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.”
“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.”
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.
“I do worry if being a pundit is a worthwhile thing to be,” she says. “Yeah, I’m the unlikely cable news host. But before that I was the unlikely Rhodes scholar. And before that I was the unlikely kid who got into Stanford. And then I was the unlikely lifeguard. You can always cast yourself as unlikely when you’re fundamentally alienated in your worldview. It’s a healthy approach for a commentator.”
Before the network hired Maddow, MSNBC had started to seem like a fight club, where hosts regularly sniped at each other on-air (Keith Olbermann telling his gushing Republican colleague Joe Scarborough to “get a shovel”), made sexist comments (Tucker Carlson saying he “involuntarily crossed his legs” whenever Hillary came onscreen), and fueled rumors of power struggles in the press (one of which involved the hiring of Rachel Maddow).
Maddow first came on MSNBC’s radar in 2005, when she auditioned as a foil for the conservative Tucker Carlson’s show. Bill Wolff, Carlson’s producer at the time, was immediately smitten. “She was unbelievably prepared,” he said. “And she just killed him.”
She bobbed around as a guest commentator for three years, appearing as a regular guest on Carlson’s show, but also on Paula Zahn’s and Larry King’s. At one point, she filmed a pilot for a weekend political show with CNN. “She seemed really constrained there,” says a person involved in the program. “It was like they didn’t know what to do with her.” The pilot never went anywhere. CNN president Jon Klein says it was because having an “obviously liberal” host didn’t fit with the mission of the network: “It’s like, you wouldn’t put The Sopranos on Comedy Central.”
Still, she kept at it. “I think deep down, Rachel knows that this is something she has to do,” says her former radio co-host Chuck D. “She kind of looks at the television and thinks, I know that’s something I have to do well. Sometimes it’s not up to you.”
Her break came when Carlson’s show was canceled last year and Olbermann asked her to appear more frequently on Countdown. He admired the way Maddow had excoriated Carlson on his own turf, punctuating her arguments with a friendly laugh, like an athlete offering her hand to the loser after a winning game. “We were friends from the start,” says Olbermann. “Our worldviews overlap.”
Olbermann had no such kinship with Dan Abrams, the lawyer and former MSNBC executive who hosted Verdict, the program that followed Countdown. In fact, Olbermann’s dislike of Abrams was so intense that he refused to provide Abrams with a “throw,” that brief chat as the audience is passed, it is hoped, from one block of programming to another. Sometimes there would be up to five seconds of dead air between their shows.
With Olbermann’s urging, Maddow, who had never even used a TelePrompTer before February, began guest-hosting Countdown last year, and soon Olbermann was pressuring Phil Griffin, his friend and producer, to give her Abrams’s slot. In July, Griffin told the Times he planned to give Maddow a show when the opportunity arose. “And a month later, when [Griffin] was promoted to president,” Olbermann says, “he did.”
He may not have had much of a choice. According to MSNBC insiders, as Olbermann’s ratings have risen, so has his level of power at MSNBC. “Phil Griffin didn’t hire Rachel,” says one person who works at the network. “He didn’t want to hire Rachel. Keith hired Rachel.” Olbermann plays down his involvement: “It was nothing more sophisticated than being the person who nominated her for membership in the club.” But he was the one who broke the news of Maddow’s show on August 19, on the liberal Website Daily Kos, writing coyly, “Yes, I had something to do with it.”
Abrams, who is now MSNBC’s chief legal correspondent, says that he considers Maddow’s hiring to be the right decision for the network. But sources say he was privately steaming. “Dan Abrams is not the most sensitive guy,” one MSNBC source says. “But he was like, ‘What the fuck?’ ”
If Maddow knows about any of the internal politics surrounding her hiring, she won’t say. “I am, on purpose, naïve about these things,” she says, stirring her Manhattan at the St. Regis bar.
Purposeful naïveté is something Maddow finds useful. She also doesn’t watch cable news shows—ever. She’s never seen Hannity & Colmes, or Larry King, or The O’Reilly Factor. Until recently, she and Mikula didn’t even own a television. One was recently acquired for their New York apartment, but it’s “mostly for Susan,” she says.
Most people would obsess over the competition—Olbermann’s fixation with Bill O’Reilly ignited his career. But Maddow says she doesn’t want to absorb any “homogenizing influences.” She recognizes that part of her on-air charm comes from being unschooled enough to take risks: to explain Dada, or spend 22 seconds reading from John Hodgman’s book, or lavish airtime on Zimbabwe’s new $10 trillion bill. She gets her information mostly from the Internet, then picks what she thinks is interesting.
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.”