Part 1—Bold leader since earliest youth: As a young person, did Rachel Maddow think she might be on her way to the Olympics?
We’ve semi-wondered about that question for some time now. After a fact check last week, it seems our curiosity may trace to Newsweek’s profile of Maddow in December 2008.
Maddow started her nightly cable program in September of that year. As Newsweek’s Jessica Baird profiled the emerging star, she recalled her teenage years:
BAIRD (12/1/08): As a teenager, her dreams revolved around basketball, swimming and volleyball—she wanted to be an Olympic athlete until a serious injury dashed her hopes. She was a fierce performer who insisted on playing through injuries and amassed a collection of crutches of varying heights.Other profiles say this injury occurred when Maddow was a senior in high school.
Did Maddow tell Baird that she had Olympic dreams even as a senior in high school? We’ll guess that she did not.
We find no reference to the Olympics in other profiles of Maddow. Concerning Baird’s construction, journalists often misreport things they’ve been told when they compose a profile.
In a matter such as this, the subject may make a joking remark, then see it reported straight. Someone else may have said something that was wrong or misunderstood.
That said, we’ve occasionally wondered about that alleged Olympic dream. We’ve wondered about it for a reason.
It concerns a question we’ll ponder all week:
Who is Rachel Maddow?
We’ll assume that Maddow didn’t tell Baird that she had Olympic dreams. That said, it’s easy to see how Baird could have developed inflated ideas about Maddow in the course of composing her profile.
All through her Newsweek piece, Baird quotes Maddow, along with her family and friends, making grandiose claims about the subject of her profile. These claims seem to be torn from the pages of a North Korean leadership bio.
The brilliance began at an early age, according to Maddow’s mother. Rachel never spoke baby talk, and things just developed from there:
BAIRD: Maddow was, according to her parents, a curious, serious child who never spoke baby talk. When her mother, Elaine, would walk into the kitchen to prepare breakfast, the 4-year-old Rachel would be perched on a stool, with her nightgown and bed socks on, reading the newspaper.That may be exactly how it went down. But could Kim Il-Sung have done better?
As the profile proceeds, so do the marvelous claims. By her own admission, Maddow was a political seer by the time she was 7. Around that time, her father was struck by her athletic prowess and her determination:
BAIRD: Maddow remembers when she was 7, standing in front of their black-and-white television during the 1980 election and loathing Ronald Reagan, although she is not sure why now: "All I remember is the feeling of dislike," she says, laughing. "Maybe I have reverse-engineered it into my memory."...When she wanted to learn to ride a bicycle without training wheels, she circled the streets day and night. Her father, Bob, says it took one weekend.To judge from Baird’s profile, few things happen to Maddow that aren’t extraordinary in some way—elevated as compared to the things which happen to mortals. Examples:
Later in the profile, Maddow describes the extraordinary way she fell in love with her partner, Susan Mikula.
It happened instantly, on first sight, with Maddow’s entire life instantly changed. In turn, Mikula describes the amazing events which took place on their somewhat peculiar first date:
BAIRD: Their first date was at a shooting range—they fired muskets, pistols and rifles and threw tomahawks. Mikula says Maddow was so “unbelievable” with the AR-15 that people stopped to watch.Did Maddow swim the Connecticut River during a storm later on that evening? Perhaps she did, but Baird left it out of her profile.
Maddow is different in every way. Here’s the way she was feeding herself at the time of the Newsweek profile:
BAIRD: For Maddow, the job never really stops. She regularly works 16-hour days, only eating once she has finished. She often has just one large meal at 2 a.m., purchased from street vendors.Presumably, she would then return to the Central Park cave where she was living with wolves.
In other profiles, some of these tales come out sounding substantially different. By 2012, here’s how that first date was being described in a profile for Rolling Stone:
WALLACE-WELLS (6/27/12): Maddow and Mikula met in 1999. On their first date, they went to an NRA event, which was only partly ironic: They both like to shoot firearms. ("Susan has the hand-eye coordination," Maddow says. "But I can't control my movements.")What happened to the trick-shooting display which had the whole range transfixed?
Whatever! Students of the Maddow profile will recognize the familiar element in the statement Wallace-Wells quotes. In that statement, Maddow presents herself as much more helpless than you and me, a familiar trope which is often used to make us want to care for her more. The endless tales about not (quite) owning a TV set falls into this category.
