In depth: Rachel Maddow

  • Rachel Maddow never set out to be a television news host. Friends thought she’d be a professor or an activist.
  • After studying at Stanford and Oxford, she got her start as a news announcer for a local Massachusetts radio station. She went on to be a radio host on Air America, before becoming a regular political commentator on MSNBC and CNN.
  • Since 2008, she’s hosted “The Rachel Maddow Show.” She’s the first openly gay host of a primetime news program in the US.
  • She’s a new type of host, forgoing confrontational attack-style interviews for deep-dive monologues on whatever news item she thinks is worth analyzing.
  • Here’s her life so far.

Rachel Maddow might be the most unlikely cable television host in the country.

Combining humor, empathy, and some serious research, Rachel Maddow was the first of a new kind of less angry political television host. She’s also the first openly gay host.

Maddow is known for being extremely intelligent — she earned a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford, and it’s obvious in her lengthy, well-researched monologues that she opens her show with every day. She’s also more civil than some of her peers. She’s chided Pat Buchanan for telling another commentator to “shut up,” and she refuses to act as a referee while guests fight, unlike on her competitor’s shows.

Maddow did not come straight to journalism. Friends thought she’d be a professor or an activist. But after deciding that she liked explaining things to people on a local radio station, it was only a matter of time. She went from that radio station to a bigger radio station, to television, to the face of MSNBC.

As Ben Wallace-Wells put it for Rolling Stone: “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.”

Here’s her life so far.

Rachel Maddow was born on April 1, 1973.

rachel maddow
Maddow in a photo from Castro Valley High School. 
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She grew up in a centrist house in Castro Valley, east of San Francisco — Maddow later described it as a “middle-class, suburban upbringing.” Both her parents were Democrats, but they voted for President Ronald Reagan.

She went to Castro Valley High School.

Rachel Maddow in 2005.
Maddow in 2005. 
Wikimedia

In high school, she was athletic. She was particularly good at swimming, basketball, and volleyball. But when she injured her shoulder in her final year, she had to decide whether to carry on as an athlete, which meant getting surgery and delaying college, or to push on. She pushed on.

Rachel Maddow speaking at Stanford.
Maddow speaking at Stanford. 
Ethics in Society / Youtube

Roger Noll, Stanford’s director of public policy at the time, said Maddow was the sort of brilliant student who appeared only every few years. Her professor Debra Satz often showed her students Maddow’s undergraduate thesis on changing perceptions of AIDS.

While she was a freshman, the university’s newspaper, The Stanford Daily, published a story about how she was one of two openly gay freshmen. When a reporter later asked whether the other person was her girlfriend, she said, “Funnily enough, only one other person was out, and she was not one of the many girls I was sleeping with.”

As Jill McDonough, a college friend of Maddow’s, told Rolling Stone: “No one at Stanford was saying they were gay — there were no other out lesbians — and she saw that it was a lie. The choice was, ‘I’m not going to be a hypocrite. I’m going to have courage.'”

A clipping of that article was mailed to her parents, which was how they found out she was gay. They didn’t take it well right away.

She was also on a Marshall Scholarship, for “intellectually distinguished young Americans” likely to be future leaders.

Despite her scholarships and undergraduate success, she felt out of place and put her studies on hold. She moved to London and worked for an organization called AIDS Treatment Project.

After several stops, she ended up finishing her doctorate in western Massachusetts. She told The Nation she wanted to live somewhere where’d she be unhappy.

“And I have no interest in New England, hate winter, don’t like the country, not fond of animals,” she said.

Maddow was friends with Cory Booker at Stanford and Oxford.

Rachel Maddow and Cory Booker.
Maddow and Booker. 
MSNBC / Youtube

Booker, now a New Jersey senator, said that while he was surprised she went the way she did, she was always about making a contribution.

“She wasn’t just about giving commentary; she was an activist,” he told New York Magazine in 2008. “She wanted to change the world.”

After getting her Ph.D., she continued working as an activist. But to pay the bills, because she wasn’t “a trust-fund kid,” she delivered packages, did yard work, and cleaned out buckets at a coffee-bean factory.

She was also rejected from a job at a video store.

When Maddow worked with AIDS advocacy organizations, she wasn’t particularly interested in politics, but she did donate to Harvey Gantt’s campaign for North Carolina’s Senate.

His opponent, Jesse Helms, vehemently opposed funding AIDS research because of his views on homosexuality, according to The New York Times.

