When Rachel Maddow rose to prominence in the lead-up to the 2008 presidential election, she was an obvious role model for me. I was a 16-year-old lesbian Democrat. I lived for Model Congress. I even had a dog-eared pocket Constitution. I admired her eloquence, her learnedness, and the confidence with which she argued against older, mostly male, conservative bullies. I read in a profile of Maddow that she had met her girlfriend, Susan, while working as Susan's gardener in Northampton, Massachusetts. This girl I was obsessed with claimed to be "really hot for Rachel Maddow," despite otherwise dating boys whose biggest interest was Olde English 40's. I admired Maddow's political savvy; she gave me romantic hope for the future.
I'm not a Democrat anymore (I don't identify with any major American political party), and Rachel Maddow has gone from renegade pundit to cable-news fixture. She has covered two presidential elections on her namesake MSNBC show, won an Emmy, and written a book on the role of the military in postwar American politics. She's carved out a space for herself in public discourse as more of a pragmatic interrogator than a leftist ideologue, developing long-standing relationships with both conservative and progressive politicians.
Last night, she co-moderated a Democratic debate at the University of New Hampshire. I called Maddow last week as she rode to work at 30 Rock, hoping to get some insight into her journey from AIDS activist to sparring partner of Pat Buchanan. We spoke two days before she hosted a town hall on the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. I was, as always, struck by the way she speaks and how much she knows. She was warm, curious, and receptive. She wanted to have a conversation, not be interviewed. By the end, I understood better why she loves her job and why she's been so successful at it.
Grace Dunham: You've had so many iterations of your political life. You worked in academia. You were an AIDS activist. Now you're an analyst of mainstream American politics. Did you expect when you were in your 20s that you'd end up doing this kind of political work?
Rachel Maddow: Never in a million years. I feel like I don't want to model this form of ambition or behavior. There's nothing about the way my life unfolded that should be seen as at all prescriptive for what anybody else wants to do. I never thought when I was a kid that I would become an adult. I never thought of myself as having any sort of distant horizon. I have sort of leapt without a master plan.
I think part of it is that I realized I was gay when I was a teenager and I couldn't imagine what it meant to be a gay adult. I just did the next thing that seemed right, and that led me from activism to media to the kind of media I'm in now. But I like where I've ended up.
GD: What did you think about America, and about mainstream politics, when you were coming of age?
RM: I didn't think about it that much. I never cared that much about candidates, with one exception: I remember when Bill Clinton topped Bush. I was in college at the time. That was in 1992. I remember saying to my roommate's parents in New Jersey, "I don't really care. I don't think things are going to change, but it's nice to think that the president probably doesn't hate me."
My idea of what was going on in politics was driven by activism. I came out when I was 17, and right away I started working in the AIDS activist movement. For me, politics was about getting drugs approved and getting prisoners access to the same kind of drugs that you could get on the outside. It was about getting needle exchanges approved. That was politics. These were policy problems that were killing people, and we were trying to get them changed.