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Rachel Maddow: The Powells.com Interview

Rachel MaddowRachel Maddow's first book, Drift, debuted at #1 on the New York Times bestseller list. This isn't terribly surprising. Not only is Maddow the host of the top-rated liberal television show in the country, MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show, but also in our current, highly polarized political climate, books by partisan pundits are invariably reliable sellers.

Yet Maddow has long claimed she is not a partisan. An unabashed progressive, for sure, but hardly a firebrand. As she puts it: "I'm undoubtedly a liberal, which means that I'm in almost total agreement with the Eisenhower-era Republican Party platform."

Anyone inclined to disbelieve her should pick up a copy of Drift, in which she outlines the radical shift we've made as a country over the past few decades in the way we make the decision to go to war. Maddow doesn't try to score political points or to lay responsibility for the problems she identifies at the feet of the "other" side. This might explain why pundits from across the aisle have felt free to actually like the book. Not only did she receive a generally positive blurb from the chairman and CEO of Fox News, Roger Ailes, but conservative author Andrew Bacevich called Drift "scathingly funny, deeply insightful, and informed throughout by a deep and abiding sense of patriotism. Bravo, Rachel!"

Bravo, indeed.

÷ ÷ ÷

C. P. Farley: People seem surprised, not that you wrote a book, but that you wrote this particular book. So, I thought we could begin by talking about the reaction you've been getting.

Rachel Maddow: That seems to be coming from two different places. One is, essentially, Why didn't you write a book about partisan politics? or Why didn't you write a left versus right book? The other is, What are you doing writing about the military? [Laughter] I think actually both of those questions come from totally reasonable places and get to the heart of why I wrote this book.

I got the book contract a long time ago because, even though I was working in radio at the time and soon thereafter in TV, I've always had editorial control over what I do on my shows. I felt like I had this one thing that was really bothering me, about the way we are as a country right now, that I couldn't explain in a short form. I couldn't explain it in a broadcast of any length. It's an argument that I felt I needed to get off my chest, but I needed to lay out the evidence in a way that you can only do in print, you can only do in a book.

What was bothering me was that after 9/11 we didn't feel like we were a country that had gone to war; we felt like we were a country that sent our military to war. This was not something that was divided according to whether or not you were in favor of the wars, it was something that was felt, I think, left, right, and center, and even by people that didn't have much political affiliation at all.

Farley: Your interest in this issue has manifested on your show in the many, many segments you've done with military personnel and about military personnel.

Maddow: I think I'm slightly more interested than your average bear in national security issues, but I don't claim any special expertise about war or the military. This was really a book about politics, about how we make decisions about whether or not to use force, when to start wars, when to end them, and what the military should be like. Those are civilian decisions. Those are made through our democratic process. And that's what I have studied as an academic and have studied my whole career in political journalism.

Farley: The other reaction you're getting to the book is shock that you got a blurb from Roger Ailes. [Laughter] Who would have predicted that?

Maddow: I didn't know he would when I asked him. I was really happy when he said yes. [Laughter]

Farley: Yes, a lot of people in the media have noted it. However, I actually went back and read the blurb last night and thought, Oh! It's actually a little backhanded, isn't it?

Maddow: Well, he has criticism of the book but he also thinks that it's worth debating.

Farley: But, what he says is, "Drift never makes the case that war might be necessary. America would be weakened dramatically if we had underreacted to 9/11." Isn't he implying that you think war itself is unnecessary and that we shouldn't have done anything in response to 9/11? That's bogus.

Maddow: Well, it's an interesting place to start because my argument is not about the merits of any individual war — Iraq, Afghanistan — or any of the other wars that I write about in the book. It's about whether or not we went through a good decision-making process, not whether or not those wars were a good idea.

Somebody else who reviewed the book called it my "antiwar manifesto." But I'm not antiwar.Somebody else who reviewed the book called it my "antiwar manifesto." But I'm not antiwar. Well, sometimes I am, depending on the war. But other times I think war is necessary, and we do need a great military. What I'm against is separating the decision about whether or not we use military force from the democratic process, separating it from our politics.

