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."
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.