Maddow had a life-changing year in 1999. She started dating the artist Susan Mikula …

Susan Mikula, Annie Philbin, Barbara Kruger and Rachel Maddow in 2012.
Susan Mikula, Annie Philbin, Barbara Kruger, and Maddow in 2012. 
Stefanie Keenan / Wire Image / Getty

The couple met in Massachusetts, while Maddow was still finishing her thesis. Mikula was looking for someone to clean her yard, and Maddow applied.

It was love at first sight. “Bluebirds and comets and stars. It was absolutely a hundred percent clear,” Maddow told The New Yorker.

It helped that Mikula had her initials in metal leaf on her jeep’s door — which Maddow, a fan of kitsch, told New York magazine was very hot.

Their first date was at a National Rifle Association event. They went because they both like shooting, though Mikula is the only one with the hand-eye coordination for it, Maddow told Rolling Stone.

Maddow told The Nation that their relationship was her “proudest accomplishment.”

… and her first break as a host came when she entered a local radio’s open audition to be a sidekick on a show called “Dave in the Morning.”

Rachel Maddow in 2013.
Maddow in 2013. 
Vallery Jean / FilmMagic

The radio station held auditions for a morning news announcer, and she got it.

Dave Brinnel, the show’s host, said she had a beautiful voice.

Maddow told Rolling Stone that though she stumbled into the job, it “really clicked.” She liked explaining things to people.

It helped that she was also allowed to play her favorite music, Radiohead and Lucero.

In 2004, Maddow landed a job cohosting a program on Air America called “Unfiltered,” with Chuck D and Lizz Winstead.

Rachel Maddow and Al Franken Air America Radio in 2004.
Maddow and Al Franken in 2004. 
Stephen Lovekin / FillmMagic / Getty

While the new radio station hoped to profit from well-known names, it was those with radio experience, like Maddow, who thrived. It was on the radio that she established herself as a “smiling but obstinate liberal.”

In 2005, she started hosting her own show three-hour show.

In 2006, while she was still working for Air America, she started becoming a guest political commentator on CNN and MSNBC, appearing alongside Tucker Carlson, Larry King, and Paula Zahn.

tucker carlson
Tucker Carlson. 
Richard Ellis/Getty Images

She was a guest on cable news for about three years, described by The Nation as a “ballsy gremlin of the left.”

It was her appearances on Carlson’s show that made her want to be a host. She wanted the ability to choose what was discussed.

“Story selection is half the battle and more than half the fun,” she told Rolling Stone.

She was invited on Fox News only once, when Madonna and Britney Spears kissed.

Britney Spears

Frank Micelotta/Getty

Maddow declined the offer.

In January 2008, she became a political analyst at MSNBC.

Newsweek's Howard Fineman and Air America's Rachel Maddow report live coverage of Decision 2008 in January 2008.
Newsweek’s Howard Fineman and Maddow in January 2008. 
Virginia Sherwood / NBC NewsWire / Getty

She was brought on as a left-wing commentator — but she told The New Yorker that though she’s a liberal, she doesn’t have strong feelings against the Republican Party. She’s interested in the sociology of the political styles, especially the “arcane” style of conservatives.

In 2008, “The Rachel Maddow Show” was launched.

Rachel Maddow

Dailymotion

It was a milestone. She’s the first openly gay woman to host prime-time news in the US. In her first month, she beat Larry King in ratings, which was unheard of for MSNBC.

Maddow was a different type of news host. She did things like wear pajamas on her show to show solidarity with bloggers.

And the actual show is shot differently from other talk shows. Typically, Maddow sits to the side, whereas other cable shows tend to focus on the face of the host. Other hosts focus on their own personality, while Maddow is about creating a narrative outside of her.

As Rolling Stone’s Benjamin Wallace-Wells wrote: “Bill O’Reilly, on Fox News, is a combatant and a champion. Maddow is a guide. O’Reilly’s show says, ‘Look at me.’ Maddow’s says, ‘Picture this.'”

When Maddow’s show began, MSNBC’s president, Phil Griffin, said his channel had more “swagger” than it had ever had, because of Maddow.

Phil Griffin MSNBC

Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images

“And trust me. The other guys see it. They are watching. And they are scared,” he told New York magazine.

On the Sunday night before her first show, at a party thrown for the staff, she told the group who had been working on “Verdict with Dan Abrams” and would now be working with her to forget everything they had ever learned.

Maddow didn’t like the gimmicky show that had preceded hers and wanted to be nothing like it, according to Rolling Stone.

But the staffers’ reaction wasn’t great, and she realized right away that she had not worded her speech very well.

At “The Rachel Maddow Show,” her workday typically begins at 12:30 p.m.

