For clues about who might be next to get a show on MSNBC, viewers need not have looked further than “Countdown” earlier this month. For eight nights beginning just before the Fourth of July, Rachel Maddow, the host of a program on Air America, the liberal talk-radio network, served as a substitute for the vacationing Keith Olbermann.
“At some point, I don’t know when, she should have a show,” said Phil Griffin, hours before he was promoted on Wednesday to president of MSNBC. “She’s on the short list. It’s a very short list. She’s at the top.”
At the moment every slot at night on MSNBC is taken, with David Gregory at 6 handing off to Chris Matthews at 7, and with Dan Abrams at 9 following Mr. Olbermann at 8. But some shuffling could be in the offing; Mr. Matthews’s contract, for example, is up next year.
For her part, Ms. Maddow, who has been a ubiquitous presence as a political analyst on MSNBC this campaign season, said she is ready whenever the call should come. To hasten that process, she recently hired Mr. Olbermann’s agent, Jean Sage.
“They know I would love to do it,” Ms. Maddow, 35, said over a recent lunch below 30 Rockefeller Plaza. “I’m going to let them decide what they want to do about me. I’m saying yes every time they ask me to be on television.”
The steadily rising profile of Ms. Maddow — until earlier this year she was also seen regularly on CNN before she signed an exclusive, one-year agreement with MSNBC — is all the more remarkable considering she does not own a television. (She said she was worried it would be too distracting.) Less than a decade ago she was working odd jobs in western Massachusetts, including one at a Northampton coffee-bean factory where she cleaned out buckets, while finishing a doctoral dissertation on AIDS in prisons.
She appeared on her way to a career as an AIDS-policy advocate when a funny thing happened: on a lark she auditioned to be the news reader and sidekick on a wacky FM morning radio program in the area. She got the job, which had her occasionally donning an inflatable calculator costume at a local Ford dealer. She acknowledged that the work was not exactly what she had in mind when she graduated from Stanford University with a bachelor’s degree in public policy and from Oxford University, which she attended on a Rhodes Scholarship and where she earned her doctorate.
In 2004 she somehow parlayed her varied academic and drive-time radio experiences into a job as a co-host on a new morning program on Air America. That put her onto the booking lists of any number of cable news programs desperate for a fresh liberal voice.
“If you want a left-right fight, in 2004 or today, there’s this roster of dozens, if not hundreds, of conservative talk-show hosts to book,” she said. “On the left there’s Alan Colmes. Oh, wait a minute, he’s taken. I think I got booked, initially, by default.”
For MSNBC, which has interpreted the success of Mr. Olbermann’s rants against the Bush administration and other Republican targets as cause to turn its evening programming further to the left, Ms. Maddow has been a relatively easy fit. Sitting in for Mr. Olbermann on July 7, for example, she opened “Countdown” by mocking Senator John McCain, the presumptive presidential nominee, for suggesting that the economy was “slowing.”
“Slowing, senator?” she said. “Try grinding to a halt. But don’t worry, Senator McCain says he can balance the budget by saving all sorts of money when he wins the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.”That same night she took the news media at large to task for suggesting that Senator Barack Obama, the presumptive Democratic nominee, had recently softened plans to withdraw American troops from Iraq.
But Ms. Maddow said that it would be a mistake to paint her broadly as pro-Obama and anti-McCain. “I’m not that much of a typecastable liberal,” she said over lunch. “I am not a fan of either candidate.”
She said, for example, that she disagreed with Mr. Obama’s plan to withdraw one to two combat brigades a month from Iraq. “I wouldn’t want to be serving in the last brigade left,” she said. “I almost think the best way would be to set a date by which you will leave, and let the Pentagon figure out the smartest way to do it.”
Which leads to yet another element of Ms. Maddow’s portfolio: the daughter of an Air Force captain who served stateside during the Vietnam War, she is an admitted defense-policy wonk. “I’m a national security liberal, which I tell people because it’s meant to sound absurd,” she said. “I’m all about counterterrorism. I’m all about the G.I. Bill.”
She’s even writing a book for Crown about the shifting role of the military as a political issue, to be published as early as next year. Her editor is Rachel Klayman, who edited Mr. Obama’s second book, “The Audacity of Hope.”
About her radio show, which is heard from 6 to 9 p.m. weeknights on 32 stations nationally, Ms. Maddow said: “I almost never talk about right-wing talk-show hosts or Fox. I don’t consider myself to be watchdogging the right the way Keith does.”
Nonetheless, while filling in for Mr. Olbermann, she did not hesitate to wade into the seemingly never-ending feud between MSNBC and Fox News. On July 7 she told “Countdown” viewers that rumors of a romance between Alex Rodriguez and Madonna had led to “a personal flashback for me.”
“The one time Fox News ever asked me to be a guest,” she said, “was when Madonna made news for kissing another famous female, Britney Spears.”
“They thought I had expertise, maybe,” she said. “I said no, duh.”
Implicit in the story is that Ms. Maddow is gay, something well known to listeners of her radio show. Her partner of the last decade is an artist named Susan Mikula, who had hired Ms. Maddow — during that period when she was doing odd jobs while finishing her dissertation — to do some landscaping.
“She opened the door, and we both went, ‘Aaaaah,’ ” Ms. Maddow said. “It was love at first sight.”
Which raises a question: Does she think America is ready for an openly gay host on cable news at night?
“Well, I think Ellen DeGeneres has shown people are ready for her,” Ms. Maddow said, using a morning-show analogy. “But I will not dance the way Ellen does.”