The start of the “Rachel Maddow Show” on October 10 made for some pretty arresting TV. The daily MSNBC talk show, which premiered in late September, had as its lead topic the increasingly hateful and obnoxious crowds that have been whipped up as some sort of strategy by both John McCain and his running mate Sarah Palin. Things had reached a breaking point, and so too, had the 31-year old host, herself an incisive political analyst, Stanford-educated and a former Rhodes Scholar at Oxford. That Friday was also the day that John McCain ran into a nasty crowd and tried to placate it by saying that that Obama “was an honorable man” while supporters tried to boo him. One elderly woman went so far as to call Obama an “Arab” as she stood there, microphone in hand, as McCain quickly tried to correct her. It was both an uncomfortable and remarkable moment. This is where the McCain/Palin campaign, so bereft of message and purpose and cynical enough to have us believe it’s better to simply smear, that it has now been able to rile up people in ways that have become coarse and divisive, and sometimes downright dangerous.
If this weren’t enough to raise anyone’s hackles, there was more. At a debate the previous evening between Senate candidates in Georgia, supporters for incumbent Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss grew vicious each time the name Barack Obama was mentioned. One yahoo in the crowd, all captured on camera, could be heard yelling “Bomb Obama!”. “Bomb Obama?”, sternly asks Maddow incredulously about 2:00 into the clip, her patience thin. Then she launches into a photo display of several instances in which our civil rights history –long ago and not so long ago—shows Black leaders firebombed or killed by bigots who simply disagreed with them. Harry Moore, the head of the NAACP chapter in Jacksonville, FLA, with his wife, in 1964, bombed and murdered; the “four little girls” at the church in Birmingham, AL in 1963; a bombing of a synagogue in 1958 in Atlanta; well, you get Maddow’s point and it’s an arresting, in-your-face bit of television.
Such is the arresting power of Rachel Maddow. She is fearless when she needs to be, forceful and extremely articulate when discussing a topic or controlling a discussion with her panel of guests. And why shouldn’t she be this way? From all accounts, she doesn’t seem to fit any kind of mold of what a TV talking head is, even one like her colleagues at MSNBC. And maybe this is why she is so seamless, cutting through topics, asking direct questions and setting up effective follow-ups. Maybe that’s why she is scoring impressive numbers, especially in the valuable 25-54 demographic of TV viewers; she has routinely beaten the venerable “Larry King Live” on CNN in the ratings.
Maddow and King couldn’t be more different. King doesn’t seem to have any substantive command of any topic, preferring gentle softballs and simply moderating between a dizzying array of guests who may be in different cities on remote. King has been known to get too comfy with his guests as well, never challenging them too much. Maddow prefers the back-and-forth constantly, and she debates masterfully, defining an argument fairly, then working to find flaws in her guests’ explanations and not being content with pat, or overscripted responses that don’t go beyond a shallow talking point. But it’s not just her approach that matters.Her famous colleagues at MSNBC, Chris Matthews and Keith Olbermann, aren’t what you would call shrinking violets. Both blowhards have had their reputations tarnished this year with their over-the-top coverage of the presidential campaign. Matthews reported on air that he “felt a tingle in his leg” for Obama and has roundly been unfair and sexist to Hillary Clinton. Olbermann’s “Countdown” show is only slightly more watchable only because of the sharp wit and writing of the host, who commandeers the show like an ESPN “Sportscenter” telecast –fitting, too, that it’s where he hails from. Yet Olbermann has also been stridently critical of the Bush White House, and of the McCain campaign. The other night, in a “special segment”, he vigorously blasted McCain over his apparent hypocrisy over calling himself a victim in the nasty attacks he claims are coming from the Obama camp when it has been his team (and virulent volunteers at his rallies) who have become so riled up, causing civil rights hero Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) to liken the McCain campaign to divisive and racist tactics of a George Wallace.
The problem with Matthews and, perhaps less Olbermann, is that they are essentially caricatures. Matthews is nothing if not an annoying egotist; he craves the attention and approval of those he shamelessly idolizes, be it Tom Brokaw or, as an crushing profile in the New York Times suggested earlier this year, the late Tim Russert. His syndicated “Chris Matthews Show” plays like a poor man’s “McLaughlin Group”, with him hectoring his guests and yelling his “own views” while cutting people’s sentences off. And yet this, and Olbermann’s “worst person of the day” stunts are gimmicks disguised as analysis. They’re meant only to provoke, to provide a “gotcha”, let’s-see-who-yells loudest moment. For a broadcaster who has made it an almost-near obsession with attacking that other loudmouth on Fox, Bill O’Reilly, Olbermann runs the risk of becoming like him one of these days in his heavy-handedness and lack of irony.
In the fall, MSNBC tried to set out a new course, after the network demoted both Matthews and Olbermann following what it saw was bizarre hosting duties by the two during the summer, especially at the Republican National Convention. You didn’t see the two egos fighting, with tiny vicious asides to each other on air? Snide, petty stuff, for sure, but also completely understandable when you measure the oversized egos that could barely fit on the MSNBC anchor desk. David Gregory was brought in to head the political coverage instead, and he has done so admirably. The other stellar host at MSNBC/NBC is Chuck Todd, the political director who had been mentored by Russert and who provides some of the freshest analysis and polling data anywhere without any pretense whatsoever.
