Maddow likes to joke that her admission to Stanford was a “mistake,” but her professors remember the Castro Valley, California, native as a serious scholar from the beginning. “She was a brilliant student,” says Roger Noll, former director of the Public Policy Program at Stanford, “one of those that only come around every few years or so.” When she graduated in 1994, her undergraduate thesis—which explored the shift in the perception of AIDS patients from “the other” to “one of us”—won a medal for excellence. “I still send students to that thesis as a model,” says another professor, Debra Satz.
After graduation, Maddow worked with ACT UP and the AIDS Legal Referral Panel in San Francisco for a year, then, in 1995, went to Oxford as a Rhodes scholar to begin a doctorate in political science. “When I heard she was going to Oxford, I was like, Yes,” says Noll, who hoped she’d go into academe.
But at Oxford, Maddow felt restless and out of place. A few months into the program, she put her doctorate on hold, traded her Oxford apartment for a London squat, and became the general manager of a fledging organization called the AIDS Treatment Project. “Rachel took me to a public-housing project,” says Booker. “That was where she was hanging out, in this London version of a tough neighborhood. It wasn’t like it was a sociology project. Most Oxford kids wouldn’t have even known that neighborhood existed.”
Eventually she ran out of money and moved back to the United States to finish her dissertation, settling in Massachusetts, since it was far away from home and relatively free of distractions. “I wanted to live somewhere where I would be forced to do what I had to do,” she says. She crashed with friends and took up a number of odd jobs to support herself.
She was scrubbing out coffee barrels at a friend’s coffee shop in Northampton one morning when the local rock station announced it was holding an open audition for a “sidekick” for “Dave in the Morning,” known for its wacky parodies of popular songs. Maddow liked the idea of “a new, odder job,” she says. “And anyway I had to support myself. I wasn’t like a trust-fund kid.”
She nailed the audition. “She had this beautiful, professional voice,” says Dave Brinnel, the show’s host. “But she couldn’t sing.”
“Yeah, I’m the unlikely cable news host. You can always cast yourself as unlikely when you’re fundamentally alienated in your worldview.”
The job mostly consisted of reading the headlines of the day and setting up punch lines for Morning Dave. “She was one of the wittiest, smartest people I’ve ever met,” says Brinnel, but not too smart for morning-show humor. “One day, we got into a discussion about farts,” he says. “And I just remember her stopping and going, ‘Wait a minute: There is nothing funnier than a fart.’ ”
But it soon became clear to her co-workers that “Dave in the Morning” was not going to be her last job in broadcast. “Not in an obnoxious way,” says Bruce Stebbins, a former co-owner of the station. He remembers trying to engage Maddow in a political conversation back in the late nineties. “I realized immediately that I was just like way out of my league,” he says. “She just had such a powerful intellect. I remember thinking, ‘What is she doing here?’ ”
“I loved being on the radio,” says Maddow. “Being paid to talk? It’s like being paid to eat.” Waking up at 4 a.m., however, was not much fun, and her dissertation was suffering. After a year, she left to finish her doctorate, but went back to the station when it was complete. “I really missed being on the air,” she says. There she stayed until 2004, when a friend passed her tape to Lizz Winstead, the Daily Show co-creator who was working at the newly launched Air America. Maddow was hired to host a show with Winstead and Chuck D called “Unfiltered.” And that is how what seemed like a fling of a job turned into a career. “I would have thought she’d be a professor some place by now,” says Stebbins. “But there she is on the tee-vee.”
Maddow sometimes seems like she’s still working out how she feels about where she’s ended up. In September, soon after her MSNBC show debuted, she hosted the author of the graphic novel Shooting War, about a liberal blogger who finds himself in the unlikely role of war correspondent, on her Air America show. She’d read the book on “one of those nights where you stay awake worrying about nuclear proliferation and the Fourth Amendment,” she told the author, and it spoke to her. “There is something in here about how having an outsider’s perspective on things—a cut-across-the grain, I-am-not-of-this-Establishment, I-hate-the-man kind of thing even when you are respected and being put on television—that is the way that you change the world.” It was clear that she was talking about herself as much as the book.