“I love that story,” Maddow says, scribbling in her notepad.
Junior producers float a few other ideas they think might interest her: Ahmadinejad is in town, but Maddow thinks the focus on him is “stupid, craven, pandering, and bad for our national security … He’s like the Dana Perino of Iran.”
Someone mentions that a California wine called Palin Syrah was suffering a sales decline. “That’s like, if you had to invent a stereotypical make-fun-of-a-liberal story,” Maddow says, dismissing the idea. “People won’t buy this fawncy wine anymore because it has a Republican’s name on it.”
There’s not much of a dividing line between the material that gets slated for the TV show and what winds up on the radio. The second hour of the Air America show now features repackaged material from MSNBC, and even the original content is quite similar, with pet issues like national security and veterans’ rights taking the lead, plumped up with quirkier topics like comic books and News of the World–type oddities. “They’re both built around Rachel,” says Silverton-Peel. “Whatever interests Rachel every day.”
Maddow is reveling in the attention. “The most highly staffed show I worked at in the past had three people,” she says later. “Now there’s like all these people every day who are waiting to hear what I’m interested in, so we can turn that into the show.”
Toward the end of the meeting at MSNBC, Maddow runs down her list of decidedly heavier topics: the Bush administration’s plan to privatize part of the G.I. bill, a reported piece on John McCain’s “Main Street” voting record, and the opening of a Shell Oil office in Iraq. “If we were ever going to fly a mission accomplished banner for the war in Iraq, today is the day,” she says. The line ends up in the show. Soon after saying it on the air, Maddow leaves the office for the first time in nine and a half hours, at 10:30 p.m.
“Rachel has always worked really, really hard,” says Susan Mikula, Maddow’s partner, over a late-night dinner of pasta and pink Champagne at Centro in the West Village. “She works constantly. And not just busy work but really hard work.”
Maddow laughs. “I have been a suicidal, stretched-too-thin, overcommitted, frenetic, sleepless mess for the entire time she has known me,” she says. “And I don’t always have a job that justifies my being so intense about it. I think the reason that I worked hard is because it makes me feel like my life has meaning.”
“It is existential angst,” agrees Mikula.
A fine-arts photographer who specializes in alternative-process photo-installations, Mikula is a curvy, Stevie Nicks blonde and the decidedly femme half of the duo. They’ve been together for more than ten years, ever since Maddow showed up to do yard work at her house in western Massachusetts. “When I met her, she had her initials in metal leaf on the door of her jeep,” says Maddow, an admirer of kitsch. “So hot. So hot.”
They’re both nonchalant about the fact that Maddow is the first openly gay woman to host a prime-time news show.
“We kind of forget we’re gay,” says Mikula. “We live in western Mass and New York and it’s very accommodating. Every once and a while I’ll say, ‘Oh my God, we’re gay.’ ”
“I’ve been out most of my life,” says Maddow. “I don’t feel like I have a choice about it. I look gay.”
Mikula has shared in some of the decision-making about The Rachel Maddow Show, encouraging her partner to wear makeup—without it, “she looked like a dead person”—and providing wardrobe advice. Maddow has long prided herself on her androgynous appearance; early in her radio career, the hosts at her morning show once took her out on the street to have passersby try to guess her gender as a stunt.
“At some point, we figured out that you could wear suits and they could be gray, or gray, or brown or black or gray,” says Mikula.
“If I’m wearing a gray suit, people aren’t going to talk about what I’m wearing,” Maddow explains, “therefore, I will wear a gray suit every time I go on television. That was sort of the plan.”
Insofar as there has been a plan. No one in Rachel Maddow’s life thought she would end up hosting a national cable news show. Her longtime friends and family members stress their pride, but they are clearly surprised at the path she’s taken. “Rachel, as I knew her, has always been about making a contribution,” says Cory Booker, the mayor of Newark, New Jersey, who was friends with Maddow at Stanford and Oxford. “She wasn’t just about giving commentary; she was an activist. She wanted to change the world.”