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

Rachel Maddow
Virginia Sherwood/MSNBC
Rachel Maddow
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"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.

Maddow's talent is explication, of rendering complex topics clearly, and so her show, uniquely for cable news, reserves the first 18 minutes of airtime for a lengthy essay, a deconstruction of a single political topic, usually some obscure conservative shift in a state legislature, or some ripple in the foreign-policy universe that has gone unnoticed. Most political talk shows are filmed so tightly that the heads of their hosts fill the screen, so that the host's personality is front and center. The Rachel Maddow Show uses a far wider shot, so that Maddow herself occupies a smaller part of the screen, off to the side. The shift is subtle, but the message is starkly different. Bill O'Reilly, on Fox News, is a combatant and a champion. Maddow is a guide. O'Reilly's show says, Look at me. Maddow's says, Picture this.

At the next staff meeting, Maddow is wearing jeans and a Boston Celtics T-shirt; the effect is a more stripped-down version of herself. Off-air, Maddow thinks, her humor is "darker and grosser," and in staff meetings she permits herself some speculative license she can't on-air. She mentions a video from a North Carolina town hall meeting she saw on YouTube, in which a "great tough lesbian" confronts a state legislator who voted to outlaw gay marriage. The woman goes at the legislator, Maddow says, "until she's as big as a house and he's as big as a mouse." The climax comes when the lesbian fumes, "I never even told anyone in this town I was a lesbian until now!" Maddow cracks up. "You're like, 'Really? You? No one knew? Not a single person?'"

Back in 2008, shortly after Phil Griffin called Maddow and told her he was giving her a prime-time television show of her own, she inherited the staff of Verdict With Dan Abrams, a show that embodied the gimmicky emptiness Maddow detests. The Sunday night before her first show, her executive producer, Bill Wolff, threw a launch party at his apartment and invited the entire Verdict staff. When everyone was sufficiently liquored up, Maddow gave a speech. "The point was to get everyone excited," Wolff recalls. "'OK, go get 'em, let's go do this.'" What Maddow told them, instead, was that they needed to forget everything they had ever learned – that this show would be completely different from the one they'd been working on, that they must forget all of the skills they'd spent their careers building.

"That is crystallized in my memory," says Susan Mikula, Maddow's partner of 13 years, who attended the party. "Everyone was pale. It could not have been more of a bummer. Or more quiet."

Maddow knew she had blown it. "I think Day One I was a bummer," she says. "Forget everything you've learned! Which implicitly says everything you've learned doesn't matter to me."

Wolff says it took the better part of a year for the Verdict staffers to remake themselves in Maddow's image – readjusting their focus away from the news cycle, shifting their storytelling from revved-up to slow-burn. The perfect Maddow segment, he says, begins with some obscure image from the fringes – "a bird covered in oil in 1979," say – and then slowly winds its way into the heart of the political debate. "Eventually, you realize that the story of that bird is all about Mitt Romney," he says, "and it fucking blows your mind."

This kind of indirection – starting with the obscure and working toward the headlines – goes against the most basic rules of television, but for Maddow it can have a rare seductive power. "It's really important that in the top third of the segment you don't say 'Khalid Sheikh Mohammed,' or 'military tribunal,' or 'Guantánamo,'" Maddow says. "Because as soon as you say those things, people think they know what the story is. If you don't edit mercilessly to keep out all of the words that make people leap to conclusions about what you're going to say, you'll never persuade people that you're going to tell them something they don't already know. So you have to be, like, totally on."

That evening, Maddow begins her show by playing two clips: one of George W. Bush heralding the end of the Iraq War, and one of Obama, that very day, repeating the same trick in Afghanistan. Then – the extended, postwar American presence in Iraq clearly established in the viewer's mind – Maddow zeroes in on Obama's similar pledge to maintain a scaled-down military presence in Afghanistan for another decade. "If we are promising to stay involved through 2024," she says, "that means, frankly, that there is a six-year-old somewhere in America today who will be spending 2024 in Kandahar." It's a classic Maddow moment, one that draws her audience's eye away from the debate, away from Washington, and back into the country. What matters is not how the speech helped Obama politically, or what Romney said in response, but the six-year-old boy somewhere in America, his orders already stamped.

Maddow may be careful not to show her anger on-air – but that doesn't mean it isn't there. "I am as rage-filled as the next guy," she says. Off-air, the anger can turn inward. On Monday she is despondent over a monologue on Afghanistan that seemed muddled to her: "I had it so clear in my mind," she says. Tuesday goes well, the Michigan segment the star of the show, and she is gleeful. But at dinner after Wednesday's show, she is in the pits again.

