Rachel Maddow on the "Complicated, Challenging, Upsetting" Job She Loves — and Building a Life Outside of the News
"The question is how long I can do it for, but I wouldn’t trade any of this for anything in the world," Maddow tells InStyle of the toll of keeping up with the news.
Rachel Maddow is putting her feet up in her office. However, this doesn’t denote complacency (not that anyone would accuse Maddow of that). She has no choice. She fractured her left ankle six weeks earlier when “getting on a boat in a pair of boat shoes,” she grumbles while pumping up the compression on the large boot covering her foot.
Maddow’s office is very on-brand: A wall functions as a whiteboard (today, the word “opioids” is scrawled in big letters, followed by other topics of inquiry). On the floor rest chunky piles of manila folders and at least a dozen bottles of whiskey, tequila, and assorted spirits. (“Utah makes a great whiskey,” she says, grinning. “Who knew?”) On the wall facing Maddow’s desk stands a clothing rack filled with around 20 nearly identical black blazers, their rigidity tempered by some racy beige and navy numbers farther down the rail.
Maddow, 46, is entering her 12th year as host of The Rachel Maddow Show. When she started as anchor in 2008 (following a career in radio and a guest-hosting gig on Countdown with Keith Olbermann), the country was entering the Obama years, which now seem like something of a dream sequence. The left-leaning MSNBC was a comfy place back then, but Maddow never rested on her laurels. Alternately thorough and goofy but relentlessly curious and armed with a ton of knowledge, she doubled the ratings for the network’s 9 p.m. time slot in a matter of days.
Now, of course, we are in a different time. Maddow’s stated mission — "To increase the amount of useful information in the world” — is more vital than ever. And it’s a testament to her smarts and innate decency that she delivers even the most traumatic news with a light hand (though sometimes she has to pinch that hand to keep from crying).
And despite hosting a nightly news show for 50 weeks a year, Maddow found time to write her second book, Blowout, about big oil and gas, “the richest, most destructive industry on earth.” Yet, rather than an eat-your-spinach obligatory read, the book radiates zing, intelligence, and black humor. Much like its author.
LAURA BROWN: So I have two questions and then you can fill in the middle. How the hell do you wake up in the morning, and how the hell do you sleep at night?
RACHEL MADDOW: I don’t sleep very well, but that’s mostly because of my torn ligaments. But I have a wonderful job. Everybody who’s stressed out about politics or who’s feeling overwhelmed by the pace or progress of news these days should be jealous of my job. I read the news all day and then figure out what I think is important and useful to convey about it, which is such a blessing. It’s also complicated and challenging and upsetting at times, but you’ve just got to push it all down.
LB: Is it somehow easier on your psyche to be the “great distiller” and look at things analytically?
RM: We’ve got this internal mantra on the show — to increase the amount of useful information in the world — and it’s a very helpful guide. We don’t try to cover everything every day. We try to read everything every day so we know everything that’s going on, but it doesn’t mean we’re going to cover it all. We cover stories that are a) important and b) to which we can add something important. For me, that’s how to not be overwhelmed, because you’re actually processing the information and making sense of it. Yes, sometimes the amount and the pace of it gets overwhelming. But my job is to catch up.
LB: Right. So run me through your standard day, from eyes awaking.
RM: I’m pretty good at compartmentalizing. I don’t look at my phone first thing when I wake up. I’m not a morning person, but my girlfriend, Susan [Mikula, a photographer], is. She’s up hours ahead of me, so if something truly epic has happened, she’ll either wake me up or tell me as soon as I get up. When one of the first Trump administration indictments happened, I remember I was having a really good dream. I was dreaming as a puppy, dreaming of bunnies. I had a puppy-eye view of the bunnies. So I’m chasing a fluffy bunny, and it’s a nice day, and then there’s this gentle shaking. “Honey, honey, the national security adviser’s been indicted. Your phone has been ringing.” And I was like, “OK, time to go.”
