"I think I have a fear in general about whether being a pundit is a worthwhile thing to be," Rachel Maddow tells me over dinner at a Latin restaurant in lower Manhattan. It's more than the ordinary self-deprecation of someone who just got her own cable commentary show. It's an insecurity essential to the on-air style that's powered the 35-year-old's rapid rise from a wacky morning radio show in western Massachusetts to the liberal radio network Air America and now to her own prime-time show on MSNBC.
Maddow is not a Tim Russert or a Chris Matthews--an ostensibly nonpartisan interviewer who badgers politicians and policy-makers about contradictions in their records. Nor is she a Rush Limbaugh or a Glenn Beck--an attack dog who deals in calculated anger, bluster, and outrage. She's no mild-mannered liberal like Alan Colmes or a veteran observer like Wolf Blitzer or David Gregory. Maddow has broken the broadcasting mold. She has succeeded as an avowed liberal on television precisely because she is not a liberal version of conservatives like Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck. Unlike so many progressive media figures who sought to replicate the on-air habits of the aggressive shock jocks of the right, she stumbled upon a workable style for the left. She is liberal without apology or embarrassment, bases her authority on a deep comprehension of policy rather than the culture warrior's claim to authenticity, and does it all with a light, even slightly mocking, touch. She proves that liberals can attract viewers on television when they actually act like, well, liberals.