Rachel Maddow: How This Wonky-Tonk Woman Won TV

 Virginia Sherwood/NBC

MSNBC's primetime superstar delivers news with agenda, but not hysteria, as her style of civil political discussion reveals a turning tide (even Roger Ailes says Fox News has gone too far) that may help stem cable's ratings erosion in an increasingly unpleasant political environment.

"I decided at the start of this that there are certain things that you need to do visually in order to be on TV," she says. "Like you need to wear a blazer and you need to have makeup put on you. You need to meet some basic conventions. I have a monochrome rainbow of the exact same $19 blazers [from H&M]. If you can commit to meeting those basic conventions in a way that is as low friction as possible, then you don't have to think about it again. The not thinking about it is an active value for me."

Maddow -- AIDS activist, Rhodes scholar and defense nerd (she's writing a book on the military, and her father is a former Air Force captain) -- is something of an anomaly in the old boys club of cable news punditry. She approaches her show as an advocate, dedicating extensive coverage to an anti-homosexuality bill in Uganda that sought to criminalize same-sex relations, prisoner abuse in the Los Angeles County Jail and frequent segments on AIDS policy in the U.S.  She runs the daily 2 p.m. editorial meeting like a graduate seminar, challenging her young staff of a dozen producers to defend their segment pitches. A recent meeting on the afternoon the Obama administration announced that a drone strike had killed radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, an Al Qaeda leader and American citizen, revolves around due process but also the "cognitive dissonance" of the Republican narrative that Democrats are soft on terror.

"It's hard to have due process with a drone. And Jesus Christ, who is Obama not going to kill? I feel like we could do the whole show on al-Awlaki," says Maddow. "I don't know if we should."

Executive producer Bill Wolff votes yes. "It's not like anybody's flocking to cable news right now. It would be a brand play," he says.

"It has to pay off though," says Maddow. "I think the key is to not stretch to do it, but to be qualitatively rigorous." But while she earnestly stands up for pet causes, she's also just as comfortable launching zingers at right-wing foes. She compares New Jersey Governor Chris Christie -- who was being urged to enter a bereft Republican presidential field -- to Triumph, the Insult Comic Dog. "He's Christie, the Insult Comic Governor," she says.

The trademark sarcasm belies the one point right and left actually agree on: Maddow may be the most likable partisan person on TV. It's a position she took early on. McCain-Palin campaign adviser Nicolle Wallace met Maddow at the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver, a couple weeks before the premiere of Maddow's show, and Maddow asked Wallace if McCain would be willing to be a guest on her program.

"I think I'd [just] been booed by the Democrats who were standing around the MSNBC stage," says Wallace "I remember thinking, who is she kidding?! I am not going to put John McCain on MSNBC."

A few days later, Griffin called Wallace to press Maddow's case. "He said she was genuine and if McCain went on she would treat him with the utmost respect. And I remember thinking either they're all spinning me or this is going to be something different than what MSNBC has typically put on in primetime."

Wallace did not put McCain on, but these days, Wallace herself, and a handful of other opposing voices, are frequent guests.

"We just click," says erstwhile RNC chairman and on-air sparring partner Michael Steele. "She listens. It's one of the reasons I love going on her show. And when it's all said and done, no one is angry, no one is bloody."

“I certainly don’t agree with her politics at all, but she's a really nice person,” says Tucker Carlson, libertarian and founder of conservative web site The Daily Caller. “It’s very hard to find people who can argue well, who can argue from principal. She’s a person of principal.” 

Even the king of confrontation, Olbermann, respects Maddow's likability. "I think Rachel abhors being considered sweet," he says. "But there's a huge sweet streak right down the middle of her."

But her sunny disposition and respectful tone has not made it any easier for her to book major GOP guests -- unlike, say, Jon Stewart, whose show has a certain cachet for Republicans.

"I actually have a surprising number of Republican sources, maybe even more than I have Democratic sources," says Maddow. "But that doesn't mean they want to come on the air -- and that's the ultimate goal. I am buoyed by the fact that there are Republicans who have just seen me on TV and think, 'You know what, I could have a fruitful conversation with her that might help her understand the Republican world a little bit better.'"

But Maddow still manages to mingle convivially with those on the other side of the aisle and even had a brush with conservative kingmaker Sarah Palin at the White House Correspondents' Dinner afterparty in April. Maddow, who is an amateur mixologist, was tending bar at the Italian Embassy fete when Fox News host Greta Van Susteren introduced her to the former Alaska governor. Palin complimented an MSNBC ad that has Maddow sitting on the floor in her office surrounded by piles of paper.  "She thought it reflected well on us that we had chosen to highlight the work ethic behind the show," recalls Maddow. "And I thought that was an insightful analysis and a really nice thing to say."

And she has made very few enemies in a business marked by sharp elbows. Her not speaking to onetime mentor Olbermann since he left MSNBC is not out of emnity. "I'm not purposely avoiding him," she insists. "I think we've both been pretty busy."

But MSNBC executives were rankled by Olbermann's public statements about his intention to recruit Maddow to join him at Current TV, where he relaunched Countdown in June. And in July, they pre-emptively extended Maddow's contract, which had more than a year left, locking her in well beyond the 2012 election. Her new deal certainly came with a nice raise from the $2 million she was reportedly making -- and it's a far cry from the $6,000 per month she used to make at Air America.

“There isn’t any other job in TV that I want. There isn’t any other job in politics that I want,” says Maddow. “This is my goal and my big goal is to finally do this right. Someday I’m going to do the show I want to do.”

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