Is making her mark on cable news by keeping her cool when everyone else is losing theirs.
Two days after the election, Rachel Maddow is inching through Times Square traffic, relieved to be wrapping up a long week, singing nineties hip-hop tunes and heading downtown for a late dinner, when, for the very first time, she spots the giant Times Square billboard with her face on it.
"Wow, there I am," she says.
The big after question is obvious: What happens to a liberal commentator when a liberal ticket wins the White House and the Democrats control Congress?
"I guess I'm interested in making fun of bad ideas, regardless of who has them," she says. "Obviously you don't want to randomly scour the world for bad ideas. You want to respond to influential bad ideas. So if you end up in a situation where there isn't a loyal opposition, where the Republican Party is in disarray and isn't really surfacing in the discussion, then they won't be the people I'm making fun of. I will be making fun of the Democrats or the supposed experts."
In other words, an Obama presidency does not change what you might call her quest. "I'm interested in making fun of bad guys, wherever I find them," she says.
And the TV-watching world is interested in her; her show premiered in September, and quicker than you could say "Nielsen," the 35-year-old Maddow was beating out CNN's Larry King. Her audience share more than doubled, especially among the lucrative 25-to-54 crowd, and just before the election, Brian Williams made some kind remarks about a vote-stealing segment she'd aired.
Viewers are enthusiastic about Maddow because they have been longing for a do-it-yourself TV commentator, a talking head who doesn't look like a talking head but is more like an opinionated friend who somehow manages to be tough and honest without sounding like a jerk.
"My whole thing is to let Rachel be Rachel," says Bill Wolff, her producer.
When she appeared on The Colbert Report earlier that day -- in between her Air America show and her MSNBC show -- the audience went a little nuts.
"Obviously my audience is extremely excited to have you here," Stephen Colbert said. "And I've got to tell you, I generally like it for them to be excited to have me here, so this is already not going well."
Her show this evening is a case in point: the usual Maddow mix of hard-core policy analysis with an ample dose of silliness. During the commercials, what the viewer at home does not see is the host hunched over her keyboard rewriting her script. Her style of political discourse is a break from the shouting, point-counterpoint approach that dominates cable news, instead emphasizing her relentlessly cheerful, conscientiously concise opinions.
"I'm trying to get people to agree with me," she says. "I am trying to say, 'Here's how I see the world.' Not everybody's going to agree with me. But I think that I make sense, and I would like you to think that I make sense, too, because I think that we can make sense of this world together, you and me, if" -- and here she shifts into a fake TV announcer's voice -- "you'll just follow along!"
Ironically, though born of the election, Maddow seems pleased that it's over. "I am not a candidate person," she says. "I am much more of a news person than I am an electoral-politics person."
Not that she hasn't gone head-to-head with electoral-politics people; when former Bush speechwriter David "Axis of Evil" Frum came on her show to argue that she had debased the tone of political debate, she proceeded to eviscerate him (rhetorically) in such a way as to make him really, really quiet.
On this evening's show, she notes that the guy who was in charge of risky investment at the late Bear Stearns is now at the Fed, retooling the economy. She also reports on the king of Bhutan, whom she describes as "really cute" and admires for his use of what the Bhutanese call "Gross National Happiness," an idea that she is kind of making fun of, and kind of not.
"Kingdom of Bhutan," Maddow says, "Very impressive!"
Her first media moments, while she was growing up in Castro Valley, California, were biased toward smart talk.
"I think it was formative for me in, like, some deep, subconscious way that my dad used to watch sports on television without the sound on because he wanted to listen to the radio sound," she recalls. "So he'd have a transistor radio in his lap and the TV with the sound off, even when they were out of sync. And I thought, Oh, right, radio is harder. He's getting a higher-level audio experience from people who know you can't see the picture. I also just thought, like, Oh, my dad's awesome; he has higher standards."
In high school, she played three sports. "I grew up on a lot of John Hughes movies, so by calling myself a jock I don't want you to think that I was a dick," she says. "I was a cross between the jock and the antisocial girl who bit people," she says, referring to The Breakfast Club, Hughes's generation-defining movie. "The Ally Sheedy character. And who was Judd what's-his-face? The outsider. I wanted to be the outsider so bad. But I was the jock and that bad-hair girl."
At Stanford, she wanted to be an AIDS activist. At Oxford, in the late nineties, she helped start an AIDS-treatment activist group. She returned to America to write, and in the meantime fell into, first, local radio in Massachusetts, then Air America, which led to MSNBC.
Now, on Friday afternoons, her partner, Susan Mikula, an artist, is waiting outside the NBC studios, ready to drive to the Berkshires; there, not too far from a river, they enjoy TV-free weekends -- so TV-free, in fact, that Maddow had to ask a friend about The Colbert Report. She also consults with Mikula about what she should wear on cable.
Tonight, Maddow is feeling exhausted, having spent the last month inventing The Rachel Maddow Show, and is concerned about last night's show, given some chatter about her tiredness. She turns to Mikula.
"It was all over the Twitter feed, man!" she says.
"It was obvious. I'm sorry," says Mikula.
"In the way that I looked, or the way that I was behaving?"
"You had visible black under your eyes."
"How was I tonight?" Maddow asks.
"You looked fresh as a daisy."
http://www.style.com/vogue/feature/2009 ... ss_feature