LESLEY: You have doubled the ratings for MSNBC at nine o’clock. So my question is, how much fun are you having? I hope my bosses don’t see this, but the truth is, I love what I do in news so much, that I would pay them, and you look as though you’re having that kind of fun.
RACHEL: I am having that kind of fun, I can honestly say. I’ve had about 300 different jobs in my life and I sort of feel like I’ve been a chit in the job lottery and my ticket just came up. Like I won the best job in the world, and I don’t really have a total grasp of how I got it – and I don’t know how long it’ll last. But as long as I have it I’m going to play it for all it’s worth.
LESLEY: Well, you’re doing great. But I have some questions, first off, about demeanor, because one would have thought that the ticket to cable heaven or something like that is a temper tantrum: The anchor shouts and the audiences come. But you are congenial. I’ve never seen you get angry and yet you’re drawing a crowd. So we have Obama; we have Rachel Maddow, lowering the temperature, cooling the hostility. What’s going on? Do you think that there’s been a real change in the public’s appetite?
RACHEL: Well, I don’t know. I guess that will become evident if this becomes a bigger trend than the trend that you’ve just identified. But, the way that I see it strategically, is that those in talk radio – which is sort of where I come from – and television, you’re trying to get people to connect with you; you’re trying to draw people in. And one way to do that is to express anger and vituperation and indignation. That draws people in. It is something that is very compelling, just in human terms. But another way to draw people in and to have people feel like they’re invested in you and they care about what you’re going to say next, is if they relate to you. I think that’s more the direction that I’m going. I think I have the same amount of anger as everybody else. I just don’t think it’s my best side and so I don’t try to show it very much in public.
LESLEY: Do you explode?
LESLEY: When we’re not watching you? Or is this just your temperament, is this who you are?
RACHEL: I think it is my temperament. I do feel like I’m hosting, and so I ought to be a congenial host, even with people with whom I disagree. I’m asking people to be part of my program, not because I want to hurt them but because I believe that they have something to say. And so I feel like I ought to, just in terms of manners, ought to treat them that way.
LESLEY: Well, of course, other anchors don’t see it that way, as we well know.
RACHEL: No, but I am not a person who enjoys humiliating people.
LESLEY: I have to ask you something that is apropos of absolutely nothing. But I did hear that you do not own a television set. It’s true, right?
LESLEY: Yes. So before we get very far, I want to ask you if you have the foggiest idea who the hell I am.
RACHEL: I’ve Googled you extensively. Don’t worry.
LESLEY: Oh, OK. So you know me from Google. So what do you think?
RACHEL: I know. Your whole career is online, don’t worry.
LESLEY: What do you do Sunday night at seven o’clock? I have a great idea for you. What are you usually doing?
RACHEL: Usually Sunday night at seven I am home. I have a home in Massachusetts and I am eating dinner and about to —
LESLEY: No, no.
RACHEL: And about to curl up with a DVD. It’s awful. I know. Sorry.
LESLEY: But it’s painful because I watch you, so the level playing field just tilted.
LESLEY: I want to ask you, sort of apropos of television and stuff — that you obviously don’t watch very much — but you’ve referred to something, actually, put it down, that you’ve called “fake balance” in news shows. And as a person on a news show, I fear to ask: What is that and are you saying that your show is real balance?
RACHEL: I’m not saying that my show is real balance. But I think that the idea of fake balance is worse than not trying to be balanced at all. And what I mean by fake balance is to take any given political or factual issue, a news issue, and to approach it as if there’s a yes and no, pro and con, left and right take on it. On the issue of global warming, for example, that is something that interest groups on one side, as a political issue, tried to make that there was a real debate about the facts. And there really wasn’t a debate about the facts there. And to have a debate about the facts was sort of, at its root, dishonest, because it’s scientific information and, you know, fighting about the interpretation of what we ought to do about it them and whether or not the science is important and all of those things, absolutely fine. Fighting about whether or not we agree with the facts is an argument that is designed to reframe, and for the benefit of one interest group.
