08.24.10

Rachel's Accidental War

She didn’t want to talk about the mosque. But Fox baited her into it. The MSBNC host banters with Lloyd Grove about “fake” news, wearing glasses on air, and whether she wants to get married.

She didn’t want to talk about the mosque. But Fox baited her into it. The MSNBC host banters with Lloyd Grove about “fake” news, wearing glasses on air, and whether she wants to get married.

For a cable news host intent on luring eyeballs to her prime-time show, Rachel Maddow aspires to an impossibly high standard. Her contrarian production values—athwart competing outlets dominated by ranting heads, cheeseball populism, and celebrity bathos—are civility and good taste.

Until Monday night, when she could no longer resist the barbarian hordes, she’d banned the so-called ground zero mosque controversy from her 9 p.m. program, notwithstanding that it has been Topic A for the past couple of weeks in nearly every other day part of her second-place network, MSNBC.

“I have been talking for awhile about the Fox strategy of scaring white people in order to score political points and benefit conservative politicians,” Maddow says.

"I’d rather not cover it,” she tells me, never mind that President Obama has entered the fray. “It’s just one of those fake, non-controversial things that has been ginned up into a controversy for a political purpose. Participating in the discussion of this, as a political matter, is playing right into the hands of the people who ginned this up.” (By “the people who ginned this up,” she means Fox News and its allies—about which more in a moment.) “Adding to the volume—in both senses of the word—of the coverage, um, grosses me out a little bit,” she says.

The 37-year-old Maddow—who launched her eponymous program barely two years ago—has become a monster star at MSNBC, where she’s occasionally the network’s highest-rated personality and regularly beats CNN’s once-dominant Larry King. Her audience approaches a million viewers—nowhere near Sean Hannity’s, to be sure, but still a big number in the cable universe.

No wonder she has been invited to the White House more than once for off-the-record lunches with the president, and is the object of frequent high-level care and feeding. She recently did her show from Afghanistan, where she braved broiling heat to puzzle over the wisdom of the U.S. military escalation (it depends, she concluded), and Iraq, where last week she was on hand to mark the historic withdrawal of American combat brigades. In October, she will receive the prestigious Walter Cronkite Faith & Freedom Award, given by the Interfaith Alliance to “individuals who courageously promote democratic values, defend religious freedom, and reinvigorate informed civic participation.”

Maddow’s mainstream appeal is all very counterintuitive: She is an out-and-proud lesbian and raging liberal who had an Oxford political science doctorate, but little television experience, when she took over her show in September 2008. A credentialed intellectual, she is unfailingly polite, and even a tad formal, to her on-air guests—especially the ones with whom she violently disagrees. And then there’s that market-averse distaste for rabble-rousing stories—like the ground zero mosque.  

And yet, she’s also a self-confessed ham who made her bones as the "news girl" on drive-time radio (and later hosted her own show on the now-defunct liberal network Air America). Today Maddow concedes that occasionally she must come down off her trapeze and strut in the sawdust with the rest of the circus. The mosque “has become the foremost political issue in the country right now,” she tells me. “And not weighing in on it is to spit into the wind.”

Thus she opened Monday night’s installment of The Rachel Maddow Show with a withering deconstruction of what she called “this month’s new ‘scare-white-people’ story,” focusing on the “awkward” flip-flops of Fox News denizens Glenn Beck and Laura Ingraham—both of whom once celebrated the folks behind the mosque as moderate Muslims—and mosque opponent Karen Hughes, who, as a state department official, traveled the Muslim world on a goodwill tour with Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the very same cleric who now hopes to build the Islamic cultural center a few blocks from where the twin towers fell.

"I have been talking for awhile about the Fox strategy of scaring white people in order to score political points and benefit conservative politicians,” Maddow says. “And one of the hallmarks is that their most potent ‘scare-white-people’ stories are not real news stories. They’re stories that they invent out of thin air. That’s true about ACORN. That’s true about the Shirley Sherrod case. That’s true about the fake New Black Panther Party thing. That’s true about Van Jones.”

Maddow singles out Fox News commentator and former speaker of the House Newt Gingrich—who recently equated erecting the Islamic center to Nazis “put[ting] up a sign next to the Holocaust Museum in Washington”—for special opprobrium.

"For a long time, he has really been selling this idea that Muslims don’t deserve religious freedom because Islam is some sort of qualitatively different thing than other religions,” Maddow says. “He’s got this idea that the so-called war on terrorism is actually some sort of religious crusade. That’s a whole trope on the right—that Muslims are secretly at war with us, only we’re not at war with them because we’re in denial that they’re winning. This ‘Sharia law is going to take over America’ stuff—Gingrich totally spouts all that crap.”

