Rising from their seats en masse, the liberal faithful at Beverly Hills’ Saban Theatre greeted Rachel Maddow like parishioners welcoming a mega-church pastor.
Cellphone cameras flashed like fireworks. Lusty, and perhaps a few lustful, cheers cascaded from the Art Deco mezzanine.
Bill Maher, the interviewer at Tuesday night’s Writers Bloc public chat, turned to Maddow as they took the sold-out theater’s stage. How much of that do you think was for you, and how much was for me? Maher joked.
No offense, Bill, but on this night, in one of the bluest ZIP Codes of an indigo-hued state, it didn’t appear to be even close.
By many measures, Maddow, the 39-year-old star of a popular self-titled MSNBC news show, who self-identifies as “not a TV anchor babe” but “a big lesbian who looks like a man,” is the most revered figure in progressive media today, especially now that Keith Olbermann, who first brought Maddow to MSNBC as a substitute host, is on an involuntary hiatus from the airwaves.
Her national profile is likely to rise further this spring with the publication of her first book, “Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power.” The book, essentially a 261-page reported essay arguing that, over the last half-century, a feckless U.S. Congress has surrendered its constitutionally granted war-making powers to the president while the American public has been systematically blinded to combat’s gruesome realities, entered the New York Times bestsellers list this week at No.1.
War, in Maddow’s words, has become “frictionless” and painless for most Americans, except those actually fighting it, and she thinks it’s way past time for a national debate about how we got here. Asked by Maher what she thought the Founding Fathers would make of this state of affairs, Maddow responded with the rapid-fire colloquial humor that salts her TV commentary.
“I think they’d be pissed,” she told Maher. “Polls don’t determine whether or not we go to war. Congress is supposed to determine whether we go to war,” she added later.
In the 3 1/2 years since Maddow’s cable program premiered, the former AIDS activist and Air America talk-show host doesn’t think that much has changed for her in front of the camera. “I’m still wearing the same blazers. I think the (TV studio) lighting got better, and then it got worse.”
But Maddow’s geek-chic persona, a curious mixture of Rhodes scholar gym rat and data-parsing public policy wonk, has made her the professorial but good-humored pundit liberals adore and the relentlessly chipper anti-Rush Limbaugh that conservatives love to trash on Twitter.
Twenty-four hours before her Saban appearance, Maddow pulled her 6-foot frame up to a patio table at the Chateau Marmont, took a sip of dark beer and explained why she’d written a book that aims to be taken as seriously by scholars who comb through the citations in Foreign Affairs articles as by people who’d sell their grandmother into indentured servitude sooner than miss “The Colbert Report.”
Why did Maddow devote several years of her life to researching, then recounting, the largely forgotten 1983 Grenada invasion, the Iran-Contra arms-for-hostages scandal and the Clinton administration’s pioneering use of contract workers in the Balkans conflict, when America lately has been far more preoccupied with the sluggish economy and income inequality than with military policy?
“I don’t want to say that any one issue is the most important issue in the world or the most important issue for the country,” said Maddow, who speaks in long, finely chiseled paragraphs. “But to me, [this] is the driving and largely unexplored dynamic shaping the experience of modern America, especially the political experience of modern America.”
Nor is military over-stretch, and the post-Watergate phenomenon of the White House wresting power from Capitol Hill, a partisan issue, she insists. Although the book reserves its hardest knocks for Ronald Reagan — a man, Maddow writes, with “an unwavering and steadfast faith in the correctness of whatever came out of his mouth” — “Drift” doles out plenty of blame to Democrats as well.
From Lyndon Johnson ginning up the Vietnam debacle over the Gulf of Tonkin incident to the George W. Bush administration keeping Iraq war casualties’ coffins out of camera range, America’s slide into what Gore Vidal termed “perpetual war for perpetual peace” has been a two-party tango, Maddow asserts.
“I think that’s why you see so many young people even on the right attracted to the message of people like Ron Paul, attracted to sort of an old-school anti-interventionist stream of Republican thinking,” said Maddow, the daughter of a former U.S. Air Force captain.
“Drift” stands apart from most books by broadcast personalities that tend to be either triumphalist memoirs or purported prescriptions for whatever supposedly is ailing America at this very second. Drawing on her experience of writing her Oxford University doctoral thesis (on the politics of AIDS and prisons), Maddow said she knew she had to tackle the subject of “Drift” through the long-form medium of print rather than the short-form, “sound-bite” medium of television.
“To trick myself into making the time” to write, she holed up at her literary agent’s office in downtown Manhattan, sans Internet access. “It was like writing my dissertation, which almost also killed me.”
Whether “Drift” can float above the usual partisan fray of talk shows and the blogosphere is uncertain. So far its critical reception has skewed positive, along fairly familiar ideological lines. Janet Maslin of the New York Times praised “Drift” for building “a sustained, lucid case in which points are made logically and backed by evidence and reason,” although she chided its “sometimes too-smart-alecky style.”
Less expectedly, Fox News impresario Roger Ailes wrote in a book-jacket blurb: “People who like Rachel will love the book. People who don’t will get angry, but aggressive debate is good for America. ‘Drift’ is a book worth reading.”
Working at the ever-broadening intersection of journalism, opinion and entertainment, Maddow acknowledged that “my style of argumentation involves a lot of cheap humor because that’s the way I think I can do the best expository work that I do.”
“It’s not meant to be a distraction from the project; it sort of helps me.”
That combination made a fan of Jim Price, 65, a retired school teacher, and his wife, Tina, who drove in from Redlands to catch Tuesday night’s gig.
“What impressed me about her was her incredible intelligence and her youthfulness,” said Price, who was wearing a Beatles T-shirt.
“I think that a lot of us lost that who grew up in that earlier era, that enthusiasm for progressive causes.”