The Inside Story from Rachel Maddow
Now in its 2nd week on the air, Rachel Maddow’s new MSNBC show, aptly titled The Rachel Maddow Show, managed to beat the CNN juggernaut Larry King Live in the ratings. As if this wasn’t impressive enough, according to Nielsen Media Research, Maddow has more than doubled MSNBC’s audience for its 9 p.m. EST timeslot, which was previously occupied by NBC’s chief legal correspondent Dan Abrams.
With her relentless lefty talk and enough charm to give Barack Obama a run for his money, Maddow has tackled tough issues and earned respect for lesbian politicos along the way. Her path to politics has been a long one. She was reportedly the first openly gay American Rhodes Scholar, and she landed in broadcast journalism on a bet. Now she’s making history as the first openly lesbian host of a prime time news show.
Curve spoke to the 35-year-old San Francisco Bay Area native back in May about what got her started in the world of politics, what it’s like to be a successful news commentator and what her goals were for the future.
What drew you to political commentary?
I went to Stanford [and] did not enjoy myself. One of the ways that I found my purpose…in an environment where I didn’t feel very welcome was to get involved in activism. I had become pretty involved in ACT UP.
Your interest is in AIDS activism and prison reform. As an out lesbian, why not choose the women’s rights route?
I get all sorts of credit for working on lesbian issues or women’s issues and even gay rights issues, none of which I do. People assume that’s what I do because of who I am. Most think that my doctoral thesis was on women in prison and it wasn’t at all [laughs]. When I graduated, the head of my department stood up and thanked me for my work on women’s rights and I didn’t do that at all. It’s weird.
Have you encountered any backlash, being an out lesbian in the current political environment?
Well, I’m sure that there are jobs I haven’t gotten because I’m gay. It’s like working in any workplace. There are assholes everywhere. I think what is different, as a pseudo-public figure in the media, putting myself out there and being out, is that it is the first refuge of scoundrels for attacks, that if I weren’t gay, [it] would be about me being ugly. If, for example, a clip of me on television ends up on a website, the pro comments on me are going to be really sweet, but the anti comments are going to be “That fucking dyke.” So rather than say “Well, I really disagree with her position on Mitt Romney and what he did,” [it’s] “That dyke, I can’t believe that she thinks she’s even qualified to talk about an upstanding man like Mitt Romney.” It shapes the character of the personal attacks.
Why are you a lefty?
What motivates me is much more pedestrian than what motivates most lefties. I’m really motivated by the Bill of Rights. I’m really motivated by equality and injustice issues. In today’s politics, that makes me a lefty. In 1960, that may not have made me a lefty. On some days, I kind of feel like an Eisenhower Republican, but there aren’t Eisenhower Republicans anymore. I believe in a public sector that works. That didn’t used to be a leftist idea. We got the interstate system from Eisenhower. I’m a GI Bill American—what does that make me? If someone proposed the GI Bill today, they would be run out of the country on a rail as a socialist. But when the GI Bill was proposed there wasn’t a big left wing versus right wing scandal. My politics have probably put me on the very far left of today’s spectrum, but I’m not identifying as a lefty and then looking for issues. I feel the issues and that puts me on the spectrum, fall where I may.
Do you have respect for any of the Republican pundits?
There is very little personal yada-yada that goes with the pundit world. Maybe other people get invited to parties.
No, and if I do, I don’t go. It’s really nice of Lou Dobbs to ask me to be on his show, but I don’t want to have dinner with him. Pat Buchanan has been professionally incredibly kind to me. That doesn’t mean Pat and I want to, you know...
I hear that Pat’s a nice guy actually.
Yeah, he’s kind. You know, Monica Crowley, who’s politically one of the most toxic people, is incredibly personally generous and I feel like I have an affable relationship with her. But does that translate into respect for what they are trying to do for the country? No. Pat Buchanan is nice to me, but I think we would be maybe better off if he wasn’t doing what he’s doing.
There’s been talk that you might be replacing Tucker Carlson. Is there any truth to those rumors?
I should say first of all that those rumors are wildly exaggerated. I have not shot a pilot with MSNBC, contrary to popular belief. I’ve been trying to break that news on my radio show but apparently it’s not working, so you can break it in CURVE if you want.
It might be one of those Maddow fans, you never know.