Enter Maddow, whose show premiered this fall as well, up against the well-oiled (too-oiled?) machine known as Larry King at 9PM ET/6PM PT. Part of Maddow’s appeal is that she is direct and doesn’t for a moment speak down to her audience. When she spars with her guests, it isn’t mean-spirited or set up in such a way to allow her to talk over guests and interrupt them when they disagree, a disturbing “O’Reilly Factor” tactic that appeals to some –the same yahoos who watch some of the TV talk shows that are entirely one-sided and partisan. Maddow does have a point of view but she doesn’t pontificate. She doesn’t use gimmicky lists or cute charts to make her points and the amount of work that must go into producing her daily hour-long telecasts certainly shows.
Take the astonishing interview she did on October 13 with David Frum, former Bush speechwriter and American Enterprise Institute (AEI, right-wing think tank). Maddow had opened the show with a full menu of statements that showed the GOP in a “Grand Old Panic”. In video clips and statements, Sarah Palin is delivering inconsistent messages, conservative columnists like George Will, Kathleen Parker and Charles Krauthammer are criticizing the McCain/Palin campaign, and one prominent one, Bill Kristol of the New York Times, actually calls for McCain to “junk” his whole effort and start over. Maddow presents all of this information fairly dispassionately (save, perhaps, for the “Ouch” that she utters). Frum comes on and then accuses her of “slanted journalism” and that the “sarcasm” is making the election a “spectator sport” and drawing people away into a world of cynicism where nothing is taken seriously. At about 4:40 into the video, Maddow challenges this very charge:
“Do you think that my tone on this show is equivalent to people calling Barack Obama someone who ‘pals around’ with terrorists, someone who yells at McCain rallies, ‘Bomb Obama’, ‘Off with his head’, “Kill him’? Are you accusing me of an equivalence in tone?”
Frum, like the slimy thin-lipped bully that he is, denies this, saying that it’s about “managing” how to present news. “The fact that others fail in some ways is no excuse to fail in yours” —which is interesting: the statements are all there, from Palin’s tightly managed and choreographed speeches, which must be the “failings” that Frum is talking about. It’s all there for us to see and hear –there is no uncertainty. But to lay a charge that the media is somehow distorting this through humor and sarcasm is ludicrous. It doesn’t take much to watch the spectacle of a sputtering McCain and a shockingly out-of-her-depth Palin out on the stump and not be, well, 1) shocked; 2) uninspired; 3) angry; 4) all of the above and then back again, in any order.
But Maddow goes further in responding to Frum’s attacks. It’s not that she is put on the defensive. It’s that she smartly obliterates the substance in his argument, instead of simply seeming to defend how she does her show. It is about information and how it’s presented. And to some it needs some satire or humor, but the facts are out there to be seen. The pompous and sanctimonious lie that he tells is that somehow his party is above all this, that they don’t engage in attacks or nasty humor. When Maddow brings up the “qualitative difference” in the hateful remarks at the speeches, and the moral responsibility for McCain to put an end to it, Frum actually, for a second, tries to deny that it really even happened (“I wasn’t there”). He squirms visibly as Maddow comes back over and over again; it’s as if he didn’t think she would fire back, and fire hard. Clearly both are rattled, but it’s Frum who doesn’t say anything substantive and it is he who is pwned.
With its sharpness and frankness, “The Rachel Maddow Show” is the best political talk-show on TV today. Part of what makes Maddow so refreshing is that she is unafraid to express herself. An out lesbian, she also does not fit the mold of the –and I don’t mean to sound sexist—trappings that many attractive TV women hosts or anchors have to deal with –i.e., the sense that looks are paramount and that would always be compared to their male counterparts. I don’t think it occurs to Maddow that she could be compared to a Chris Matthews, or even an Anderson Cooper at CNN, probably the male host whom she most resembles for their incisive delivery. It’s just hard to imagine Maddow as being intimidated. She also doesn’t suffer fools –the David Frums who come on her show are free to spout inaninities disguised as “intelligent discourse” but it is Maddow who exposes their circular logic, and does so without resorting to nasty attacks.
This is also the same person who counts another formidable political figure on the right, Pat Buchanan, as one of her favorite guests. “Uncle Pat”, as she calls him, became her lightning rod for becoming more active in politics; she cites his speech at the 1992 Republican National Convention, in which he decried a “culture war” against homosexuals, as something formative in her own development, leading her to become an activist at ACT-UP and later, an on-air host of the liberal-leaning Air America. What makes her relationship to Buchanan so interesting is that they actually enjoy sparring with each other. Yes, they are from two different political viewpoints, but it’s how they go back and forth, the verbal play, the devices they use to make their points, etc., that makes them an unlikely, though engaging pair.