Saturday, April 19, 2008


Last week, I introduced a two-part series on rising stars in the world of progressive politics. The subject of Part One was my old friend, Steve Novick, who I increasingly believe has a legitimate chance to become the Junior U.S. Senator from the State of Oregon. The general consensus is that he clearly won the televised debate this week among the Democratic candidates.

Moreover, Novick leads in all the polls and has a fair amount of momentum. So even though you still have to pinch me when I hear the words “Senator Novick,” I must recognize that there’s no one in Oregon – neither a Democrat nor a Republican – who I’d put as a clear favorite against him. Considering that Novick has never before been elected to office at ANY level … he is truly a rising star.

Today, though, I’d like to talk about a star with an even more rapid trajectory. She, like Novick, belongs to a tiny minority in American politics today. Novick is in the class of political figures who are shorter than 4’ 10” and have only one arm. But the person I’d like to highlight today is in a group that is every bit as minute -- out-of-the-closet lesbians. Surely you can name many such individuals who are influential in the political world. What? You can’t name one? Well, other than this lady, neither can I.

The woman I have in mind claims to be the first out-of-the-closet lesbian to be a Rhodes Scholar. The Stanford grad matriculated in Oxford in 1995, at the age of 22, and now has become arguably the leading progressive talking head in America.

Do you know who I’m referring to? Most Americans wouldn’t. Would it help if I added that her radio show has the evening drive time slot on Air America? How about if I added that she regularly appears on Keith Olbermann’s MSNBC show, and has occasionally served as the show’s guest host? If that’s not enough hints, I can only offer you one more: she is beginning to make a name for herself by repeatedly besting Joe Scarborough on the air. If you’ve watched Morning Joe, you’ll know that he’s used to bullying women. But this is one woman he can’t bully. And he’s beginning to realize that painful lesson. Just check out these two links, which show his progression, first by playing the role of a punk who tries to beat her up in the schoolyard, and second, by whining and then running away from the conflict.

Video #1 (

(when you get to this site, type in "Maddow schools Scarborough")

Video #2 (

The rising star’s name, as you all can tell by now, is Rachel Maddow. She is nothing short of the answer to my prayers for a progressive talking head who is likeable, sharp as a tack, and extremely knowledgeable about public policy. She always keeps her cool, is never shrill, and seems to be always at peace with her role as a debater for progressive causes. Whereas many of her fellow progressive talking heads (e.g., Randy Rhodes) prefer childish ridicule to logic, Rachel doesn’t allow her arguments to become puerile. In fact, she is that rare bird who is off the charts quick witted AND thoughtful -- a deadly pair, especially when combined with her incredible poise.

If you think I’m exaggerating, watch those exchanges with Scarborough again and note the mastery of her craft. In the first one, Joe tries to interrupt her flow but he can’t – she hears him with one ear, but she’s equally concentrating on continuing to make her point, which she does impeccably. And all the while, she’s smiling. You’ve got to love the part in the first video when Scarborough, a Republican who devotes most of his morning show to speaking on behalf of working class white Democrats -- tells Rachel that she has no business speaking for the Republican base. She simply laughs off his chutzpah and continues on with her argument.

By the time that the second video was made, you’d think Scarborough would have known that he had met his match. But he can’t resist a good scrap. First, he tries to interrupt her, but she doesn’t let him – she doesn’t speak over him, she simply makes light of his effort. Then, he says, ironically, that “I don’t engage in Crossfire type debates,” when in fact he engages in these debates all the time in talking to guests and co-hosts whom he can bully. Next, he suggests that unlike Rachel, who might want to “yell back and forth,” he’s above that sort of thing; in truth, Rachel doesn’t yell because she doesn’t need to, she has such a superior command of rhetoric that anything as crude as yelling would hardly be in her repertoire. Then, Scarborough resorts to the ad hominem attack by suggesting that since Maddow hasn’t run for public office, she couldn’t truly know what she’s talking about when it comes to politics. She deftly deflects that comment with a priceless facial expression – like I said, no need to be shrill when you’re a professional. And finally, no doubt recognizing that everything in his bag of tricks was failing him, Scarborough simply undoes his microphone and walks out of the studio. Presumably, he headed to a phone where the voice on the other end was met with something like “Mommy, mommy, this mean ol’ dyke is picking on me again.”