Maddow shows up for a late-night, post-show dinner at The Breslin, a dimly lit upscale beer joint in Manhattan’s Flatiron District, sporting jeans, a black t-shirt, and retro-nerdy glasses that she seldom wears on camera. “I like the way I look in glasses,” she explains, but on television, “all people would get is, like, Groucho Marx—‘Oh, these glasses are talking to me!’ If your glasses are so distracting that they’re all people can see, you lose the power to communicate with the rest of your face.”  

Maddow’s face, on and off the air, is cleverly expressive. You can see a hint of that in the famous high school yearbook photo of the teenage Rachel in long blond tresses and pearls—the photo that Republican Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana, he of the prostitution scandal, stupidly mocked on talk radio.

Vitter apologized for his comment—“it must have been a long time ago” when she looked like a woman—and Maddow graciously accepted, “and then he leaked my acceptance of his apology to the press,” Maddow tells me. “I thought it was private, and his office published it. You stay classy! You stay classy! Just unbelievable.”

Unlike her friend and colleague Keith Olbermann, whom she credits for supporting her MSNBC career, Maddow regularly has conservatives and Republicans on her program. She prides herself on independent thinking. She gets annoyed when interest groups, even those she agrees with, try to feed her talking points, and she prefers to work out her own opinions without outside influence. Although she reads extensively every day, she won’t read op-eds on topics she plans to comment on.  

And she claims to be nonplussed by those presidential invitations.

"It’s very flattering. It’s a real huge honor—and I have no idea what they want from me,” she says. “I don’t understand very much about what it means to do political strategy from the White House. There are definitely people who are in my part of the business who understand how the White House ticks, and how they massage the message and come up with their spin, work reporters and work columnists and work hosts and stuff like that. I don’t understand the way they think. I also don’t really care how they think.”

As for Obama—whose positions against gay marriage but for the repeal of California’s Proposition 8 Maddow sees as an untenable contradiction—“I don’t dislike him by any means,” she says coolly. “I’ve only ever had interactions with him as a candidate, president-elect, and president—which is not a very human-to-human way to meet somebody.”

Maddow—whose parents, her lawyer-father and educator-mother, she describes as unswervingly supportive—came out when she was an undergrad at Stanford.

"I posted a note on the inside of the bathroom stalls of my freshman dorm,” she says. “It was a really snarky, self-righteous 17-year-old ‘me against the world’ rant about how important I thought it was that I was gay. I was very full of myself. I was not reflective at all. I was all guns blazing. But, you know, my God, I was 17. Who’s going to be humble and reflective? If I was coming out now, would I do it that way? No. But I don’t know what it’s like not to be out, in my whole adult life. I’ve never really had to live as a closeted person, and I’m unable to imagine a straight life for myself retroactively. So I don’t have any regrets about it.”

Maddow does regret, however, that when she graduated from Stanford in 1993, her sexual orientation precluded the option of serving in the military. “That was ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’” she says. “Had Clinton actually kept his promise and made it so that people who are openly gay could serve in the military, I can’t say I definitely would’ve signed up, but it’s one of the things I would have thought about doing with my life. Because for me, not to be trite, it’s a way to serve the country.”

Instead of enlisting, Maddow moved to San Francisco and became an AIDS activist, joining ACT UP and working for a nonprofit that helped sufferers from the disease. Then she won a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford University—the first openly lesbian American to do so—and read politics at Lincoln College, “which I chose because it had the best food,” she says.

While working on her doctoral dissertation on the politics of AIDS, Maddow did odd jobs to pay the rent. She was a bicycle messenger (“I would ride on the sidewalks, like the Wicked Witch from The Wizard of Oz”), a barista at Expresso Bongo, taking the 4 a.m. shift in the financial district of San Francisco (“they misspelled ‘espresso,’” she recalls), a waitress, and, while finishing her thesis in Northampton, Massachusetts, a bucket-scrubber at a coffee bean roasting plant.

They were five-gallon buckets,” she recalls, “but when you roast the coffee beans, they are very dry before they get roasted. Then, once they’re roasted, they get really oily, which is why coffee is so delicious. But once you dump the roasted beans out of the bucket, they leave behind oily coffee slime to scrub out with some sort of a solvent and a scrubby thing. I could do it right now. Actually, I was pretty bad at all my odd jobs. I was a bad barista. I was a bad waitress. I was a bad bucket scrubber.”

She must have been better at yard work. She met her longtime partner, artist Susan Mikula—with whom Maddow shares homes in Massachusetts and New York’s West Village—when the latter hired her to do some fixing up. I ask Maddow if she’d like to get married.

"I mean, I like you, Lloyd,” she parries with a laugh. “It feels so sudden.”

"I’m still getting over my divorce,” I retort.

"Ah, well. Tease me!” More seriously, Maddow says, “Maybe. Conceivably. I like that we sort of have the right in Massachusetts.”

Lloyd Grove is editor at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for the Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.