LESLEY: Well I agree with you that there are certain issues where we’re almost foolish – we in news are almost foolish to give equal weight to two sides. The one you raise about global warming is really interesting because I’ve had to grapple with that myself. When you have the vice president of the United States, Cheney, arguing that global warming, whatever he said – I’m not quite sure he went so far as to say it was a crock, but close. Isn’t there some kind of a newsperson’s obligation to present that view when someone at that high a level is propounding that position?
RACHEL: I found —
LESLEY: I always find it confusing myself, as a person with that responsibility.
RACHEL: Well, I think that there is a responsibility there. But then I think the news story is – the vice president of the United States is propounding radical ideas that are disproven by the facts. And he has taken a position, in contravention of what is known about this issue, which is a radical and counterfactual position and this is something that we should be talking about, about the vice president. The fact that he, in the position that he’s in, is taking that stance, itself becomes a story.
LESLEY: I think when you talk about fake balance, you’re talking about all news. But let’s talk about the kind of show that you do, and how much fun it must be for you, and I’m a little jealous that you can express your views completely openly, and you’re expected to. So let me ask you about last week’s big story – Caroline Kennedy – and what your take is on what happened to her.
RACHEL: I am at a disadvantage on this story because I have had a very hard time getting interested in it. Honestly, there’s something wrong with me; that everybody else in the news business thinks that the Caroline Kennedy story is THE story of the post-election.
LESLEY: I’m not sure they think it’s THE story.
RACHEL: It’s certainly a big story.
RACHEL: I feel like Caroline Kennedy is an interesting person who is from an interesting family and the idea that she would be chosen … she would be one of the short-listed people, along with all of these other elected officials, is —
LESLEY: Well, what about the angle that the press treated her unfairly? And we go back to what Hillary Clinton supporters said about her treatment when she was running, that there’s a different standard, a double standard – that women who put themselves into the public eye in politics have a different kind of scrutiny that emphasizes looks and how she talks and things like that.
RACHEL: Yes, I think that’s true. I think that it is true that women are evaluated on different terms and I feel that men’s qualifications are more often assumed and women have to prove them. I think that, you know, some of the other Senate appointments that we have had, whether it’s going to be the placeholder Senate seat in Delaware that Joe Biden’s son is expected to be going for. I mean, yes, he’s the former attorney general of Delaware and he has this distinguished career in the National Guard. But nobody’s talking about what he looks like or what he talks about.
LESLEY: They did with Dan Quayle, if you remember. Right?
RACHEL: I think that was, in part, because his presentation was surprisingly —
LESLEY: But that’s what they were saying about Caroline.
RACHEL: Do you think that with Dan Quayle, that his looks are part of it?
LESLEY: Well, the deer in the headlight look …
LESLEY: That was huge. And I think that he was so good-looking played to his enormous disadvantage. You know, we’re human beings and we do take in information for our eyes. And our eyes don’t necessarily go to our head. They go somewhere in a gut place where we make these gut decisions and I’ve always been a little confused about that double standard, even as a woman. I know that people always write in about my earrings and things like that. But I think men are also judged on their looks.
RACHEL: I wonder if good-looking men are judged in the same way — judged unfairly in the same way as women, regardless of whether or not women are good looking?
LESLEY: That’s what I’m suggesting. But I don’t know.
RACHEL: The best thing to be in politics is an ugly man.
LESLEY: Well, what about for a woman? I don’t want to name names because then people will assume I’m saying she’s ugly, but it may apply to women too, when you stop to think about it.
RACHEL: It’s that women who clearly are not getting by on their looks are assumed to be qualified instead.
LESLEY: Assumed to be smarter. Why do you think there are still so few women in Congress? I just read a statistic – only 75 of the 435 people in Congress are women; only 16 in the Senate, out of the 50. There are more women going to college. There are droves graduating from law schools and business schools, and have been for many years. It’s not new. I have to say it baffles me. I don’t get it.
