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Rachel Maddow's Quiet War

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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!"

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