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Rachel Maddow's Quiet War

America's leading lefty wonk has seen the enemy, and it's not just the GOP - it's the battles she fights every day with herself

June 27, 2012 1:20 PM ET
Rachel Maddow
Rachel Maddow
Virginia Sherwood/MSNBC

"So just who is Sarah Palin?"

This is Keith Olbermann talking, back in the summer of 2008, when the Alaska governor is brand-new to the national scene and Olbermann himself is still in the position he pioneered, as the first great contemporary liberal television pundit, the face of MSNBC. Olbermann, in his smart-aleck way, is introducing Palin to the national in-crowd: "A former beauty queen and runner-up in the Miss Alaska contest, a star point guard who earned the nickname Sarah Barracuda," he says. "A sometimes sports reporter who wanted to work for ESPN until she realized" – and here Olbermann starts to laugh, the condescension becoming open – "that she would have to move from Alaska to Bristol, Connecticut."

Watch: Rachel Maddow Locks and Loads at New York Rifle Range

Television news, in 2008, is still more or less a jock's medium, and this is the way that jocks bait transfer students, mocking them as clueless hicks. In the final years of the Bush administration, Olbermann has transformed liberal anger into a smirk, a feeling of superiority over the dorks and freaks and clown who run Washington. But what makes Olbermann's introduction of Palin arresting, in retrospect, is not his patronizing tone, but the woman who is waiting to speak, on a splitscreen: Rachel Maddow, a 35-year-old radio host who is about to debut her own show on MSNBC, and who will eventually take over for Olbermann as the face of the network.

From the start, Maddow's brand is not so much out lesbian or angry liberal, but full-on nerd: the chunky black glasses, the flailing limbs. She doesn't seem to care much about the question that Olbermann has fixed on: So just who is Sarah Palin? "We don't know very much about Governor Palin," Maddow says, when Olbermann finally gives her a chance to speak. "She's basically been a human-interest story in terms of the political press in this country thus far." Then she moves on to what really interests her: not politics as personality but politics as mechanism, not who is winning power but what is being done with it.

Palin is being sold as a small-government conservative, the opponent of the infamous Bridge to Nowhere, but Maddow can tell the sales job is a fraud. "I went and looked it up in the Anchorage Daily News from 2006," she says, her nerd cred on full display. "Palin was asked point-blank about funding for that bridge, and she said, 'Yes... the window is now.'" Others in the media had noticed the flip-flop, but Maddow has zeroed in on something else: Palin had said "the window is now" because Alaska's congressional delegation was senior enough to push the project by using earmarks, the backdoor maneuver that congressmen use to enrich their districts with budget-busting boondoggles. Palin wasn't just for the bridge, Maddow points out, she was actually for earmarks, the very thing she is supposed to be against. If you view politics as Olbermann does, as a kind of absurdist theater, then this is a gaffe, a sign of Palin's naiveté and unreadiness. If you view things as Maddow does, then it indicates something deeper, a fissure in the base of Republican ideology, a contradiction cracking open behind the presumption of power.

You could feel a transition coming. "Rachel Maddow," Olbermann says, his enthusiasm a little competitive, "whose new 9 p.m. Eastern show premieres here a week from Monday – tick, tick, tick..."

That Monday, Maddow beat Larry King in the ratings, a rare feat for MSNBC, and she also beat him the first week, and the first month. Seven weeks later, on the eve of the presidential election, Barack Obama summoned her to Florida to interview him, and she was made. This spring, her book on the arcane topic of the national-security state stayed at number one for more than a month. Her show – no less partisan or liberal than Olbermann's, but marked by less conflict and more explication, less righteous fury and more policy wonkery – has become a prototype for MSNBC, a new idea for how liberal anger might play on TV, and the network has added shows by hosts who think very much like she does: Chris Hayes, Melissa Harris-Perry. "She's a model for everyone at this channel," says Phil Griffin, the head of MSNBC. "They look at her and, in their own ways, they want to be like her."

