Rachel Maddow may be one of the most prominent and outspoken liberals in the U.S. but let no one accuse her of being a lily-livered pinko-vegetarian.
“I’ll have the offal and the whiskey drinks,” chortles Maddow, host of an eponymous show on the left-leaning MSNBC cable news channel, as we go through the menu at the Breslin Bar & Dining Room.
She chose this venue, a trendy restaurant in New York’s Chelsea neighbourhood frequented by young hipsters with ironic haircuts for a late supper after her 9 p.m. broadcast. It is, according to the restaurant, renowned for its “meat-intense program”, which explains why the bar area is lined with pig statues and the waiters wear T-shirts showing outlines of the various animals available for consumption. The menu features sweetbreads, beef tongue and pig’s foot for two.
When she arrives at 10:30 p.m., Maddow is delayed several times by friends and fans as she works her way through the crowd to the dark wooden booth where I am trying to knock back a cup of coffee in the hope of remaining interview-alert at midnight.
Dressed in a baggy black T-shirt, jeans and trainers with her face scrubbed clean of TV set make-up, Maddow has no need for an artificial high. “It’s like I was on meth all day,” she says, taking off her thick-framed geek-chic glasses. She says she was “freaked” about a live interview on that night’s show, part of her continuing campaign against the “don’t ask, don’t tell” law that, since it was introduced by the Clinton administration in 1993, has led to more than 10,000 service members being discharged after coming out or being revealed as gay.
The interview was with an active serving officer who appeared in silhouette to talk about being gay in the military. “It’s humbling to have people take that kind of risk because they have decided that being on the show is worth it. So it’s a big deal for us to get it right. If we screw up, it’s on our heads,” Maddow says.
In the two years that she has been hosting The Rachel Maddow Show, the 37-year-old has become a liberal heroine in the U.S., attacking what she sees as conservative hypocrisy on everything from fiscal discipline to family values, all with a sharply intellectual yet quirky style. She delights in referring to members of the Tea Party movement as “teabaggers.”
Her influence is confirmed by perhaps the most flattering compliment a liberal can earn: the scorn of Sarah Palin. The fairy godmother of the conservative movement says Maddow turns “beet red and the veins pop out in her neck” when she gets worked up about liberal issues. For her part, Maddow would like Palin on her show. “Sarah Palin uses me as a laugh line in her stump speeches. If you’re willing to turn me into a joke, you should also be willing to talk to me,” she says.
Maddow is something of an unlikely TV star. The first openly lesbian anchor to be hired to host a prime-time news program, her short hair and wardrobe of jackets in different shades of grey set her apart from the glossy blonde presenters that populate many other US news programs.
In fact, broadcasting was something of an accidental career. A Stanford University public policy graduate, she won a Rhodes scholarship to study at Oxford University in 1995, where she earned a doctorate on HIV/Aids in the British and American prison systems.
While completing her thesis, the San Francisco Bay native moved to western Massachusetts, where she took on odd jobs. One of them, doing yard work, introduced her to her partner, artist Susan Mikula. Another, as “sidekick” for Dave in the Morning, a quirky local radio show, led her into broadcasting.
She hosted a morning radio show in Massachusetts, then joined Air America, a now defunct liberal radio network in 2004, where she built a national profile before landing a role as a commentator on CNN and MSNBC. Having guest-hosted for the prime-time anchor Keith Olbermann when he was away, she was given her own show in the slot after Olbermann’s, two months before the 2008 presidential elections.
Maddow’s interview style is unorthodox; very measured and respectful, with none of the yelling over the top of each other that characterises other political shows, including those such as Olbermann and Chris Matthews on MSNBC. “I feel like I have made a deal with my audience – I’m the guarantor that this person is worth listening to,” she says of her conscious politesse.
It is time to order. Every Friday night, Maddow, a self-styled “mixologist,” makes cocktails on her show and has firmly held views on her drinks. Here she orders an old-fashioned, stipulating she wants Michter’s rye and no fruit.
I am off the booze and ask her advice on which mix would work well without alcohol. She promptly dismisses me: “I don’t believe in having cocktails without alcohol. Just have an ordinary drink.” Still, the barman concocts a special mocktail, which turns out to be a long lemony thirst-quencher, so I don’t feel too left out.
For dinner, Maddow is deciding between the rustic pork terrine and seafood sausages – which she insists are surprisingly delicious – but ends up settling for half a dozen oysters (in fact, nine are served) and a small beef and stilton pie.
As I confess that not only am I not drinking but it is actually me who is the tree-hugging vegetarian, I begin to feel like a real party pooper. But the kitchen prepares me a plate of the vegetable side dishes – mashed potato, pumpkin, root vegetable smash, and some roasted radishes that meet with Maddow’s approval. Phew.
