For much of the past decade, journalist Rachel Maddow has hosted her own radio and TV shows. And for much of that time, the popular MSNBC host has been thinking about how the United States uses military force — and how it starts and end wars.
Maddow's new book Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power traces how U.S. national intelligence agencies have taken over duties that were once assigned to the military, and how this shift has increased the public disconnect from the consequences of war.
"Politically, secrecy is a great excuse," Maddow tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "If something is being done on a secret basis in national security, that's a great reason for elected officials to not talk about it. And that's a great way to shirk accountability for it with the public."
That lack of accountability, says Maddow, lets America's national defense operate without public oversight or knowledge.
"When things are done in secret in our name, we can be held accountable for them, even if we can't hold accountable our government for directing it," she says. "And that feels very un-American to me."
Using intelligence agencies and private contractors has also increasingly disconnected the American public from the consequences of war, says Maddow.
"I don't think anybody set out to make us so divorced from the wars that we wage," she says. "But all of these little tweaks — all of these little changes that we made — had the effect of letting a president wage war without political restraint and letting us wage war in a way where we didn't necessarily notice or know the names of all of those who were deployed in our name. Because a lot of them were working for companies that didn't have any obligation to report to us when their people were killed. We ended up doing stuff in a way that insulated the American public from what our military was doing to the point where we don't feel much friction when Americans go downrange."
Maddow says she grew up in a household where public service and military service were both respected. Her father served in Vietnam and left the service a year before she was born.
"A lot of members of my family have served, a lot of people I grew up with served," she says. "I think had it been legal for openly gay people to serve in the military in the time I might have been considering signing up. I think service is honorable, and that was always inculcated in me."
Breaking Into Media
Maddow broke into the broadcasting business after graduate school, while she was living in western Massachusetts and taking on odd jobs while finishing up her doctoral dissertation. One day, her friends told her that the local morning radio show was looking for a person to read wire copy on air. She called the station, passed a test and was asked to come in for an audition.
"They asked me to come in and just rip and read some AP news wire stuff, and I did it and I remember the host said to me, 'What have you been doing as your job?' And I said, 'Unloading trucks.' And he said, 'From what?' And I said, 'Bigger trucks.' And they said, 'You're hired,' " she says. "I got the joke, and I could read. So I got the job and I started the next day, and that was my first job in radio."
But Maddow didn't have plans to stay in the media. She had been working as an AIDS activist for a decade and assumed she would return to activism after her dissertation was finished.
"I did [radio] for exactly one year, and I needed to get my dissertation done," she says. "And I did my grad school in England, and I traveled to England to defend my dissertation and it went successfully, and that was a few weeks before 9/11. I came back, 9/11 happened and I found myself, surprisingly ... really wanting to get back on the radio."
Maddow started calling local radio stations and asking if she could pick up a shift here and there. She then moved to Air America, where she hosted Unfiltered and The Rachel Maddow Show, a two-hour daily radio program.
'The Rachel Maddow Show'
In 2008, Maddow started hosting The Rachel Maddow Show on MSNBC. The nightly news show features an opening essay on a news topic, commentators discussing important news events, interviews related to news and culture, and segments highlighting stories that otherwise might go unnoticed. Maddow also often challenges guests who offer themselves as experts without having the facts to back their statements up.
"People who disagree on important issues don't agree on the facts," she says. "It used to be that we disagreed over the basic facts we were fighting over, and we had different opinions about them. Now I think we accept different sources of authority. ... And people can establish credibility on their own say-so as long as nobody follows the trail and calls them out on it."
But even when Maddow disagrees with a guest, she says, she makes a point to thank them and wish them good luck at the end of each segment.
"If I brought somebody into the discussion, it's because I believe they are worth hearing," she says. "Not necessarily because they always agree with me, but because they are going to say something that's going to advance our understanding of this [topic] that I've been trying to explain on TV. And so I am thankful for anybody who agrees to come onto the show. I'm thankful for their time, and I don't think personal animosity ever enters into it, even when I vehemently disagree with somebody. And particularly for people who disagree with me, I want them to feel like they've been treated fairly — they weren't ambushed, they weren't interrupted, they had a chance to say their piece. ... I don't want them to feel like it was an uncivil experience."
"Nothing about me wants to write. I reject it like a transplanted organ. It's a little bit of a dark window into my soul. I don't mind writing scripts. I don't mind writing something that I'm going to read, because I think subconsciously, I'm confident that if I screw something up, or something is inelegant or embarrassing or even wrong, because I'm writing myself, I can ad-lib the correction on-air or fix it. When you're writing for the eye, it's unforgiving, and I find it hard for me to commit to a sentence."
On The Rachel Maddow Show using humor
"I think that humor has underappreciated explanatory value. If you are trying to explain something to a broad audience, using humor is sometimes a way to help people either make a leap in logic with you or shorthand to what's important about something. Usually when I use humor on the show, it's in the form of absurdity. I've pointed out something that somebody says is normal that I think is not normal, or something that should be seen as very serious that I don't think deserves seriousness. You can explain that away or you can poke fun at it, but sometimes it's not only shorter to poke fun at it, but also more effective at moving the argument along."
