Rachel Maddow, MSNBC's Newest Left Hand

"I'm a liberal. I'm not a partisan," says Maddow, whose nightly show will air at 9. (By Lauren Victoria Burke)
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By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 27, 2008

DENVER, Aug. 26 -- In her black-rimmed glasses, black T-shirt, jeans and orange sneakers, green iPod wires dangling from her ears, Rachel Maddow cuts an unassuming figure at odds with her growing celebrity.

"I know I don't look like everybody else on television," MSNBC's newest host says at a Mexican restaurant here. "I'm not that pretty. Women on television are over-the-top, beauty-pageant gorgeous. That's not the grounds on which I am competing. There's a basic threshold you have to cross: not looking like you're insulting. You ought to wear makeup, comb your hair." And if she tried for a makeover, she says, "I would fail, and I would look dumb doing it."

Maddow, 35, doesn't sound like anyone else on TV either, skewering the right wing with barbed humor that she punctuates with a throaty laugh. And her résumé isn't exactly out of central casting: Rhodes scholar, former prison activist, a woman who lives with her girlfriend and drives a pickup truck. Notably absent is any experience as a journalist or political consultant.

While other liberal pundits were praising Barack Obama's new running mate, Joe Biden, for his legislative experience and foreign policy credentials, Maddow had a slightly offbeat take on the Delaware senator: "Even though he's been in Washington since before I was born, he hasn't turned out to be a personal creep."

And yet, as she juggles her role as commentator at the conventions with plans to launch her 9 p.m. weeknight program in two weeks, Maddow has become an unwilling symbol of the trend toward ideological cable news. She will follow her mentor Keith Olbermann, MSNBC's fire-breathing liberal and ratings king, who says, "I pushed for her because I needed a good lead-in to the 10 o'clock show," the repeat broadcast of his "Countdown" program. In what media analysts see as a deliberate counterpoint to Fox News, MSNBC's prime time is now lodged firmly on the left.

Maddow, who also hosts a radio show on Air America, chafes at being pigeonholed. In an age of so many opinionated talkers, she says, "it's weird to see me as the downfall of cable news objectivity." Besides, she says, she is not an Obama supporter.

"I am a liberal," Maddow says. "I'm not a partisan, not a Democratic Party hack. I'm not trying to advance anybody's agenda."

When Maddow was 19, two years after she came out of the closet, she watched with horror as Pat Buchanan took the podium at the 1992 Republican convention and called for a culture war against such liberal notions as "homosexual rights."

"I felt my country was declaring war on me," she says.

On Monday night, seated on a makeshift stage overlooking Denver's train station, Maddow recalled that experience on the air, turning to her left -- where Buchanan, her fellow MSNBC analyst, sat. Alluding to Michelle Obama's speech, she told the former presidential candidate that she was drawn to Bill Clinton's family that year after concluding that "they don't want an America that doesn't want me in it." Many in the small crowd watching the action kept roaring their approval.

"Surreal is not the word," Maddow said during a break. "The arc of what Pat meant to me, and what I'm doing now, is a great American story." Buchanan declined to comment after the awkward moment.

Maddow was charged up on this balmy evening, dispensing with her usual light touch to declare that Hillary Clinton supporters who are defecting to John McCain are being "post-rational." She seemed almost angry as she accused McCain of playing "the POW card" in response to questions ranging from health care to "cheating on his first wife. . . . He risks turning it into a punch line."

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