I ask Maddow about the media environment in which she operates. With the number of 24-hour cable news channels, there is ever more need to “make” news. The election of Barack Obama two years ago and the subsequent rise of the Tea Party movement have contributed to a hyper-partisan media atmosphere that ranges from Fox News on the right to MSNBC on the left. Maddow’s channel is filled with liberals attacking conservative policies, in something of the same way (though to a lesser degree) that Fox, owned by Rupert Murdoch, devotes itself to denouncing Obama and his administration.
Led by firebrand conservatives such as Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly, Fox devotes hour after hour to deriding the Obama administration’s policies on everything from healthcare reform to economic stimulus as “socialist”. Beck, who has a powerful influence over the Tea Party movement, has even suggested Obama is running a shadow government aimed at depriving Americans of their liberties and charged him with having a “deep-seated hatred of white people”.
So has Maddow, the one-time activist for prisoners with HIV, moved from one flavour of advocacy to another?
“The activism question is cut and dried to me in a way that does not seem to resonate with anyone else,” she says as we tuck into our dinner. “Being an activist is trying to achieve a political outcome in a field. When I was trying to get Alabama and Mississippi to stop segregating prisoners by HIV status, I was an activist working towards a clear goal. It was a very analytical, logical process by which you were trying to make the world a different place.”
As a broadcaster, she says she “is not telling people to call their congressman or hosting rallies. That’s not what I do. I’m trying to increase the amount of useful information in the world,” she explains.
She contrasts what she is doing sharply with Fox News, which has exponentially higher ratings. “I think the difference between what Fox does and what everyone else does is that Fox endorses candidates, organises rallies, financially supports candidates and causes to achieve their goals,” she says. “I judge them as a political operation.”
Earlier this year, Maddow tore into Fox on her show, saying it was stoking racial hatred, akin to the old southern strategy that began in the 1960s during the Nixon administration, where conservatives played on white fears of greater black equality.
Furthermore, she says, Fox is undiscriminating in its coverage of the right. “If you went back through the Fox News archives and found all the criticism of the Bush administration from the right, you could fit it on to a floppy disk, if you could still get one. The conservative media are very partisan, they get behind their guy and they stick with him,” she says. “Democrats fall in love, Republicans fall in line.”
Maddow and her MSNBC colleagues cannot be accused of treating the left in the same way, though they are clearly sympathetic to the Obama administration. She has channelled leftwing disappointment over his lack of progress on liberal priorities such as closing the Guantánamo Bay terrorist detention camp and repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell”.
Off screen, she is not as critical of the president as she is on air, suggesting his heart is still in the right place even if his methods have been found wanting. “If you are a bad negotiator for good policies, that is disappointing,” she says. “But the story is not over yet. We’re halfway through his first term and I expect him to have a second term.”
The question is how much Obama will be able to achieve in the two years after Democrats lost control of the House of Representatives in the midterm elections and had their majority in the Senate significantly eroded. Maddow has confidence in his ability to adapt. “The Bush administration was one thing and they stayed that thing pretty much consistently. There was no evolution,” she says. “The Obama administration has evolved in pursuit of their aims. I don’t think they are deaf to criticism.”
If there is one White House change she disapproves of, however, it is the cancellation of the bipartisan drinks functions held during the early days of the Obama administration. She believes in the “socially healing” power of the cocktail and recalls running into – a rather alarmed – Desirée Rogers, then White House social secretary, and imploring her to reinstate the cocktail parties as “a patriotic gesture” to help foster collaboration.
“At least if they are in a convivial mood, then they will talk to each other and not at each other,” she says. I ask her if she thinks dour types such as Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell, the Democratic and Republican leaders in the Senate respectively, might loosen up after a couple of drinks.
She laughs and breaks out her McConnell impersonation, which is more New York Jewish grandmother than Kentucky conservative. “I can’t do $400,000 but let’s make it 375,” she says, alluding to a debate about what level of income should be the cut-off point for renewing the Bush-era tax cuts.
Republicans might not be on the White House guest list any more but Maddow is. Obama has invited her to lunches with other liberal journalists and commentators, a forum she describes as all “policy talk”. She guffaws at the idea that he might ask her for advice. “Not in this lifetime, not on this planet,” she laughs. “I think the president is very impressive when it comes to his grasp of policy matters. That’s reassuring, to know that he is engaged.”
Still, it’s conversations with conservatives that Maddow yearns for. Asked who she would most love to interview, she answers in a flash: Dick Cheney, vice-president to George W Bush and a staunch proponent of some of the most controversial aspects of the “war on terror”.
“I think about it every day,” she says, leaning forward. “He has answered almost nothing about the most controversial decisions he made, and I would like to try to get answers from him. His role in national security has become the stuff of legend, not the stuff of record.”
Then she puts on her puffer jacket, proclaims, “I’m absolutely a liberal. No doubt about it,” and weaves her way out through an impossibly trendy party in the lobby, disappearing into the cold New York night.
This article originally appeared in Financial Times. Click here to read more coverage from the Weekend FT.