MANCHESTER -- An eager audience greeted television host Rachel Maddow in Manchester over the weekend. The liberal political commentator stopped to promote her book, "Drift," as the first guest in a new author series, Off the Shelf, organized in partnership between the Northshire Bookstore and WAMC Northeast Public Radio.
Saturday's event was taped live and will be aired at a later date on WAMC's "The Book Show." That show's host, Joe Donohue, emceed the program in front of a crowd of about 700 seated in the gymnasium at Manchester Elementary Middle School. Those who attended were clearly fans judging from their applause and knowledge of the fact that Maddow would be celebrating her 39th birthday the next day.
"For 90 percent of the people here in this crowd, you are our patron saint," Donohue told his guest, a statement which by itself drew raucous applause. Maddow wore casual Adidas and a rumpled button-up shirt and bantered with Donuhue on a simple set with a driftwood floor lamp and overstuffed armchairs.
The new book, Maddow's first, traces how U.S. national intelligence agencies have taken over duties once assigned to the military, Donohue said, and how that shift "has increased the public disconnect from the consequences of war."
Maddow said American military families have had "really, really, really different" lives compared to American civilian families since Sept., 11, 2001. She said the disconnect was a recent phenomena borne out of political expediency in the time since the Vietnam War. "If nobody knows you're doing it, you can't be asked about it, so you don't have to explain it. And, also, if it goes poorly -- eh."
Pointing to the rise of independent military contractors, use of guard and reserve units during wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the executive usurping of traditional war powers from Congress, Maddow said there was "broad, bipartisan discomfort" with those changes.
"I don't think it's a conspiracy. I don't think it was a deliberate thing that somebody set out to change the country in the way I say I'm so worried about in the book," said Maddow. "I don't think it was on purpose. I just think it sort of happened -- we drifted into it."
She said worries that national security policy "makes itself" and that the "military goes off and fights our wars, instead of the country going to war," predate Sept. 11.
"By the time of 9/11, we didn't feel like we had very much choice whether we were going to go to war. We were going to go to war if the president wanted to, and that was essentially it."
Despite the glancing reference, Maddow said former President George W. Bush did not play prominently in her book. She said former Vice-president Dick Cheney had the "starring role" instead.
"He's my white whale," said Maddow, who said the book was dedicated to Cheney in the hopes it would make him more willing to sit down for an interview. "I don't know, Dick Cheney, what can I offer you? This book, I give you this book."
Talk strayed from politics to Maddow's personal life and time on the radio, first as an "odd job" in a small New England market where she got her start, and later on Air America, the now defunct progressive talk radio station.
While there are successful liberal radio hosts, Maddow said the wholesale launch of a network, with an untested format and unproven hosts, was too great a commitment. "We were on the rocks before we were out of the cove."
"You have to train every liberal in America that there's an AM part of the radio," she said. "You have to turn it. ... There's something here and there: Sports, religion, and people telling you the president is a Muslim." She credited Air America for her current job as host of The Rachel Maddow Show, airing weeknights on MSNBC.
Maddow said she worked 12-hour days hosting that show, and said her downtime was her personal life in western Massachusetts, where she spends time with her partner, Susan Mikula, and a dog named Poppy.
Donohue noted that he did not encounter many Rhodes scholars in the radio profession. Maddow is a graduate of Stanford University and the University of Oxford, and reportedly holds the distinction of being the first openly gay Rhodes scholar and prime-time news host.
She said Saturday she moved to western Massachusetts after she heard it was "Lesbianville, USA."
"Which it is," she said, eliciting a cheer.
Introducing Maddow, Northshire employee Erik Barnum called "Drift" a "really great and important book." After the event, the audience sang an impromptu rendition of "happy birthday" before the author signed copies of her book.
Former Wisconsin senator Russ Feingold will be the next guest author in the Off the Shelf series April 22.
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