When Left is Right

Rachel Maddow always thought she was an outsider. How did she become a star?

“Can you believe that sellout, Barack Obama?” says Rachel Maddow, looking around the room. “Let’s hit him from the left!” It’s 1:30 p.m. on Nov. 5, and the six-foot-tall Maddow, wearing her trademark baggy 501 jeans and thick-soled sneakers, has just burst into her staff meeting in a small office at 30 Rockefeller Plaza, home of MSNBC. Her team of political junkies, mostly in their 20s and 30s, perk up, laugh and start talking about how Obama is looking at hiring former Clinton staffers. “Yes!” Maddow responds, beaming. “He’s already triangulating, the bastard.” It’s the day after the election, and Maddow has had two hours of “drunk sleep.” Just a few minutes before, her intense executive producer, Bill Wolff, was giving the staff a pep talk, and a warning: don’t get too cynical too soon. They may be feeling “tired and cranky” because they were up late working and drinking, but “the country is still aglow,” he says. “Holy s–––, Barack Obama is president of the United States. People are almost universally feeling quite proud and quite moved by it and I don’t think we want to be too fast to speed away from that.” When Maddow arrives, she energizes the room. She flops to the floor, alternately lying on her back, throwing a small foam basketball in the air and kneeling to scribble in a notebook. Her ideas are all tough-minded: Who will be in the new cabinet? Who are the Republican bosses now? How will Bush handle his “lameduckitude”?
But Maddow’s Obama joke prompts an interesting question: how does a liberal, left-leaning “Rachel Maddow Show” behave when a left-leaning president is elected? Her extraordinarily quick success has been due at least in part to the fervor and passion this presidential campaign inspired. Since the show debuted on Sept. 8, she has more than doubled the ratings of her predecessor, Dan Abrams, with 1.9 million average total viewers, and she’s beaten CNN’s Larry King 27 out of 44 nights among viewers 25 to 54.
All the ensuing hype and excitement about Maddow’s rapid rise, and her quirks—the smart, self-described “butch dyke” who somehow broke into the cable-news boys’ club—has masked the true reason for her success. It’s not despite her differences from other talking heads, but because of them. A funny, cerebral and likable young woman who reads graphic novels and hungers for political change is more representative of the times than the older, angrier male pundits who’ve dominated the debate for so long. Maddow is not angry—her fans find her adorable, often confessing to crushes on her—but she is anxious, driven and determined. She did not stumble into a boys’ club. She elbowed her way in, smiling.

Maddow seems to have genuinely charmed younger viewers, a Twitter-savvy, podcasting generation that has hankered for someone more like them and delights in her use of “duh,” her obvious intelligence and authenticity, and her ability to be both idealistic and skeptical about politics. She eschews vanity and insists she won’t stop dressing “like a 13-year-old boy” when she can.

Maddow shrugs off any suggestion that her show will grow stale once Obama is sworn in. There’s plenty of news to report—and America still has a president, albeit a different one, to keep accountable. While she is intensely patriotic, she is not starry-eyed about politicians. The first time she interviewed Obama, she found him “monotone, literally and figuratively,” she said, but added that when you’re a “policy guy, sometimes you give people more detail than they want.” She “misted up” when he won, but claims she would have done the same if McCain had: “I get moved by momentous occasions.” But Maddow says she has grown up in a generation that has no idols. When her mother, Elaine, was pregnant with Maddow, she whiled away hours in front of the Watergate hearings on TV. “If you’re 35, you don’t have heroes,” Maddow says. “Watergate and Vietnam sort of killed heroism. I’m a 30-something idealist. But … ultimately the basic idea is that you have to live a life worth living.”
The greatest media-created cliché about Maddow has been that her “meteoric rise” has been almost accidental, that the truck-driving, yard-clearing, erstwhile activist became an “unlikely” star once the MSNBC heads recognized her potential. That’s clearly a fiction. Her résumé is impressive: she studied public policy at Stanford before winning a Rhodes scholarship to undertake a Ph.D. in political science. While completing her thesis, Maddow worked odd jobs—unloading trucks, landscaping, stamping coffee packets—before entering a competition on local radio. She was offered a job that day. In 2004, she got her own show on Air America, which still airs nightly. Before long, the cable-TV networks anointed her as one of their favorite leftist pundits, and not long after that, MSNBC star Keith Olbermann pressured his bosses to give Maddow her own show. Maddow’s partner, artist Susan Mikula, believes the “unlikely” label is just code for lesbian: “She goes from Stanford to Oxford to activism to radio, then TV? What’s so unusual about that? Is it because she is a gay lady?”