Before work, she goes to the gym, fishes, or spends time with Mikula. Her show airs at 9 p.m., and she doesn’t start writing until 4:30 or even 6:30.

She has said she tried writing in the morning, but it didn’t work for her.

“It’s not that I have anything so important going on in my life that I wouldn’t trade it to be better at my job, but it’s that you can only have your brain lit up for that long before it starts to break down and you stop making sense and stop being creative. What I don’t want to give up is the originality,” she told The New Yorker.

Maddow is known for her lengthy and in-depth opening monologues.

They go on for a long time, up to 24 minutes, without interruption. She makes sure not to repeat stories that have already been in the news cycle, so that what viewers get is something else.

“By reducing the story to its mythic fundamentals, Maddow creates the illusion of completeness that novels and short stories create. We feel that this is the story as we listen to and watch her tell it,” The New Yorker’s Janet Malcolm wrote.

She also marks up the teleprompter with notes about when and how to physically act, like whether to laugh, frown, smile, move her hands, or pause for a moment.

It takes her 15 seconds to get dressed, and it’s only from the waist up.

Behind the desk, her jeans and sneakers stay on.

Maddow takes her job seriously, but she has hobbies too — she’s an amateur bartender and has served her peers at the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner.

TV host Rachel Maddow tends bar at the MSNBC after-party at the Italian Embassy, following the annual White House Correspondents' Association dinner in Washington, April 27, 2013.
Maddow tends bar at the MSNBC afterparty following the White House Correspondents’ Dinner in April 2013. 
Jonathon Ernst / Reuters

Maddow researches vintage cocktails and makes them for herself and Mikula.

She doesn’t like mingling with politicians and attends only the afterparty for the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner, not the actual dinner, as long as she’s allowed to be the bartender.

To relax, she also likes to fish and watch films on her laptop. Her favorite film is the original “Manchurian Candidate.”

In 2012, she published her book “Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power,” which was on The New York Times’ bestseller list.

Rachel Maddow promotes the new book.
Maddow promoting her book. 
Slaven Vlasic / Getty

Maddow’s book is about the United States at war and how it’s changed.

The New York Times said the book, published by Crown, was a reminder that Maddow was a Rhodes scholar, but it also is filled with Maddow’s “cheerfully snarky voice.”

It’s not a piece of left-wing writing either — one of the book’s blurbs was written by Roger Ailes, the former chief of Fox News, who said the book was worth reading.

Of the writing itself, she told New York magazine: “Writing makes me want to blow my head off. I was very open with Crown about that. They assured me it wouldn’t happen.”

In 2012, Maddow clashed with the Republican strategist Alex Castellanos over whether women earn less than men.

Alex Castellanos, Republican Strategist, left, and Rachel Maddow.
Alex Castellanos and Maddow. 
William B. Plowman / NBC / NBC NewsWire / Getty

Castellanos said that women didn’t make any less than men and kept interrupting Maddow. He finished by telling Maddow he loved how passionate she was.

“I wish you were as right about what you’re saying as you are passionate about it. I really do,” he said.

Maddow told him that he was being condescending and clarified that her passion was based in fact.

It was instances like these that her producer Bill Wolff thought was what Maddow’s fans liked. He told Rolling Stone that they liked to see her defending rights: “voting rights, reproductive rights, women’s rights, really any kind of rights.”

In 2012, Maddow also spoke openly for the first time about having depression.

rachel maddow

Brendan Hoffman / Getty Images

She called it “cyclical” depression and said it made her struggles to focus.

“If I’m not depressed and I’m on and I can focus and I can think through something hard and without interruption and without existential emptiness that comes from depression, that gives me — not mania,” she told Rolling Stone. “But I exalt. I exalt in not being depressed.”

In December 2015, Maddow focused in on the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, while other national media outlets paid it little attention.

Rachel Maddow

SnapStream

The watchdog organization Media Matters said Maddow had distinguished herself for her show’s in-depth coverage of the Flint water crisis, adding it looked into the issue more than all the other major television networks combined.

In January 2016, she hosted a live town hall in Flint about the crisis.

In 2016, Maddow and Chuck Todd hosted a Democratic debate between Bernie Sanders and Hilary Clinton.

Rachel Maddow and Chuck Todd in 2016.
Maddow and Chuck Todd in 2016. 
Justin Sullivan / Getty

Maddow and Todd were praised for letting the candidates do most of the talking, though they did step in to ask pointed questions.

After the debate, Maddow hugged Clinton and Sanders. Some criticized the gesture, saying it showed her “liberal bias.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt, right, hugs MSNBC's Rachel Maddow during a democratic presidential candidate forum.
Sanders hugging Maddow. 
Chuck Burton / AP

Some people, like Fox News’ Howard Kurtz, said that the hug was a step too far and that her left-wing views should have disqualified her from being a debate moderator.

