WHO IT TAKES (AND WHAT THEY’RE FIGHTING FOR)
Rachel Maddow, host of The Rachel Maddow Show, on Campaign ‘08
Interview by Mark Healy; Photograph by Jeff Riedel
GQ November 2008
YOU DON'T strike me as someone who grew up pining for a place on the nightly news. Do you feel like an outsider?/
WELL, YOU KNOW, I love this stuff. I’m absolutely reveling in it. But I do not feel that I’m of the media world, even though I’m taking part in it. Maybe four years from now I’ll be the ultimate insider, but right now I feel like I’m the kid who’s like, “Wowwwwwww, this is amazing…and that guy’s a tool!” Also, I guess it’s just who I am. My dad worked at the water company, and I’m a big lesbian who looks like a man. I am not, like, Anchor Babe, and I’m never gonna be.
Pat Buchanan’s speech at the 1992 Republican convention left a lasting impression on you. As a 19-year-old lesbian, it must have been a harsh welcome to the world of politics./
Well, I brought that speech up to Pat in Denver because Michelle Obama’s speech was notable to me, because it was so the opposite of that. And that’s the context in which I brought it up to Pat. This speech made clear the analytical point that the touchy-feely I’m-just-like-you political strategy is less about explaining who you are than it is about explaining and convincing the American people that you understand who they are and respect it. So it’s not about “It’s me, Michelle Obama from the South Side of Chicago, and this is what my parents did” -- it’s “I’m Michelle Obama and I understand who you are and I respect normal Americans who are living normal lives.”
But the emotional thing that it did, it made the case that she understood and respected what normal Americans lives are like and that we are a diverse and complicated country and we have complicated lives. It was emotionally important for me because it was the opposite of what I felt when I heard Pat’s speech in 1992, because that was war. That was, when you boil it down, the precipitate of Pat’s political philosophy, which is divide the country and take the bigger half. That’s what you do. That’s what politics is. Turn people against another part of the country and then convince them that you are with the larger group. And it doesn’t have to be that way. It’s very successful, it works, but it doesn’t have to be that way.
So was there something in St. Paul that accomplished what Pat Buchanan’s speech did?/
No, because nobody gave as good a speech as he gave. But was there something that made me feel like this is one part of the country declaring war on another? Yeah, it would be the Sarah Palin making fun of community organizers stuff.
Why hasn’t more been made of Sarah Palin’s church and its stance of curing homosexuality? They recently promoted a “pray away the gay” conference up there./
There are two reasons: One, Democrats are more shy on issues like that than Republicans. And more specifically to this election, because the Barack Obama campaign made the huuuuuge strategic error -- that they only recently reversed -- to tell their supporters to not support independent groups, 527s, that would run campaign ads that Obama himself would not have to answer for. They shut ’em down.
The McCain campaign said, “Sure, go ahead. Floyd Brown, Mr. Willie Horton, all the rest of you guys, hit it. I’m not responsible for that stuff.” They gave the green light very early on because they thought they had to, while the Obama campaign said, “No, no, no, we will keep a centralized, dignified message prepared at our headquarters in Chicago and nothing will go out that we can’t put our noble seal of approval on.” And so therefore you don’t get the stuff that you could get otherwise, if people felt free to run with their passions on the subject and if it didn’t have to be tied to the dignity of the presidential campaign. So he screwed that up. But he’s reversed it.
It seems like that’s your main criticism of the Obama campaign, their reluctance to get aggressive. Is that one of your main frustrations with the Obama campaign?/
Sucking? Yeah. It’s uninspiring. Part of what you want to see from a politician is the way they’re going to fight like hell for what they believe. And if they’re going to say [adopts the voice of an aggrieved wimp], “This is an unfair fight, it’s beneath my dignity,” it’s like, well, neat, write an essay about it. What I want is somebody to get in there and throw elbows. Sometimes the team with the most technical fouls wins the game. [adopting voice of the same aggrieved wimp] “Oh, you’re very unsportsmanlike!” [laughs] You’re also wearing a giant diamond-encrusted ring!