The times have suited her as well. Not only did her show launch in an electrifying election period, but it was also a moment when “the repressed political fervor” of the left had erupted, says Olbermann, who has also both benefited from and symbolized this mood. In this climate, MSNBC’s commentary moved left, and now is often criticized for presenting a liberal alternative to the sharply partisan Fox. But Ariana Huffington, founder of The Huffington Post (and Maddow’s fill-in host last week) says it is wrong to think of Maddow as a liberal riposte to Fox. “People were surprised by her success because they saw her as an anomaly, but she is the opposite. She has tapped into a zeitgeist where what was considered to be left wing is now mainstream.” Like Obama, “she is representing the center.” Or at least the center in Huffington’s world view.

Not everyone is gushing about Maddow. While she has long had the reputation of being the liberal whom conservatives like, some now say she’s biased and theatrical. David Frum, a former speechwriter for George W. Bush, had never seen the show before he was invited on to talk about nasty politicking in the GOP, and he says he was horrified by Maddow’s tone. When he went on air he slammed the show as part of the problem, with its “heavy sarcasm and sneering disregard for a lot of substantive issues that are really important.” She fought back, challenging the idea that making jokes on a news show could be morally equivalent to calling out “terrorist” at a rally. He told NEWSWEEK that while he considered Maddow to be an “unusually thoughtful and intelligent person,” her show was one of many on cable TV that turned politics into a circus.

Criticism is what you get when you make it, when you move from outsider to club member—exactly the kind of progression Maddow has resisted for much of her life. At Stanford, she railed against the “homogeneity” of the student culture and wrote a thesis dissecting what happened to AIDS sufferers when they moved from “other” to “one of us.” She did the same at Oxford, moving off campus in her first year into a London squat. She relishes her difference, calls herself a dork and goes along with her portrayal as the unlikely candidate, telling one journalist, “You can always cast yourself as unlikely when you’re fundamentally alienated in your world view.” The reason she and Mikula stay happily unmarried, says Mikula, is because “we both have a real fondness for the outsider part of our gay culture.”

So what happens when the outsider is leading the pack? When the disgruntled left becomes the sober, powerful mainstream? How disgruntled is Maddow, anyway? Does her joviality mask a deep partisan fury? Or is she motivated more by a “pure flame of public service,” as Olbermann puts it? At a midnight dinner at a bar in downtown Manhattan, over a meal of fish and red wine, she admits, uncomfortably, that she is driven by fear of failure: “It’s very boring and sad. I want to convince myself that my existence matters.” She says she is not an angry person—just emotional. “I get teary a lot,” she says cheerfully, pulling one of the handkerchiefs she carries with her at all times out of her pocket and pointing out the bubble pattern on it. She believes in ghosts and is “knock on wood” superstitious. She is also anxious, often lying awake worrying about America’s need for improved infrastructure and national security.
For Maddow, the job never really stops. She regularly works 16-hour days, only eating once she has finished. She often has just one large meal at 2 a.m., purchased from street vendors. Wolff says she “simply wants to be excellent.” Phil Griffin, the head of MSNBC, attributes her success to a certain “magic,” and to her application: “She comes in every day and studies for eight hours. I think one of the biggest mistakes that people make when they come in to television and cable news, which is a really intense, competitive area, is to not work hard. This is not for the soft of heart. It’s intense.”

Maddow’s achievements do not always come easily. What only those close to her know is that she has suffered from cyclical depression since puberty that, she says, you can set your watch by. At her lowest points, she loses her sense of smell: “It’s a warning sign that like, ‘Oh, I’m not going to be able to live with myself for the next 48 hours’. It’s weird.”

