Rachel Maddow continues her reign of greatness at MSNBC

The news that MSNBC has signed Rachel Maddow to a new multi-year contract will hopefully overshadow last week’s headlines of the lawsuit she was served with by Christian rocker/minister Bradlee Dean. But the 38-year-old host of The Rachel Maddow Show isn’t concerned about any of that — she’s been up 23% in ratings in the second quarter of 2011, and she’s part of MSNBC’s overall rise.

The president of the channel says Rachel’s new contract is keeping her around for “a long time to come,” which is great news for fans of her show or of Rachel herself, an out lesbian activist turned broadcast journalist who is primarily concerned with, as she says, public policy.

“As a gay kid growing up in the ’80s in the San Francisco Bay area, I was very, very, very much affected by both the AIDS Crisis and the AIDS activist movement, as it’s some of my formative growing up years,” Rachel said during an MSNBC Panel at the Television Critics Association Sumer Press Conference. She added:

For me politics and politicians were a means by which really important policy decisions got made, that either saved people’s lives or killed them, including people I knew and loved. And so I studied public policy in college, specifically to become a better activist, and I studied philosophy in college, in order to make better arguments about public policy in order to get things changed. … And that’s where sort of I thought my life was going for a long time, and I ended up in media as a complete departure from everything I had done. I took my first media job as an odd job; I was a sidekick on a local radio station, Morning Zoo. I had been doing landscaping. Turns out I was better at reading the news than doing landscaping. So, for me, it was something I didn’t even think about once until I was past 25 and then just found there was this other part of life that I really liked, and it was explaining things.

And while I can’t speak to her landscaping skills, I can attest to the fact that she explains things very, very well — including her plan of attack when it comes to getting more Republicans on her show in the coming months.

“We try every day to get Republicans on the show and it’s very, very hard to get them to come on the show,” Rachel said. “One of the ways I try to make it so that we can get more Republicans on the show is by trying doubly, tripley, quadruply hard to be as fair and as cordial as possible so that people feel it’s a welcoming environment to say what they think, and say what they feel even if they are in disagreement with me while they are saying it. That’s my constant attitude toward it.”

I caught up with Rachel at the NBC party on Monday night, where she gladly obliged me in some polite lesbianonic conversation.

AfterEllen.com: Do you know you’re a lesbian fashion icon?
Rachel Maddow:
Fashion? That seems unlikely.

AE: But it’s true.
I wear the same thing every day, though. And no one is copying me! There is not an epidemic of $19 boxy blazers and ill-fitting pants with Adidas. That’s just not — I don’t see it on the streets of our fair cities of this nation. I do not see a blossoming of mini-Maddows, which is a good thing.

AE: I was wondering with gay marriage being such a hot topic on your show, do you think you’ll ever get married?
Well, you know I don’t talk about gay marriage all that much. I get more credit for covering it than I do. But, that said, I might get married at some point, I don’t know. If Susan ever really wanted to, I’d be willing to talk about it. I think if I ever really wanted to, Susan would be willing to talk about it. We’ve lived in Massachusetts the whole time we’ve been together, where we’ve had the right since 2005, we still don’t have the right federally so —

AE: You’d rather wait?
Or — here’s the thing: I have been gay for a long time. I’ve been openly gay for the majority of my life. I’m 38 and I’ve been out since I was 17 and I grew up in the San Francisco Bay area so I grew up around very vibrant, rich gay culture and I have appreciation for what gay culture has been before gays had the right to get married. And I like subculture. I like gay culture. I think that the mainstream is boring unless there are other streams that are feeding it. We need people to be different.

AE: What should the gay community focus on, instead of gay marriage? Do you think there should be more of an interest on things that aren’t just LGBT-related?
You know, I don’t think there’s any — I don’t have any beef that the amount of focus anybody wants to put on their rights. I think civil rights struggles tend to advance in an uneven two steps forward, three steps back, three steps forward, two steps back kind of way so, you know, if you’re an activist, you press where you can when it makes the most sense and where you have the most leverage, and sometimes you get pushed back, and sometimes you make achievements, and you don’t necessarily get to control all of it. I haven’t been an activist in a long time, but I can’t look at what’s happening in gay rights right now and think “Oh, that’s a tactical error!” There’s a lot to be proud of in the gay rights community.

AE: When you’re preparing a show, do you ever think you are doing “too many gay things,” where some people might see you as agenda pushing? Or is that ever something that crosses your mind: “She’s a lesbian, so of course she’s going to be talking about this.”
If I worried about the “She’s a lesbian” critics —

AE: [Laughs]
If you start paying attention to what people are going to criticize you for, you end up not being a very interesting person. So I don’t worry very much about it.

AE: So you’re being sued, as we’ve heard this week.
Yes, yes.

AE: Are you very concerned about this?
The great thing about lawsuits, I have learned, is that the legal people do not allow you to say anything about it at all! Not word one! Not even react. So all I can say is [Makes an amused expression] I can’t even make a face.

AE: [Joking] I mean, that guy seems like he’s really got a good case, so you should probably be scared. It’s kind of funny how it’s blown up to — I know you can’t say anything!
I’m smiling and nodding in a non-committal way.

AE: So what’s coming up on your show? Any new segments?
The thing about our show, that I think is a reflection of my pathological inability to commit, is that we tend to — we pick segments and tend to run with them for a while and then not do them for a while, and run something else so. For a while there was “It’s Pat!” with Pat Buchanan, and there was “Talk Me Down” and “Best Things in the World” and “Moment of Geek” and we just take these things and run with them for a while and then stop, and then sometimes we pick them back up again. And while I think that signals a fundamental lack of discipline and organizational strength on my part, I also thinks it has some happy dividends, which makes for a more spontaneous environment.

AE: It’d be boring if you were made to do the same things all the time.
We don’t want to feel like we’re locked into anything that is going to require us to cover things because of our format that we wouldn’t cover because of the news, but the fact that the franchises sometimes does turn over sometimes gives our staff, in particular, a good opportunity to pitch new franchises and ways of approaching it. We’re sort of a hot mess, but I like that.

You can watch The Rachel “Hot Mess” Maddow show Monday through Friday on MSNBC.