On her production staff
"Essentially the process of working on my show is grinding your bones to dust each day an inch at a time. We work really long days, and it's really hard. Essentially the process is get in as early as you can, read as much as you can; we do a big news meeting early in the afternoon to debate and to talk about the universe of news for the day — to talk about what we're going to focus on. Once we've picked our various [topics] for the show, I've got an idea for a thesis or a series of facts to lay out for each one, and then I go and close the door and close the lights and turn into a cave-dwelling beast for as long as I can and just read and read and read, while the producers are collecting evidence and calling people and reporting. And then I confab with these brilliant, young, smart producers who work on my show, and it's a combination of us writing together, them writing something and bringing it to me, me writing. ... When 9 p.m. rolls around and it's time for my show to come on, it is a shock that it's 9 p.m., and I have to sprint to the makeup room every night with the show only 90 percent done."
On interviewing Richard Cohen, an ex-gay activist who disavowed parts of his book Coming Out Straight on her show
"To have somebody disavowing the reason why they're there talking to me in the first place, their complicity in this thing that they're denying any responsibility for, it doesn't bother me as a gay person — it bothers me as a rational human being. It bothers me as somebody who wants accountability and who is grossed out by people who shirk their responsibility."
On why she came out in the Stanford student newspaper when she was 17
"I think because I was 17 and incredibly cocky and full of myself, and I thought that everything I had to do had to make a statement. I think I had a confrontational mindset. I think I was frustrated by the casual anti-gay stuff that I saw among college freshmen in the milieu that I was in. And my attitude toward that was not to try to bring people along gently, gently, and show people by my evident humanity their callousness. I just wanted to throw something up in peoples' faces. I'm not sure that I would do it that way now. I don't really have any regret about it. I wish I had been more sensitive to my parents. But I certainly don't regret coming out. I think that everybody has to find their own way on coming out issues. And some people decide never to. I tend to think it is always better to be out than not out. But not everybody has the option. And when I was a freshman in college, I felt like I had the option, and I exercised it with an exclamation point. I think it says more about being 17 than it does about being gay."
"Ever since puberty, ever since I was 11 or 12, I've had cyclical depression. That's something that has been a defining feature of my life as an adult. It's manageable. But it's real. And it doesn't take away from my joy or my work or my energy, but coping with depression is something that is part of the everyday way that I live and have lived for as long as I can remember. ... Depression for me, you can't distract your way out of it. ... When you are depressed, it's like the rest of the world is the mother ship, and you're out there on a little pod and your line gets cut and you don't connect with anything. You sort of disappear. And so it's not something you can talk-therapy out of. It's really a chemical thing. You get adrenaline from work, but adrenaline is not a cure."
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest is Rachel Maddow, the host of MSNBC's top-rated show. Each weekday night she talks about issues in the news and important issues that she thinks most of the media have underplayed or overlooked. Now she has a new book called "Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power," about how we've been living in a state of perpetual war, how presidential powers to take us to war have expanded, how war has become more secretive and the public more disconnected from it.
There's an article about Maddow and her book in the current edition of The American Prospect by our critic at large, John Powers. He writes: Maddow embodies virtues - rationality, good humor and courtesy - that make her an alluring alternative to our culture's furious partisan stridency. Maddow doesn't merely want to win viewers over to her side, she wants to make them smarter and better informed.
Rachel Maddow, welcome to FRESH AIR. Let's talk about your book, and then we'll talk about your show, and we'll talk about you. Why did you want to write a book about why it's become easier to take the nation to war?
RACHEL MADDOW: The issue of how we decide about using military force, how we decide about both starting wars and ending wars, has been bugging me for essentially a decade, but I felt like there was something in the short form of the media that I work in that wasn't allowing me to really get this off my chest.
It wasn't allowing me to say exactly what I meant, and I actually just think this is a long-form idea. This idea about our politics about the military was bothering me, and it's evidence that I wanted to lay out, and it's an argument that I wanted to make, and it was sort of a moral plea that I wanted to both explain and express. And I think the only way that I could have done it is in the book.
GROSS: The book is dedicated to former Vice President Dick Cheney, and in the dedication you write: Oh please, let me interview you. And you've made that plea on your show as well. Of course you didn't know that the publication of your book "Drift" would coincide with his heart transplant. But why do you want to interview him so much? Why is he key to what you write about in your book, which is about how easy it's become for presidents to take us to war?
MADDOW: I should first say that, you know, I wish Vice President Cheney and his family all the best, and my dedication to him was not meant with animosity. I really would like to interview him because I think he's such an important person in modern American politics and specifically for this thesis that I've written about in this book.
Dick Cheney ends up being the pivot at two very important points of change in the politics of warfare over the course of my lifetime, and I think especially liberals today give him a lot of credit for the second one of those, which is his role in privatization of what used to be military functions.
So he, as defense secretary, cleared the way for the privatization of military services, really set up Halliburton in having really good gigs, providing those services and then left to go become CEO of Halliburton.
But the other thing that's really important to him goes back to Iran-contra. And in the Iran-contra scandal, I really feel like the Reagan administration, ad hoc, on the spot, made up this theory of a pretty radically expanded set of presidential powers around national security.
And I think they made it up on the spot mostly to save Reagan from the scandal that his administration had gotten into with Iran-contra. The consensus across the broad swath of American politics at the time that Reagan got in trouble for Iran-contra, as he rightfully did, was that the presidency had gone beyond what it could reasonably and legally do.
There was this minority opinion from the administration defending Reagan, and really the only other person on their side in American politics was Dick Cheney. He thought: You know what? What Reagan did in Iran-contra wasn't illegal. The president can go around Congress, even when Congress has explicitly stated its will that he doesn't do it. The presidency has radical powers when it comes to national security.
