Interview with Rachel Maddow, Keynote Speaker for the Annual Bill of Rights Dinner
The Torch: Vol 42, No 3, Fall 2007
The American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico cordially invites you to attend the annual Bill of Rights Dinner on Saturday December 1st, 2007 to celebrate this year’s success in defending our most cherished freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
Rachel Maddow, keynote speaker for the dinner, is best known for hosting her own show on Air America Radio and regular appearances on MSNBC, CNN, LOGO, and other television outlets.
The “Rachel Maddow Show,” is funny, fast-paced news program that focuses on “the headlines and the politics behind the headlines.” Her show airs in more than 40 markets nationwide. Maddow’s style is “learned, enthusiastic and affable.” She has a doctorate in political science (she was a Rhodes Scholar) and a background in HIV/AIDS activism and prison reform. She worked with the ACLU National Prison Project and is an avid supporter of the ACLU.
Rachel Maddow spoke with ACLU of New Mexico Executive Director Peter Simonson about her views on contemporary media, and the kind of person we need to take over the job of President of the United States.
PS: You represent a political perspective that many Americans feel is lacking in today’s mainstream media. Some would call it “progressive,” others “liberal.” How would you describe your personal political views?
RM: Good question. I’m almost never asked to describe them. I think of myself as an old-school liberal. I am a really patriotic person who gets weepy when I read parts of the Constitution and righteous Federal court decisions. I am a real civics geek. I think that drives me. I don’t have any liberal heroes. I don’t see myself in any particular school of American partisan thought.
I am a person who feels personally aggrieved by people who undermine our Constitutional republic. That makes me passionate about all sorts of things—freedom of religion and freedom from religion, through civil liberties, I think
the 4th amendment is personally wired into my DNA. My politics are strongly rooted in Constitutional defense, and I am not just saying this because you are the ED of the ACLU in your state! I’m saying this because the ACLU is the most fundamental expression of where my politics lie.
Growing up as a gay kid and having political roots in the AIDS movement, I am inflected by identity politics too and the need to protect the rights of minorities in the country. For me that’s about maximizing the potential of us as a country. I believe our Constitutional framework gives us the potential to be a beacon unto the world. But only if we harness the talents of everyone in the country. And we cannot do that as a discriminatory, hegemonic country. Because of our experience as minorities in this country we have a lot to offer—an understanding of what is means to be American and what is important in terms of our Constitutional protections.
PS: I am curious what it’s like to go on shows like MSNBC’s “Hardball” and face off against more extreme conservative pundits like Pat Buchanan. How do you prepare yourself for those sorts of moments?
RM: I don’t prepare in terms of anticipating what they are going to say. I generally prepare for what position I want to put forward. I don’t feel like I am coming from a partisan wing of the American polity, I feel like a centrist. I feel like a moderate and try and call them as I see them. I try and take a respectful, traditionalist, moderate take on things. In the broader media world that makes me a raving liberal. The thing that is most frustrating to me is that I go up against Pat Buchanan and he’s billed as “MSNBC News Analyst Pat Buchanan” and I’m billed as “Raving Left-Wing Lunatic Rachel Maddow.” I think Pat is a lot more extreme than I am, but he gets to be a “news analyst.” You have people who have staked their claim on the right who are really conservative people. And they get to present their view on the world without being rebutted. Whereas anybody who is identified openly as being from the left has to have somebody on the right rebutting them. I cannot be allowed to say what I think about something without having somebody there to give an opposite perspective.
PS: And yet you do it with such grace and good humor. Is that one of the keys to being effective in those moments when you are debating someone like Buchanan?
RM: I always think when it comes to a screaming match, there is always going to be someone who can scream louder than me. And frankly, I think I am unattractive when I scream. If I go right to the outrage and hollering I think that is weak place from which to argue. Keeping your knees loose, maintaining a sense of humor and refusing to take seriously the more outrageous assertions by your opponent I think, is a good strategy for winning a debate. Seeming reasonable has always seemed to me to be a good way to win rather than seeming adamant. That’s also just my personality, that’s how I approach stuff.
PS: What do you feel has been the impact of Air America? Has it provided an effective counterpoint to Fox News and the Rush Limbaughs of the world?
RM: Certainly not quantitatively. Fox News is the incredibly dominant voice in cable news. In talk radio we are still in a humongously right wing universe. We are a niche. That would be really hard for one start-up organization [Air America] to change in a few years. But we did cram our foot in the door and cause consternation along the right. Both on talk radio and in the partisan right wing television media. I am glad for that. But in terms of whether or not we’ve tilted the playing field so it’s level—no way! Not even close.
PS: If we see a Democrat elected to the presidency in ‘08, and Democrats retain control of both chambers, how do you suppose things will change, if at all, on the issues that most concern ACLU members? Say for example, the NSA wiretapping program and the suspension of habeas rights for foreign detainees.
RM: That’s the existential question facing the Democratic Party right now: whether or not they are going to take a strong, overt, non-partisan pro-Constitutional stand. The reason I think it’s a question for the Democrats and not a forgone conclusion is because what is driving the Constitutional crisis you are talking about is an executive branch power grab. I think executive power expands like an old rubber band: you can keep pulling it and it gets longer but at a certain point it stops snapping back. It takes a really noble politico to say I am going to dial back my own power. It’s viewed as a sign of weakness in an executive to do that. But it’s going to have to be done if we are going to restore the executive branch to its rightful place in our government. It’s a lot to ask of a political party and of a single politician, but I think that’s what Constitutionalists are going to have to insist on. You cannot have an attorney general who believes that the president can break the law; you cannot have a office of legal council whose job it is to explain why the president doesn’t have to obey the laws passed by the congress; you can’t have secret memos that justify torture and retroactively insulate people from being prosecuted in violation of our War Crimes Act. You just cannot do that. But in order to undo that, you have to be incredibly high-minded and noble about our Constitution. It’s going to take some real political bravery.