Rachel Maddow, the Lovable Wonk

(Photo by Frank Micelotta/PictureGroup)

I can’t say for sure when it happened—it was after Barack Obama’s swearing-in yet before Keith Olbermann got suspended for giving money to Democrats—but at some point it began dawning on people that the face of MSNBC was Rachel Maddow. Certainly her bosses thought so. Not only did she have her own prime-time show but she also began landing the gigs traditionally reserved for a network’s Grand Poo-Bah, in particular, anchoring election-night coverage.

You can understand why MSNBC execs would want Maddow in this talismanic chair for the 2012 campaign. Young and sunny, she’s their highest-rated anchor, especially among the magical 25-to-54 demographic, which makes her the ideal front woman for a network whose tagline is “Lean Forward.” Just as important, she’s their easiest and most polite host, a woman who once chastised Pat Buchanan on Dan Abrams after he told a Clinton campaign worker to “shut up,” a rebuke that left the old pitchfork-waver abashed. Although she can sometimes be too doggone cute, Maddow embodies virtues—rationality, good humor, and courtesy—that make her an alluring alternative to our culture’s furious partisan stridency. Her upbeat civility is perfect for wrangling MSNBC’s election-night panel, which includes such monsters of vainglory as bluff, blue-collar Ed Schultz, Lawrence (“I’m the real insider here”) O’Donnell, and the Reverend Al Sharpton, whose patter has become so lazily formulaic that he seems like a refugee from Portlandia. Smiling and cajoling, Maddow turns them as amiable as puppies.

Maddow is someone liberals can feel good about themselves for liking. She has left-of-Barack politics, yet because her father is a retired Air Force captain, she can speak of caring about the troops without shamming. She’s got the intellectual credentials that our side loves—an Oxford Ph.D.! —yet she’s also down with pop culture, talking of her life in terms of John Hughes movies. Topping it all off, she’s an openly lesbian anchor in an era when people still discuss whether Anderson Cooper is gay. Not so long ago, being out would have kept Maddow off the air. Now, it feels positively ordinary.

Early on, Maddow was a protégé of Olbermann, who, in both his brilliance and self-destructiveness, is the Orson Welles of talking-heads TV. His work on SportsCenter reinvented the sports newscast (and, some bemoan, set a template for today’s political journalism). His work on Countdown didn’t just reconceive the news show—every moment was as self-consciously worked as a European art film—it rebranded MSNBC, transforming it from a dreary cable backwater into a network people talk about. Although not the TV genius Olbermann is, Maddow is also not the Most Difficult Person In The World, which is why she slipstreamed into MSNBC’s lead anchor chair, while he’s in overpaid exile on the Elba of Current TV.

Watching her program, you can see how carefully she studied Olbermann’s way of juggling entertainment, politics, and headlines. She learned that a news show should be a show, with humor, shifting rhythms of monologue and dialogue, catchily labeled segments, and a deployment of old clips that aspires to prestidigitation. This vast galaxy is a wonder to be exploited, whether you’re tracing how presidents have talked up war over the decades or how once--maverick Republicans like John McCain went from embracing cap-and-trade to shunning it. Maddow also grasped—and shared—Olbermann’s respect for language. No news show in history has ever been so fastidiously, even preeningly written as Countdown. But where Olbermann increasingly came to read his lines, even his funny ones, with an overbearing, almost martial precision—by God, he was going to let you know how magnificently written his program was—Maddow has always been shrewd at knowing how to make herself appealing. Although The Rachel Maddow Show is probably the second most painstakingly written news show ever, she reads her script in a deliberately shambly way that feels down-to-earth. (Think of her wearing that blue hard hat in the terrific MSNBC promo at the Hoover Dam.) Her persona appeals to the viewer’s intelligence by being hard to catch in the act of being intelligent. 


If Olbermann was the Bush era’s defining liberal newsman—as saturnine in his righteousness as Dick Cheney in his—Maddow has taken on that same role for the Obama years (even spawning protégés of her own). Deeply critical of Obama’s failings yet mindful of his successes, she presents a bracingly sensible, buoyantly bemused response to a Democratic presidency that (as ever) most on the left find disappointing yet know they’ll be voting to re-elect anyway. Although her tone is less earnest than that of Occupy Wall Street, she was the only TV anchor you could picture in Zuccotti Park who wouldn’t look like the butt of a Saturday Night Live skit. 