LB: Yanked from the puppy’s arms!
RM: I was the puppy! [laughs] I need to be gently drawn into the day. Then I try to do something that’s not work-related. These days it’s going to physical therapy before starting work around 11:30. And then I read solidly without talking to anybody. It’s a really important part of my day in terms of getting my head on — and it’s fun. In my own coded shorthand I take notes about what’s going on in the world. We also have a news digest, which is prepared by a different staffer every day. It’s geared toward the expertise and interest of me and the staff at that particular moment. For example, lately we’ve been covering the mysterious Russian nuclear explosion that happened at the beginning of August. My staff goes out of its way to scour what’s going on with that and make sure it’s all in there. I also read my gigantic stack of bookmarks before we go into our news meeting, which is all hands on deck, including the interns.
LB: Who is the monologue boss? Do you write it yourself?
RM: Yes. Sometimes a couple of producers will be assigned to the A block, which is the monologue block, but then I draft it. Either I type it or I have a producer come in with a laptop to record and transcribe what I’m saying. So I’m either writing it with my hands or writing it with my voice. Ideally, it should be written by 6:30, but sometimes it’s not done until 7:45 , which causes a panic. Then we just have to go fast. There’s a lot of literal running around.
LB: What calms you when it’s 8:30 and it’s not loaded in yet?
RM: When my day gets late, it’s not because it’s taking me a long time to write. It’s because I can’t stop reading and learning. There’s a reason why we’re considering 150 potential news stories at our meeting. It’s not because we’re going to do 150 stories; it’s because we need to know what we are considering and are deliberately leaving out. Acting from ignorance is a weak position. Acting from knowledge means you have to put the hours in, you have to have put the work in, and you have a firmer base on which to stand. I think that makes you speak louder and clearer.
LB: When did you realize that being able to make a pop-culture joke onscreen while reporting the news was possible?
RM: I don’t know that it was a deliberate thing. I did make a decision that I wanted to avoid homogenizing factors in my work process. I wanted to make sure I wasn’t absorbing the same information as everybody else and that I wasn’t watching other people doing my same type of work. Not because I don’t respect those people but because I don’t want to seem like them. I don’t read opinion pieces. I try not to watch a lot of cable news. I try to stay in my own little silo. And because I’m a goofball, I end up talking about serious news things in a goofball way. I didn’t know that it would work. To the extent that it does, that’s a surprise.
LB: It worked pretty much immediately in 2008 when you came in. What sort of sweet spot was MSNBC during the Obama years, and how did the tenor change when you knew that the flip of the table was happening?
RM: It felt like the world turned upside down. So at that point you ask yourself, “Should we do things in a totally different way?” It turns out that our internal mantra for a president without a scandal in eight years [is different for] a president who comes into office after having paid his $25 million fraud settlement [for Trump University], which happened right before he was sworn in. There was a gut-check moment of “Do we know who we are? Do we know what we’re doing? Yes, we do.”
LB: I actually think it becomes simple: There’s wrong and indecent, and then there’s right and decent.
RM: You model good behavior by what stories you choose to tell. If you feel like incivility or lack of fealty to the truth is a problem, then you model what it is to be decent and true and prioritize those things.
LB: And that’s how you sleep. Now, going into another campaign season, your show is the one that every Democrat worth his or her salt needs to go on. How many have been on the show so far?
RM: Not all of them, but a lot of them. I want them all to come on once they drop out. [laughs]
LB: Of the Democratic field, who do you really enjoy interviewing? And who’s a challenge?
RM: It just so happened that my exit interview with [Washington governor] Jay Inslee was a ton of fun. Then there’s [New Jersey senator] Cory Booker, who I’ve known forever, since college. We’ve spent Thanksgiving together. But that does not translate into me having super-loose interviews with him, which is interesting. We’re not best friends. I’ve probably interviewed [Minnesota senator] Amy Klobuchar more than any of the other candidates. It’s always a little unpredictable. I’m also not that reliable of an interviewer. [laughs] I’m never quite sure what I’m going to say. I always write questions, but they don’t always come out.