RACHEL: We’ve seen progress in the House; we’ve seen progress, certainly, among governorships, the little bit of progress in the Senate. You’re right. It’s not like steaming toward a 50/50 system. There are exceptions to that. I mean, both Houses of the State Legislature in New Hampshire are dominated by women and led by women.
LESLEY: Do you know how big New Hampshire is?
RACHEL: I mean, I don’t know, overall, why we’re not getting better at that. I also don’t know how good a job it is to be a member of Congress, honestly. And I think that one of the things that I’ve found interesting is that so many of the national caliber female politicians that we have developed in this country, left and right, we have developed through governorships. People seem very willing to elect women as governors. I think that has an interesting dynamic of sexism or the lack thereof, because what governors are seen as … I mean, governors are sort of commanders in chief of their National Guard troops for that state. But it’s otherwise not a militarized position.
LESLEY: It’s an executive position and they are at the top of the pyramid. That’s very interesting, but I’m going to quickly change the subject and ask some questions about you. Can you give us a two-minute bio? Did you have a happy childhood? What were you like? How did you grow up? Who are you?
RACHEL: I was a middle-class kid who grew up in a nuclear family. My parents still live in the house where I grew up. I have one older brother. I went to public schools. I was a jock when I was a kid – I played three sports. I went to college quite near where I grew up. I grew up in the Bay area and then I went to Stanford and I sort of enjoyed college, but not really, and got out a little bit early. By that time, I was openly gay and I had been an AIDS activist from the time that I was about 17. And I threw myself into AIDS work and I did that as an activist for a decade, including doing my doctoral dissertation on an AIDS-related subject, and was working in that field when I came back to this country. I did my graduate work abroad.
LESLEY: Well, wait — don’t zip over that so fast. You were a Rhodes Scholar.
LESLEY: You got your doctorate, you’re actually Dr. Maddow, at Oxford.
RACHEL: Although it seems a bit embarrassing to call yourself when your doctorate is in politics.
LESLEY: But still, you are a screaming intellectual.
RACHEL: Well …
RACHEL: I think I was a good student. I’m not sure I’m a screaming intellectual. I was good at getting good grades and winning things. That was always my skill. But, yes, I did get my doctorate about which I’m very proud and I think it was on a good subject. I did it on an AIDS-related subject. I was a full time activist at the time that I got my first radio job in 2000.
LESLEY: A gay activist?
RACHEL: An AIDS activist. AIDS and prison reform were my fields, yeah.
LESLEY: I love this, you once told New York Magazine that you often forget that you’re gay and every once in a while you have to say to yourself, “Oh, my God. I’m gay!” Is that true?
RACHEL: Well, I’ve been out for most of my life. I’m 35 now and I came out when I was 17. So it’s something that I never have to —
LESLEY: You were in high school?
RACHEL: I was a year ahead. So it was right after I got to college.
LESLEY: Oh, OK.
RACHEL: And it’s just something that I don’t feel like I have to make conscious decisions about very often. I don’t often think about whether or not people know that I’m gay. I assume that everybody knows that I am. It’s integral.
LESLEY: And do you find that it’s not a problem for you? In other words, in your jobs that you’ve had, in your life since you came out – this has not been an issue that has prevented you from getting jobs? Or does it come up now?
RACHEL: Well, I don’t know what my life would have been like had I not been out. You know, I don’t know how things would have gone differently. And certainly you run up against homophobic people, or people who are fixated on the issue in every field, and in every environment. I don’t know how much they hold me back.
LESLEY: Didn’t you have some kind of a dustup with Pat Buchanan, whom you work with on your show a lot?
RACHEL: About me being gay?
LESLEY: Not about you being gay, but he saying something … I’m forgetting what it is. It’s popped into my head, something on air at one of the conventions.
RACHEL: I have talked to him a number of times. Both being on set with him at the same time, but also interviewing him about how his political stances on gay issues and the way he’s been willing to politicize gay rights in his sort of patented Pat Buchanan divisive way have been hurtful to me, and were hurtful to me when I was growing up. And he hears me and he understands what I’m saying. I’m not sure that he is particularly concerned that it hurt me. I think Pat knew what he was doing, with the way that he politicized issues like gay rights. And I don’t think it comes as a surprise to him to hear me say the way it affected me.