I was filled with foreboding when I picked up the galley of Maddow’s Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power (Crown). Books by TV anchors tend to be dreadful because they are driven less by a burning inner need to express something than by the desire to cross-promote and rake in the bucks. Where politicians’ books generally appear to have been ghosted by particularly bland publicists—they’re at once self--promoting and impersonal—news celebrities’ books try to give readers the TV persona they know. They’re written in character. Thus Anderson Cooper’s Dispatches from the Edge is likable and hungry for gravitas, Bill O’Reilly’s Pinheads and Patriots bursts with sore--winner bluster, and Dylan Rattigan’s Greedy Bastards! How We Can Stop Corporate Communists, Banksters, and Other Vampires from Sucking America Dry lays on his routine mad-as-hell populism in a feeble impersonation of Matt Taibbi. 

Drift aims higher than these. Although written in Maddow’s trademark voice—the dedication reads, “To former Vice President Dick Cheney/Oh please let me interview you”—it draws on the longtime fascination with U.S. defense policy that once led her to call herself a “national security liberal.” The book offers a jaunty tour of American military and intelligence policy since the 1960s, a journey that carries us from the post-Vietnam Abrams Doctrine to post-9/11 nation building in Iraq and Afghanistan. Maddow uses this history to argue that national defense has become so disconnected from public oversight that presidents make unconstitutional war at their pleasure, military tasks are increasingly contracted out to private corporations, and we keep paying for the “$8--Trillion Fungus” that is our unnecessary (and dangerous) nuclear-arms program.

As on her show, Maddow is partisan but not dismissive—she tries to be fair. Even as the elder Bush gets credit for receiving congressional approval for Operation Desert Storm (however little he wanted to ask for it), Bill Clinton is nailed for taking ideas about military privatization, floated by Dick Cheney when he was secretary of defense, and turning them into a juggernaut: During Clinton’s time in office, she notes, the Defense Department went from spending a few hundred million dollars a year on private contractors to tens of billions. As on her show, Maddow obviously worries that she might lose her audience if she plays things too straight. Dubbing the policies she’s describing both “entertaining” and “boneheaded,” she tries to sweeten her subject with dollops of cuteness. She even titles one chapter “Mylanta, Tis of Thee,” a joke worthy of that noted political theorist Erma Bombeck.

This isn’t just a personal quirk. As Obama must carefully avoid the cliché of the angry black man, so Maddow must forever battle the continuing stereotype of the humorless lesbian. It’s not accidental that America’s three most famous gay women—Ellen and Rosie are the other two—are all known for their jokiness. In a way, so are The New York Times’ two women columnists, Maureen Dowd and Gail Collins, which makes you wonder whether cuteness is the price female journalists must still pay to get high-profile jobs. Curiously, the cuteness is less prevalent in places that aren’t officially supposed to lean forward: places like CNN, which has had several uncute women anchors; Fox News, whose Greta Van Susteren is nobody’s idea of a barrel of monkeys; and The Wall Street Journal, where Peggy Noonan’s column is hilarious precisely because it’s written in such earnest.


This isn’t to say that Maddow’s good humor is only tactical. It’s her nature, and I imagine that she sometimes feels trapped in a chirpiness that comes so naturally that the world now expects it of her all the time. Perhaps because I know this particular prison firsthand, I suspect that part of her must fantasize about breaking free—you know, turning to Chris Matthews during a commercial break and snarling, “Listen, you gasbag, Kennedy and Nixon are dead, OK?”


It’s one of the tiresome features of today’s media culture that everything becomes meta, be it Kanye and Jay-Z rapping about the royal realities of being Kanye and Jay-Z or Ricky Gervais focusing his supposedly edgy Golden Globes monologue on how edgy he’s being. Such self-referentiality is especially deadly for anchors who want to be taken seriously. You knew it spelled trouble for Olbermann when Countdown went from cleverly dissecting the news to folding back on itself in those overbearing “Special Comments.” I can still hear him sneering “Sir” as he addressed Bush—an attempt at the stentorian gravitas of Edward R. Murrow that made Olbermann sound like a teenager talking back to his prep-school headmaster. 

