It's deceptively quiet at 9 o'clock on a weeknight in the MSNBC studio at New York City's Rockefeller Center. Shoulder-to-shoulder workstations rest on a rat maze of tables, and a smiling jack-o'-lantern sits atop the first desk at the door -- an indication that this might not be a typically staid newsroom. At the far end of the floor is a small show set, where Rachel Maddow is typing at breakneck speed during a commercial break, keeping up with the constantly altering face of the U.S. political scene even as her live show is on the air.
"Change" has been the promise of this year's historic election, but in this small studio a big change has already taken place. MSNBC took a risk in giving a prime-time news show to Maddow, the host of an eponymous radio show on Air America; how would an unapologetically far left-leaning lesbian do with her own news show? The answer came when, her second week on the air, Maddow beat the ratings suspenders right off the mighty Larry King, topping King both in total viewers and in the 25-54 demographic. And in less than two months, MSNBC's ratings during her time slot spiked from an average viewership of 800,000 to 1.7 million.
"I am a proxy for everyone I know," Maddow says to New York Times columnist Paul Krugman as she looks for some sign of hope about the country's financial free fall during that night's "Talk Me Down" segment. (Things being what they are, even Nobel laureate Krugman is unable to help.) Her offhand statement sums up a large part of Maddow's sudden, intense appeal: To her viewers, she's a peer. Other pundits are white men as angry as the angry white men they grill; most political analysts seem detached from what's happening around them. Maddow clearly knows what she's talking about, but she speaks plainly, with the familiar pop-culture dialect used in real-people discussions at the bar; she described the presidential debates as "non sequitur-y" and used the jack-o'-lantern to illustrate the economy's collapse by comparing Lehman Bros. bigwigs to kids who gorge themselves sick on Halloween candy. When exposing the rhetoric and outright lies of politicians, she ditches courtroom-style accusations for barely contained mirth. She's sarcastic, but not bitingly so, and everyone is in on the joke--even those from whom she's gleefully demanding honesty. Whether by nature or keen observation, she's broken from both the holier-than-thou and gloom-and-doom approaches to punditry and offers something different: truth, with a twist. She's now the go-to gal for people too embarrassed to admit they were getting much of their news from Jon Stewart.
Even more exciting than having achieved this level of success as an out lesbian is the fact that her intelligence, wit, and fresh take on politics have overshadowed the fact that she's an out lesbian.
"Finally! Me being on television and being out is not a cover story in the mainstream news," Maddow says after the show wraps and she heads to her office. There, she performs a fascinating transformation. First she switches from one of her tasteful, understated on-camera suits back into her off-duty uniform of baggy jeans, sneakers, a T-shirt, and a track jacket. (Actually, she undressed in the ladies' room, explaining, "I was in my office, and I looked out the window and saw some guy changing his shirt in his office. And I thought, Hey, if I can see you...") Then she makes a beeline for the makeup room, where she takes out five-week-old contact lenses -- "I've been too busy to get new ones" -- and smears goo all over her eyes, creating huge blue-gray eye-shadow circles that look like cartoon shiners. After it all gets wiped off with a tissue, the horn-rimmed glasses go on and -- ta-da! -- Lois Lane has morphed into Clark Kent.
Since becoming a "10-year overnight sensation," as Maddow describes herself, she's had to mix business with dinner, talking to the press about her program every night after the show wraps. "The trick is to find someplace that has decent food at 11 o'clock, good drinks -- I'm a big fan of old-man bars -- and is quiet enough to talk," she says. Toward that end, she's become a somewhat incongruous regular at the Waldorf Astoria's Bull and Bear steakhouse. "You go in first," she says, "because you're dressed nicely, and I look like your nerdy cousin."
There, over a perfectly made old-fashioned, Maddow -- out, proud, and unafraid to go head-to-talking-head with far-right Republican Pat Buchanan -- shows the first sign of not being completely at home in the spotlight. "I feel lucky to have all this attention and all of these people wanting to talk to me about what I'm doing," she says. "The only hesitation I have is that I'm not interested in media about media. I feel like I sometimes struggle to be interesting in talking about how I got here."
Oh, please, it's a pretty interesting story. Maddow, 35, grew up in the San Francisco Bay area, the daughter of Elaine, a Canadian-born naturalized U.S. citizen, and Bob, an attorney who served as an Air Force captain in Vietnam; she has a 39-year-old brother named David. She realized she was a lesbian as a teenager, during a time when San Francisco's gay population was being annihilated by AIDS, and felt compelled to join ACT UP. Later, as a Rhodes scholar, she wrote p her doctoral dissertation on how HIV could be controlled in prison populations. She came out to her parents when she was 17--by accident.
"The student paper at my college wanted to do a story about the fact that there were only two people who were out in our freshman class of 1,600 at this supposedly very liberal school [Stanford University]. I did the interview, but I asked the editors to please not run the article for a week because I was going home to tell my family. But they went ahead and ran it, and I believe it was my freshman adviser who mailed the story to my parents anonymously," she says with a sigh. "Reading an article that's sent in the mail is a bad way to come out to your parents. They were heartbroken. Devastated. And furious. What an insult, to have your kid out in the school paper but not to you! My parents are very Catholic--my mom has siblings who are nuns, and my father converted as an adult. But fast-forward to now, and everything's great. My parents love my partner, Susan, and talk to her every day, and Susan's mother watches my show; she was the one who said I shouldn't wear that loud red shirt thing I had on under my blazer."