LESLEY: How does he respond when you tell him things like that?
RACHEL: He’s done it on the air so I guess you can roll the tape and see. But, you know, it doesn’t set him back. I think Pat’s a smart guy and I don’t think it bothers him.
LESLEY: Well, what about your relationship with him?
RACHEL: My relationship with him is, I think, one of respect. I certainly have a lot of respect for him even though I disagree with him vehemently. In terms of Pat’s role now, which is his post-running for president, post-activist role — he’s a full-time commentator. In his role as a commentator on television, he is a good debater. He’s an honest arguer and he listens to what people who are arguing against him are saying. And I appreciate that. I think he’s skilled at this low art that we all engage in. And he’s always been personally respectful to me. I’m happy to have the opportunity to argue with him.
LESLEY: You know, I interviewed Barney Frank, the Congressman, recently for a “60 Minutes” piece, which unfortunately you missed because you don’t have a television set …
RACHEL: I’m sorry.
LESLEY: … and you curl up with a whatever Sunday at seven. That’s two plugs I’ve made for “60 Minutes.” Anyway, he told me that he realized he was gay when he was very young and decided that he would never, ever, ever tell a single person. He was just going to bury it within him. Of course, he didn’t in the end. How young were you when you first realized it and how did you handle it at that point?
RACHEL: I probably came out publicly within six months of figuring out that I was gay. I mean, it’s a little murky, honestly, in retrospect. I don’t remember exactly how it all went. But I always knew there was something up. But I didn’t know what it was until I was about 16 or 17.
LESLEY: Did you go out with boys in high school?
LESLEY: Spin the bottle, and all that kind of stuff?
RACHEL: Oh, yeah. My prom pictures are hilarious.
LESLEY: You took a cute guy to the prom, or a cute guy took you to the prom, or whatever?
RACHEL: My most serious high-school boyfriend was a Marine. And so my senior prom picture is him in full dress uniform and he’s looking at the cameraman like he’s going to kill him with his eyes. And I’m there in a dorky powder-blue prom dress, looking like I don’t know.
LESLEY: I heard this other story about you that once, when you worked on a radio show, went out onto the street to have passersby guess whether you were a man or a woman. Is this true?
RACHEL: So funny. We were giving away tickets to “Victor/Victoria,” so it was the perfect stunt. This is, like, morning zoo radio. So we dressed me up as confusingly as possible. And so I wore a hoodie and big baggy jeans and boots. It was really funny. And the guy who was the host of the show with me thought it was the funniest thing he’d ever done in his life. And it was my idea, which he was just tickled by.
LESLEY: Did you get votes on both sides? Did some people think you were a man?
RACHEL: Oh, I’m sure they did. Yes.
LESLEY: Oh, come on.
RACHEL: No, I’m very androgynous looking. Trust me.
LESLEY: When “Saturday Night Live” made fun of you being gay a couple weeks ago, they had you — well, first of all, you had to love that they lampooned you. That’s got to be the height of —
RACHEL: Well, right at the top of the show it was very flattering.
LESLEY: It was the opening skit. So you did see that, right?
LESLEY: You watched that on television.
RACHEL: No, I watched that the next morning on the TV when they posted it on Hulu.
LESLEY: The skit had you interviewing Gov. Blagojevich, who keeps calling you Ellen and K.D. Lang and all things like that. So did you think it was funny, or did it bother you?
RACHEL: I did think it was funny. It’s never a good thing when you have to explain the joke. But if you explain the joke here, I think it helps to explain why I wasn’t offended. What “Saturday Night Live” was asking people to laugh at was the idea that Blagojevich would be so ostentatiously homophobic and crass. It was a Blagojevich joke, really.