Maddow is nowhere near such megalomania, yet The Rachel Maddow Show could do without so many bits designed to showcase its host in all her Rachelosity—like the labored gag when she opened the show in an astronaut suit to mock Newt Gingrich’s talk of colonizing the moon. She’s far better digging into the rebellion against Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker or asking more pointed questions on Meet the Press than host David Gregory, whose dullness bespeaks a paid-up membership in the Beltway Insiders Club. Maddow isn’t afraid to embarrass politicians, as when she asked Illinois Republican Congressman Aaron Schock about his hypocrisy in touting a green-energy education program in his district when, in fact, he’d voted against it. Politicos don’t like this sort of thing, which is why most GOP officials won’t go on her show.


Naturally, not everybody is impressed by Maddow. I don’t only mean medieval sorts like Cal Thomas, who recently joked that her existence was the best argument for contraception—and then took it back. The New Republic recently included her on a list of “Over-Rated Thinkers,” labeling her “a textbook example of the intellectual limitations of a perfectly settled perspective. She knows the answers even before she has the questions. … Her show is a great tribute to Fox, because it copies the Fox style exactly.” What made this attack so striking wasn’t merely its own desperate-for-attention, Fox-style crudeness—do they now teach a course in drive-bys at Harvard?—but the lazy way it torched a straw woman. Does anybody really think of Maddow as a “thinker”? Profile writers may gush that she was a Rhodes scholar, but does she present herself as an intellectual on the air? Hardly. She’s a TV host, a popularizer with a vigorous point of view on a network whose audience basically wants to see this point of view reinforced.

Now, that desire is a problem. MSNBC’s viewers seem addicted to blue meat, lots of it, and the network is eager to feed them. Too much of its daily schedule is filled with predictably partisan guff, so that from the beginning of The Dylan Ratigan Show through the end of The Last Word, you virtually never hear from anyone on the other side of the issues—the network just fired Buchanan for saying the ghastly things he always says. Making things worse, MSNBC’s lineup is almost purely reactive. This is, of course, a cheap way to run a network. You don’t need proper bureaus; you just have your talking heads suck the same material drier and drier, even if it’s nothing juicier than some tweet by Sarah Palin. Aside from election night, you can watch this news channel hour after hour and not get any proper news. If a GOP candidate makes some dumbass statement about Iran, this will be duly reported and endlessly parsed on the air, but you will wait long days to get any information about—Iran. It’s enough to make you nostalgic for the halcyon days when the Big Three networks broadcast their nightly newscasts from Mount Olympus with stegosauruses as anchors.

Network execs would defend themselves by pointing out that this formula is working—they’re outdrawing CNN, which does give you news. Fair enough. Still, the lack of actual news is depressing on a channel that markets itself as liberal. We all know the oligarchic modern right is content to dumb down its followers—why else fund so many assaults on science?—but the glory of the left used to be that it thought otherwise. It believed you couldn’t change the world without knowing history and understanding how society works. 

Maddow still believes this, as Drift makes clear. Her whole point is to tell her audience how America’s military--intelligence complex cut itself free from our political process. Now, the argument here is far from new—Gore Vidal was skewering “The National Security State” back in the late 1980s—nor does she come anywhere near the reportorial depth of Dana Priest’s revelatory Top Secret America. Then again, that doesn’t matter. It’s a cliché that Americans don’t know anything about their history, yet when a book like Maddow’s appears, you’ll hear grumbling that it’s old hat—everybody already knows about Iran-Contra, Bush’s maneuverings before the first Gulf War, or Cheney’s ideas about privatizing the military.

They don’t know. And they won’t learn these things from reading Chris Matthews, Michael Moore, or anyone else on what we might call the news-entertainment left. But they will from Maddow. Her optimistic good cheer is not some sort of Sacha Baron Cohen shtick. She is what she appears to be, an idealist who believes in the power of sweet reason. Maddow doesn’t merely want to win viewers over to her side—she wants to make them smarter and better informed.

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