And he expressed that around the time of Iran-contra and lived it thereafter.
GROSS: One of the things that surprised me reading your book was the degree to which the Clinton administration expanded the use of private military contractors during the war in Bosnia. And you give him a lot of credit, or discredit, as the case may be, for taking things that had been formerly done by the military, assigning it to contractors, paying a lot more to contractors than previously, deploying a lot more contractors than previously.
What's one of the things that surprised you doing the research for the book?
MADDOW: I think the thing that surprised me the most was that everybody who made a decision in leadership in the United States about how to use the military, and how our politics of the military ought to be shifted at the time, did so for really pedestrian reasons.
You know, presidents and members of Congress have to react to the circumstances that they're immediately faced with. We don't think very long-term about the implications of stuff that we are changing in this field. The U.S. military is the largest organization in the world. Roughly we spend on our military what the rest of the world spends on its military combined.
When you make changes about how that military can be used or how that military is structured, political changes around that organization are epic, and they go on for decades, and they change millions of people's lives.
GROSS: One of the things you're most concerned about now regarding the subject of your book is that a lot of things that the military - that we expect the military would be doing, the CIA has taken over. And I think you're largely talking about the drone program there.
But what disturbs you about the direction that the U.S. is heading in in terms of assigning military-type duties to the CIA?
MADDOW: I think that there is a tendency to make things secret in the national security field, in part because I think that operationally, if you don't know whether or not making something public is going to be detrimental to your task, you don't want to risk it, and so secrecy is a better option if you have the choice.
But politically, secrecy is a great excuse. If something is being done on a secret basis in national security, that's a great reason for elected officials to not talk about it. And that's a great way to shirk accountability for it with the public. So I think there's an institutional tendency toward secrecy that's understandable.
With the CIA operating essentially as a branch of the military now, though, there is, I think, a reasonable concern for civilians about who decides what the CIA does. If we're not allowed to know what they do, not only do we not get a say, but we may not be aware of things that are changing in terms of America's role in the world that we are causing through the actions of our CIA that we as a country don't have a way to prepare for.
And that feels very un-American to me.
GROSS: You're concerned that going to war is no longer painful for the entire country. The military and the families of people in the military bear the brunt, but because so much of the work has been assigned to private military contractors, and because we have a volunteer army, and because our taxes have been lowered and not raised, you think that, you know, most Americans aren't really feeling the costs of the war in Afghanistan, the war in Iraq.
How would you like to see things change so that the burden is shared more equally by Americans and that Americans can't afford to be uncaring about our involvement in wars?
MADDOW: I don't think anybody set out to make us so divorced from the wars that we wage. I don't think anybody planned, 20 or 30 years ago, that they'd like America to be at war, and maybe two of the longest simultaneous land wars we've ever had, and not much notice when one of them ended, which is what happened this past December when the Iraq war ended and the civilian population here essentially shrugged.
I don't think that was anybody's goal, but it is where we have ended up, and it's where we've ended up through a series of understandable, sort of reasonable-at-the-time political accommodations that were made to get around a political constraint that a president wanted to get around so that we could wage a war even though Congress didn't want it, or to get around upsetting the press and therefore the public about something that a president wanted to do and that he thought was in our national security interest but that he couldn't make a great or persuasive public case for.
It's decisions that were made because maybe it would be cheaper to use private contractors instead of using U.S. military personnel to do stuff that was previously military, a military responsibility.
But all of these little tweaks, all these little changes that we made, had the effect of letting a president wage war without political constraint. We ended up doing stuff in a way that insulated the American public from what our military was doing, to the point where we don't feel much friction when Americans go down-range.
GROSS: Your father was in the military during the Vietnam War. I think he was out of the military by the time you were born. And he served in the U.S. What sense did he give you about what it meant to serve the country in the military?
MADDOW: I think that my family has a sort of broad and mainstream idea that public service is a good thing, and my dad's very proud of his military service, but I didn't grow up steeped in military culture. I didn't grow up on military bases.
A lot of other members of my family have served; a lot of people I grew up with served. I think that, had it been legal for openly gay people to serve in the military at the time that I might have been considering signing up, I might have considered signing up. I think service is honorable, and that was always sort of inculcated in me.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Rachel Maddow. She's the host of "The Rachel Maddow Show" on MSNBC, and now she's the author of the new book "Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power." Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: My guest is Rachel Maddow, the host of "The Rachel Maddow Show" on MSNBC and the author of the new book "Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power." Let's talk a little bit about your show on MSNBC. You often take on stories on your show that other news outlets are kind of ignoring.
You talk about why they're important, and you bring them to the forefront. One example of an issue like that was the - or is the pending bill in Uganda, which you call the kill the gays bill, and one of the people you've interviewed about it is Richard Cohen, the author of the book "Coming Out Straight: Understanding and Healing Homosexuality."
And I want to play an excerpt of this as an example of how you handle interviews with people who you think are just so wrong. And you're...
MADDOW: I'm bracing myself.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
GROSS: No, I mean he hasn't exactly been in the news, but you had him on because he wrote a book called "Coming Out Straight: Understanding and Healing Homosexuality," and one of the sponsors, the chief sponsor of the bill, or one of the chief sponsors, had during a speech held up Richard Cohen's book.
So you had on Cohen, and you were talking to him about the bill, and he was saying he doesn't support the bill, that he's just about helping people who have unwanted homosexual feelings, and he said he helped thousands of people around the world come out of homosexuality.