LB: When you’re getting palpably bullshitted with political messaging, how do you manage your frustration?
RM: I’m not a natural interrupter. [MSNBC host] Chris Matthews is famous as an interrupting interviewer, and it’s not because he’s rude. It’s that he has such a feel for the back and forth of conversation that he knows when you’re not going to answer the question or when it’s going to be boring. He can see it coming, and before you start to turn that steering wheel, he has redirected the car. That’s a talent I so wish I had. I’d be a better interviewer if I were more comfortable interjecting. I try to work around my own weaknesses. But I also try to insist on candidates being here in person, because then I can do a magic juju thing.
LB: Is there someone who’s eluded you?
RM: President Barack Obama. I interviewed him as a candidate, but the entire eight years that he was president, he never did another interview with me.
LB: Any theory as to why?
RM: I don’t know. There were a bunch of times we thought it was going to happen. We did get close toward the end of his presidency, but the interview was canceled. I couldn’t travel because of a hurricane. Can’t blame him for that.
LB: Have you been in a room with Trump in the past?
RM: I’ve told this story before, but I tried to interview him when he was a candidate. [Trump’s then-campaign manager] Kellyanne Conway kept saying, “I’m going to get him for you.” And I was like, “I’m totally ready. I’ll go anywhere. I’ll do anything.” Eventually, the campaign came through and said, “Mr. Trump is willing to have a phone conversation with you, but he wants to do that before any interview. Everything that happens in this conversation, and the existence of the conversation itself, is off the record.” OK, fine. So I’m on the phone with him lobbying for the interview — this is as he’s wrapping up the nomination — and we’re talking about what the primary’s been like and the nuances of the polling. He says he likes how I show the polling — at that point, I’d have a bar graph showing the polling result, and I’d put a little headshot of the candidate on top. He said he liked the way his head looked on the graphs. I said something to the effect of, “Listen, Mr. Trump, I know you’ve got as much coverage as you want from all these news outlets, but you’re not getting in front of my audience, which is a sizable audience in cable news. If you want to try to pitch your campaign in terms of what you’ve been describing to me — wanting to reach independents, disaffected Democrats, and Democrats who don’t like Hillary Clinton — I think you should come on. It’s not going to be easy, but it’ll be different.” And he says, “Well, this has been really good. You can use this.” And I was like, “What do you mean, ‘I can use this’?” And he said, “Was this on TV?” “No, this is not on TV.” “Well, you can put this on TV.” For more than a week we’ve been negotiating that this is completely off the record, no recording. So I’ve just had this conversation with him, and he now thinks he’s done an interview with me. I’m like, “You really think my interview with you would be chatting about your polls and [Republican primary opponent] Jeb Bush?” He changed his mind about the off-the-record nature of the conversation and said I could use it. That’s why I can describe to you that this happened.
LB: If you were to be in a room with him anytime soon, where would you start the conversation?
RM: What would you want [to know] from him? If you could ask him a question, what would you ask him?
LB: What do you care about? When you see a crying child who’s been taken away from her mother on the border and you know that that’s because of you…? Nice icebreaker.
RM: He’d definitely give you a great answer to that. “Fake news. Obama’s the one who…” I hope I get to interview him. I expect at some point I will. But there’s an unusual challenge with this president. He is completely dislocated from the truth. He’s an unreliable narrator for his own mind. When he stands up there at the G7 [summit] and says, “The First Lady has gotten to know Kim Jong Un.” First of all, you weren’t asked about Kim Jong Un. Second of all, whether or not you think the dictator of North Korea is a good person doesn’t matter. But why bring your wife into this? Your wife has not met Kim Jong Un.
LB: There are clear instances where Kim Jong Un meetings have occurred, and Melania Trump has not been there.