RACHEL: The downer note about the skit is that Blagojevich, for all of his flaws, actually has a pretty great record on gay rights. But the larger meta-cultural fact that it would be funny for him to be that homophobic made it feel, to me, like it was not a dig at me. In contrast, when they did their skit about David Paterson a few weeks earlier, I felt like those jokes were just asking people to laugh at the fact that he was blind. And, in trying to watch that skit, I found myself unable to watch to the end of it because I thought it was too mean.
LESLEY: So how do you think Barack Obama’s doing?
RACHEL: Pretty well. He’s got a lot on his plate, obviously. Even if he didn’t have the crisis that we’re in right now, he’s got a lot on his plate to figure out how to come after the Bush administration. The executive orders that he made on his first day, about the process of governing, I thought were sort of a stroke of genius, in the sense that nobody expected the very first thing that he did to be essentially kneecapping the lobbyists. And that shows sophistication about the process of governing that I’m really glad we’ve got. Day one, we are going to change the way the federal government does its business, and the expectations of behavior and lack of conflict of interest among the people who have these important jobs. I just thought, wow, I didn’t see that coming. And, boy, I think that’s a good idea. So I was very happy by his first big symbolic acts. And then to have his first trip to a government department be to the State Department, to privilege and sort of elevate the State Department that way and give them that shot in the arm, and to give that show of support to Secretary Clinton and to give his first big foreign-policy address to the State Department. As a sort of a national security dork I thought that was very impressive.
LESLEY: Do you think that the media, in general, have been too fawning over him? I don’t know if they’re afraid or if it’s genuine, but I don’t know that it matters, that there hasn’t been the kind of scrutiny that we have a press for. Or has he just been too perfect?
RACHEL: You mean is he getting away with stuff? That people are giving him the benefit of the doubt?
LESLEY: No, it’s so gushy. It’s so over the top. It’s as if we’re inflating him. And I thought that his Inaugural speech was almost begging the public and the press not to inflate the expectations.
RACHEL: I’m not a student of the media. And so I can’t speak broadly for what else is going on in the media. It’s a topic about which I don’t feel all that qualified to opine.
LESLEY: Well, you’re part of it now.
RACHEL: I am part of it now. So I can talk about my coverage. I just can’t tell you very much about other peoples’ coverage. I think that one of the things going on is that the presidency of Barack Obama is conflated, in terms of us understanding its importance with the first black presidency in America. And so it is, actually, momentous and worthy of gushing to have an African American ascend to the presidency in this country. I think that is something that is a big, freaking, historic deal. And a lot of us, I think, feel compelled to say that. In terms of whether or not he’s going to be a great president, it remains to be seen. But he hasn’t, I think, done any big things wrong yet.
LESLEY: Do you think, as a self-proclaimed liberal, that you’re actually going to have trouble covering him? Do you find that having come off covering Bush, where it was so easy to be negative and to take your shots, that you’re going to find yourself in a difficult place?
RACHEL: No, I don’t. Honestly, it’s two things. The first is that I think there is no shortage of bad ideas in Washington and some of them will come from the administration, and some will come from the opposition. I enjoy making fun of a bad idea, no matter who says it. So that’s the first thing. I also don’t feel any loyalty or particular affection for any individual politician, the president included. I’ve never been much of a candidate person. I’m more of a policy person. And I’ve got plenty to say already about what he’s done, even just on Guantanamo torturing, those executive orders. My segment about those was about the loopholes that they leave open. That, yes, we’re closing Guantanamo, but we’re leaving open Bagram. And, yes, we’re ordering that the Army Field Manual be the standard for interrogations, but we’re leaving open the possibility that the CIA could still use some non-Army Field Manual interrogation techniques. And we’re pausing those military commissions, but why are we leaving open the possibility that they could come back? These are half measures. That sort of criticism that, I guess you could say, is me going after Obama from the left – I don’t think I’m going to have any shortage of material there. I don’t think he’s a particularly liberal guy.
LESLEY: That was interesting. And that kind of surprises me. I’m glad that you’re doing that, because I think that a president whose feet aren’t held to the fire right away, can get too heady.