There've been a number of milestones since that uncalculated coming-out in 1990. While doing odd jobs post-college, Maddow was hired to do yard work by Susan Mikula, a photographic artist who became Maddow's partner soon after they met; they've now been together almost 10 years. Another was going to an open call for DJs at a radio station in Northampton, Mass., and landing her own radio show. A few years later, Maddow did some highly ambitious finagling to get herself a slot on Air America. From there, she became a panelist on MSNBC's The Situation With Tucker Carlson and Race for the White House With David Gregory. Her appearances on Countdown With Keith Olbermann led to frequent guest-hosting gigs, including a two-week stretch when Olbermann went on vacation. MSNBC executives quickly -- and wisely -- surmised that they could build a show around this witty woman who had an incredible capacity to slice through rhetoric as though she knew what her often politically contentious guests were going to say before they even thought of saying it.
"That's just fear," Maddow says, referring to her full days of research for her radio and TV shows. "I'm motivated in every half second of every minute of every hour of every day by fear of failure, which causes me to do extra reading and preparation." This is also her favorite part of her job. "For hours and hours, I read online, print, lay out the papers on the floor, and build them into some sort of crazy temple. Then there's the matter of consolidating, organizing, and laying out the shows," she says. "I love it; it's exciting in a totally unironic, noncynical way."
Doing this amount of groundwork, a daily live radio show and a nightly live TV show, and post-show interviews while eating steak and tomatoes at the Bull and Bear doesn't leave much downtime. Maddow and Mikula commute back and forth to their home in Massachusetts, where Maddow sleeps the weekends away to catch up on long weeknights -- though, in her spare time, she's also writing a book about the changing role of the U.S. military. "Over the past generation or so, our armed forces have started to be used in much different ways in terms of us getting what we want," she says. "It's been seen as a matter that's within the mythical foreign-policy consensus, and it hasn't been subject to the ideological critique that it needs to be. If there was ever a time for partisanship, it's on this issue. In a lot of cases we get smarter about things through deliberation and debate, and there isn't public, political conflict on the issue of military affairs. There ought to be, though, because we need to be conscious about what we're doing."
For most writers, the biggest obstacle to finishing a book is procrastination; for Maddow, it's popularity. The following Wednesday, after a workday that stretched past midnight, she was up before dawn for a 6 a.m. call time at the Today show. Next on her agenda--and it's only 8 a.m.--is a photo shoot, which Maddow seems about as comfortable with as she is talking about her rise to pundit rock stardom. While trying on various outfits, she stands as stiffly as an 8-year-old being fitted for an itchy wool suit ("I feel like I'm stuffed in a tamale casing--which would make me pork"), and she lets out a small cry of terror when the eyelash curler comes near. To distract her, the makeup artist says he has a friend who loves Maddow so much that she wanted to crash the photo shoot.
"Oh, then we have to concoct a great story," Maddow offers gleefully. " 'Rachel Maddow showed up in this weird trench coat, with seven dogs. And the hair? It's a wig.' " She also takes out her wallet to show the crew a photo that she says she looks at when she's depressed. It's not of her partner or their dog; it's...John McCain? "Look at his tie," Maddow says, pointing out a clown-length cravat. "How did he even do that? It's genius!"
Afterward, she's tired and wiping furiously at her face again to get the morning's makeup off, but on the way to Air America for the start of the day's work, Maddow is suddenly humbled by her own life. "These three jobs, my relationship, and the connection I have with my family and Susan's family are everything I want," she says. "And wouldn't it be great if I got to keep doing the radio and the TV shows, and if I found time to write the book, and they were all good? I'd just like to have a slightly easier life with all the things that I have now."
That's probably not going to happen anytime soon. Not only is Maddow in demand for being a sign of positive change, but she's dedicated to being an agitator for truth. "I'm trying to make an uproar," she says. "I'm at least trying to make jokes. If you talk about something in a funny way, people think about it.
This issue of The Advocate went to the printer before November 4, but we couldn't talk with Rachel Maddow without getting her take on a potential Obama or McCain presidency. Here's what she had to say:
THE ELECTION OUTCOME"People said, 'Oh, won't you be disappointed if John McCain loses? You won't have anybody to rail against anymore.' OK, because idiocy will die? And those wars-- Puff the Magic Dragon will come in and everything will be fine! If you're a policy liberal instead of a partisan liberal, there's no reason to expect life to be any different after the election than it is now."
JOHN McCAIN & BARACK OBAMA"They're both very skilled politicians. Part of being a politician is getting your way in legislation, another part is communicating ideas about the country and its values, and another is winning things. Both McCain and Obama have shown facility with each of those, but they're pretty different if you want to rank them. John McCain is pretty good at talking about ideas. Barack Obama is great at talking about ideas. Obama has proven to be better at winning elections than McCain, who hasn't had too many tough electoral fights in his career. If you had to balance them against each other in legislation, Obama's better in terms of what he tried for and what he got than McCain. But being a president isn't being a legislator, so... I don't get attached to candidates, so I don't have very romantic ideas about any of them."
JOE BIDEN"Joe Biden is one of the few big-name politicians I've actually spent some time with. Through talk radio I ended up doing a one-on-one stage interview with him in front of a room full of people for an hour. I tried to gotcha him a little bit, and the way he responded was really smart and confident and what you want a politician to do. He was like, 'Ah, I understand why you're asking me this. I am not going to play this game. This is what I think you're getting at, and let me reassure you about what led to you wanting to gotcha me.' I thought, Oh, excellent, you have a facility with language and oral comprehension! That's important. I can imagine you telling Milosevic off. He's also almost disarmingly warm -- he's a hugger. I'm not, so...you can interpret that in a gross way or a cute way."
SARAH PALIN"[Sarah Palin's], uh...very entertaining. She doesn't seem to have been much of a doer, even as mayor, let alone as governor. Like George Bush, she's much more of a campaigner than a governor."