I think today actually was the first good day of campaigning from the Obama-Biden ticket -- excluding the convention, which was a whole different thing -- since the trip to Berlin. Honestly, today you saw some of what they’ve been preaching. What they’ve been preaching is, “We don’t want to do the attack thing. We don’t want to be down in the gutter with John McCain. We want to campaign on the issues.” They’ve been saying that, and today is the first day where it worked. Because what matters in politics, what gets covered, what do people remember? Attacks. It is possible to attack in an issues-based, nonscurrilous, honorable way, and today Biden and Obama let loose with vicious, principled, policy-based attacks on John McCain, and they connected.
And if tomorrow the Obama-Biden ticket started running ads that were misleading and to the same degree of dishonesty that the McCain camp has been running -- for example, in the sex-education ad, where they portrayed Obama as promoting "comprehensive sex education" for kindergarten kids.../
We would know they were frauds. They have been so the opposite of that, nobody would believe that it was this campaign. They ought to run an ad about John McCain and the Keating Five [ed. note: The Obama campaign has since released such an ad] and then next week they ought to run an ad about the Keating Five lawyer who kept him out of jail, and then his next McCain-family coup was keeping the potentially twenty-years-in-prison charges against Cindy McCain for her DEA drug thing, keeping that under the table as well. It was the same lawyer. The Keating Five lawyer that kept McCain out of prison for corruption stuff right after he went to the Senate is the same lawyer that the family called on to get Cindy McCain out of her drug-deal thing. It was the front page of The Washington Post. This was not blog territory. I don’t think anyone should lie. But you can be be nails without lying, and why not? Because you want to appear to be above the fray. Guess what? Americans love fray.
Do you consider yourself a strict adherent to the gathering of news?/
No. You know where I’m coming from; that’s how I approach this. You know exactly what I think about these issues and I’m going to tell you what I think of them, as well as explaining what the facts are.
But this is relatively new territory, where the audience chooses -- as I admit I do -- the news delivered in a way that’s going to reflect his worldview./
This is MSNBC. We once hired Michael Savage. This is not something new. Glenn Beck being hired on CNN Headline News was not seen as carving new territory. When Rush Limbaugh had his TV show, that was not seen as new territory, but suddenly when somebody on the left gets a show, it’s like, Whoa! New territory! This territory is very, very well trod on cable, and it just so happens that liberals are allowed to speak now.
Right before your show debuted -- and just a few days after NBC was jeered at the GOP convention -- MSNBC took Keith Olbermann and Chris Matthews off the anchor desk for election coverage because, many thought, they were too partisan. Didn’t you find that alarming?/
What? That the Republicans are blaming the media? [laughs] Yeah, the Republicans pick enemies in the mainstream media and run against them. It’s NBC now. It was CBS when Rather was there. It’s always somebody. They always have to have a mainstream target. Remember the primaries? The New York Times endorsed Hillary Clinton and John McCain, and then one of the lines of attack against McCain became, “You’re endorsed by The New York Times.” The Times became Al Qaeda in that debate for the Republicans.
But it’s getting increasingly partisan and—/
I don’t think there’s a marked inflection on the time line that all of a sudden the media became partisan. If that were true, we wouldn’t look back on the end of the Vietnam War and say, “Oh, and when they lost Cronkite, that’s when the war started to end.” What do you mean lost Cronkite? Cronkite had an opinion? Yes. It was quite clear. He had a perspective and you knew where he was coming from. You’ve always known where people were coming from in the media; we just talk more about that fact now and hand-wring about it and that’s why its seems to be such a crisis when people tell you they’re coming from a place on the left, when it never felt like a crisis when people told you they were coming from a place on the right -- because media criticism comes from a conservative place.
Do you get the sense that this election could be kind of extraordinary?/
Every election is extraordinary. We’re America! Everything is the best thing that’s ever been. Every new thing is bigger and better and more exciting and more consequential. And every election people say this is the election of our lifetime. Honestly, I know you’re not supposed to say that, but it’s true. It doesn’t make it any less true of this election that I felt that way about all the other ones too, but we do feel that way about every election because who the president is makes a whole huge lot of difference in this country. It is always the most important thing in the world.
Yeah, this is a huge deal. The Democratic Party is the first party to put a Catholic on the ticket -- Al Smith in 1928. First Jew on the ticket: Joe Lieberman. First woman: Geraldine Ferraro in 1984. First African-American. Freaking awesome, you know? Impressive. All the other three lost. Great! Pioneers! Neat Democratic Party! They all lost.
Can culture wars still win elections?/
You wouldn’t have picked Sarah Palin if you didn’t think that was the case.
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