More than two hours before MSNBC host Rachel Maddow was due to arrive, the line at the Union Square Barnes & Noble last night was already stretching as far back as the audiobooks section in the far corner of the massive building's massive top floor.
When she finally did arrive at the lectern, the entire floor stood and applauded and started taking pictures with their phones.
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“You all have such nice phones!” Maddow said, and everyone laughed.
Maddow was fresh from taping an appearance on "The Daily Show," another stop on her local tour to promote her first book, Drift. She'd done Howard Stern on Wednesday, where she successfully deflected questions about whether she was a "gold-star lesbian."
She said she was "terrified" to speak to an audience she could actually see (and in fact she'd left Chris Hayes to duke it out in the 9 p.m. time slot against Fox News Channel's Sean Hannity), but for the audience, Rachel Maddow in the flesh was precisely the rarity they had come to witness.
Maddow asked the crowd whether they wanted to hear her read from the book, and the crowd yelled for her to talk. So she did.
Getting into the heart of her book, she said though she was “mostly an antiwar person,” hers was not an anti-war book.
“I feel for the guy who is putting the magnetic yellow ribbon bumper sticker on his SUV as much as I feel for the person on their bike next to them in traffic cursing them for having a stupid yellow ribbon magnetic thing on their SUV because it’s so impotent, and because it’s defeating the purpose.”
(That notion was largely agreed to by none other than Fox News head and ideological opposite, Roger Ailes, who submitted a blurb on the book’s back cover: “People who like Rachel will love the book. People who don’t will get angry, but aggressive debate is good for America. Drift is a book worth reading.”)
In Drift, Maddow argues that the country is moving to the right. Executive power is expanding, and congressional and public oversight, especially of military initiatives abroad, is diminishing.
Maddow amplified her argument that the Central Intelligence Agency and private contractors servicing the military required more oversight.
She knew her audience and gave them a few nice jabs: She compared the current Republican party to a "beat-up, old, busted, bondoed-out Ford Pinto."
“But somebody has figured out how to lash that hulk of what used to be a car to an amazing jet engine, which is the conservative movement and Fox News Channel and the conservative media,” she said.
Addressing a question about why the Republican candidates in 2012 would be running on divisive issues like abortion and contraception, Maddow argued that today’s Republicans are more concerned more with winning hearts and minds than elected office, for now.
"They're not thinking about the next election cycle, they're thinking about the next generation, and how right-wing America can become over time,” she said. “And you can't move the country by incrementally thinking about the next Midterm, you move the country by thinking about generational change."
That's another theme of Drift: That the right is a generationally-minded movement.
Maddow speculated that it could cost Republicans few seats here and there, perhaps newly won governorships in the Midwest, or maybe a state assembly seat in Pennsylvania.
“You know, maybe it's going to cost you all of these short-term things, but in the long run, you’re moving the country," she said. "And you can only think that way if you are a generationally minded movement. And the conservative movement is hurting the Republican party in the short run, but they don't care because what they want is a Republican party that functions as their own vehicle, so that each generation of Republican politicians is so far to the right than the last generation, that they would denounce Ronald Reagan by now as a socialist.”
She said even the McCain campaign of four years ago, which considered issues like cap and trade, would even be considered too left-wing.
“I think that’s freakin’ weird and amazing to watch,” she said.
One audience member asked what solutions she had and Maddow jokingly chided him for not reading through the entire book.
“You’re like Newt Gingrich running for President,” she said. “I’m not gonna campaign, I’m just gonna show up at the convention and collect my nomination.”
“One question," another audience member asked Maddow. "When will you run for Congress?”
The room cheered and Maddow laughed, and with a look both flustered and genuinely flattered-seeming, the persona that's made her show a hit was on full display: A sort-of realness.
“I would not … uh,” she said and stopped to shake her head. “I have a really good job and I don’t want to run for office. Listen, I have a lot of respect for a lot of people who run for office, but I have not met the jurisdiction that would elect me. I don’t want to serve in elected office, but I wish that more people who wanted me to, would, frankly.”
After another question, where she praised the war veterans, she thanked the crowd, hopped excitedly up and down on the stage, then sat down to sign books.
One woman walking away from Maddow with a few newly signed copies of Drift excitedly withdrew a different, smaller, leather-bound book from the stack, which she excitedly displayed to her friend.
“She signed my Constitution,” she said.