Despite the huge crowd, bright lights, and lavish theater setting, Rachel Maddow’s book tour event, “A Conversation with Rachel Maddow”, mostly did feel like a conversation. The Riverside Theater’s stage was set with two cozy armchairs separated by a floor lamp and coffee table this Saturday, looking more like a college study lounge than a Milwaukee landmark. Guests filtered in, listening to college-friendly music (Feist, Ben Folds, and Vampire Weekend) while chatting with friends or leafing through Maddow’s new book—Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power—as they found their places among the two-thousand-odd theater seats. The atmosphere was casual but distinctly energized, populated with a bright, impassioned audience ready to engage.
Before the show, pockets of applause erupted as notable guests arrived, including Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett; clearly, the crowd was awake. Still, I wasn’t prepared for the explosive standing ovation Maddow would elicit the moment she took the stage. Like many, I’m a fan of MSNBC’s The Rachel Maddow Show; I respect her intelligence (she’s a Rhodes Scholar, you know), and I’m charmed by her trademark “adorkable” humor. But who knew she was a bona fide superstar? Upon hearing the whoops and hollers, she humbly laughed it all off, implying that this is a conversation, not a rock concert. “Have you guys met each other?” she asked, joking that since she was raised Catholic, she felt we should offer each other the sign of peace, Sunday mass-style.
This was a cute way to start the evening. More than that, though, it set the tone; after all, “catholic” means “universal”, and the sign of peace invites churchgoers to express their mutual love and respect for each other through contact. Throughout the event, Maddow would stress her promotion of intelligent discourse, mutual respect, and human connection to change America for the better. We should use our ideological differences to solve problems, not to victimize one other, she argued. America should go to war as a nation (if we go at all), not simply ship troops off and forget about them, letting the decision-making process slip away from us. We should expect more from Congress, ourselves, each other. We should all be in this together.
Of course, she didn’t say all that up front; she just made a pithy joke about Catholicism and then answered the first, easygoing interview question: “What cocktail goes best with Drift?” Everyone laughed. Maddow—ever the witty mixologist—answered “a French 75”, named after a French artillery piece. She listed the ingredients with the animation of a Food Network star but the intimacy of a charming party host.
Then she moved on to other questions. Roughly half the discussion was devoted to Drift and the military, while the rest revolved around Wisconsin politics, her MSNBC show, and her own musings and advice. (The evening’s final question wondered how young people could actively create the world they want to live in.) Notably, many of these questions were written by audience members and chosen by the event host, Next Chapter Bookshop owner Lanora Haradon Hurley. Even before the show, we were invited to engage via e-mail.
Turning the subject matter of Drift into a laugh-studded discussion is no small task, but Maddow managed to keep it light yet substantive. When describing how America began to drift from a nation that was fully involved during wartime—sending reservists, guardsmen, enlisted soldiers, draftees, and some professional military members overseas when necessary—to a country separated from the process of war, she reflected on President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s choice to increase the Vientnam War draft in order to, ahem, avoid distressing Americans. The audience tittered. Imagine, we said with our laughter, increasing the draft in an effort not to worry anyone! It’s absurd, the way American Homeland Security money spent on small-town fire trucks and water system upgrades is absurd. It’s funny (if distressing) and interesting.
Maddow took the funny/distressing/interesting tactic elsewhere during the talk. She took particular glee in roasting current Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney for supporting “the concept of equal pay” for equal work, while refusing to say if he actually supports the Fair Pay Act. She drew out the word “concept” excessively—“the caaaahcept of equal pay”—practically choking on it with the delivery of a stand-up comedian or, say, the funniest guest at the party. It’s the kind of condescending humor that irks Republicans and woos Democrats even deeper into love. As a moderate liberal, I chuckled.
On the other hand, Wisconsin politics were not so funny. Deafening boos erupted from the Milwaukee audience when the names Scott Walker and Paul Ryan came up. The state has been in the national spotlight for months now, with its union-related protests and recall elections. When Maddow asked the crowd if we knew why American is so fixed on Wisconsin, one bold audience member shouted, “It’s because of you!” The political commentator balked at that a bit, saying modestly that no, really, she feels like just another American watching Wisconsin’s action because the state reminds Democrats of what they—“the people who have to work for a living”—stand for. But really, American is kind of watching Wisconsin because of Maddow and others like her. Still, she’s reluctant to accept credit.
Early in the talk, Maddow mused that when she heard Drift would top The New York Times bestseller list for the third consecutive week, she wanted to ask everyone, “Do you guys know what this thing is about?” But that’s the thing: I’m convinced (especially after Saturday’s event) that if she’d simply called it The Rachel Maddow Book and philosophized about broad political topics and not how America goes to war, many people would still read it. That’s a dangerous power, but not one she misuses. Her work is always thoroughly researched and coherently presented. From where I stand, she uses her considerable powers—her humor, her intellect, her warmth—for good. If she wasn’t on TV, I’m sure she’d make an excellent, influential teacher.
The genius of Rachel Maddow is her ability to be such a super-achiever (she cited the “competitive spirit” as a vital contribution to broad influence) while also being so easygoing, so relatable. She’s the Rhodes Scholar who was once landscaper. She’ll admit what she doesn’t know without mentioning Socrates. This is all done consciously, no doubt, but it’s attractive all the same. She’s the liberal cable news anchor who actually wants to hear from her disparagers. She seems open, civil…even nice.
At one point, Maddow told the audience that she doesn’t really mind that people disagree with her; what really disturbs her is indifference. The best ideas emerge from smart debate, so we should come together for that—to discuss, to act, as well as to vote in large numbers (with none of this shady voter restriction business), to welcome war veterans home with parades. Whether you agree with her politically or not, it’s tough to deny that she’s changing the conversation, making it more engaging, more inclusive, more civil.