Rachel Maddow was unknown outside of progressive circles when she began her nightly cable show on MSNBC in September. Not anymore.
Catching the wave of interest in political news and commentary, the Rhodes Scholar's mix of smarts and snark and girl-next-door approachability caught ratings fire. Almost immediately, the Castro Valley native was frequently beating CNN's Larry King in the nightly ratings (although King had more overall viewers in February). Not bad for somebody who didn't own a television until last week. It still hasn't been turned on, said Maddow, who fears once she starts, she won't be able to stop watching.
That hasn't prevented her from appearing on late-night TV shows over the past month (Stewart, Letterman, Fallon). The Stanford University graduate and former activist is back in San Francisco tonight to headline a fundraiser for Mother Jones magazine that is expected to raise $100,000.
We caught up with Maddow, 35, to talk about everything from what Democrats are doing wrong to how she deals with groupies. Here are excerpts from the conversation.
Q: You are a proud progressive, yet you regularly take on the left. What has the Obama administration done wrong so far?
A: Oh, tons of stuff. State secrets? That was in a San Francisco courtroom, wasn't it? The judge was so incredulous that the Obama Justice Department folks were going to continue with the Bush administration's argument that one of these horrible terrorism rendition cases should be dismissed on the basis that the whole idea of it was secret. Not that a specific piece of evidence was secret, but that the whole idea of the case was about a secret thing. (And the administration) dropped the enemy combatant designation, but kept all of the meaningful things about making somebody an enemy combatant. So there's been a bunch of important national security/constitutional things where the outcome is confusing at best and a continuation of the Bush administration policy at worst.
Q: How does the president sell his budget, not only to Republicans, but to people in his own party?
A: The thing that is sort of pathetic and funny is that the people he has most to sell it to is these conservatives who have decided to assert their own power by siding with the Republicans against the president. If progressives and Democrats want to gnash their teeth about anything right now, don't waste it on the Republicans, save it for (Sen.) Evan Bayh, D-Ind.
Conservative Democrats decided to wait until there was a Democratic president to say that we insist there be fiscal responsibility and no additional deficit spending. They waited through the entire Bush administration and didn't say anything like that. Meanwhile, Bush turned a hundreds-of-billions surplus into a trillion-dollar deficit and Evan Bayh didn't say beep. He had to wait until there was a Democrat in there so he can feel that he can get in opposition.
Q: Why is that? Is that a lack of political courage? Is it opportunism?
A: I think it's a defect in the Democratic Party. The Democratic Party doesn't feel pressured enough by its base. They feel like the way to show cojones, the way to really to show that they are tough guys, is to take on their party from the right. So that's how Evan Bayh is trying to make people remember how to spell his name - is by seeking to be the opposition to Obama in the Senate. Which would be great for him if he were a Republican. But the fact that people elected him to go be part of the Democratic majority in Washington and now he's using that opportunity to essentially empower the Republicans and obstruct the president's agenda is sort of pitiful. I think that won't happen if the liberal base and if the people who voted in the giant Democratic majority in Washington let him hear about it.
Q: Now that you're a nightly presence on television, you have developed quite the cult following - from your female fans, mostly. You've been in a long-term relationship (for 10 years next month). How do you feel about your groupies?
A: It is a delicate balance between being very flattered by it and pretending it's not happening. (Laughs.) I don't think it's helpful to dwell on that, because I don't think it can do anything good to my mind. So I try not to dwell on it, while also appreciating that people are kind.
Listen to Joe Garofoli's complete interview with Rachel Maddow as a podcast at sfgate.com/ZGOO.