Rooting for Lefty

Photo: Courtesy of MSNBC; Illustration by Matt Owens

I hate it when people make fun of Tucker Carlson for wearing a bow tie; it’s superficial ridicule, and what’s worse, it preempts the more genuine ridicule this ruling-class hate-monger deserves. Having been chased from CNN when the Crossfire shoutfest became a media target, he’s resurfaced on MSNBC with The Situation With Tucker Carlson—a show that really does deserve to be watched.

Not, certainly, for Carlson, who less than two weeks into his run had already asserted, “What bothers me is that … the civil-rights movement never ended … White racism, while it still exists, is not the force it once was,” and managed to sound sad and wistful about this state of affairs. No, the reason to watch this Situation is the program’s decision to have Air America radio host Rachel Maddow represent the left. Maddow, unlike Crossfire’s toothless hacks Paul Begala and James Carville, actually articulates leftist, progressive, sometimes even radical ideas. This immediately distinguishes her from everyone else on television since Abbie Hoffman circa The Dick Cavett Show. In her initial appearances, Maddow has made quick, cogent cases against John Bolton’s U.N. nomination and the No Child Left Behind initiative; when Carlson suggested that Guantánamo Bay detainees had it pretty cushy because there was now a dentist on the premises, she scoffed fiercely, “Well, when you hold people in captivity for life, you occasionally have to extract their teeth.”

How has this out-lesbian, self-described “smiling but obstinate liberal” managed to hold her own while sitting between Carlson and her from-the-right co-panelist Jay Severin? “Whenever I get booked on the political shows, they always say, ‘We want to bring you in for balance,’ and that always turns out to mean a conservative host, a conservative guest, and me,” says Maddow one morning after doing what she calls her “ass-crack of dawn” drive-time show from Air America’s Manhattan studios. “This idea [of] balance has shifted the idea of objectivity so far to the right that if you look at balance as a seesaw, it puts the fulcrum in a really weird place.” She laughs. In fact, Maddow laughs a lot for someone who thinks the country is in terrible shape.

Where Severin—who looks like Max Schrek’s Nosferatu with a buzz cut—studs his comments with yuks about his fondness for porn (his idea of coming off as a regular guy, apparently), Maddow offers a machine-gun spray of contrarian analysis. For example, she doesn’t buy the widespread idea that John McCain will be the next Republican presidential candidate. “That’s ridiculous! The Republicans basically built George W. Bush out of straw … They created him out of nothing so that he would owe them everything. They’re not gonna pick somebody like McCain, who has basically no friends in the Republican Party, doesn’t owe anybody anything, and is likely to make his own decisions.”

Maddow’s bio describes her as the “first openly gay Rhodes scholar,” which makes her laugh. “In Rhodes circles, it’s very controversial, because there have been so many closeted Rhodes scholars. That I was actually out during the application process is, sadly, a notable thing. I didn’t get the Rhodes until 1995, and you’d think it would have occurred to someone to be out before then, but if they were, they didn’t win.”

Maddow was born in 1973 in the San Francisco Bay Area. “By the time I was 15, it was the beginning of AIDS, [which] is fundamental to me to what it means to be political in the world.” The AIDS movement, she says, gave her “the desperate fire under your ass. That activist sensibility is at my core.” After Maddow graduated from Oxford University and Stanford, she ended up working on prison-reform issues as well as AIDS, a combination she jokes is “off the left side of the chart!”

Maddow maintains a commuter relationship with her partner, artist Susan Mikula, chugging back and forth via Amtrak between here and their home in Massachusetts. Maybe one reason she comes across as original is because she doesn’t watch TV, “so I don’t know how you’re supposed to be political on television.” She’s something new: a self-described “old lefty, populist on economic issues, supportive of blue-collar issues as well as identity politics.” I do watch TV, and Maddow seems to be what Jon Stewart and others were hoping for: someone with a sense of history before I Love the ’90s doing the media-heretical—making serious points “from the left” without centrist pandering or apology. “You can’t take this long-view, revolutionary-archetype approach to things,” she emphasizes. “You have to save people’s lives right now.”

The Situation with Tucker Carlson
MSNBC. Weeknights, 9 P.M.

Rooting for Lefty