There's rarely any doubt where Rachel Maddow stands on an issue. She's a cable news headliner, and Rita Braver has been watching her in action ... both on the air, and off:
"This is a beautiful gun."
So maybe you wouldn't expect the woman wielding the Colt .45 pistol or the AR-15 rifle to be unabashedly left-leaning Rachel Maddow.
"Like, I'm a real liberal, even on, like, gun safety and gun control issues," said Maddow. "That said, I think that shooting is fun, and I think that shooting ranges are an excellent place to both learn about guns and to freak your friends out!"
Indeed, as the host of her own MSNBC show, Maddow delights in doing the unexpected.
For example, she's credited as one of the first national journalists to spotlight the lead in drinking water crisis in Flint, Michigan -- a story about which she said "it is starting to become inconceivable that no one has been jailed or impeached or recalled from office."
Spooling out the story, as she usually does, in a long, impassioned monologue...
"The kids of Flint, Mich., have been poisoned by a policy decision."
Her goal: To make you REALLY listen.
"Storytelling is fun for me," she explained. "But I also think when you're telling a good story, it sinks in more. That's a more influential way to communicate information rather than just reading the news."
Maddow is anything but a cookie-cutter cable anchor. Take her on-air wardrobe -- a rack of drab blazers. "It takes me about 15 seconds to get dressed, 'cause I only dress from the waist up," she said.
"So those jeans ... what you're wearing underneath [the desk]?"
"It's like a mullet: it's business upstairs, party downstairs."
And of course, there's the fact that in 2008 she became the first openly-gay American to host a national news show.
"You know, it's funny -- I came out when I was 17. Now I'm 42. So, I never lived an adult day of my life as either a straight person or a closeted person. That's been a baseline truth about what you're getting when you get me. But they made the gamble with me, and I've tried to be worthy of the confidence."
Raised in California, Maddow graduated from Stanford and went on to win a prestigious Rhodes Scholarship. She ended up in Western Massachusetts, working on her doctoral dissertation, and taking odd jobs.
"I remember applying to a video store -- this was when we still had video stores! -- and not getting a job," she said.
It was doing a yard work job in 1999 that she met her partner, Susan Mikula. They've been together ever since.
But surprisingly, while she has been an advocate of the right for gays and lesbians to marry, her personal decision so far has been not to get married.
When asked to explain, Maddow said. "It's private. You know what? It's a private -- there's a lot about my relationship with Susan that we just keep to ourselves. And so I have a strong feeling on equal rights. I'm an unabashed advocate that people in this country should have equal access to the rights and privileges of citizenship. But in terms of what that means for my own relationship -- eh, that's my own relationship."
And, Maddow says, Mikula is the one who helps her deal with a difficult and recurring problem: depression.
Her strategy for coping?
"The time when it's hardest is when I have forgotten that this happens to me and so I don't know what it is and she will say, 'You are depressed,' and just being able to identify it and then knowing that it's not going to be forever and that it will pass and that it will ease at some point, helps."
The two share a Manhattan apartment. "It was actually a paper storage facility, a paper storage warehouse," Maddow said.
In fact, Maddow says she never expected to end up in New York. It was back in Massachusetts that she heard a local radio host needed a new sidekick.
"It's minimum wage, it's early morning before I go do my other jobs, and they hired me on the spot," she said.
She did so well that by 2005 she was hosting a daily radio show on the liberal Air America network.
Soon she was in demand as a liberal talking head on cable news, which in turn led to MSNBC offering her a show of her own.
And it is her own. She leads her daily staff meeting, in part, like a general plotting a campaign.
And like a general, she is clearly in charge of what happens on her watch.
"I have worked with producers who expected that they would set the tone of the show, and that I would follow along, and that has not worked out," Maddow laughed.
What has worked out is that Maddow has the top-rated show on MSNBC, though she ruefully admits, she's still beaten by Fox's "Kelly File."
- Megyn Kelly and the question that changed her life forever ("Sunday Morning," 04/03/16)
Still, Maddow has become a face of her network -- on the election set, and even moderating a Democratic debate with NBC's Chuck Todd, though it was some post-debate hugs that drew conservative ire.
Maddow claims Sanders started it: "But if I'm gonna hug him, I better hug her!" she said. "The die was cast -- as soon as he went like this, it was over."
"Have you sworn off hugging?" Braver asked.
"Oh, no, I'm a hugger. Watch, when this is over I'm gonna sneak up on you and give you a hug!"
But Maddow is really embracing the current political drama. So, what does she make of this year?
"Everybody thought this was going to be a boring year," she said, "and this is the universe giving that a one-finger salute!"
It has kept Rachel Maddow on the run (literally), making her nightly dash onto the set just minutes before her show starts. "I do feel like I'm a racehorse ready to go, ready to sprint."
Doing a job that she still can't believe she gets to do.
"And by the time that camera comes on, it's like we're getting shot out of a gun -- and I love it every night. I love it."
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