And, no, I'm not suggesting that we should not have reacted to 9/11. The book isn't about whether or not we should have reacted differently to 9/11; the timeframe of the book is mostly pre 9/11. It's about what had changed in our politics before 9/11 so that when it did happen, a lot of our decisions were almost, I think, preordained.

Farley: You talk a lot about the Founders' vision for how the nation should go to war. Can you expand on that?

Maddow: The basic thing that's in the Constitution is that Congress gets to make the decision. Congress gets to decide whether or not we are going to wage war. The president is the Commander in Chief, so the president gets to command troops and has a lot of leeway on national security decisions. But decision about whether or not we are going to be in a war is supposed to be that of Congress.

The book is not a comprehensive treatment of the Founders and their mindset, but it is interesting to see the way they talked about it. They weren't alone in that time in history in talking about the risks of an inclination toward war, which can structurally be the result of giving one person the power to decide whether or not we wage war.

They decided that they wanted the presidency to not be like a monarchy, in particular in the way that kings could use an army as their own. They didn't want the president to be like that. The Constitution with steadied care accordingly vests the question of war in the legislature. That was on purpose. They wanted it to be a collective decision, not one person's decision, because it's always easier for one person to make that decision than for people to have to debate it.

Farley: What led them to set things up that way? Was it a reaction to something the British were doing?

Maddow: I don't think we would be a country — certainly we wouldn't have become the country that we are when we became the country that we did — had the colonists not been seriously aggravated about everything they had to do to pay for British wars. The reason that there's no quartering of soldiers in the military is because that was a frontline concern. The idea that the colonies were essentially financing wars that they had no interest in inclined the Founders, I think, almost from the first impulse to make sure that wars would always be rooted in the interests of the people and not in the whims of some monarch. It shouldn't be taken out of the hides of the people who had to finance it.

That was a motivating force for why we declared independence. It was not vestigial. It wasn't that it was a particularly peaceful time, that things were so great in the 18th century that we were structurally disinclined toward war when they founded the country. The 1800s were a mess, not least because of our own actions. They wanted us to be the kind of country that wouldn't drift into a war without really needing to be there.

Farley: They also made it difficult to make big changes through the legislature. That was deliberate.

Maddow: Yes. It's not a bug; it's a feature.

Farley: Today, though, we actually have serious debates in the national media about the "unitary executive," which invests sole authority in matters of war in the executive. Could we have strayed further from the system you just described?

Maddow: There's a little list at the very end of the book of things I think we could do to make this better. The one that I almost hesitated to put in there because I can hear people groaning "Oh, that will never happen!" is that we need to dial back the idea of an executive branch that can do whatever it wants on national security with no interference from anybody else. That idea seems so old. It seems so entrenched. It seems so irreversible...

Part of the reason I spent so much time on Reagan in the book, more than on any other president, is because I wanted to really make clear that this "unitary executive" idea is not old, and it came from a really specific, weird, and kind of entertaining place.this "unitary executive" idea is not old, and it came from a really specific, weird, and kind of entertaining place.

Reagan got in trouble, a lot of trouble, for Iran-Contra. Congress had said to Reagan, "We know what you want to do in Central America, but you can't do it." The Reagan administration knew that. It was law. They overtly decided to evade the law by doing it anyway in secret, and they financed it by doing something else that was totally illegal. And then they got caught. It was a huge scandal. It's amazing to me that it isn't more central to the way we remember the Reagan presidency. It could have ended his presidency. There were indictments at the very highest levels. It was a huge mess.

What his administration came up with to save him was an after-the-fact, I think, ad hoc idea that what Reagan did wasn't illegal, and he can't get in trouble for it, because the president has power to do anything he wants that relates to national security. He doesn't have to follow the law. They came up with it in a way that I really do think was designed just to save him. I don't think they were thinking of it that way in advance. Had they been thinking of it that way in advance, they wouldn't have done all this stuff in secret. They wouldn't have been trying not to get caught. It came from that weird, very specific moment in our political history. We shouldn't think of it as having come down from a mountain on a stone tablet. It came from Ed Meese. It was a bad idea, and I think it's reversible.

