The Rachel Maddow Show has been the cornerstone of MSNBC’s primetime lineup ever since it debuted in the fall of 2008 — and its host is so beloved that even Bill O’Reilly, who rarely has a kind word to say about his competition, has voiced his respect. “Rachel Maddow does a good job,” O’Reilly said in 2014. “She is honest in her belief system. She doesn’t seem to want to lob personal attacks. She is sincere and honestly tries to convince people of her beliefs.” We sat down with Maddow in her office at Rockefeller Center early on a recent morning to discuss everything from her favorite music (would you believe country & western and Fugazi?) to her worst-case scenario for America if Donald Trump becomes our next president.
What are the best and worst parts of success?
The worst part is that people are inclined to say “yes” when you do not deserve it. People want to keep you pleased. That can eat away at your expectations for normal human interaction and turn you into a dick. The best part of success, in New York City, at least, is getting restaurant reservations. Having a job in television helps with that.
What was your favorite book as a kid, and what does it say about you?
I have it right here on my shelf: All the King’s Men, by Robert Penn Warren. It’s this great combination of politics and character, of lurid Southern Gothic and corruption and cravenness and human need. I read it every three or four years. My parents were great, but they were not touchy-feely about having kid-oriented things. I don’t think I had kids’ books.
Tell me the most conservative thing about you.
Probably my drinking habits. I am a rigorous curmudgeon when it comes to alcohol. All the mixed drinks and cocktails that anybody needs were pretty much settled a generation before I was born. There’s no reason to have, like, cordials made out of new flowers. There’s no reason to put bacon in your fucking bourbon.
What music moves you the most?
A wide range of things. Yesterday, my girlfriend was like, “What kind of a mood are you in today?” And I said, “Today, I am half Lyle Lovett’s Joshua Judges Ruth and half Fugazi’s 13 Songs.” Susan was like, “You’re gonna have a difficult day.” I listen to a lot of country and old-school melodic punk. I also listen to a lot more jazz than I used to – Hampton Hawes and Frank Morgan and Chet Baker.
What advice about the industry do you wish someone had told you when you started out?
I wasted time believing those who said I needed to be like others who were on TV. That was 180 degrees wrong. My advice would be, “Do what you can do best, and if what you can do best is something that is already being done really well, get a different job.”
You’ve been with your partner a long time. What has that taught you about relationships?
If you have a good relationship, you have to make it the most important thing in your life. The constant in my life is my relationship with Susan, and I feel like, if everything else in my life went away, I’d be OK.
“The worst part is that people are inclined to say ‘yes’ when you do not deserve it. People want to keep you pleased. That can eat away at your expectations for normal human interaction and turn you into a dick.”
What’s the best advice you ever got?
It’s from an underarm-deodorant ad in the 1980s: “Never let ’em see you sweat.” It’s my life motto. It’s my work-success mantra.
What’s your favorite city in the world?
San Francisco, which is where I’m from. It’s constrained on three sides by water and on the other side by graveyards, which means that you can’t have urban sprawl. And because it’s hilly, you end up having unexpected magic, like the fog in the morning becoming the hot sun in the afternoon. I always thought I would come back and make my life in the Bay Area. It didn’t work out that way, partly because of what I decided to do for a living, partly because the Bay Area got so expensive and so techy, which isn’t of very much interest to me.
What’s the worst part about working on live TV?
When we’re covering breaking news, I have to learn and understand the story at the same time I am explaining the story. I take the responsibility of what I say on TV very seriously, and it causes me a lot of anxiety to think I said something that wasn’t exactly right. Even just talking about it right now makes my heart hurt.
You maintain a pretty cheerful disposition on camera. Are you ever tempted to have your “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not gonna take it anymore” moment?
I’ve definitely shown anger on TV. I’m not a very good actor, so if I am angry, it shows. But I feel like self-indulgent displays of anger on television are best served in very small doses.
Are you disappointed in your country for making Trump one of the two major-party nominees for president?
I am fascinated in my country! [Laughs] There’s no mystery about Trump. I mean, there’s a little mystery as to why he wanted to do this. Have you seen those frustration moments for him on the trail: “I had a good life. Why am I doing this?” What is amazing is the Republican Party that picked him. They had 330 million people to choose from, and they’ve decided that he is the best one to be the standard-bearer of one of the two major parties of the greatest nation on Earth. Like, talk to me, Republican voters! What’s the worst-case scenario for America if he wins? It can be pretty bad. You don’t have to go back far in history to get to almost apocalyptic scenarios.
Is part of you worried we’re living through the first few chapters of some dystopian science fiction novel?
Over the past year I’ve been reading a lot about what it was like when Hitler first became chancellor. I am gravitating toward moments in history for subliminal reference in terms of cultures that have unexpectedly veered into dark places, because I think that’s possibly where we are.
Do you think people will be writing books about 2016 in 100 years? It feels like a true historic moment.
If there is a future to look back from, I imagine, yes.