And you keep trying to explain how you think he's complicit with the Ugandan bill and how he's being used, and here he is telling you that he disagrees.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE RACHEL MADDOW SHOW")
RICHARD COHEN: How could they punish? It's just incomprehensible that they would, like, you know, as you have said over the last few days in this bill, that they would want to incarcerate or to criminally punish these men and women. We are totally against that. We are for your right and anyone's right to live a homosexual life, and we're for the rights of those who seek change and want to come out straight.
MADDOW: Let me try to make it more comprehensible to you. The legislator who sponsored the bill told the Associated Press today that he insists these strict measures, which I know you abhor, but these strict measures they're proposing, including execution, are necessary in their country to stop homosexuals from recruiting schoolchildren.
Let me also just read to you from your book, OK? Page 49: Homosexuals are at least 12 times more likely to molest children than heterosexuals. Homosexual teachers are at least seven times more likely to molest a pupil. Homosexual teachers are estimated to have committed at least 25 percent of pupil molestation. Forty percent of molestation assaults were made by those who engage in homosexuality.
This is the claim that you make in your book that exactly feeds these folks who want to execute people for being gay. What do they need in order to justify that? Do you stand by what you said in your book?
COHEN: Actually, you know, that one particular quote, when I do republish it, reprint it, we will extract that from it because we don't want such things to be used against homosexual persons.
MADDOW: That quote is cited - you cite somebody named Paul Cameron as the source of that book. Paul Cameron has been kicked out of the American Psychological Association and the Nebraska Psychological Association and the Canadian Psychological Association. And then he tried to make himself a sociologist. He got kicked out of the American Sociological Association.
This is - I know that you say you're not going to include it in Edition Three, I'm reading from the second edition here, but this is made-up, fake authoritative stuff that in other countries is being taken as science and used to justify, quite literally, killing gay people. Do you see now why you're being used in a political context here?
GROSS: OK, that's Rachel Maddow, interviewing Richard Cohen. And it's very interesting to hear how you handle that. And when I hear you do an interview like that, especially with somebody like Richard Cohen, who thinks that homosexuality can be, quote, healed, and of course like, you're gay, I keep wondering what goes through your mind when you talk to somebody who really believes that you could be healed and probably that he's the guy who could heal you?
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MADDOW: It's — You know, listening to that, I don't think I've listened to that since I did that interview, and my blood pressure went up by about 30 percent just hearing it.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MADDOW: I don't know how anybody watches my show, it's so tense.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MADDOW: At least in moments like that. I ended up interviewing actually the sponsor of the kill-the-gays bill in Uganda himself later on, and I was asked the same thing: You know, is it scary to you to talk to somebody who wants to kill you for being gay? Well, no, because I'm not in a vulnerable position, and I don't think they're going to.
But in a case like that, to have somebody disavowing the reason why they're there talking to me in the first place, their complicity in this thing that they're denying any responsibility for, it most - it doesn't bother me as a gay person. It bothers me as a rational human being. It bothers me as somebody who wants accountability and who is grossed out by people who shirk their responsibility for stuff they've done.
GROSS: Well, you talked to him about how he's using fake authoritative stuff, and I think finding fake authoritative stuff is one of the things that you really excel at. When people are offering themselves as experts, but the information that their expertise is based on is just wrong, you're very good on your show about finding the actual facts out and challenging the fake authority's credibility.
MADDOW: Thank you. I - you know, I think this is a contested area in terms of not just the way the media has diversified over the last couple of decades but in terms of how we argue with one another. People who disagree on the important issues don't agree on the facts.
It used to be, I think, that we agreed on the basic facts that we were fighting over and we had different opinions about them. Now I think we accept different sources of authority. And so, you know, you just heard in the clip there I was talking about Paul Cameron, who's this anti-gay activist who has tried to appear to be an expert in the field.
As he gets kicked out of every professional association in the field, he just moves on to new ones, hoping that somebody will give him their imprimatur of their expertise. And eventually I'm sure he'll - if he hasn't already, he'll make up his own professional association and say that he's captain and president of it.
People can establish credibility and authority on their own say-so as long as nobody follows the trail and calls them out on it.
GROSS: At the end of interviews, including the one with Richard Cohen, you sometimes wish the person personal good luck - not professional good luck, because you disagree with their position, but personal good luck. Why do you go out of your way to do that?
MADDOW: You know, I feel like I am the host of my show in a couple different ways. Not only am I the person sitting there talking, but I am hosting people on the show as guests, who I am implicitly telling my audience are worth listening to. And so anybody who I bring onto the show, it's counterproductive, I think, in terms of my relationship with my audience, for me to bring somebody onto the show and then say you're not worth listening to, or you're a waste of space, or I wish you didn't exist.
If I've brought somebody into the discussion, it's because I believe they are worth hearing, not necessarily because they always agree with me but because they have something to say that's going to advance our understanding of this thing that I've been trying to explain on TV.
And so I am thankful for anybody who agrees to come on the show. And I'm thankful for their time, and I don't think personal animosity ever really enters into it even when I vehemently disagree with somebody. And particularly for people who disagree with me, I want them to feel like they have been treated fairly, like they haven't been ambushed, they weren't interrupted, they had a chance to say their piece. And even if they don't feel like they came out looking great because the host disagreed with them, or they lost the argument or whatever it was, I don't want them to feel like it was an uncivil experience.