LESLEY: What about your competition, Fox? The Bushies pretty much used Fox TV as a platform and they often got the best guests when big news broke. Cheney liked to go there, and other people you really, really wanted to interview and talk to. Do you think they’re going to be hurt and MSNBC helped with this administration?
RACHEL: I thought that the way that the Bush administration played the right-wing media was remarkable and very overt, and something they didn’t very much try to hide. In Talk Radio it was very clear. It was clear as night and day, because they would have these Talk Radio days at the White House where hosts, who were not even necessarily well-known hosts, from across the country, would be invited to the president and would get the entire Cabinet trooping through to do interviews. And I would always put in requests to be allowed to come. “Hey, I’m a national Talk Radio Show …” And it was like they couldn’t contain their laughter at the press office in trying to be polite to me in responding and telling me that they’re sorry, but they were all booked up. So it was very obvious the way they did that. I don’t have any reason to believe that the Obama administration is or isn’t going to behave that way.
LESLEY: No, I’ll bet he won’t. And very few administrations ever did. You know, I anchored “Face the Nation” through two presidents and they — it was Reagan and then it was Bush One. And Carter, as well. I was there. But they all really had a system of being completely fair among the networks, and rotating and so forth. And I’ll bet Obama goes back to that system.
RACHEL: I think it’s the right way to do it. I do think that Fox is different than other networks. I mean, I think that it is a bit of a political experiment.
LESLEY: But everybody thinks MSNBC is moving in that direction. That that’s exactly what the shift is — where you are — that people there are trying to make you into the un-Fox network, the liberal place to go.
RACHEL: Well, if you think about the way that Fox was founded, though – Fox was founded by Roger Ailes. It was created from his perspective as a political operative. His background was as a Republican activist of the highest order. There’s no equivalent on MSNBC. I think MSNBC is trying to find hit shows.
LESLEY: Everybody they hire to anchor their shows is distinctly liberal and encouraged to express themselves that way, wouldn’t you say?
RACHEL: At MSNBC?
RACHEL: Well, I wouldn’t call David Shuster a liberal. I would barely call Chris Matthews a liberal. He voted for Bush. And I certainly wouldn’t call Joe Scarborough a liberal.
LESLEY: Chris Matthews is a liberal.
RACHEL: Well, Chris Matthews is a Democrat.
LESLEY: He’s a liberal.
RACHEL: Chris Matthews – well, you could interview him about it and find out. If Chris Matthews had an Air America radio show, he’d get torn apart by our listeners.
LESLEY: So he doesn’t go that far. I see. OK.
RACHEL: No. I wouldn’t put Chris and my politics in the same canoe. I think that MSNBC is trying to find hit shows and is trying to be smart and it just seems like a different project than the reason that Fox was built.
LESLEY: I understand you’re writing a book.
RACHEL: I am. I’m doing a bad job of it, but I am, technically.
LESLEY: And it’s about the military?
RACHEL: It’s about the role of the military in American politics. It’s about how defense policy has drifted over the course of the last generation, so that there’s little useful, meaningful debate about it. At least that has been true. I’m a little bit stymied right now because a lot of the things that I want to say about what’s happened – the way that we’ve drifted in our defense policy – these arguments are being made by the new administration that just came in. So it doesn’t seem like a real radical point.
LESLEY: One last question. When you’re not working — and it sounds to me like you have such a full plate, between the radio show and the television show, every night, five nights a week — what do you do when you’re not studying and reading? What do you do for fun?
RACHEL: I have an 18-month-old black Lab, who requires a lot of attention, and a lot of dog walks in the woods. So I go home on the weekend to Massachusetts and I live really off the grid there, in a very rural part of the state, where we don’t have cell-phone service or anything like that. And I spend time with the dog and I work around the house and I make classic pre-prohibition-era cocktails for my girlfriend.
LESLEY: So you’re a bartender on top of everything else. I love it.
RACHEL: That is my hobby. I am a hobbyist bartender.
LESLEY: Excellent. Rachel, thank you so much. Will you come back again?
RACHEL: Oh, of course I will. You’re such a good interviewer. I feel like I’m inside out.