"Yesterday was like a four-star show, I was totally into it," she says. "Today and Monday – like, blaagh. Like, doesn't get any worse. I've been doing this for four years! Why do I still have one-star shows? It's me – failure."

I ask her why she is so hard on herself. "My reaction to that is to say, 'Oh, another bad thing about myself is that I've allowed you to see that I'm hard on myself,'" she says. "The fact that you're seeing me sweat is like, 'Ah, well, I'm failing on that, too.'"

Maddow suffers, she says, from "cyclical" depression. "One of the manifestations of depression for me is that I lose my will. And I thereby lose my ability to focus. I don't think I'll ever have the day-to-day consistency in my performance that something like This American Life has. If I'm not depressed and I'm on and I can focus and I can think through something hard and without interruption and without existential emptiness that comes from depression, that gives me – not mania. But I exalt. I exalt in not being depressed."

Over dinner, Maddow keeps talking about her career as if its end might be imminent. She says she sometimes thinks, "This show could be the last one I ever do." I ask her why that anxiety seems so present for her. What would she be losing if she lost her show? Her response is immediate. "My freedom," she says.

Maddow grew up in Castro Valley, a middle-class town 15 miles south of Oakland. Her father, a former Air Force captain, worked as a lawyer for the local utility agency; her mother was a school administrator. The community was conservative, and Maddow's parents were devout Catholics. As a teenager, Maddow always felt like an outsider. "Rachel made one choice when she was 17, and it was a domino – it made all the other choices clear," says Jill McDonough, a close friend of Maddow's from their days at Stanford. The choice was to come out, in an interview in the college paper. "No one at Stanford was saying they were gay – there were no other out lesbians – and she saw that it was a lie," McDonough says. "The choice was, 'I'm not going to be a hypocrite. I'm going to have courage.'"

But courage had a cost. Someone clipped the interview when it ran and mailed it to her parents. Reading the Stanford Daily is how they found out their daughter was gay. "They took it poorly at first," Maddow has said.

This was 1990, during the most acute moment of the AIDS crisis. From Maddow's perspective, from within the activist movement, American power and authority looked particularly callous and twisted during the late Reagan era. "Never mentioning AIDS?" Maddow says. "I mean, he totally fucking blew it." When William F. Buckley showed up to speak at Stanford, drawing legions of conservatives in suits, Maddow helped organize a protest with signs that read, "Thank you for wearing a suit and tie in support of gay rights." When she won a Rhodes scholarship – the first out lesbian to ever have done so – Maddow was invited to give a speech to a local group that promoted women's leadership. She titled her speech "The difference between leadership and winning things."

What you see in Maddow's emerging activism is a conviction that establishment cred is not a golden ticket but an outsider's weapon. After college, she took on the cause of AIDS in prisons, where she encountered ordinary HIV-positive inmates who had come to play the role of prison doctor – "These were people who were not trained medical experts or scientists," she says, "becoming smarter and more well-versed on their own medical needs than the so-called experts." These self-educated specialists had mastered concepts that were "incredibly technical – not just medical information but biochemistry and organic chemistry! That, to me, has the same kind of 'don't patronize me, bro!' politics that I have. I felt like if I was ever going to be 'streamed' into anything, it was going to be that kind of countercultural stream. I never thought of it as an option to be streamed into the mainstream." She pauses for a moment. "And I really am now."

After Maddow finished her Rhodes scholarship, in the late Nineties, she moved to western Massachusetts. She thought she wouldn't like it much, and the lack of distractions would make it easier for her to finish her dissertation, on HIV in prisons. She worked part-time for an AIDS advocacy group, and her friends assumed she would eventually move to Washington and become a full-time activist. But she also did odd jobs for money – unloading trucks, landscaping – and eventually stumbled into a job as a morning news reader on a local radio station in Northampton. As the gig became a little bigger – she got to play her favorite music, Lucero and Radiohead, what McDonough calls "sad white-boy stuff" – she discovered that she liked it. "We were a tiny little market that only had tiny little news, but I liked being the person who made good sense on the air explaining that news," she says. "I liked the responsibility of providing information: news updates, snow-day school cancellations, weather reports, traffic snarls."

Maddow and Mikula met in 1999. On their first date, they went to an NRA event, which was only partly ironic: They both like to shoot firearms. ("Susan has the hand-eye coordination," Maddow says. "But I can't control my movements.") Shortly thereafter, they went for a stroll in a cemetery in western Massachusetts where they were both living, and at a moment of nearly transcendent silence and beauty, while they were looking serenely at 19th-century gravestones, Maddow took a gigantic pratfall. Mikula says that was the moment when she fell in love with Maddow.

