That Monday, Maddow beat Larry King in the ratings, a rare feat for MSNBC, and she also beat him the first week, and the first month. Seven weeks later, on the eve of the presidential election, Barack Obama summoned her to Florida to interview him, and she was made. This spring, her book on the arcane topic of the national-security state stayed at number one for more than a month. Her show – no less partisan or liberal than Olbermann’s, but marked by less conflict and more explication, less righteous fury and more policy wonkery – has become a prototype for MSNBC, a new idea for how liberal anger might play on TV, and the network has added shows by hosts who think very much like she does: Chris Hayes, Melissa Harris-Perry. “She’s a model for everyone at this channel,” says Phil Griffin, the head of MSNBC. “They look at her and, in their own ways, they want to be like her.”
Yet Maddow’s success has left her feeling anguished – over the complicated irony of being the avowed outsider, the lesbian AIDS activist, who has become part of the establishment. Angst is such a deep and familiar subject to her that she says the word with the original German pronunciation – ongst. “The outsider thing is just dyed-in-the-wool for me,” she says. “I’ve never been much of a joiner.” Maddow comes to Washington each year during the weekend of the White House Correspondents Dinner. The compromise she makes between her revulsion at the capital and her obligation to be there is to skip the event itself, agreeing to attend the MSNBC afterparty only if she can serve as bartender and avoid mingling with the political elite. “I told them the only way I’ll come is if I can work the party,” she says. And so here she is, at the end of April, pouring drinks across a massive wooden bar, watching everyone get drunker and drunker, thinking to herself as a guest commits the mixological sacrilege of ordering a vodka martini: “Not judging. Not judging. Judging. Judging.”
Washington, that is to say, is not yet hers; its debates are not conducted on her terms. The morning after the correspondents dinner, with most of the capital hungover, Maddow shows up to work, as a panelist on Meet the Press. Appearing alongside her is Alex Castellanos, a Republican media consultant who served both George W. Bush and Mitt Romney, an embodiment of the clubby, insider pundit culture that Maddow abhors. When she begins to talk about gender disparity in pay – “Women in this country still make 77 cents on the dollar for what men make” – the genteel Castellanos, a master of the form, simply denies that this is true. Women in the workforce, he insists, make just as much as men; liberals are just “manufacturing a political crisis.”
Maddow knows immediately that Castellanos is lying to the audience. She swivels so abruptly in her chair, trying to make sense of what he is saying, that the camera winds up fixed on a spot just behind her left ear, as if it were an assassin’s scope. You can see her, in real time, coming to terms with the extent of the lie as she watches agreement flicker across the face of the other Republican on the panel. “This hasn’t just been sold to Alex by someone briefing him on the subject,” she thinks to herself. “This is something that has actually been sold to Republicans – this is a vision of Republican World.”
The tricky part is knowing what to do about the lie. Chris Matthews would erupt in thunderous outrage; Keith Olbermann would dissolve into a knowing sneer. But Maddow’s skills are different: She strives not for the expression of political anger but for its suppression, to distance herself from the partisan debate rather than engage it, to steward progressive fury into a world of certainty, of charts, graphs, statistics, a real world that matters and that the political debate can’t corrupt. Maddow’s producers say, unexpectedly, that the closest analog for her style as a broadcaster is Glenn Beck, whose abilities as a performer she very much admires. Though their worldviews could not be more different, Maddow and Beck both attempt to pull off a similar trick: to reflect and redirect their audience’s rage at politics without succumbing to it. What Maddow is trying to build is a different channel for liberal anger, an outsider’s channel, one that steers the viewer’s attention away from the theater of politics and toward the exercise of power, which is to say toward policy. On-air, like Beck, she is almost relentlessly cheerful. “Anger is like sugar in a cocktail,” Maddow tells me. “I’d rather have none at all than a grain too much.”
But this time, apparently, she lets a grain too much show. “Rachel, I love how passionate you are,” Castellanos says, coolly pivoting the argument from the facts to her barely contained fury.
“That’s really condescending,” Maddow replies.
This is Maddow’s battle with television: to try to bring a different, more objective model of inquiry to a world of political talking points. Later that week, conferring with her staff, Maddow recounts what had actually flickered across her mind in that instant with Castellanos. “I wanted to say, ‘Are you saying I’m cute when I’m angry?’” she recalls. “But I didn’t, because when you’re a woman on television, you can’t even say the word angry.”