GROSS: Your show usually opens with an opening essay, in which you've taken an issue that's in the news - an issue that should be in the news but nobody's paying attention to, and then you take a lot of information that you've gathered, probably from different newspapers and blogs and so on, and you kind of put it together like you're taking different pieces of a puzzle and putting it together, and by the end of the essay you see a picture emerge, you see a pattern emerge.
And whether the person agrees or disagrees with the picture that you've presented, with the pattern that you've presented, you've still, you've shaped it into a pattern. What is the process for you of writing that opening essay? Because it seems to me that an extraordinary amount of work must go into that.
MADDOW: It is slowly killing me each day.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MADDOW: I think about all of these brilliant young producers who work on my show, and essentially working on my show is the process of grinding your bones to dust each day, an inch at a time.
We work really long days, and it's really hard. I mean essentially the process is, you know, get in as early as you can, read as much as you can. We do a big news meeting early in the afternoon to debate and to talk about essentially the universe of news for the day, to narrow it down to what we're going to focus on.
Once we've picked what our various blocks for the show are going to be, I've got an idea for either a thesis or a series of facts to lay out for each one, and then I go and sort of close the door and turn off the lights and turn into sort of a cave-dwelling beast for as long as I can and just read and read and read and read and read while the producers are reading and collecting evidence and calling people and reporting and doing what needs to be done.
And then I confab with these brilliant, young, smart producers who work on my show, and it's a combination of us writing together, them writing something and bringing it to me, me writing either just directly into the script software that we've got, or sometimes me dictating.
A lot with that opening essay is me working it out with the producer, us agreeing on the universe of facts and evidence that we're going to use and then talking through it while a producer records what I say, and then he or she types it up, and then we work out an edit together based on what I said.
It takes forever, and every day when 9:00 rolls around and it's time for my show to come on, it is a shock that it's 9:00 and I have to sprint to the makeup room every night with the show only 90 percent done.
GROSS: Rachel Maddow will be back in the second half of the show. She is the host of MSNBC's "The Rachel Maddow Show" and the author of the new book "Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Rachel Maddow, the host of MSNBC's "The Rachel Maddow Show." She's written a new book called "Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power." So, you got into broadcasting through a contest. I've read about this but I still don't get exactly what was the contest and what did you submit that, um, enabled you to win.
MADDOW: Well, I submitted myself. I was living in western Massachusetts, crashing with friends, working on my doctoral dissertation. And they said, essentially, that I could crash with them and not pay rent - in exchange for me helping out around the house and, sort of, being a really underqualified handywoman. And I was - so I ended up working on my dissertation and I ended up taking odd jobs. And I was doing, like, landscaping, and I worked at Indigo Coffee Roasters in Northampton - at a coffee roasting factory, like, you know, stamping "decaf" on bags and stuff. I was a very bad handyperson. I was doing all sorts of stuff. And my friends who I was living with listened to the local morning zoo radio show. And, on the local morning zoo radio show, the news girl was quitting. And so they held an open on-air audition as a contest for somebody to replace the news girl.
So I - uh, I'm not a morning person, so the first tier of it was that I had to call in. And so I stayed up all night, 'cause I can't get up early in the morning. And I called in, and then they asked me - I passed that round. And then they asked me to come in and just rip and read some AP copy, newswire stuff. And I did it. And, I remember the host said to me, what have you been doing as your job? And I said I've been unloading trucks. And he said, from what? And I said, bigger trucks. And they said you're hired.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MADDOW: So it's like, I got the joke and I could read. And so they hired me on the spot and I started the next day. And that was my first job in radio.
GROSS: So, were you supposed to, like, riff off of the news and make jokes on the news that, say, like Robin has done on the "Howard Stern Show?"
MADDOW: Kinda. Yeah. I was, kind of, like the western New England, tertiary unranked-market Robin.
GROSS: Were you comfortable in that role, were you confident enough in your own sense of humor and in your own opinions that you could do that?
MADDOW: You know, it's a good question. I, um, I think, because I never thought it was going anywhere. I mean, I never had any ambitions to stay in the media or do anything further in this. I thought - at the time I was writing my doctoral dissertation on AIDS in prisons, and I was a longtime AIDS activist and I was, sort of, working for the ACLU and the National Minority AIDS Council. I thought I was going to be in that world forever.
I was taking time off to travel to Alabama and Mississippi to meet with the corrections commissioners in the middle of all this stuff. And then I'd come home and I'd make, you know, fart jokes about the local auto dealer. And so - it was - it was a low-pressure environment, but really fun. It was just - it was pure - it was - other than the hours, it was sort of pure joy. And I did that for exactly one year. And then, I needed to get my dissertation done. And I traveled - I'd went to grad school in England and I traveled to go defend my dissertation and it went successfully. And that was just a couple of weeks before 9-11. I came back - 9-11 happened and I found myself, surprisingly, having done this goofy, only vaguely news-related gig, only for a year, only on a lark. I found myself really wanting to get back on the radio.
I just felt like I wanted to help give people information about what they could do and what was going on in the world. And so I called a different local radio station and just said, can I pick up a weekend shift somewhere, can I pick up a fill-in shift? I'd love to help out. It seems like this is a time when you could use folks.
GROSS: So, you grew up in a conservative community. When you started to be politically engaged and your politics were liberal, was that alien to your family and to the friends that you grew up with?
