By Tom carson - I can't say for sure when it happened—it was after Barack Obama's swearing-in yet before Keith Olbermann got suspended for giving money to Democrats—but at some point it began dawning on people that the face of MSNBC was Rachel Maddow. Certainly her bosses thought so. Not only did she have her own prime-time show but she also began landing the gigs traditionally reserved for a network's Grand Poo-Bah, in particular, anchoring election-night coverage.
You can understand why MSNBC execs would want Maddow in this talismanic chair for the 2012 campaign. Young and sunny, she's their highest-rated anchor, especially among the magical 25-to-54 demographic, which makes her the ideal front woman for a network whose tagline is "Lean Forward." Just as important, she's their easiest and most polite host, a woman who once chastised Pat Buchanan on Dan Abrams after he told a Clinton campaign worker to "shut up," a rebuke that left the old pitchfork-waver abashed. Although she can sometimes be too doggone cute, Maddow embodies virtues—rationality, good humor, and courtesy—that make her an alluring alternative to our culture's furious partisan stridency. Her upbeat civility is perfect for wrangling MSNBC's election-night panel, which includes such monsters of vainglory as bluff, blue-collar Ed Schultz, Lawrence ("I'm the real insider here") O'Donnell, and the Reverend Al Sharpton, whose patter has become so lazily formulaic that he seems like a refugee from Portlandia. Smiling and cajoling, Maddow turns them as amiable as puppies.
Maddow is someone liberals can feel good about themselves for liking. She has left-of-Barack politics, yet because her father is a retired Air Force captain, she can speak of caring about the troops without shamming. She's got the intellectual credentials that our side loves—an Oxford Ph.D.! —yet she's also down with pop culture, talking of her life in terms of John Hughes movies. Topping it all off, she's an openly lesbian anchor in an era when people still discuss whether Anderson Cooper is gay. Not so long ago, being out would have kept Maddow off the air. Now, it feels positively ordinary.
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