The Two Most Important Women in America: Gwen Ifill and Rachel Maddow

Election '08

Provocative headline? You bet! But this election is really important, and that's why I'm ready to talk some...


Stay with me here. In the frenzied mash that is the final sprint of the 2008 election, you could almost forget that September marks the start of another great American fall tradition. Personally, I'm anxious to watch my first NFL game just to get a break from all the violence. Most years, hardcore fans like me have memorized a thousand bits of minutia by week one. But this year many of us have been so glued to the election that we'll have to learn as we go from the seasoned broadcasters. Still, I'm pumped. I can almost hear the play-by-play:

"And there's the kickoff ... the 2008 season is underway ... Camera One follows the ball ... tight & centered in a long arc ... and there's the pickup by Camera Five ... Ooooh! Five got blindsided there, but a nifty little left-right move kept the ball in frame ... he follows the sideline after a little juke ... a little fuzzy there ... oh! What a move! A really slick handoff to the sky cam ... as ... the play comes to an end on about the 35 yard line!"

"Well, Bob, if there were any doubts, with all the speculation about the spotters -- or the man in the director's chair, I guess they've been put to rest!

"Boy, that's for sure ... And ... as Camera Three zooms in on us here in the booth ... nice focus, good color ... Week One of the National Football League's 2008 season will continue, right after this break!"

I know. Lame. This is all about the process, not the actual event. Covering the coverage. Analyzing the game that goes on at the periphery of THE GAME.

This is how the 2008 presidential election has been served up. And that is why Gwen Ifill and Rachel Maddow can be the two most important women in America. No offense, Hillary and Sarah.

Ifill will moderate the only vice-presidential debate at Washington University in St. Louis on October 2nd, while Maddow rolls out her own hour-long show on MSNBC on September 8th. Ifill, moderator of PBS's Washington Week for 9 years, was also Chief Congressional and Political Correspondent for NBC. That background easily gives her the EXPERIENCE edge. (AAAAAUUUUGGGHHHH! My head's gonna explode! I'm stuck in the "experience" zone!)


Maddow is a Rhodes Scholar, for starters, which is a really big deal among smart people. I looked it up. She has a doctorate in political science, her own show on Air America Radio and a regular gig as visiting voice-of-reality on MSNBC. We watched Rachel develop her TV chops under the capable tutelage of Keith Olbermann, and Republicans chew their dentures in half every time they see her face onscreen. So, for many of us liberals, she is already a goddess. According to her website, Maddow has slapped some people around in the fields of HIV activism and prison reform. Which makes her a REFORMER. (AAAAAUUUUGGGHHH!).


These women have the opportunity to get it right, to let us hear some real answers from the candidates and explore genuine issues. And we have good reason to expect that they might. Ifill's half-hour show is a round-table with a revolving roster of guests who are all noted journalists. (Actual journalists. You should watch sometime just to get a glimpse of these rare creatures.) She could ask meaningful questions of Sarah Palin and Joe Biden. To some degree, Gwen has to address the current talking points on Washington Week, but at least she explores them with people who don't just spit them back at her as "facts." Every Friday night, she covers more in thirty minutes than cable outfits sometimes touch on during entire evening lineups.

For the next few weeks, Palin's handlers will shield their candidate from the media, terrified that some smart-ass left-wing reporter will whip out a map and ask her to point to Pakistan or, I dunno, Tennessee, and blow the whole deal. But I'm pretty sure Sarah will have to show up in St. Louis.

What if Gwen, instead of asking Palin whether her daughter's issues should be off-limits, asks about pushing for laws inspired by evangelical Christianity? See, I couldn't care less if the Palins are running a friggin' baby farm up there in the Great White North. I want to know if MY children are off-limits to Sarah. Creationism in schools and all. What if Gwen asks the governor if she thinks the bitterly-divided Islamic sects in the Middle East can ever come to peaceful terms, and if so, how? And how would that affect us if it happens? Should we care? Why?

(Note, if by some chance Gwen does ask this, watch to see if Palin looks at her palm, and if anything seems to be written in ballpoint there.)

Ask Joe Biden about the economic balance between what they're proposing and what we'll have available to spend. Ask Joe whether he thinks NATO has kept pace with its challenges in the years since 9/11. If not, how can we make it relevant again? Should we? If Gwen wastes precious minutes of access on how it feels to be Obama's number-two, I'm going to start throwing things at the TV. We're betting on you, Gwen. Literally.

As for Rachel, she's been at or near the top of my lunch list for a long time. That's a mental list I keep of the people I'd most like to sit down with for lunch and a good conversation. Benjamin Franklin. Juliette Binoche. Bill Gates. Tim Russert. Pablo Picasso. I can see me & "Rache," scarfing down some arugula in NYC, chattin' it up. Rachel Maddow is desperately important in the next sixty days because she has her own show and she understands the power of two simple three-word phrases: "Follow-Up Question," and "That's A Lie."

These are apparently covered in the Rhodes Scholar thing, because no one else on TV seems to know about them. Mostly what we get is this:

INTERVIEWER (Who I'm not saying is David Gregory, necessarily): "Pundit A, has this race turned? Is Sarah the big game-changer the Republicans have been looking for?"

"We won't know for a while, Davi -- er, MR INTERVIEWER. What I can tell you is that I'm wearing a vest packed with explosives, and I have the timer set to go off in exactly two minutes!"

"Well then, Pundit B, should Sarah Palin's family be off-limits, and if so, how does Obama tell voters who he is? If he nails that with the big speech next week, will Hillary have to get out of the race?"

"Michelle Obama masterminded global warming."

"We'll have to see if that causes her husband trouble as the race progresses."

Note: Some interviewers, who I'm not saying are Chris Matthews, necessarily, have a different approach based on going for the Guinness Book record for asking the same question the most times in succession.

Rachel doesn't go for any of this. She seems to have little or no interest in flag pins, or moose hunting or hockey mom-ing or preferred physical postures during the playing of the Star Spangled Banner. Which, coincidentally, happens at the beginning of football games.

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