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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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Earlier, Maddow laughed when asked if she once thought it unlikely that a lesbian would host a prime-time cable news show. "It's out of my hands," she said. "I can't be less gay." But she does acknowledge the virtues of being a pioneer: "Being the first blank is always important."

A onetime AIDS activist from the San Francisco area, she worked with such groups as ACT UP before going to Oxford in 1995 to pursue her doctorate in political science. She later crashed with friends in Northampton, Mass., making deliveries and washing buckets for a coffee joint while finishing her dissertation. On a lark, Maddow applied for a sidekick job on a morning-zoo radio show and fell in love with the gig.

In 2004, as Air America was launching as the first liberal radio network, Maddow somehow talked her way into a third host's job on a program with "Daily Show" co-creator Lizz Winstead and rapper Chuck D. A year later the show was dropped, and Maddow wound up as the solo host of an hour-long program at 5 a.m. She started getting invitations to appear on Paula Zahn's CNN show and later landed an MSNBC contract as a regular guest for conservative host Tucker Carlson.

"She could spar intellectually with Tucker, but it never became unpleasant," says Bill Wolff, who hired her and will be executive producer of her new show. "She doesn't seem to have any spite for people who disagree with her." When that deal lapsed, Maddow started playing the field again -- she even made a pilot for CNN -- drawing complaints from MSNBC executives. "If you're not going to marry me, I'm not going to stop dating," she recalls telling them. In January she was hired as a commentator to appear on various programs.

Maddow quickly became a standout. Within months she was Olbermann's chief substitute host on "Countdown" and decided she wanted a show of her own.

She hired an agent, Jean Sage -- who is also Olbermann's agent -- and this month MSNBC decided to give Maddow the time slot previously occupied by its former general manager, Dan Abrams. She is also keeping her show on Air America, which now airs at 6 p.m.

Folding and unfolding a red cloth napkin, she betrays her nerves about the upcoming launch of "The Rachel Maddow Show." Most of all, she doesn't want to lose her distinctive style. "It is very easy to get homogenized by the TV machine and come out like sausage," she says.

Unlike Olbermann, Maddow plans to interview some conservative guests. But she is determined to avoid the left-right pairings that sustain much of cable news.

"It creates fake balance," she says. "I'm sorry -- we're going to have a debate about whether or not the Earth is flat? It doesn't make sense to have a debate about whether offshore drilling is going to bring down gas prices. You know what? It's not. The fact that it's false ought to be reported, or you're advancing a lie."

Wolff says Maddow's radio experience and research skills will serve her well. "I've never seen anyone prepare with the organization and diligence that Rachel prepares," he says.

Maddow has a place in Greenwich Village but spends weekends at her western Massachusetts home with her partner of nearly a decade, portrait artist Susan Mikula. Maddow mows the lawn, goes fishing, takes care of their black Labrador and, because there is no trash service, hauls the garbage to the dump.

She has, oddly enough, refused to buy a television set. "If there's a TV on in the room, it's all we can pay attention to," Maddow says.

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