At 19, Rachel Maddow shared a house with friends in Philadelphia and wasn’t paying much attention to the 1992 Republican National Convention on television until Pat Buchanan took to the podium.
She was transfixed. His combative conservative speech, which denounced gay rights, was a milestone for people on two sides of a political divide - a call to arms or to intolerance, depending on your point of view. It couldn’t be ignored.
“Pat’s culture-war speech at the Republican convention hit me right between the eyes,” says Miss Maddow, MSNBC‘s new star and a lesbian. “He was, without euphemism, declaring that my own country was at war with me. I get it intellectually and strategically now, but at 19, I only got it emotionally.”
So there’s a certain irony that Miss Maddow and Mr. Buchanan have a prime-time date many nights on television.
“It’s Pat” is a semiregular feature on “The Rachel Maddow Show,” a program that has surprised even the people who put it on the air with its success after just a month.
Miss Maddow is a regular on the liberal “Air America” radio network and appeared frequently on MSNBC, particularly on Keith Olbermann‘s “Countdown.” She was given the 9 p.m. slot when network executives deemed Dan Abrams’ show a failure.
During her show’s second week on the air, Miss Maddow’s audience was bigger than that for CNN’s “Larry King Live.” Mr. King won the third week, and the two are settling into what promises to be a competitive battle behind Fox News Channel’s dominant “Hannity & Colmes.” During the week of Sept. 22, Fox’s show averaged 3.2 million, CNN had 2.1 million, and Miss Maddow was at 1.7 million.
She has more than doubled the audience MSNBC had been getting in the time slot, according to Nielsen Media Research, and is keeping much of the audience that watches Mr. Olbermann.
Naysayers told MSNBC Chief Executive Officer Phil Griffin that Miss Maddow would be too much like Mr. Olbermann, and there was a risk in completely turning over his prime-time lineup to one political point of view.
Instead, Miss Maddow is something of a happy warrior compared to Mr. Olbermann’s increasingly dark prince. The Rhodes Scholar can lap almost anyone intellectually without making a viewer hate her for doing it.
“She’s likable,” Mr. Griffin says. “She smiles, she has fun. She’s interesting.”
If Mr. Olbermann’s show has a drumbeat that drives it, Miss Maddow’s has “a little bit of a symphony,” he says.
She also doesn’t back down from a fight. Mr. Olbermann’s “Countdown” is well-written and meticulous, but he relies on guests who rarely disagree with him.
Miss Maddow frequently brings on guests to argue with her, none more so than Mr. Buchanan.
He can exasperate her, and vice versa. To date, it hasn’t become nasty.
To a certain extent, Miss Maddow credits Mr. Buchanan with giving her television career a push. A few years ago, when Mr. Buchanan hosted a show at MSNBC, he remembered her and sought her out for work.
“I like debating things with Pat,” Miss Maddow says. “He’s funny and quick and intellectually coherent, even when his views are totally toxic.”
Mr. Buchanan, via e-mail, said “Rachel and I get along fine” but didn’t elaborate because he prefers not to participate in feature stories about MSNBC shows. He’s a paid MSNBC contributor, but the cable network has become particularly noxious to Republicans, mostly because of Mr. Olbermann.
Mr. Griffin says he liked how Miss Maddow and Mr. Buchanan played off each other during MSNBC’s primary coverage in the spring. “They’re 180 degrees apart, but they like each other,” he says.
Miss Maddow is still juggling several ideas, even with the fast start.
Her show completes the transformation of MSNBC, in prime time, into a politically liberal network; “Countdown” and “The Rachel Maddow Show” repeat in another two-hour block at 10 p.m. EST. That has caused some consternation at NBC News, where some think MSNBC has damaged the network’s reputation for impartiality. NBC was targeted for angry chants at the Republican convention, and Sen. John McCain’s campaign pointedly snubbed “NBC Nightly News” anchor Brian Williams by making Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin available for interviews with Charles Gibson of ABC and Katie Couric of CBS.
Mr. Griffin says the ratings prove that on cable, shows with a strong point of view have the best chance of success.
A board hanging in Miss Maddow’s NBC office is filled with scribbles, mostly indecipherable, of potential topics for her shows. It’s still so new that the nameplate outside is blank.
“I still haven’t really figured out when I’m supposed to be where and how to make sure there’s time in every day to do things like eat and sleep and read my e-mail,” she says.