RM: Never. The White House itself had to clarify that she has not met him. So when it comes to interviewing a president who has that kind of relationship to the truth, you have to ask questions that are designed to elicit something else — because you’re not going to get the truth from him. You have to ask questions that illuminate something about his own process or habits that he doesn’t realize he should lie about. You have to backfoot him a bit.
LB: What makes you angry about what’s happening now?
RM: I’m not that angry of a person. I get frustrated. I get sad. I’m an easy crier. I am emotionally affected by the wanton infliction of cruelty on people who have done nothing wrong and don’t deserve it. It doesn’t change the way I do stuff. Sometimes I think ahead about little tricks and techniques to not cry on air when I’m talking about something unbelievably terrible.
LB: Like what?
RM: Pinch yourself right here [pinches her hand between her thumb and index finger]. Just really wrench it. It causes a nerve pain response. Sometimes I cry on TV. That happens. I’d rather it not.
LB: Why? I feel like people — especially in politics — become cynical about crying. It’s not a device. It’s because you’re feeling something.
RM: I expect the audience will feel things when we’re reporting on poignant or difficult stories, but for me to display emotion, I don’t think that’s helpful to anybody. It’s a distraction. If you’re having an emotional reaction to the news, I want to respect that and not trample on it.
LB: What do you feel most optimistic about now?
RM: I wrote this oil-and-gas book, Blowout. It’s about the end of the world, but the place where I ended up actually made me optimistic. The basic thesis of the book is that democracy — small d democracy, governance — is threatened. The cure to that is more democracy. Democracy is the best system of government on earth — it’s the only thing that works — and it’s in decline all over the world. It’s scary to see authoritarianism rear its head and appear to take hold in places where you’d think there wouldn’t be particularly fertile soil. But I feel confident that, ultimately, democratic power will win. We know what the solution is: people expressing themselves in an untrammeled way, being listened to, and having representative government that does what they want. That’s still the best idea, and I don’t think it’s a googly-eyed idealistic thing.
LB: I love asking about personal ambition and pride because some women are like, “Oh, I don’t want to say I’m proud.” In my opinion, that’s BS. So what are you proud of?
RM: I am proud of the work that we do on the show every day. We don’t always do everything right, but when we get stuff wrong, we correct it. I’ve got a record I can stand on in terms of what we put out there and the stories we’ve advanced. In this business, being on the air this long in itself is kind of a major achievement. We grow people on our staff, and they don’t get abused or treated poorly. It’s a very knockabout industry in terms of turnover, but we’ve tried to be more constructive and sustainable. I have not found it to be sustainable in terms of my own body and my own health.
LB: How is your health? Aside from the obvious.
RM: I’ve got seven screwed-up disks and stenosis in my neck and three torn ligaments and an avulsion fracture. I’m just a mess.
LB: Is it from sitting and reading a lot?
RM: The back and neck stuff is. Ten-plus hours a day, five days a week, 50 weeks a year, 11 years—
LB: Fifty a year? You only take two weeks off?
RM: About, yeah. And it’s fine to do that for one year, but when you do it for 11 years, you fall apart.
LB: What exercise do you do?
RM: Right now I don’t do anything. It’s a disaster. I hurt my back in the spring of 2017, and since then I’ve been doing old-people exercise.
LB: We’re all getting there. Just be avant-garde about it.
RM: My father-in-law, Susan’s dearly departed dad, used to say, “Getting old is not for sissies.” And I’m like, “Well…” [laughs] My mission for the next couple of years is to get my body back in order so I can do the kind of movement I need to keep myself sane. I like to fish, I like to hike, I like to be outdoors. I can’t do any of that right now.
LB: What’s a great day like when you’re not working?
