Q on the tube: A star is born

Rachel Maddow was born on April Fool’s Day, but she’s nobody’s fool. Although she’s only 36, she’s the smartest anchor on a TV news show on any network.

She was the first out lesbian to have a news show on radio (Air America) and on TV (MSNBC); the first out American queer to be a Rhodes scholar (her doctoral thesis was also queer-focused: “HIV/AIDS and Health Care Reform in British and American Prisons”); and the first out lesbian talk-show host to mix 19th-century cocktails on a late-night talk show, tell the host he wasn’t drinking a manly drink and note that she’d finally bought a TV for her Manhattan apartment but hadn’t turned it on yet. (Check out her guest appearance with Jimmy Fallon on March 24). Maddow is used to breaking new ground.

She became a cult favorite on “Air America,” but it was her guest-host spots on “Countdown with Keith Olbermann” that brought her national attention and a much wider audience. Although Maddow continually asserts she is not pro-Obama and has never been an Obama supporter, during the primary she was nearly as harsh on Hillary Clinton as Olbermann, which many Clinton supporters and women found unsettling.

But Maddow moved into her own political sphere when her show debuted in October 2008. It was clear from the first night that she was in no way Olbermann’s clone, puppet or even sidekick. Her hard-line approach with politicians has made her a force to be reckoned with. She has not given the Obama administration any more leeway than she gave the Bush administration.

Maddow is unique to TV punditry. She says she doesn’t ascribe to any specific political perspective, but she has a decidedly progressive tone, particularly when grilling members of the right.

She also doesn’t look like any other female talk-show host ever, with her Elvis Costello glasses and severe suits. (She “dresses down” on guest appearances in cowboy shirts. But black pants and cowboy boots are de rigueur for Maddow.)

The Olbermann stint may have been what got the self-described “national security liberal” and “policy wonk” her own show on MSNBC. But Maddow’s show outstripped Olbermann’s ratings in its first week, and has continued to be the biggest ratings-grabber among news shows on MSNBC.

While the show’s ratings might have initially been the result of curiosity — as well as the crushes of millions of American lesbians and bi women — the consistency clearly has to do with Maddow’s aptitude for all things political. That acumen is often overwhelming, even to her peers.

In a guest appearance on David Letterman last month, Letterman asked Maddow to explain the current economic crisis. Her smooth delivery and casual brilliance wowed the veteran talk-show host, who regularly downplays his own intellect but has been known to take his political guests to the mat, as he did with Bill O’Reilly yet again on March 31.

And Maddow has continued to address LGBT issues on her program with the same fervor she attaches to other news of national import. When then-President-elect Obama chose Pastor Rick Warren to give the invocation at the inauguration, Maddow’s response was scathing. She called the Warren pick “Obama’s first big mistake.” (Check out her comments on YouTube.)

For an LGBT audience, Maddow’s success represents visibility of the best and most commanding sort. She is a TV anomaly: a self-possessed, self-confident lesbian with a doctorate from Oxford who isn’t afraid to look, talk and act like a dyke on TV because that’s who she is — but it’s not the only thing that defines her. She’s here, she’s queer and she’s smart as hell.

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Victoria A. Brownworth is a Pulitzer Prize-nominated award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, DAME, The Advocate, Bay Area Reporter and Curve among other publications. She was among the OUT 100 and is the author and editor of more than 20 books, including the Lambda Award-winning Coming Out of Cancer: Writings from the Lesbian Cancer Epidemic and Ordinary Mayhem: A Novel, and the award-winning From Where They Sit: Black Writers Write Black Youth and Too Queer: Essays from a Radical Life.