But others, including Fox’s Greta Van Susteren, said it was fine — that a hug was a gesture not unlike a handshake.

Regardless, the hugs didn’t do long-term damage to Maddow, and she took the criticism in stride.

Rachel Maddow MSNBC

@maddow

If/when GOP invites me and MSNBC to host a primary debate, rest assured I am definitely hugging those guys, too.

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During the 2016 presidential election, MSNBC centered its coverage on Maddow and the “NBC Nightly News” anchor Brian Williams.

According to Forbes, Maddow’s position as a “dominant prime-time star” stemmed from this coverage.

In 2016, Maddow’s show brought in the most viewers in the 9 p.m. slot that she had ever had at MSNBC.

Rachel Maddow talks with host Seth Meyers during a commerical break on May 12, 2016
Maddow talks with Seth Meyers in 2016. 
Lloyd Bishop / NBC / NBCU / Getty

Source: Variety

In 2017, Maddow homed in on the possibility that President Donald Trump had collaborated with Russia.

From February 20 to March 31, 2017, she covered Russia more than any other single news item, according to The Intercept. During the six weeks, 53% of her broadcasts were about Russia.

With the intense focus on Russia, Maddow had less time to talk about other issues arising from the Trump administration.

In March 2017, Maddow was criticized for a disappointing show about Trump’s tax returns.

To build anticipation, Maddow had tweeted hours before her show that she had Trump’s tax returns. MSNBC put a countdown on for her show.

But instead of demonstrating that he hadn’t paid his taxes, as many people had expected, she showed that he had paid taxes on over $150 million of income in 2005.

Many were disappointed, and the show was criticized on the late-night comedy shows. But over 4 million people watched the episode, her biggest audience ever.

In late 2018, Maddow thrived as she explained the documents released by Robert Mueller, the special counsel leading the Russia investigation.

Robert Mueller
Robert Mueller. 
Leah Millis/Reuters

According to The Washington Post’s media commentator Erik Wemple, Maddow “devoured” the documents, explaining to her audience what was in them, what it meant, and what was missing.

She briefly had the most viewers on cable news in 2018 — more than 3 million — before dropping down to fifth place in July 2019. But despite her popularity, she keeps most of her personal life from the media.

Rachel Maddow in 2011.
Maddow in 2011. 
Charles Sykes / AP

Maddow has said that part of her is on television every night, but not all of her.

“The rest of me is my own,” she told The New Yorker. “It’s not for everybody else. You sort of pick a slice of your life that you’re going to share as your non-TV persona and you give that to people — and they find it more or less interesting.”

To help with the privacy, she and Mikula escape from their apartment in New York to their farmhouse in western Massachusetts on the weekends.

Western Massachusetts.
Western Massachusetts. 
Wikimedia

They’ve said they love the house, which was built before the Civil War, but that one issue was a bathroom at the top of a very steep staircase. So they built an outhouse, which also has a television that Maddow can watch football on, with the volume way up.

In 2019, One America News Network sued Maddow for $10 million after she called it “paid Russian propaganda.”

Rachel Maddow

AP Photo/Chuck Burton, File

On her show, Maddow spoke about how an employee of One America News also worked for the news agency Sputnik, which has ties to the Russia government.

“The most obsequiously pro-Trump right-wing news outlet in America really literally is paid Russian propaganda,” she said.

The network claimed that Maddow knew what she said wasn’t true and that it was “as American as apple pie.”

Strategists have told Politico that Democratic candidates have to get on Maddow’s show to distinguish themselves from their competitors — showing how influential Maddow has become.

Rachel Maddow, Secretary Hillary Clinton in 2019.
Maddow with Clinton in 2019. 
Mackenzie Calle / MSNBC / NBCU / Getty

Politico called her the “new Democratic kingmaker.”

Despite her success, Maddow doesn’t take being the face of MSNBC for granted.

Rachel Maddow MSNBC ratings

AP

She still worries about whether “being a pundit is a worthwhile thing to be,” she told New York magazine. But she said she thinks it’s a good thing to be an outsider — a pattern of hers all her life.

“Yeah, I’m the unlikely cable news host,” she told the magazine. “But before that I was the unlikely Rhodes scholar. And before that I was the unlikely kid who got into Stanford. And then I was the unlikely lifeguard. You can always cast yourself as unlikely when you’re fundamentally alienated in your worldview. It’s a healthy approach for a commentator.”

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