RM: I’ve got a completely working body — all my limbs! I don’t have three torn ligaments and an avulsion fracture. I wake up in Massachusetts — I go home to western Mass. on Friday nights. Susan and I have breakfast. We walk the dog, she goes for a 25-mile bike ride, I go fishing, and I actually catch a fish. For all the fishing I do, I’m terrible. I haven’t gotten better over time. But I will fish any way — in the sea, in a lake, in a river, in a bathtub. Then we come home and play darts. She cooks; I make cocktails. It’s early to bed, early to rise. If I could have that day 10,000 days in a row, I would be happy.
LB: How great is it to just stand in a river and space out?
RM: That’s exactly what fishing is for me. I’m crap at it. I only know three knots, and when I’m tying one of those knots, I need complete stillness and focus. Everybody thinks of fishing as a thing you do with beer, but no. I love drinking; I’m, like, semipro. I also love fishing. I would never do them together. You need both hands.
LB: You make the cocktails at home, though.
RM: Yes, but I made a rule about nine years ago: no spirits on school nights. So if I’m making cocktails, it’s a weekend. I find that if I have a cocktail or a glass of Scotch, I cannot be counted on to not have another one. It reduces your inhibitions and therefore reduces your ability to be like, “I’m just [having one],” whereas if I’m going to have a glass of wine, I can have one glass. I’m completely religious about it. Even if I’m at dinner and everybody’s having a martini, nope. It’s a school night. But people know I’m a good drinker. Whenever someone comes back from vacation, they bring me hooch. I have Scotch, rye, bourbon, Irish pot-stilled whiskey, mezcal. In case of the apocalypse, you should come to my office.
LB: What do you do after the show on school nights?
RM: I chat with the floor crew, take out my contact lenses, and take off my makeup. I put my black blazer back on the rack and my black camisole back in the paper bag and then do some work in the office.
LB: What do you buy, clothing-wise?
RM: I’m not a shopper, really. I know this is off-brand for InStyle. I’m super into handkerchiefs. Susan buys me cute vintage hankies. I get superstitious about their luck value. I have all these little rules about how they can’t be moved from one pocket to another pocket, and if you accidentally launder your trousers with a handkerchief in the pocket, that has a specific luck quotient.
LB: I bet you have your own spreadsheet in your head. Who do you think has great style?
RM: I’ve been psyched to see the women’s national soccer team go so aggro on style and just be like a) We are going to surprise you, b) We’re all going to be completely different, and c) We’re not going to be anything like anybody else in this field.
LB: Do you remember a look you had when you were younger when you thought, “I’ve nailed this”?
RM: I was really into my first-ever sports uniform when I played on a mixed boys-and-girls under-6 basketball team at the YMCA. I remember the outfit: a black T-shirt with yellow writing and black gym shorts. This was, like, 1979. I think I kept the outfit for a long time. My parents — bless them — probably still have it. Poor things, they can never clean up their house. I’m like, “No, I definitely need that!” They’re like, “You’re 46! We’ve held on to this for 40 years!”
LB: What about when you were a teen?
RM: I was a tomboy, and I got to play sports. But I came out to myself when I was 16 and then came out to everybody else when I was 17. Getting there and realizing that you’re queer and you need to get out of your conservative town, there was never a moment of, like, physical self-satisfaction. I’m still working on that.
LB: Yeah. So after the show you put the blazer back on the rack. What time do you finally get home?
RM: I’m usually home by 11ish. I walk the dog. Susan stays up for me valiantly. We have a midnight supper. I’m up until 2 or 2:30, and then in the morning I’m ready to start again.
LB: And so it goes.
RM: I have a great life — a great job, the world’s greatest relationship, an awesome dog. My family’s awesome. My staff’s amazing. This is the greatest city in the world, and I leave on the weekends and go to the greatest place in the world. I’m doing great. The question is how long I can do it for, but I wouldn’t trade any of this for anything in the world.
LB: OK, then. I’m going to call this “Portrait of Misery.”
RM: Just call it “Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation: Tuesdays with Rachel Maddow.”
Photographed by Christopher Sturman. Makeup: Alisa Gurnari.
For more stories like this, pick up the November issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download Oct. 18.