The funny thing is that the rumor came from this inside source in cable news, and it was really wrong. I haven’t shot a pilot with them—I am in talks with them. I’ve been in talks with other networks in the past and my experience…is that you talk to them for two years and then they forget about you, and then a year later they discover you and are very excited to talk to you again. Trying to get a TV show is like trying to get hit by lightning…it’s not something that you make plans for, really. So yeah, that would be great, but rumors of my spectacular success are exaggerated. Tucker, again, is one of these guys who has been incredibly personally kind to me, and professionally generous to me in that he and his executive producer [Bill Wolff] put me on that show knowing from the very beginning that Tucker and I were going to fight every single day, and that I was going to give him a really good run for his money and sometimes beat him. You make a move like that from a position of strength and a position of a lack of insecurity, not only about your views but also about your presentation. I think Tucker deserves a lot of credit for that—long may he live and prosper.
I’m sorry he dropped the bowtie, personally.
Yeah, I think it was kind of hot.
Yeah, with his wavy hair.
It was a kind of nerd-core thing, and I think he should have stuck with it.…But the thing about Tucker is that he’s one of those people who is good looking on TV, but in person he is a total hunk. In person, he is 10 times better looking than he is on TV. He should do something where people can see him live more, because TV flattened him out or something, but in person he’s like an Abercrombie model.
He’s very cute on TV, so it’s interesting to hear that TV doesn’t really do him justice.
Nobody believes it. The other thing is that since people don’t like his politics they think he must be personally odious. But, no actually, he’s a total charmer. He is polite to his staff, his staff like him, people enjoy working with him, [and] he bent over backwards to be kind to my girlfriend and my family when they were excited about me being on that show.
How would you gauge the current political climate? Are we ready for a woman president or an African American president, or are we going to stick with the white guys for now?
I can’t imagine any of the people who are running for president now actually being president. Can you?
Is there anyone you’re rooting for?
I am agnostic when it comes to my personal preferences for the Democratic candidates at this point. I feel like the Democrats have a really good field. The Republicans have honestly—and I know that this is going to sound partisan—the Republicans have a real problem. They have a really bad field…I keep going back to my conspiracy theory that they’re going to kill Cheney or medically retire Cheney before the end of his term and they’re going to bring Jeb in from Florida to replace him and the Senate will approve him because he is the president’s brother and there’s been this sad tragedy about Dick Cheney and then some whoopdeedoo constitutional loophole and he’ll run as an incumbent. I’ve been saying that for a year and a half and clearly that is not going to happen but that’s still the thing that sounds most realistic to me.
I almost passed out from hearing that, really. I heard that during the 2004 election that they would try and replace Cheney, but I haven’t heard that in the past year. So it’s interesting for me to hear you say that.
If you think about mafia valets who created George Bush out of dust and made him into the puppet president that he is—he was just DUI moocher baseball team owner during the steroid-abuse era. He was a presidential child. Presidential children are like reality show material. I can’t believe that the same people who would create Bush would just let it go.
I know you’ve been with your girlfriend for a while. How does her being an artist affect your outlook and views? Or are they completely separate?
We talk about politics and world affairs all the time. She definitely teaches me more than I teach her in terms of understanding the world and taking a non-standard perspective. She is outside the weird pundit media chamber that I find myself in. She has a perspective on politics that is broader and deeper than mine. More than that, she cares about things other than politics, and I am kind of politics obsessed…my other interests are like drinking and comic books. [I’m] like a first grader. She’s got adult interests that aren’t politics, and so I do not deserve her.
What are your long-term goals? You’re on such an incredible path. Do you see yourself just paving the way forward, or moving in other directions?
Well, that’s a hard question to answer. What I’ll be doing when I’m 50, I don’t know. When I’m 40, which is [seven] years from now, I would like to be doing the same kind of radio show that I’m doing now, but I’d like it to be on 1,000 stations…I don’t have a TV, and I don’t watch TV, so my interest in work where people can see me talk…is that it would be an additional means of reaching people and being influential. My experience with TV thus far is that I don’t get to pick what I talk about and that’s a drag. Then again, I’m always being booked on somebody else’s show to comment on something. I would love in two, three, four, five or six years to be doing something in a medium other than radio or television or whatever we’ve got, where I get to control what I talk about, I get editorial control and I get to make the decisions on what counts as news. And that’s really hard to get, especially when you’re an out, commie dyke.
And when you’re running around a golf course naked. I actually have one more question but it’s only going to take you one word to answer it, and you can’t use ugh as your answer. It’s been in the news, it’s a little old, but can you give me a one word comment on the press secretary’s—Perino’s—lack of knowledge of the Cuban Missile Crisis?
A one word answer, huh? My general comment on Dana Perino whether it’s the CMC or whether it’s a privileged to be allowed into the White House press room, or it’s I’ve been told I can’t talk about that. My one word explanation for Dana Perino is “stunning.”
Wow, that’s a surprising answer.
Yeah, I call her the White House spokesmodel. Her talents were evident before the briefing started.