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Rachel Maddow's Quiet War

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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."

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