Maddow was, according to her parents, a curious, serious child who never spoke baby talk. When her mother, Elaine, would walk into the kitchen to prepare breakfast, the 4-year-old Rachel would be perched on a stool, with her nightgown and bed socks on, reading the newspaper. Maddow remembers when she was 7, standing in front of their black-and-white television during the 1980 election and loathing Ronald Reagan, although she is not sure why now: “All I remember is the feeling of dislike,” she says, laughing. “Maybe I have reverse-engineered it into my memory.” As a teenager, her dreams revolved around basketball, swimming and volleyball—she wanted to be an Olympic athlete until a serious injury dashed her hopes. She was a fierce performer who insisted on playing through injuries and amassed a collection of crutches of varying heights. When she wanted to learn to ride a bicycle without training wheels, she circled the streets day and night. Her father, Bob, says it took one weekend. Her success has delighted, but not surprised, her parents. At least not in the way her sexuality did.

When Maddow came out as a lesbian at 17, she announced it by putting up posters in the bathroom of her freshman dorm at Stanford, a place she had found to be surprisingly homophobic. It was January 1991, and on the posters she made a sarcastic reference to the first Gulf war, which was just beginning, then suddenly she declared she was gay (the implication: deal with it). “I didn’t want any drama,” she says. “I didn’t want any personal touchy-feely BS from anybody. I just wanted to get it over, and make a joke about it, and move on. It was such an obnoxious thing to do when I think about it. Why did I think anybody in my freshman dorm would care? I was 90 percent attitude.”

Someone else cared: her parents, whom she hadn’t yet told. When an article about her outing ran in the student newspaper, someone mailed it to them anonymously. They were shocked. Elaine said it was difficult “intellectually, as well as emotionally,” because she was brought up as a strict Roman Catholic. As parents, they were protective: “It was worrisome because of the idea she would encounter prejudice and bias in her life—and I am sure she has. Life is hard enough without having to deal with a lot of prejudices,” Elaine said. “We worked it through somehow. We just want her to be safe.”

Today, the most important thing in Maddow’s life is Mikula, 50, her partner for the past 10 years. They met when Mikula—who is warm, friendly and curvaceous, with vivid green eyes and blond hair—needed a yard boy. Mutual friends recommended Maddow, who was then cleaning out buckets at a coffee-bean factory. When Mikula opened the door of her house near Northampton, Mass., Maddow fell in love instantly: “It was irrational and spiritual and unexpected, and there was a moment where it was like time stopped and it was just like, OK, my whole life is different now.” Their first date was at a shooting range—they fired muskets, pistols and rifles and threw tomahawks. Mikula says Maddow was so “unbelievable” with the AR-15 that people stopped to watch. Today, the couple live in Mikula’s house with their Labrador, Poppy, and Maddow commutes, spending weeknights in Manhattan. She says their relationship “is the thing about which I am most proud and most protective. And if it made sense for my relationship with Susan that I needed to stop being on TV, and stop being on the radio, and go live full time in the Upper Peninsula in Michigan and raise chickens, we’d go live in the Upper Peninsula and raise chickens. It’s the single clearest thing in my life.”

Recently, Mikula, who is also an accountant, has been struggling with whether to become a full-time artist. She was up late a few days ago, talking to Maddow on the phone about her anxieties and fears. Maddow listened, then said: “It’s not about any of that. It’s about the fable you want to write about your own life.”

Maddow has her own fable. On Nov. 5, when the clock clicks 9 p.m. and “The Rachel Maddow Show” begins, her “tired and cranky staff” has either gone home or settled into their seats in the control room to monitor the broadcast. A calm and focused Maddow is made up and wearing one of her identical pantsuits (she refuses to say who the designer is for fear of “insulting them”). As an interview closes, she turns to a camera in the chilly, large, red-white-and-blue-splashed studio she broadcasts from and looks directly into the lens. This election, she says with a grin, has destroyed many archaic ideas. There is triumph in her voice: “The idea that America is too flawed, too scarred by racism to elect a black president? That idea is over. When Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran said back in April that neither a woman nor a black man could ever get elected in a country like this? How satisfying is it to prove that guy wrong? The idea that liberals can’t succeed on television? That’s over. Yes, we can.” It’s a fable for a new age.