Farley: Richard Nixon said, "When the president does it, that means that it is not illegal," and he's derided for it to this day. Reagan didn't say those words, but his administration made more or less the same case, and Reagan is lauded by much of the country today as a great president. How did he get away with this? Was it because he was so popular no one wanted to go against him?

Maddow: Well, he wasn't that popular at the time that Iran Contra was breaking open.

Farley: Well, I'd like to see you try to convince some of my brothers of that...

Maddow: [Laughter] It wasn't that long ago, but it does seem like ancient history because Ronald Reagan has been purposely reimagined as a saint for the benefit of the Republican Party — they needed a modern saint — but nobody thought that at the time. There was a real question as to whether or not he was going to be impeached, how culpable he was for the blatantly illegal acts of his administration. Iran-Contra felons had to be pardoned by the next president in order to keep them out of prison. It was a big, big deal. The analogy that you just made with Nixon is exactly right. Nixon said, "If the president does it, it isn't illegal." Of course, Nixon lost that fight. Everybody laughed at him. He lost his presidency. And he's remembered as the criminal that he was.

What Reagan's administration said was, "If the president does it in relation to national security, it's not illegal." But, I think in part because Iran Contra was complex enough that people didn't totally grasp exactly what was going on, he didn't get nailed for it the way that Nixon did.

The most important thing is that when Congress investigated Iran Contra and came to its conclusions and said, "Actually, what Reagan did was totally illegal and awful, and we can never do this again as a country," there was one guy, who was not very important at the time, who said, I sort of believe the defense. I think that if the president does it in the name of national security, then by definition it's not illegal. The guy who said that at the time was a backbench Wyoming Congressman named Dick Cheney. He went on to be Chief of Staff, Defense Secretary, and then Vice President. And he changed the course of the country.

Farley: One person on the other side of the aisle who I think will welcome your book is Ron Paul. He's been fearless about challenging his party on very similar issues to those you write about. I'm guessing that you would find a lot to agree about with him.

Maddow: Yes. He used to let me interview him, too. [Laughter]

Farley: He hasn't forgiven you for that interview with his son?

Maddow: That's exactly what happened. I used to talk to him all the time. Then I interviewed his son, everything went pear-shaped, and I've never had either of them back again. [Laughter] They just blank me.

But the interesting thing about Ron Paul is that I don't think he is as isolated as he used to be within his party. I think he has succeeded in changing Republican orthodoxies. There are a lot more Republicans who are willing to voice Ron Paul-style anti-interventionist opinions on this subject than there used to be. Republican Party politics on this issue are very much in flux.

Farley: I absolutely agree. Overall, I think he's a very welcome force in the Republican Party. But here's my question: You argue that we've moved away from Constitutional principles in matters of national security, and I think Ron Paul would agree with that. But he would also say that the same goes in the area of domestic policy. The Ron Paul liberty-first wing of the party believes that Thomas Jefferson would be rolling in his grave at the idea of Social Security and Medicare and such. How would you respond to someone who said, "If you want to go back to Constitutional principles, you'd need to do it across the board -- and get rid of entitlements?"

Maddow: I may punt on this a little bit because I don't know that I can litigate Jefferson and Medicare, but I do get your point. I am not an Originalist. I'm not a person who's seeking to bring us back to 18th-century mores in terms of our modern legislative structure. I'm not doing that.

But I think it's instructive that what has happened in the last 10 years in national security is both unprecedented and upsetting to us as Americans. We have never before felt like our military was waging a war that the country as a whole was not involved in. Having one percent of the population wage the longest war in American history and a second, simultaneous, eight-and-a-half-year-long war at the same time? Soldiers serving six, seven, eight, nine combat deployments while the civilian world has been giving ourselves tax cuts? That's something that feels wrong, both to liberals and to conservatives and to people who don't care.

I think the reason that it feels wrong is because a fundamental American idea is that our military is directed by our democratically elected civilian leaders, and therefore has democratic accountability. It does not feel that way anymore. It doesn't feel like it's for us. It doesn't feel like it's something that we can control. The Pentagon hasn't been audited in more than 30 years. We've got 1,800 deployed nuclear weapons. I'd love to hear the argument for why it is better to have 1,800 of them than 1,700 or 99 of them.