Masterful stuff. To a politics junky like me, it’s like watching a guy make a 50 foot double breaking putt, or a circus catch in the end zone. Whether you’re talking about politics, golf, or football, when you see a real professional, you just want to stand up and applaud.

It will take a while before someone like Rachel Maddow can become beloved throughout America. If you think our society has a problem with racism, it ain’t nothing compared to our issues with homophobia. Many people will listen to her for ten seconds, dismiss her as a leftist lesbian, and change the channel. But time is NOT on their side. As the years have passed, so has the extent of homophobia in society, and I see no reason why that trend won’t continue. As for the charge of Rachel’s “leftism,” I think we will all soon come to realize that as long as a talking head is thoughtful, courteous, and logical in presenting arguments, our nation’s political marketplace can only benefit from his or her voice, regardless of where that voice falls on the spectrum of ideas.

I’ve always been one who enjoys friendships with people on various points throughout that spectrum. I have even gone so far as to say that I consider Ronald Reagan, whose substantive views I disagree with on virtually every issue, as one of my political heroes, due to his integrity, candor, self-assurance, and clarity of vision. We need to stop judging political figures primarily by whether we agree with their philosophies, but rather by whether they exhibit the character and talent needed to make our public sphere as vibrant as possible. I may yet turn out to be wrong, but my hunch is that Rachel Maddow will pass this test with flying colors. I encourage you to listen to her show on Air America, watch her appearances on Keith Olbermann’s program, and judge for yourself.


YoungMan said...

Jeopardy Answer:

Time is NOT on their side.

Contestant: Alex, "What were things Karl Marx said".

Alex: $2000 to you.

Danny, Danny, stop being so trite, that's the same socialist redistrubitive clap trap of the 70s.

I have no idea whether shes any good or not. Maybe she can go toe to toe with Monica Crowley, or Ann Coulter.

On another note, the one thing I have to say about Wed.'s debate regardless of the questioning or who won or lost, was that Hillary's constant reference to her opponent as "Barack" was offensive and unbecoming. Yes I do mock "Punahou Barry", but in a civilized public debate, he should always be given his honorific....Senator Obama...she demeans herself in not showing him the same respect he gives her. You may not respect the man but you must respect the office


Daniel Spiro said...


I would actually give Hillary the benefit of the doubt on her references to "Barack." She wants people to refer to her as Hillary (for obvious reasons), so it's possible she just thinks it would be only appropriate to call her opponents by their first names as well.

When in doubt, I tend to give politicians people a pass. Applying that standard, I still find plenty of opportunities to criticize them.

YoungMan said...


I think k.d. lang is the best female singer since Judy Garland. Doesn't mean I'd want her to run our country or even her own :)-


Night Stranger said...

I came late to the admiration of Ms. Maddow. When first I saw her I got the impression she was going to be a mindless supporter of Hillary Clinton. This was over a year ago when she began appearing on MSNBC as a talking head. Her coolness and acceptance of the Dem party line bothered me.

My attitude has changed as I have watched almost every day, popping up to offer her opinion which more often than not was just what I would have said -- and sometimes actually illuminating me on something I did not know. I'm always glad to see that she's being included in the debate. When Joe Scarborough is on I often have to tune out. But when her laser mind focusses on him, he's toast.

Rachel Maddow may be the best thing to emerge from this primary season. That is, unless Barack wins. (I think I'll call him by first name from now on.)

Daniel Spiro said...

Night Stranger typed --

"Rachel Maddow may be the best thing to emerge from this primary season. That is, unless Barack wins. (I think I'll call him by first name from now on.)"

Actually, she and Novick and 1 and 1A. I wouldn't want to have to choose between them. But yes, she's wonderful.

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