakhstan for choosing democracy. Except it was Kyrgyzstan. Kazakhstan is all like totalitarian and the evil enemy!” Maddow laughs. “We are in the post-Borat world,” Wolff goes on. “Central Asian nations with loose nukes! Suddenly the K-R-K-S-Z-R-G of it all matters. You’re president of the United States! Jesus Christ.”