We weren't surprised when pundit Rachel Maddow, 35, got her own show. The openly gay poli-sci Ph.D. was a radio star at struggling lefty outpost Air America before nailing a guest-hosting gig on Countdown With Keith Olbermann. Now, with The Rachel Maddow Show (9 p.m. EST, MSNBC), she's become an unlikely cable-news hero, earning great ratings with her goofy demeanor, her everywoman look (monochromatic pantsuits straight out of 1997 and "the bare minimum of makeup for TV"), and her knack for boiling down nuanced issues without pandering. Just the kind of wonky gal we'd want to have a drink with - so that's what we did.

MC: You seem to be having a lot of fun. It's a good time to be a pundit, isn't it?

RM: Yes! What wasn't going on during this election? We had a woman and an African-American man running! There was the opportunity for change after eight crisis-ridden years of Bush. And John McCain - always a bridesmaid but never a bride - finally ran for president at age 72. It was operatic!

MC: Have you met McCain and Obama?

RM: I haven't met anybody. I don't go to Washington, and I don't go to parties. I'd rather read.

MC: What do you read?

RM: I do everything online. The start of my day is AP, Reuters, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The L.A. Times, The Boston Herald.

MC: Wow. All before breakfa--

RM: Huffington Post, InProgress, RawStory, National Review Online, RedState, Drudge, Wired, McClatchy, Washington Independent, BBC . . .

MC: So are you part of MSNBC's alleged plan to balance out right-leaning Fox by slanting far left?

RM: How is MSNBC like Fox? What's Fox's version of Joe Scarborough, a conservative who gets three hours each morning on our network?

MC: But you do tend to host like-minded guests.

RM: We have Republicans on almost every night. During the election, we begged McCain's advisers to come on, but they wouldn't show us the love. And it's too bad, because their campaign was a lot more interesting. The Obama campaign was like, "Maintain. Make no news." The McCain campaign was like, "Set yourself on fire! Set your dog on fire! Put a lit firecracker in the glove compartment and go through the car wash! See what happens! Whoo-hoo!"

MC: When you started at Air America, you told gay newsmagazine The Advocate you wouldn't play down your identity as an out-lesbian liberal. Does the same go for this gig?

RM: Yes, because I don't have any option. I'm not going to be less gay or more pretty. I can't try to have less personality or fewer controversial opin-ions. Newspeople tend to go through this homogenizing, high-heat process to become a palatable thing that to me has limited appeal.

MC: So the network didn't try to make you over?

RM: Nope. I said, "Are you OK with what I look like?" And they said, "Yeah, we're totally fine."

MC: What do you do when you're not doing your pundit thing?

RM: On weekends I stay away from politics, which isn't hard because we don't own a TV. I go to the dump every Saturday. I wake up on Sunday and plan out what cocktail I'm going to make that night. I'm a hobbyist bartender and a drinking bully.

MC: You bully people into drinking?

RM: I bully them about what they drink - whether I think it's worthy. Your Peronis pass muster.

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