MADDOW: You know, when I, I went to - as you say, I grew up in a conservative town and went to a conservative high school. And there was, you know, some high school politics and stuff that I got involved in. There were - that was the era of the racist skinhead upsurge on the West Coast. And that was an issue that my high school dealt with, and racial tensions and stuff. And so I remember being sort of engaged with those issues and concerned about that stuff. But it was really when I realized that I was gay and I came out when I was 17, that I think my political consciousness started to become more, I guess, less about stuff that I just worried about or grumbled about, and more stuff that I wanted to do something about.
I mean, growing up as a gay kid in the San Francisco Bay area in the early '90s, I think that it was so dominated by the AIDS crisis, that it couldn't help but shape me. And so, knowing that I was growing up into a community that was absolutely devastated and galvanized and radicalized by this experience, knowing people my own age and people of the community that I expected to be joining who were sick and when not many other people that I knew knew people who were sick and dying, I think grounded me. I think that sort of made me who I am. I mean I sort of thought that I'd be an AIDS activist forever, and I spent about ten years of my life as that being the prime motivator for what I was doing. And I don't think of myself as an activist anymore, but I learned what activism is and I have a lot of respect for people who spend their lives as activists and advocates.
And I feel like being in that world for that long at a time that was so formative for me helped me understand politics better, because it helps me understand who's good at getting stuff done. There isn't just one way to get your political goal achieved. You have to be subtle and I think multivariate in your efforts. And so, I think it helped me understand how politics works better.
GROSS: So you came out when were 17. And you've said that you were one of only two out gay people in your freshman class at Stanford. And, I mean, you came out by telling the student newspaper that you were gay. Why did you want to come out in such a public way? And you know, make - make a statement about it?
MADDOW: I think because I was 17 and incredibly cocky and full of myself.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MADDOW: And I thought that everything I had to do had to make a statement. I think I had a confrontational mindset. I think I was frustrated by the sort casual anti-gay stuff that I saw among, you know, college freshmen in the sort of milieu that I was in. And my attitude toward that was not to try to bring people along gently, gently and persuade people and, you know, show people by my evident humanity their callousness. I just wanted to throw something up in people's faces. And, you know, I'm not sure that I would do it that way now. I don't really have any regret about it. I wish that I had been more sensitive to my parents, but I certainly don't regret coming out.
I think that everybody sort of has to find their own way on coming-out issues. And for - some people decide never to. I tend to think that it is always better to be out than not out, but not everybody has the option. And when I was a freshman in college, I felt like I had the option and I exercised it with an exclamation point. I think it says more about being 17 than it does about being gay.
GROSS: So, there's just one question I want to ask about your relationship with your partner, and that's about your first date, which I read was at an NRA ladies' day on-the-range event.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
GROSS: And I thought like, was that supposed to be ironic? Because I can't imagine Rachel Maddow on a date at an NRA event.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MADDOW: I'm actually kind of a good shot. My partner, Susan, her sister is a lifetime NRA member and a real gun enthusiast. And when Susan and I first met and I wanted to take her out on a date, she said, well, I'm doing this thing to support my sister at her club. And I thought, at her club? You're not really like a country club type person. What kind of - like some sort of dining club? What is this? No, no. Her rod and gun club. And I said sure. And so it was ladies' day on the range. It was an NRA event. And the idea was to make the various shooting sports more fun for the ladies. And so, Susan and I turned up. It was the best possible first date in the entire world.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MADDOW: Turns out she was really good with the shotgun and I was really good with the AR-15. And you know, despite my gun politics, I'm perfectly happy with shooting at a gun club and then leaving the weapons there and driving home. So it worked great. It worked great. And I think Susan's sister was given a lot of, you know, gun-club credit for having brought in some newbie liberals.
GROSS: You know, one of the things that's interesting about this is I assume that you oppose a lot of the NRA's politics surrounding gun control.
GROSS: But you enjoyed being at a shooting range. You're close to people who are members of the NRA. So does that make it easier for you to see the people who are opposed to you politically as also being people? People who, other than this issue, you might really like, you might be close to, you might be related to.
MADDOW: Yeah. I don't believe that people who disagree in American politics are all that different from one another as humans. I mean, for the one thing, something that brings us together, no matter how much we disagree on a political issue, is that we both care about a political issue. And that's not of every American. I mean, a lot of Americans don't care about politics much at all. And so for those of us who are engaged in the political dialogue in the country, we already have something in common if we care enough to disagree with each other.
And so, I like that. I like people who care enough to have an opinion. And you know, when it comes to something like the NRA, I have a lot of respect for what the NRA used to focus on and still in part focuses on, which is promoting, you know, marksmanship and shooting sports and conservation, and you know, I think all of that stuff makes a lot of sense. A lot of their stuff sort of overlaps with scouting, in a way. I greatly disagree with their efforts to radically liberalize gun policies across the country and I think it's done the country a lot of harm.
But I would hope that we could argue about that from a position of mutual respect. It's the way that we make smarter policy in the country, but it's also the way that those of us who care about politics can have good lives. Like you don't need to spend all your time, you know, angry and full of hate about the people who disagree with you. You can like them and enjoy the fight, and I enjoy the fight.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Rachel Maddow. She's the host of "The Rachel Maddow Show" on MSNBC. And now she's the author of the new book "Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power." Rachel, let's take a short break here and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: My guest is Rachel Maddow, and she's the host of MSNBC's "The Rachel Maddow Show." She's the author of the new book "Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power." You did a Vanity Fair Q&A, and in answer to the question, what is it that you most dislike, you said infection. And in answer to the question, how would you like to die, which is - I can't say I've ever asked that to anybody, I don't think, but in answer to the question how would you like to die, you said: Reluctantly - I'm depressive.
