Rachel Maddow was given the Steinbeck Award last weekend and I was there to see it. That’s right, y’all, I was in the same room, and later, within mere feet of one of the most awesome ladies on television, in the news, and let’s be perfectly honest here, the whole planet. Jealous?
I was walking down the sidewalk in Downtown San Jose about a month ago and saw Rachel’s face beaming at me from one of those TicketMaster posters that stores place in their windows. I didn’t know what it was actually for, it just said she would be in San Jose on February 23rd, so I immediately logged in and bought tickets. She could have been siting on a stool reading the phone book and I would have attended. Come on, it’s Rachel Maddow, for goodness sakes. I didn’t actually figure out what we were attending until the night before, and even then we didn’t really think much about it. The day of, because I am a big dork, I made Rachel a little gift package with two of the bracelets I make and a bottle of Santorum nail polish*, along with a gushing, rambling note about how amazing she is and how much we would all pee our pants around here if she would grant us an interview. I’ll let you all know if I ever hear anything back on that. Jon tells me not to hold my breath, because he is rational and understands how busy the woman is; I am convinced she will reply any day now and we will become BFFs, because rationality and reality are bullshit anyway.
The event was held at San Jose State and started with a sit down chat between Rachel and a local radio host, Pat Thurston. Pat started by ribbing Rachel a bit about her early years, prompting Rachel to relay a tale of dumping a five-gallon barrel of honey down a neighbor’s carpeted staircase. They discussed her high school years, and it was revealed that Rachel gave the commencement speech at her graduation. She wasn’t the valedictorian, but she had gone before the school board to get approval to give the address. Permission was granted, and on graduation day, Rachel strode up to the podium…and gave a completely different speech.
Watch it. Watch the woman that we know and love for her honesty, her guts, and her fearlessness; watch and learn that these are traits that she has possessed since she was a teenager, probably even before then. Watch her call out the closed-minded status quo and challenge her classmates and the audience to stand up for what is right. It is fascinating to see the future Rachel in that young woman, to see that, even then, she was going to figure out a way to have her voice heard.
But back to the event itself. For those of you who watch her show, you know she has a unique ability to pinpoint the crux of a complex issue and explain it in a way that just makes sense. When discussing Citizen’s United, she pointed out that Newt Gingrich’s billionaire, Sheldon Addelson, currently holds as much power in the race for the Republican nomination as multiple states. He doesn’t like Santorum, so he keeps Gingrich in the race to pull votes away from him. Because of the current ability for people or corporations to donate unlimited amounts of money to campaigns, one guy with piles of cash has more control than primary voters as a whole when it comes down to it. How do people not see that this is not okay?
When asked about her show, Rachel talked about the fact that it is harder for her to get guests on that disagree with her than it ever was before. In a world where people are constantly going on about the nastiness infecting the news and political rhetoric, Rachel is like a beacon in the night. I have never seen her lose her patience with a guest, never seen her yell, interrupt, or berate another on her show. Because she is trying to have a civil discussion with those on the other side, they won’t come on her show. Because she is doing exactly what they say they want, they snub her. While their explanations may be varied, I think it is because they can’t fall back on “gotcha journalism” with her, can’t whine that she bullied them, or devolved into hysterical ramblings. They’d have to admit that she out-reasoned them, fair and square, and that is what the hard-core conservatives are unwilling to face. They ignore facts constantly so they could never face an interviewer like Rachel without coming out on the other end looking like the closed-minded bigots they are.
Ms. Thurston repeated a story that Rachel told about the current birth control controversy that was another prime example of Maddow’s gift for the succinct explanation. When talking about the conscience clauses that pharmacists cling to when they don’t want to give people birth control or Plan B, she talked of an Amish man applying for a job to be a bus driver–
MADDOW: I think this is going to, listen, I think this is going to fizzle out. Listen, if there’s a bus driver opening and you’re Amish, nobody’s going to say you can’t apply for that because you’re Amish. But if you get the job and you say, actually, I can’t drive this bus, I’m Amish, people are going to say, sorry, if it’s a bus driving gig you gotta be able to drive. And if it’s health insurance it includes contraception. It’s part of health care in the 21st century. (1)
Rachel joked that she was so glad Ms. Thurston had gotten the analogy because she has had many, many people contact her that completely missed the point. I suppose Rachel’s gift for the analogy only works if people are willing to accept that analogies such as this one are ridiculous because the whole freaking argument is ridiculous. That is not the analogy’s fault.
When it came time for the chat to end and the award to be presented, Tom Steinbeck, John Steinbeck’s oldest son, came to the podium. The Steinbeck award is “given to artists who capture the spirit of Steinbeck’s empathy, commitment to democratic values, and belief in the dignity of the common man.”(2) He spoke about his father’s description of his job to him when he was a child, “I connect people to their humanity.” He said this was something he always takes into consideration when voting for the recipients of the award. He went on to express his pride in Rachel and to point out that what he loves about her is her ability to present an argument and let people come to their own conclusions. He said, quite rightfully, that “most people make pronouncements.” Most talking heads tell you what you are supposed to think about everything and I think this is because it’s what many people want. They want to be told how to feel so they don’t have to think about anything to hard. Rachel turns this idea on it’s head and forces people to think about the hard shit. I can’t think of a more deserving recipient based on the spirit of the award.
After the show, I made Jon wait at the back door like groupies for a band. While it seemed like the average age inside the auditorium was around 50, there were about 30 young people, from around 16-35, huddled around waiting for her in the cold. When she finally came out, they all but bum rushed her, just trying to get close. Because I didn’t want to contribute to her already overwhelmed state (she had flown out that morning and still had to drive an hour to her parents) I chose to not totally geek out on her, and instead handed my dorky little gift to her partner, Susan (an amazing photographer, by the way. Check her out – http://www.susanmikula.com), and skipped back to the car, happy to have been this close to such an inspiring woman.
Sources and Additional Resources:
3. A lovely article by Tom Steinbeck- http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2012/02/24/EDNO1NB6QB.DTL
You can watch the whole event here- http://maddowblog.msnbc.msn.com/_news/2012/02/29/10535547-the-steinbeck-centers-evening-with-rachel-maddow