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Rachel Maddow Interview: Questions Obama’s Re-Election Chances, Gay Marriage and the Tea Party

Issue 36 Cover Rachel Maddow
Bill Phelps

In the Hollywood and Politics issue of The Hollywood Reporter, the MSNBC host admits she’s ambivalent about gay marriage and recalls her meeting with Republican kingmaker Sarah Palin.

Rachel Maddow is an anomaly in the rough-and-tumble world of cable news personalities. The first openly gay woman to host her own primetime news show, Maddow spends ten minutes in the makeup chair, shuns ego-building extracurricular activities and has an on-air wardrobe consisting of a monochrome selection of $19 dollar blazers from H&M. She prefers to focus her energies on the substance of her show, which she approaches as an advocate, focusing considerable coverage on causes close to her heart including AIDS health policy and civil rights. And she’s carved out a niche as a reasoned and respectful interlocutor, inviting those with opposing opinions on her show for adult conversation not gotcha moments.

It has paid off for MSNBC. The Rachel Maddow Show, which bowed in September 2008 in the midst of a white-hot presidential election season, was the most successful launch in the network’s history. And since the departure of Keith Olbermann last January, Maddow has become the network’s top-rated personality with nearly a million viewers a night and besting CNN’s Piers Morgan at 9 p.m. [Fox News’ Sean Hannity is the leader in the timeslot among cable news competition.]

PHOTOS: Rachel Maddow's Feuds

It’s no coincidence that Maddow’s brand-defining, kill-them-with-kindness dominance at MSNBC comes during a particularly vituperative political climate. Maddow may be a lefty, but she’s won friends and admirers on both sides of the aisle. ("We just click," says former Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele).

THR's senior writer Marisa Guthrie recently spent a hectic afternoon at Maddow's Rockefeller Plaza offices as the host prepared for that evening's show. Though she was gracious with her time (what little of it she had to spare) she wondered aloud why the Hollywood Reporter was putting her on the cover of its Hollywood and Politics issue. And when a stylist presented her with several wardrobe choices, she joked: “When other people try to dress me, the whole androgynous thing goes away and I just end up looking like an ugly man or a 14-year-old boy.”

Among the most surprising facts from this week's THR cover story:

-- SHE'S AMBIVALENT ABOUT GAY MARRIAGE

Maddow and girlfriend Susan Mikula have been together since 1999, but they have no immediate wedding plans. "We know a lot of people who have gotten married but I don't think we feel any urgency about it." Later she admits she's actually ambivalent about the cultural impact of gay marriage. "I feel that gay people not being able to get married for generations, forever, meant that we came up with alternative ways of recognizing relationships," she explains. "And I worry that if everybody has access to the same institutions that we lose the creativity of subcultures having to make it on their own. And I like gay culture."

PHOTOS: Rachel Maddow On Sarah Palin, President Obama and the Tea Party

-- SHE MET SARAH PALIN WHILE BARTENDING

Maddow, who is an amateur mixologist, was tending bar at the White House Correspondents' Dinner afterparty at the Italian embassy in April 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."

-- SHE HASN'T SPOKEN TO KEITH OLBERMANN SINCE HE LEFT MSNBC IN JANUARY

The host of Countdown With Keith Olbermann abruptly broke off his relationship with the news network at the beginning of 2011. Though he was a mentor for Maddow and her first TV hosting gig came as his fill-in, the two haven't spoken. But she says it's not out of enmity. "I'm not purposely avoiding him," she insists. "I think we've both been pretty busy." Of Maddow, Olbermann says, "I think Rachel abhors being considered sweet. But there's a huge sweet streak right down the middle of her."

PHOTOS: The Most Talked-About TV News Faces

-- SHE TURNS DOWN EVERYTHING THAT ISN'T HER TV SHOW… UNLESS YOU'RE GEORGE CLOONEY

"My agent [Jean Sage] has a standing order from me, if I am asked to do something that is not my TV show, the answer is no," she says. However, she does have a cameo in George Clooney's upcoming movie The Ides of March, where she plays herself. "My agent was like 'George Clooney called. I know, it's no.' And I was like, 'Oh really, George Clooney? It's really hard to say no to him.' So there I am, I'm a Hollywood sucker. I'll do anything for George Clooney."

-- SHE'S NOT ABOVE A GOOD ZINGER AT A POLITICAL FOE

She compares New Jersey Governor Chris Christie to Triumph, the Insult Comic Dog. "He's Christie, the Insult Comic Governor," she says. She conjures a 1950s singer to explain Republican apathy toward yet another Mitt Romney candidacy. "He's been running forever, he's finally the front-runner, and the collective Republican response is to go all Peggy Lee on him: 'Is That All There Is?'"

STORY: Rachel Maddow: A Day in the Life
 
-- RE-ELECTION FOR PRESIDENT OBAMA IS GOING TO BE HARD
 
President Obama’s poll numbers have take a dive as unemployment has hit record highs. And while all of MSNBC’s primetime hosts are clearly aligned with the Democrats, Maddow says that re-election for Obama is going to be an uphill battle. “No presidential election is exactly like any other… but if past is prologue, it’s going to be hard simply because of the economy. That said, it is inconceivable that any of the current candidates could beat him.”

-- MSNBC EXECUTIVES PRE-EMPTIVELY LOCKED HER INTO A NEW CONTRACT

Olbermann’s statements about his intention to one-day recruit Maddow to join him at Current TV, where he re-launched Countdown last June, rankled MSNBC executives. And so they preemptively extended Maddow’s contract – with a nice raise over the reported $2 million she was pulling in before – to keep her at the network well beyond the 2012 election. She did not actually receive any overtures from Olbermann. “There isn’t any other job in TV that I want,” she says. “There isn’t any other job in politics that I want. 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.”
 
-- SHE HAS POOR TIME-MANAGEMENT SKILLS

At 8:45 p.m., fifteen minutes before she must be in her seat to start her broadcast, Maddow heads to the makeup chair. This is a nightly ritual, except some nights she does not have even this much time. "On Wednesday night I sat down [at the anchor desk] at 24 seconds before 9 o'clock," she admits. "I"m not proud of that. What if I had been 25 seconds later?" Her time-management issues are a by-product of her perfectionist work ethic and what executive producer Bill Wolff calls her "bad radio habits." He explains: "She used to have a three-hour radio show every day." But now she orders up more stories than can ever fit into a 44-minute TV hour. "We produce more TV than ever gets on the air," he says.

Read the full cover story here.