Yet Maddow's success has left her feeling anguished – over the complicated irony of being the avowed outsider, the lesbian AIDS activist, who has become part of the establishment. Angst is such a deep and familiar subject to her that she says the word with the original German pronunciation – ongst. "The outsider thing is just dyed-in-the-wool for me," she says. "I've never been much of a joiner." Maddow comes to Washington each year during the weekend of the White House Correspondents Dinner. The compromise she makes between her revulsion at the capital and her obligation to be there is to skip the event itself, agreeing to attend the MSNBC afterparty only if she can serve as bartender and avoid mingling with the political elite. "I told them the only way I'll come is if I can work the party," she says. And so here she is, at the end of April, pouring drinks across a massive wooden bar, watching everyone get drunker and drunker, thinking to herself as a guest commits the mixological sacrilege of ordering a vodka martini: "Not judging. Not judging. Judging. Judging."

Washington, that is to say, is not yet hers; its debates are not conducted on her terms. The morning after the correspondents dinner, with most of the capital hungover, Maddow shows up to work, as a panelist on Meet the Press. Appearing alongside her is Alex Castellanos, a Republican media consultant who served both George W. Bush and Mitt Romney, an embodiment of the clubby, insider pundit culture that Maddow abhors. When she begins to talk about gender disparity in pay – "Women in this country still make 77 cents on the dollar for what men make" – the genteel Castellanos, a master of the form, simply denies that this is true. Women in the workforce, he insists, make just as much as men; liberals are just "manufacturing a political crisis."

Maddow knows immediately that Castellanos is lying to the audience. She swivels so abruptly in her chair, trying to make sense of what he is saying, that the camera winds up fixed on a spot just behind her left ear, as if it were an assassin's scope. You can see her, in real time, coming to terms with the extent of the lie as she watches agreement flicker across the face of the other Republican on the panel. "This hasn't just been sold to Alex by someone briefing him on the subject," she thinks to herself. "This is something that has actually been sold to Republicans – this is a vision of Republican World."

The tricky part is knowing what to do about the lie. Chris Matthews would erupt in thunderous outrage; Keith Olbermann would dissolve into a knowing sneer. But Maddow's skills are different: She strives not for the expression of political anger but for its suppression, to distance herself from the partisan debate rather than engage it, to steward progressive fury into a world of certainty, of charts, graphs, statistics, a real world that matters and that the political debate can't corrupt. Maddow's producers say, unexpectedly, that the closest analog for her style as a broadcaster is Glenn Beck, whose abilities as a performer she very much admires. Though their worldviews could not be more different, Maddow and Beck both attempt to pull off a similar trick: to reflect and redirect their audience's rage at politics without succumbing to it. What Maddow is trying to build is a different channel for liberal anger, an outsider's channel, one that steers the viewer's attention away from the theater of politics and toward the exercise of power, which is to say toward policy. On-air, like Beck, she is almost relentlessly cheerful. "Anger is like sugar in a cocktail," Maddow tells me. "I'd rather have none at all than a grain too much."

But this time, apparently, she lets a grain too much show. "Rachel, I love how passionate you are," Castellanos says, coolly pivoting the argument from the facts to her barely contained fury.

"That's really condescending," Maddow replies.

This is Maddow's battle with television: to try to bring a different, more objective model of inquiry to a world of political talking points. Later that week, conferring with her staff, Maddow recounts what had actually flickered across her mind in that instant with Castellanos. "I wanted to say, 'Are you saying I'm cute when I'm angry?'" she recalls. "But I didn't, because when you're a woman on television, you can't even say the word angry."

Each day at 2:00, on the fourth floor of 30 Rockefeller Center, Maddow leaves her office and the "temple of paper" she has been reading and assembles her staff around a white board, where potential stories have been listed. She stares at them mutely for a while, trying to discern from the raw current of the news what is interesting to her, and to whittle the day's events into a show.

Today they already have a winner lined up. In Michigan, the Republican governor has appointed emergency financial managers to take over the affairs of some of the state's most debt-ridden towns, many of them heavily African-American. The managers, in several cases, have turned into tyrants, selling off public assets to the private sector. One of Maddow's producers has traveled around Michigan, and has lots of terrific tape. ("We believe in voting!" one citizen thunders during a town hall.) No one else is talking about Michigan, which makes it a perfect Maddow segment, one that will give her audience a glimpse of the secret workings of power, of a violation of rights. When it airs, it will be the most watched segment of the day's show.

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