(According to Wallace-Wells, here’s what happened after the visit to the shooting range, at which Maddow either amazed the elders or fired uncontrollably into the night: “Shortly thereafter, they went for a stroll in a cemetery in western Massachusetts where they were both living, and at a moment of nearly transcendent silence and beauty, while they were looking serenely at 19th-century gravestones, Maddow took a gigantic pratfall. Mikula says that was the moment when she fell in love with Maddow.” As in chronicles from Pyongyang, nothing happens to this Dear Leader which doesn’t involve “moments of nearly transcendent silence and beauty.” Such moments may be joined to the self-confessed, lovable dorkiness to which we’ve just alluded.)
The firing range happened two different ways. Then too, after having her show for three years, the daily feeding had greatly changed, according to a quote by Maddow in a profile by the Hollywood Reporter:
GUTHRIE (10/14/11): “I eat three meals a day at my desk, if I eat three meals a day. If I eat two meals a day, they're both at my desk. All of my meats are at my desk.”Over time, people change their habits, of course. If you’re scoring these profiles at home, this description helps us see Maddow’s amazing devotion to duty, which is often described in these profiles by the corporate suits who marvel at her preparation time.
(Avert your eyes when these fellows describe the way she spends eight hours preparing for every program. In part, their horizons have been set by the habits of Chris Matthews, who seems to spend about five minutes preparing himself for each show.)
To our ear, that Newsweek profile drifts toward the unintentionally comical. This drift occurs as Maddow herself, and all around her, marvel at her Olympic-sized past deeds.
Grandiose statement is fairly common with Maddow. Six months after that Newsweek profile, she was interviewed by Charlie Rose. We don’t exactly understand the highlighted statement:
ROSE (6/19/09): What do you like about your job?Maddow was 36 when she said that to Rose. Based upon her standard bio, we have no idea when she could have spent “a very long time” at some earlier juncture “traveling around the country,” running campaigns to overturn some of the worst HIV policies in the country.
MADDOW: I love my job.
ROSE: I know. I can tell.
MADDOW: I`ve had about 150 jobs in my life, and this is by far the best.
ROSE: And how did you end up here? I mean, was it somewhere in the back of your head when you were at Stanford, when you were at Oxford, when you, you know, decided you had to get a job, was it, “Man, what I’d love to do is sit on television and engage interesting people about important subjects?”
MADDOW: Never in a million years...I thought I would be an activist.
MADDOW: Yeah. That’s sort of what I’d done. I was an old ACT-UP kid from back in the day, had been an AIDS activist for a very long time. I was traveling around the country running campaigns to overturn some of the worst HIV policies in the country, and having a brilliant time, and I thought it would be my life’s work until there was a cure and all my friends came back. I never planned to do anything other than that. But I’m not much of a planner, It has to be said. I just thought I’d do that for a while.
We’ve never seen a fully detailed account of this part of Maddow’s life. But given her standard bio, how long a time, back in the day, could this really have been?
Does Maddow tend to embellish her stories, perhaps in slightly peculiar ways? We would say she possibly does.
To the extent that she was doing good work on the air, this wouldn’t matter a lot, if at all. But her work, especially her scandal work, has been increasingly awful.
Often, her work is extremely dumb; it’s sure to make viewers much dumber. All too often, her work looks dishonest. Increasingly, her work looks morally objectionable in ways which go beyond that.
Technically, Maddow is very bright. She has superlative manners on the air. When she isn’t trying to get people thrown into jail on the flimsiest possible basis, she focuses on a set of very significant topics.
Presumably, Maddow could be a superlative journalist if she had competent supervision. But she seems to have no journalistic supervision at all.
Quite literally, the people above her at MSNBC have no background in news. To our eye, it shows.
It’s hard to know why someone like Maddow is doing so much terrible work. But much of her work is dumb and dishonest. It’s time for serious liberals to insist that it stop.
Who is Rachel Maddow? Given her basic ability and her massive pay, why is she doing so much horrible work?
We’ll be exploring those questions all week. Forced to don our shrinking caps, we’ll suggest that some of the answer might be found in other parts of that Newsweek profile.
Parts of that profile read like something that came to us by way of Pyongyang. Combined with other parts of the piece, could that explain Maddow’s horrible work—horrible work the liberal world keeps refusing to notice?
Tomorrow: Recurrent horrible work