In her biography of Rachel Maddow (published last month by Thomas Dunne Books), Lisa Rogak writes that the top-rated MSNBC anchor, who has a home in Provincetown with her partner, photographer Susan Mikula, has always had a “take it or leave it approach.”
“I never feel like I fit in, and that’s my superpower,” Maddow has said. “That forces me to struggle out of insecurity, which somehow results in success. I still feel like a criminal, like I’ve stolen some more deserving person’s television show.”
Rogak never interviewed Maddow, her staff, or her family for this book. Using previously published interviews with Maddow and others, she pieces together Maddow’s early life in a conservative Catholic family in Castro Valley, a Republican bastion in the blue San Francisco Bay area.
Maddow came out while at Stanford University by posting an article in the college newspaper. “I thought that everything I did had to make a statement,” Maddow has said. “I had a confrontational mindset.”
After graduating, Maddow went to Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship, then returned to the U.S. to write her dissertation. She settled in Northampton, where a high school friend had opened an inn, and lived rent-free, without distractions.
“I was a waitress, bike messenger, bucket washer at a coffee bean factory, yard help, landscaping laborer, handyman,” Maddow has said. “I went for a job at a video store and got turned down because I didn’t know enough about movies.”
When she showed up at Mikula’s house to apply for a gardening job, “I fell in love,” Maddow has said. “She fell in love. It was crazy. It was irrational and spiritual and unexpected.”
Maddow got her first on-air job as a sidekick on the Northampton radio show Dave in the Morning. She read the headlines and set up the punch lines for host Dave Brinnel. Maddow found that she loved being on the radio, and that the audience responded to her energy, humor, and point of view.
In 2004, she was hired to co-host a show, Unfiltered, on the newly launched progressive AM talk-radio network Air America, and in 2005 she was offered an Air America show of her own. She began making television appearances as a guest commentator on MSNBC’s The Situation With Tucker Carlson. Soon she had stints on Larry King Live, On the Case With Paula Zahn, and Countdown With Keith Olbermann. MSNBC gave Maddow her own berth in 2008.
From the outset, The Rachel Maddow Show was a ratings success. “I think an overt part of storytelling [is] to think about the emotional content of what you’re doing,” Maddow has said. “One is your tone of voice … if you are raising your voice, people will hear less of what you have to say.” Her goal: “Be persuasive, be authoritative, and have a voice that people can listen to.”
Rogak revels in the breakneck pace at which Maddow, her producers, and her writers work. The reader feels what it’s like being in the midst of the show’s production and can see what sets Maddow apart.
Because this book is assembled from published material it’s not news. Still, it’s thorough and the analysis is insightful. For fans who want to learn about Maddow’s formative years and her rise to the top, it merits their time and attention.