In America’s busy-buzzy, easily distracted media culture, who among us can be reliably counted on to do the homework assignments? Sooner or later, many of us opt for the drive-thru version of whatever Topic A happens to be at this very instant, finding it faster to riff, tweet and link our way to a wobbly position.
Whatever degree of succor her loyal viewers find each night when they tune in to MSNBC’s “The Rachel Maddow Show,” perhaps the real draw, the true comfort, is that Maddow always comes across as the best prepared student in the class by far, without the rest of the class hating her for it. Why else would Roger Ailes, the chairman and chief executive officer of Fox News, leave an admiring blurb on the back cover of Maddow’s book Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power? This is a persuasively smart, fluidly written account of the deplorable state of what used to be called the military-industrial complex. Ailes knows what any objective viewer can plainly see: In a nation of dumb-dumbs, Maddow’s contribution to the dialogue is formidable, and, as far as television goes, sweet relief.
Accounts of backstage life at her show depict an office in which there must never be enough toner ink for the printer. Maddow, with help from her staff, is constantly amassing clips of contemporary and historical journalism, raw data, transcripts, conflicting reports—all of which she then arranges in stacks on the floor. Several verbs might apply to what this 39-year-old Rhodes scholar does next: Absorbs? Ingests? Synthesizes? I think it is simpler than that. She reads it, in the calmest sense of the word.
And yet, for all her alacrity, “I’m the slowest writer on earth. I make sloth look blurry with speed,” Maddow avers in Drift’s acknowledgments. She may be a slow writer, but the payoff here is an impressive, reasoned work of interpretive journalism. In print, the language and structure of Drift are unmistakably hers, casually sauced with words like “weird,” “hokey” and “malarkey.” Her measured outrage is braided with wry sarcasm, making her a master of that modern tone in which one is ironically aghast: Really? Seriously? (Or as kids-on-the-go text it: Srsly?)
Drift is best read as an enjoyable and thinky tract in the key of Srsly? Unlike many of the quickie books written by the men (and a few women) who dominate cable news shows and clog up the bestseller lists, Drift is refreshingly not about Rachel Maddow, though the first sentence might seem to suggest otherwise: “In the little town where I live in Hampshire County, Massa-chusetts....”
That little town, where Maddow keeps a primary residence with her partner, Susan Mikula, and “an enormous dog,” is relevant for its outsized share of the nation’s post-September 11 spending spree in an intense and costly effort to shield itself from real and imagined dangers. In the Homeland Security era, a volunteer firehouse for this burg became a “Public Safety Complex” with an eagle-airbrushed fire engine too large for the garage that housed the old truck.
In metaphor and fact, this is the America that Maddow frets fully about for the next 260 or so pages—an overextended nation so obsessed and economically dependent on an increasingly privatized defense machine (and our paranoid role as global police operation) that it has become locked in costly and impulsive acts of quasi-declared war. And yet, as Maddow makes clear, this system works only because so many of us can remain personally detached from the consequences.
Drift initially reads as a breezy history of defense spending, as Maddow glides effortlessly from Thomas Jefferson’s role as America’s original worrywart, to the marketing origins of the G.I. Joe doll, to the distorted willfulness of Ronald Reagan’s invasion of Grenada. She also delivers what may be the most succinct and even delightful recap of the Iran-Contra affair ever written—not bad for someone who was all of 14 the summer Oliver North was brought before the joint committee. (This is no small feat for us writers who are squarely, proudly in Generation X and are constantly reminded by our boomer superiors of how much current history we missed by just this much and with it our chance to comprehend the late 20th century.)
Eventually, Drift becomes a book about infrastructure, a subject about which Maddow is unrepentantly and excitably nerdy. She is passionate about how armies are fed, military bases are run, soldiers and their families are treated. Throughout Drift Maddow’s concern for our all-volunteer forces is eloquently and subtly evident, and more meaningful than the usual lip service paid to “heroes.”
A later chapter, about the build-up of the U.S. nuclear arsenal and its current rusted-out condition, is at once maddening, tragic and (drawing on another of Maddow’s true talents) hilarious, as she employs a refrain of “Whoopsie!” to her chronicle of how often the United States loses, drops, sinks or otherwise forgets to disable its fritzy array of mothballed bombs.
Maddow becomes prescriptive in a no-nonsense three-page finish: The United States should pay for wars with contemporaneous taxes and bonds; we should get the Central Intelligence Agency out of the offensive-strike business; we need to roll back efforts to privatize the military (“Our troops need to peel their own potatoes again”); and so on. Readers will find themselves in a moment of strange reverie: If we like Rachel Maddow so much on television and now on the page, would she ever consider running for....?
Nah. The smartest kid in class is usually too smart to fall into that trap.