After Maddow's show one evening, I go to dinner with Maddow and Mikula at a restaurant in Manhattan not far from Maddow's studio. They are, at the moment, more or less marooned in New York by ongoing renovations on their home in western Massachusetts, which they return to every weekend. Maddow seems less wound-up around Mikula, a 54-year-old artist with a hippie aspect and a big, willing laugh. Mikula accompanied Maddow on the book tour for Drift, her bestselling book on the national-security state, and what she noticed was that the people Maddow brought out of the closet were not gay kids but nerds. "You realize there are a lot more kids in the Model UN than you think," Mikula says. Adds Maddow, "There were all these moms who would come up to me and say, 'Do more "Moment of Geek" – my kid loves it!'"

Maddow experienced the early Bush years, in Northampton, as a kind of collective mania. The local firehouse got a homeland-security grant to buy a larger fire truck, in the name of national defense, and then it had to tear up the old firehouse, in which the new truck no longer fit, to build a new one. The town's water pump acquired a massive fence, to protect it from incursion. To Maddow this seemed evidence of a broad insanity. Many of the villains of Drift are the same as the villains of the AIDS epidemic – the men of the Reagan and Bush administrations, urged along by an oblivious and single-minded self-certainty. It took her two fraught years to finish the book – writing for television is short-lived, while the permanence of writing for the page triggered all her anxieties. But working on the book – a study of how small groups of elites in Washington helped bring about a full-scale militarization of American society – gave her a perspective on something deeper: how power can acquire an inertia of its own. "Whoever gets some now is better positioned to get more in the future," she says. "Might makes right."

One day in 2004, Shelley Lewis, an executive who was helping to form Air America, the now-failed progressive radio network, was passed a tape of Maddow's show. "She had this incredible brightness of being – this sort of joy," Lewis says. She called Maddow, who drove down from Massachusetts that afternoon. At first they put her on with the comedian Lizz Winstead and Public Enemy's Chuck D, and her absurdist humor meshed well with theirs. Eventually she got her own show – three hours on the air, everything out of her mouth, except for calls, scripted in advance. What Lewis noticed was not just the complexity of her politics but her instincts as a storyteller, the way in which a small detail might unfold over time to reveal worlds. Soon Maddow was doing guest spots on CNN, and a regular gig as an antagonist on Tucker Carlson's MSNBC show. It made her want to be a host. "The Tucker show made me pine for having a role in picking the topics," she says. "Story selection is half the battle, and more than half the fun."

When Maddow started to sub for Olbermann while he was on vacation, she maintained his ratings. In September 2008, she got her own program. "A huge part of her success," says Lewis, "is that she doesn't come out as angry."

It is a trait – one of many – that she shares with President Obama, the ex-community organizer, superstar scholar and ceiling-breaker. Like her, Obama is part of a tidal movement in American liberalism, in which genuinely outsider perspectives have begun to work their way into the mainstream. (Maddow's own identity as an activist, for example, is a big part of what earns her the trust of a television audience; a decade ago it would have disqualified her from having one.) What keeps Maddow from fully joining this migration is her instinctive skepticism toward power, her distaste for the kinds of compromises necessary to see your ideas become the establishment's. To Maddow, the difference between her and Obama is simple. "He's a centrist Democrat," she says. "I'm a liberal."

What Maddow insisted on, when she moved to MSNBC, was complete editorial freedom. Over the past four years, she has achieved a rare measure of control. Of the 44 noncommercial minutes that The Rachel Maddow Show is on the air, Maddow herself is speaking for 35 or so. When she has guests, they are often people whom she admires and with whom she agrees – while I am on set she hosts Paul Krugman, the foreign-policy wonk Steve Clemons and the journalist Steve Coll. When the program is clicking, the guests lead her deeper into a topic, adding their own expertise to her insights. But even in these exchanges, the format requires that the audience place a tremendous amount of trust in Maddow herself, that it defer to her authority. Most cable news shows offer a couple of viewpoints, and let you choose. Maddow generally presents only one, and it is hers.

"The cable-news model is that you want to create a fight," she says. "Because people will yell! And there will be exclamation points and things will be in ALL CAPS and people will watch! Having been the left-wing person booked to fight with the right-wing person in that Punch and Judy show, I'm not interested in re-creating that. If I've booked you, I feel like you've got something worth listening to. With conservative guests, that means you can't just be a random hack who's here to fight with me because I am who I am. You've got to bring something to it where even without sparks flying and even with it being civil, you're going to illuminate something that I can't."

