Out political commentator Rachel Maddow is flying high as the
newest sensation in cable news talk. And if it seems like you can’t
talk her down, that’s because she’s already well grounded.
Just days into her new role as host of her own primetime news and
commentary program on MSNBC, Rachel Maddow considers the whirlwind of
the first week in an intensified spotlight.
“It’s been fun,” says Maddow, speaking with AfterEllen.com by
telephone from the Manhattan office of Air America Radio, where she
turns in an evening host shift before heading to her primetime anchor’s
chair at MSNBC. “Busy and long days, and a lot of anxiety. But actually
doing the show, actually being on TV, thus far, has been a hoot.”
That homespun assessment reflects the well regarded charms of
Maddow. Strikingly intelligent, disarmingly polite and endearingly
self-deprecating, she almost sounds like someone who just happened to
step into a meteoric trajectory as the breakout media star during this
once-in-our-lifetimes political campaign season.
Starting this past spring, Maddow, 35, has ascended from a spot as occasional fill-in host for MSNBC’s Countdown with Keith Olbermann to headlining her own hour-long program, The Rachel Maddow Show,
on the bad-boyish cable news channel that’s also home to Chris
Matthews. Since her show premiered on September 8 in the critical 9
p.m. time slot, it has been drawing strong ratings, particularly among
the coveted 25-54 year-old demographic.
Not bad for someone who says she “stumbled” into broadcasting when
friends encouraged her to audition for a radio station contest in
western Massachusetts about a decade ago. These days, she splits her
time between the Bay State and the Big Apple with her long-term
partner, artist Susan Mikula.
Though the California native may not have foreseen her current
profession in her Stanford application essay, or her studies at Oxford
as the first openly gay American Rhodes Scholar, how does she classify
her role, particularly in an era when the word “change” seems as
popular among journalists as it is among aspiring presidents?
“Uh, I don’t know,” she says in a mock dopey voice, which indicates that she full well knows the answer.
“I think of myself as a broadcaster,” Maddow says. “When I have to
write my occupation, that’s always what I put down. I make media. But I
happen to make it about the news. And I happen to be a regular person
who is happy to tell you what my thoughts are on the news that I’m
bringing you. You can call that a pundit. You can call that a
newsperson. You can call that a news anchor. I don’t know. I just think
of myself as me.”
Whatever you call it, with no shortage of global calamities spawned
by human folly, Maddow is emerging as a pitch-perfect voice in these
cursedly interesting times. Part tenure-track professor, part concerned
citizen, she appears, above all, like her generation’s best sketch of a
patriot. While wielding left-leaning political views, she impresses as
someone who values the civic enlightenment of her viewers above
Witness her civil exchanges with the conservative commentator Pat
Buchanan, whom she calls “my fake uncle” in the new “It’s Pat” segment,
alluding to the early 90s Saturday Night Live skit about an
androgynous character. Buchanan, who in that same era clamored for a
Republican culture war against gay people, spars regularly with the
openly lesbian commentator, without acrimony.
The same spirit of good sportswomanship and sheer delight of
argument pervades the nightly “Talk Me Down” segment, in which guests
of varying political persuasions attempt to counter Maddow’s emotional
reaction to an issue like offshore oil drilling, or the bailout of the
“I don’t get mad because somebody has a different perspective than
me,” she explains. “I get mad at people who are screwing things up in
the country, and screwing things up in the world. But if you disagree
with me about even serious issues, and you’re willing to debate them
with me in a civil way without being insulting, I’m going to enjoy that
If she sounds like an ideal elected official, voters, please note
that Maddow is not interested in a write-in candidacy on November 4.
She brims with enthusiasm and appreciation for her current gig, and
sounds convinced, if not downright humbled, that she is the luckiest
person in the world.
“I have a really, really, really good job,” she says. “I get paid to
talk about the news, and talk about politics. A lot of us talk about
the news and politics all the time, or think about it all the time, and
don’t get paid to do it. I feel very lucky to be employed in this job,
with these platforms, at this time.”