So two things really surprised me about those answers. One is, I think of you as a pretty healthy person, so the infection answer to what is it you most dislike surprised me. And I'd never think of you as being depressive. You have so much energy on the show and you just seem to have such like drive and kind of joy in the act of engaging in American politics. And you seem to really like enjoy having the show.
I'm not saying it's not bone-grinding, but...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
GROSS: ...but that there's something really exhilarating about it for you, and I've never thought of you as depressive.
MADDOW: Hmm. You know, I do - I love my job, and I love politics. I really - I felt like, when I got my job at MSNBC, like I had won the job lottery, and three and a half years, whatever it is, later, I still feel like I have won the job lottery. And I think part of that is thinking, oh, it's going to go away at any moment. People are going to realize that I'm a great fraud and it'll end, so I better make sure this is a good show because it'll be my last. Part of me feels that way every day.
But yeah, no, I'm - ever since - essentially ever since puberty, every since I was 11 or 12, I guess, I've had cyclical depression. That's, you know, something that has been a defining feature of my life as an adult. And it's manageable, but it's real. And doesn't take away from my joy in my work or my energy, but coping with depression is something that is part of the everyday way that I live and have lived as long as I can remember.
GROSS: Does the focus that you need and the adrenaline surge that you get doing your show help with depression when you have it?
MADDOW: No. Depression for me is you can't distract your way out of it, and I think people can understand the difference, if you've never been depressed, you can still understand the difference between sadness and depression. It's like the opposite of love isn't hate, it's indifference. And the opposite of happiness isn't necessarily sadness, it's disconnection.
And you know, when you are depressed, it's like the rest of the world is the mothership and you're out there on a little pod and your line gets cut, and you just don't connect with anything, you sort of - you sort of disappear. And so it's not something you can, I think, talk-therapy out of. I know some people approach it that way. For me it doesn't work that way. It really is kind of a chemical thing. And yeah, you get some adrenaline from the work, but adrenaline isn't a cure.
GROSS: Does it affect your performance when you're depressed?
MADDOW: It affects my ability to focus and my preparation. So because I tend to know sort of - I can tell it's coming - my depression isn't all the time, so if I'm coming up on a bout of depression, a few things happen, so I can tell it's happening. Like I just - I'm used to it. I lose my sense of smell and some other things like that happen. And...
GROSS: Sounds like a migraine.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MADDOW: It is. It's a little - actually, that's very - I have friends who have migraines. I've luckily never coped with that but it's the same kind of thing. Like you know it's coming; it has nothing to do with anything else in your life. It's like a train and you just ride until it slows down enough that you can get off. And if I know it's coming I will try to schedule my work life around not having to, for example, read a complete book.
So I'm going to do a book interview. Because it will be hard for me to - with my schedule I will often need to read a book, as I'm sure you know, in a day and getting a book read plus a show done on a day where I'm pretty low and I can't focus is a hard row to hoe. And so I try to adjust my schedule around it to accommodate.
GROSS: Well, you would never know watching you.
MADDOW: Oh, good.
GROSS: Never. Never know.
MADDOW: I'm not embarrassed. I'm not embarrassed by it. You know, I mean, it's no - I don't see it as having any moral component. I'm not embarrassed by it and I know that a lot of people live with it and cope with and treat depression in different ways. And I've been able to be a high-functioning person with depression all my life. And I expect that - I don't expect it to ever go away. It would be great if it did but in the meantime, I can make a life around it.
GROSS: Well, thank you for being willing to talk about that.
MADDOW: Oh, sure.
GROSS: So now let me get to something far more trivial but nevertheless kind of fascinating, which is your look for TV.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
GROSS: There's like two TV Rachel Maddows. There's the one on your show who has like eye makeup and contact lenses and like a suit jacket. You know, like a...
GROSS: And then there's the one on the late night shows, like if you're on Jon Stewart or Letterman or one of their shows. And then you're wearing your glasses and you're not wearing - and your hair is, like, kind of, you know, messier and more casual. And you're wearing jeans. Your clothing is more casual. So why can't you look like the late-night Rachel Maddow on your show?
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MADDOW: The secret is that I am the late-night Rachel Maddow from the waist down every night on my show.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
GROSS: So you're wearing sneakers and jeans.
MADDOW: I'm always wearing sneakers and, like...
GROSS: Behind the anchor desk.
MADDOW: ...enormous 501s and, like, you know, socks with chickens on them.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MADDOW: So, yeah. So, you know, my idea about what I should look like on television is that essentially I don't want you to notice what I look like on television. I have this basic idea that what I am proud of, what I am trying to accomplish every night on TV, is based entirely on how good my argument is and how good the interview is and how well I say what I intend to say.
And so that's what I focus on all day long. And I think that if I was dressing in a way that was either, not to be weird but, like, more attractive or more deviant from what one expects from a primetime TV anchor, you would be able to focus less on what I was saying because you were focusing more on my big dumb glasses or my fancy outfit or something else about me.
And so I try as much as possible for the TV primetime cable equivalent of the orange prison jumpsuit.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MADDOW: Because I don't want it to be - or maybe the Catholic school uniform. You know, I don't - I want it to be essentially respectful, neutral, not distracting. If I could wear the same thing every day without that becoming a story, I would do that. And so I essentially wear a variation on the same thing every day mostly to create kind of a neutral visual experience.
GROSS: So you feel like you're dressing in a uniform but not in a disguise.