If Maddow is the show's outsider who disdains the conventions of TV news, then her producer Bill Wolff is the insider, the man who understands them, even honors them. A TV lifer, Wolff spent years at ESPN, many of them as producer of the afternoon shoutfest Around the Horn; his claim to fame is that he invented the "mute" button, which a host uses to cut off guests when they get too obnoxious. In his office, Wolff nods at a muted screen overhead, where MSNBC's afternoon host Martin Bashir is trying to wind up a GOP flunky by calling Newt Gingrich a delusional narcissist. "Audiences love conflict," Wolff tells me. "Conflict sells. In cable news, it's about having people disagree. The audience sees it as a competition, and gets to declare victory. They have an emotional stake. And that's why it works."

While Maddow is on set, broadcasting the show, Wolff tends to stay upstairs in his office and monitor Twitter, to get a sense of how the show's fans are reacting. Maddow has built a base of admirers to the point where she now averages 1.2 million viewers a night, which is just over half of what Sean Hannity averages during the same time slot. Wolff believes that what her fans respond to most are not necessarily the biggest news stories of the day, but the moments when Maddow is defending rights: "voting rights, reproductive rights, women's rights, really any kind of rights." Viewers like to see Maddow on the attack: "People want to see the home team winning." Oftentimes, the home team is all they want to see. "If there's a Republican, you'll see all these tweets," Wolff says. "Get that Republican off my screen!"

Maddow says that it has become so hard to book conservative guests she worries that if she even calls a Republican senator to try to get him on the show it will become a news story – Maddow is taking Senator so-and-so on! "As time goes on and it gets worse and worse, I think about it less and less because it's not really a possibility," Maddow says.

I am with Wolff in the control room when Wednesday's show falls apart. The problem is a guest – a doctor from Mississippi who had been ousted from a state post because he'd worked with an abortion clinic. It's a perfect narrative for Maddow, an outsider battered by partisan politics, but on-air the doctor just deteriorates in front of her – struggling to tell his own story, his owlish face blinking in the lights, his point becoming more and more obscure. "Come on, girl, cut him off," Wolff murmurs at Maddow, looking at the monitor. "She won't cut him off. She's too nice." In the control room there is an audible deflation; you can almost hear viewers changing the channel.

On the Monday after the Meet the Press imbroglio, I sit in the studio as Maddow broadcasts her show. She races onto the set a minute or two before airtime; in between segments she is still editing scripts; under the desk you can see the sneakers and jeans she wears out of the camera's view. Maddow has, she says, the same relationship with her own body as a puppeteer does with a faulty marionette: "It's like I'm trying to operate a remote-control car with my left hand." Up close you see the straining physicality – with each word she is meant to emphasize, her upper body clenches and moves toward the camera, in a rigid plank. Her joy is ever-present on-air, but it is in part a performance, and you can see the exertion it requires.

It has been obvious, throughout the day, that she is still irritated by the previous day's run-in with Alex Castellanos. Now, on-air, she spends her opening essay exhaustively explaining to the audience why she was right. Out come the charts and graphs. "In 264 out of 265 major occupations, men are getting paid more," she points out. "Republicans, it turns out, do not believe this – and figuring that out makes a bunch of stuff make sense." She talks about the Republican opposition to the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, a new law that makes it easier to sue over gender discrimination in pay. Before the confrontation with Castellanos, she says, she had assumed that Republicans opposed the measure because they wanted to deny President Obama a victory. Now, she realizes, "Republicans literally do not believe this problem exists." Then she plays the tape of her exchange on Meet the Press.

Watching this, a few feet away, I begin to get a sense of what Maddow is trying to achieve, not just in this segment, but with her entire show. The reason for all the graphs and charts and evidence she presents is that these are the terms in which she understands politics. The show's real aim isn't to present the news, or even to explain it. It is in many ways an internally directed effort, pained and complicated, to answer a question whose particular subject shifts each day, but whose plaintive immediacy remains the same: What is it about this country that is making me angry? There are moments like this where you can see, just about, a sketch of an alternate, Maddow-ized model for television news – one in which the voices of outsiders and activists are given pride of place, in which explication trumps conflict, in which the media are invested in the idea of America but remain deeply skeptical of American power. And then, just as quickly as it takes shape, this vision recedes from view, and the anger turns inward once more.

"I see my job as making a TV show," Maddow says. "I fail at it – constantly. And that's all I can think about."

From The Archives Issue 1160: July 5, 2012
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