These are decisions that we feel are beyond our democratic control. That is upsetting. And fixable. I'm not a broad-based Constitutional Originalist. But I do think that what the Founders articulated about why a president alone shouldn't be able to make decisions about war is a core value that we've all absorbed as Americans.what the Founders articulated about why a president alone shouldn't be able to make decisions about war is a core value that we've all absorbed as Americans. And it's something that we can all agree on.

Farley: In the book, you go into great detail about what has happened. And how it happened. But you don't really attempt to answer why it's happened. Has something changed in the world, or in our place in the world, that caused this shift to happen? Why did this happen now and not 100 years ago?

Maddow: I think that's excellent. That's exactly right at the heart of it. It's a little bit of an open question. What I wanted to try to preclude — in part by calling the book Drift — was the idea that it happened this way now because of a conspiracy, because somebody got hold of the reins and decided that our country should be changed in a way that benefitted them or undermined us in some way. I think that sometimes on the conspiratorial fringe people leap to this idea. When you talk about military policy and defense policy being slightly autonomous and disconnected from the population, people think, Oh, it's a military junta in the making. This is the military trying to take over. I don't think any of that is happening. I don't think there was a conspiracy. I think that there was a lack of foresight about these decisions, and they tended to build on themselves.

Presidents don't give up presidential power. As we have stopped appreciating the benefits of it being awkward and difficult to wage war in this country, as presidents have accrued more power through the actions of previous presidents, they just haven't wanted to give it up. And so it builds.

We started off on the wrong foot, I think, in the immediate aftermath of Vietnam, and it ended up sort of snowballing. I don't think this stuff is irreversible. Getting more at the heart of your question, I don't think it comes from any specific change in the type of threat that we see ourselves facing in the world. I don't think it's a one-superpower problem. I don't think it's a technological-changes-in-warfare problem. I don't think it's a rise-of-the-transnational-terrorist-group problem. I think it's an American political problem.

Farley: I guess that my gut reaction has been that it is a superpower problem, because this all took place after we became the sole superpower...

Maddow: But it was happening at the height of the Cold War, too. And we saw some of it happening in the '70s and '80s.

There is one way in which I think the sole-superpower status fits into that. I quote Colin Powell on this topic in the book. I think it was in the context of Gulf War I. He said that what changed with the fall of the Soviet Union was the opportunity cost for military intervention. Without this expensive standoff with our great superpower foe, it began to feel less risky to move people all around the world. If we no longer had to worry about the wall down the middle of Berlin, we felt okay about moving soldiers out of Germany into Kuwait. And so we do, more and more.

Farley: We also seem to imagine greater threats than we're actually facing sometimes, too.

Maddow: Yes. It's hard to tell in the moment. The closest threat always looks biggest.

I spoke with Rachel Maddow by phone on March 29, 2012.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Drift: The Unmooring of American...
    Used Hardcover $9.50

One Response to "Rachel Maddow: The Powells.com Interview"

    Mark April 12th, 2012 at 3:56 pm

    I recommend instead:

    JFK and the Unspeakable: Why He Died and Why It Matters
    by James Douglass

    a great profile of the only time a US President has called off efforts for endless war.


    Catching Rachel Maddow's Drift

    review by David Swanson


    People who know better gave Rachel Maddow's new book unqualified praise in blurbs on the dust jacket. Maybe they see more good than bad in the book, which is called "Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power." That's a fair assessment. I'd love for a hundred million Americans or so who never read books to read this one. It wouldn't be the first book I'd pick, but it would probably do a lot more good than harm.

    It may seem greedy of me to wish that this book were a little bit better, but when Eisenhower warned of "the total influence -- economic, political, even spiritual" of the military industrial complex, he exhibited that influence himself during the same speech in his comments on the Soviet Union. Eisenhower was no exception to the totality of the influence, and neither is Maddow.

    Maddow's book picks out episodes, from the war on Vietnam to the present -- episodes in the expansion of the military industrial complex and in the aggrandizement of presidential war powers. Some of the episodes are extremely revealing and well told. Maddow's is perhaps the best collection I've seen of nuclear near-miss and screw-up stories. But much is missing from the book. And some of what is there is misleading.

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