MADDOW: Yes. It's exactly right. And, I mean, sometimes I talk about it as now I have to go become the assistant principal because I feel like that's sort of what I'm dressing up like, an assistant principal. I mean, if you think about it, like, going to public school and, like, the assistant principal was always the person you had to go to if you got in trouble and was therefore this person on whom there was a lot of emotional freight, right?
Everybody who got in trouble had to deal with this person and if the assistant principal dressed in a way that drew attention to themselves, either in a way that was, you know, attractive or unattractive or unusual or interesting, that only hurt their credibility in terms of doing the things they needed to do over the course of the day. So I realize that the way I dress is boring and uninteresting and that's the idea.
GROSS: My guest is Rachel Maddow, the host of MSNBC's "The Rachel Maddow Show." She's written a new book called "Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: My guest is Rachel Maddow, the host of the "Rachel Maddow Show" on MSNBC and the author of the new book "Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power." So Roger Ailes, who's the head of Fox News - and Fox News is politically at the far opposite end of the spectrum of where you are - Roger Ailes has a blurb on your book jacket which really surprised me.
And I'll just read some of it: Drift never makes the case that war might be necessary and America would be weakened dramatically if we under-reacted to 911; however, Rachel Maddow makes valid arguments that our country has been drifting toward questionable wars, draining our resources, without sufficient input and time. People who like Rachel will love the book; people who don't will get angry, but aggressive debate is good for America. "Drift" is a book worth reading.
How did you get a quote from Roger Ailes?
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MADDOW: You know, I asked him and I did not know that he would say yes.
GROSS: Really? You asked him?
GROSS: How did you even reach him?
MADDOW: You know, I just - carrier pigeon.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MADDOW: Fox News is just across the street and I just sent word. I have spoken to Mr. Ailes a few times just because I have met him in a professional context, and obviously I disagree with the political point of view both of him and of the channel that he sort of built in his image but I - honestly, "Drift" is a book that is not a partisan book and it's not a liberal versus conservative problem that I'm talking about that the country has been through.
I think the discomfort that we have as civilians in terms of our distance from the military that's been fighting these wars for 10 years is something that people feel on the left and people feel on the right. And I think the problematic political decisions that got us to this point were not made, mostly, for ideological reasons. They were made by politicians on the left and the right for what they thought were pragmatic short-term reasons.
And they've had long-term problematic consequences. And I think Republicans and Democrats are getting closer to each other in terms of how fast we should end the Afghanistan War, for example. I think Republicans and Democrats are finding a lot of overlap among themselves on whether or not the defense budget is where it ought to be.
This is just one of those issues where there isn't a real sharp right/left axis. And I know because I am a liberal and I am known as a liberal, that people might have thought this was going to be a real liberal, anti-war book. This isn't a liberal anti-war book. It's a book about the politics of making war and whether or not they've changed in a way that's bad for the country.
And it's not an ideological or partisan thing. And I thought if Mr. Ailes would put his name to a comment, even if it was a negative comment, that it might get some attention from the right that I couldn't otherwise get with just me.
GROSS: So speaking of Fox News, some people equate Fox News and MSNBC and say Fox News is the conservative side, MSNBC is the liberal side. They're flip sides of the same coin. How do you react to the equivalency?
MADDOW: I don't think that there is an equivalency. I think that what's interesting and unique about Fox News is that it really is a political project. I mean I think that, you know, Mr. Ailes, who runs Fox News, is a Republican political operative par excellence. That's where he comes from. That's, I think, the spirit in which the channel was founded and it's to advance the interests of the Republican Party.
And so there isn't anything going on at MSNBC like there is at Fox in terms of there being direction given on specific political stories to anchors. You know: talk about this subject this way. Make this point when you bring up this subject. Make sure you don't use this language when you're describing this subject. Those sorts of memos from the executive class at Fox to the people who are on air at Fox don't go out at MSNBC.
I'm not sure we're organized enough to do that if we wanted to, but we don't get any talking points. I mean, we certainly are a collection of people who have, in the primetime hours, who have opinions and have beliefs about politics and will tell you what they are and you know where we're coming from, but MSNBC isn't a unified political project to accomplish the goals of any external political body.
GROSS: So how hard has it been for you to get used to being like a public person? Like an outspoken and out public person? So I know if you put on your glasses maybe people don't recognize you but I'm sure a lot of people recognize you anyways, especially since you often appear with glasses on late-night TV.
MADDOW: You know, it's an honor and a privilege to do what I do. I just - there's nothing all that fun about being recognized in the world, I guess is the way to say it. There's nothing - it's not a - I don't get energy from people recognizing me and talking to me as a person who they know from the media. But it's certainly not a negative and it makes me feel lucky to have this job and it goes along with it.
I mean, if I could do my show, you know, in cartoon form where I didn't have to physically appear, I might enjoy that more, because then I could have a more private life, but that's not the way it works and overall I'm so happy to be able to do what I do that it's nice when people know who I am because of it. And I try not to make it change my life too much. I'm trying to stay the same person I've always been.
GROSS: Rachel Maddow, it's been great to talk with you. I want to thank you very much.
MADDOW: Terry, thank you. It's really nice of you to give me this much time. Thanks.
GROSS: Rachel Maddow is the host of "The Rachel Maddow Show" on MSNBC. Her new book is called "Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power." You can read an excerpt and find a link to an article about her in The American Prospect by our critic-at-large Don Powers on our website, freshair.npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.