This is not to say that Maddow doesn’t have opinions about cable news. For starters, she loathes the format that casts the host as a referee between squabbling guests and has vowed to have only one speaking guest at a time, because, she’s says, it’s more respectful. “You’re essentially watching for the kinetic activity of the fight rather than listening to what anybody says about the issue,” she says. “And I think what people end up cheering for is winning, you know, rather than getting something out of it. I think there’s more intelligent ways to entertain people.”
She also does not abide impoliteness: In March, when Pat Buchanan told Democratic strategist Kelli Goff to “shut up” on Dan Abrams’s show, on which Maddow was also a guest, she leaped in to administer such a deft, polite scolding—“Pat! I have never heard you tell anyone to shut up like that before!”—that the former Nixon speechwriter looked genuinely chastened. Buchanan, whose 1992 culture-war speech was a pivotal moment for 19-year-old lesbian Maddow, now frequently appears on The Rachel Maddow Show to provide conservative counterpoint under the rubric “It’s Pat,” which he most likely doesn’t know is a reference to the old Saturday Night Live skit about a gender-neutral character. “Thank you so much for coming on, Pat. Always a pleasure,” she says warmly when he totters off after their sparring matches.
“Even though I can be harsh in my criticism and I can be strong in my beliefs, I try not to be mean,” she says. “And I don’t have a very high tolerance for other people who are cruel or personally insulting in a way that I think is meant to humiliate people.”
This contrasts of course with the philosophy of her mentor, whose show features a nightly humiliation ritual known as “The Worst Person in the World.” Maddow’s comparatively lighter touch has highlighted Olbermann’s plunge down the likability scale in recent months, a fact that Olbermann, to his credit, seems fully aware of. “You’d have to be a really miserable specimen of a human being to not like her,” he says. “I wish I had that. There are perfectly intelligent, sane people who cannot abide what I do. People who call me and threaten to cut my tongue out. She is, at times, as efficient with a verbal scalpel as I am. But most of the people who see me coming down the hall with the scalpel don’t know that she has a scalpel.”
The shows are intertwined, not only because Olbermann does give Maddow a throw, but because Maddow counts Countdown, the only cable news she really watches, as an influence. “The thing that I think he doesn’t get enough credit for is how much information is in it,” she says. “That show is produced to within a half-second of its life.” As she talks about it, she becomes more animated. “Put a lot of information out there. People can handle it. It’s okay to use big words. You don’t need to dumb stuff down! You don’t need to make stuff simple and repetitive for people. If you assume that your audience is as interested in what you are talking about as you are, you’re going to connect with your audience in a much better way.” She might not be saving the world, but she is intent on making it a little smarter.
On a bright morning in October, Maddow, virtually unrecognizable from her television self in baggy jeans and a Red Sox T-shirt, is loping down a street in the West Village. She’s taking the mornings off from her book in the weeks leading up to the election, which has given her time to walk her dog, a chubby black lab, down to the waterfront.
“He pees like a girl,” she points out.
In just a few days, Maddow, who’s still only been on the job for two months, will interview Barack Obama, whom she likes, but not in the adoring way you might expect from a fellow fast-rising, ceiling-busting, left-leaning intellectual. She’s also not concerned that an Obama win could make her job more difficult if MSNBC were to transition from being the network of the loyal opposition to the television home of the ruling party.
“I know I’m a liberal, but I don’t think the future of news is different depending on if we get one candidate or the other,” she says.“If McCain is elected, which he well might be, everything will be different, in that it will create a massive soul-searching in this country. If Obama gets elected, there will still be plenty of issues. We still have two wars going on, national-security issues …”
Walking back toward her brownstone, she finally seems to have reconciled her high-minded ambitions with her role as a talking head. “I think helping people understand what is going on in the world and what is going on in your country is a noble thing to do,” she says. “I do think that is a good thing. I think I have found something I am good at.”
As if on cue, a woman getting into a car calls out, “Are you Rachel Maddow?”
“Oh, I love your show.”
“Thank you so much,” Maddow says, automatically adding, “I paid her to say that.”
She’s been getting more and more attention lately, and is now worrying about what she thinks will be the “inevitable” backlash.
“I’m trying not to read the blogs or the press about myself anymore,” she says. “I don’t think it’s healthy for me. It’s like training a dog. I needed it in the beginning, but now I need to sit—sorry,” she glances at the dog. “I need to S-I-T or S-T-A-Y without getting a Milkbone. You can’t live on Milkbones.”