“Any birthday plans on Sunday?” I ask Rachel Maddow just before we hang up. “Um,” the host of MSNBC’s The Rachel Maddow Show says, as if just reminded she’s about to turn 39, “I’m talking about the book.” She laughs then adds, “So, woo-hoo!” The small exchange speaks to both the political commentator’s serious drive and her self-deprecating sense of humor, two qualities in evidence as we discussed the recently published book in question, Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power (Crown, $25).
You persuasively argue in Drift that the U.S. has moved away from the constitutional directive that only Congress can declare war and toward the notion that war is the President’s prerogative. Do you think it’s ever justifiable for a President to engage in military activity without waiting on the approval of Congress?
Yes. An appreciation for the Constitution’s instruction that, by and large, it should be Congress who decides on whether or not the country goes to war isn’t incompatible with recognizing that, in case of needing to repel invasion or in case of needing to act quickly for a national security imperative, more executive discretion is possible. And the Constitution allows for that. But I do feel like the direction that Congress makes the decision, not the President, was a clear direction and that we should have more sense of urgency about returning to that idea.
You dedicate the book to Dick Cheney and write, “Oh, please let me interview you.” What one question do you most want to ask him?
I’m not as interested in interviewing him on post-9/11, his time as vice president. What I really want to know, because I’ve never heard anybody ask it of him, is about the aftermath of Iran-Contra, when we knew that the Reagan administration had acted illegally on purpose and in direct defiance of Congress, and the Reagan administration’s response to that was, Well, the President can do anything he wants in national security. When Dick Cheney filed his minority report as a backbench Wyoming congressman and said, I’m with the Reagan administration on this, did he realize that he was addressing fundamental constitutional issues and that it was a radical departure?
And changing the course of executive power, is your argument.
Yeah. And I have a feeling that he knew exactly what he was doing and that he saw great things for himself, but I would love to hear him explain it.
In the book, you’re less interested in Obama even though, as opposed to funding Contras, he’s waged two wars without a congressional declaration of war. Are you open to the criticism that your political stripes are showing there?
Yeah, as long as you reflect also that I don’t talk about George W. Bush at all either. As a country after 9/11 we were discomfited by this feeling that we were in these two big wars but we weren’t a country that had gone to war; we were a country that had sent the military to war. And it was easy, particularly if you’re a liberal, to feel like that was the fault of something that George W. Bush had done. What I wanted to write about was the fact that, whatever you think about our reaction to the 9/11 attacks, a lot of the things that allowed us to be the country that we are right now, which I think a lot of people find uncomfortable, was in place before 9/11 happened.
You also write that the American people largely don’t care about their Presidents waging increasingly secretive wars because we don’t viscerally experience them; only 1 percent of the population is fighting. Given that apathy, what real political impetus can there be to change the military status quo?
I do think that we are uncomfortable with how things are. I mean, I feel for the guy with the magnetic yellow ribbon on the back of his SUV, and I also feel for the guy behind him in traffic who’s pounding on his steering wheel [Laughs], mad about the guy with the impotent magnetic yellow ribbon on his SUV. I feel for both of those impulses, and I think they both come from the same place.
But as you note, no one really paid much attention when the Iraq War ended in December, so are we really that concerned?
I think we are. Americans do feel very supportive of the troops. We have stopped conflating questioning of the wars with questioning of the troops. I don’t think we want to be as insulated as we are from our national-security decisions.
Is your on-air likability—you “kill them with kindness,” one publication wrote—reflective of your personality, or is it also strategic?
I’m a monster. [Laughs] I just act nice. Actually, that is sort of how I think of myself. I think of myself as an absolutely amoral cretin, so if it doesn’t come across on television, it might be that I’m a better actor than I think I am.
Well, there’s the killing of the puppies for fun. No, I’m kidding.
What would your partner say to this?
[Laughs] I will do her the favor of never asking her in a public context.… I take the word host seriously, and if I am having somebody on the program as a guest, I am telling my audience that they’re worth listening to. So I do believe in that form of civility. But also I enjoy political debate. I am having a really good time when I’m on TV. I work hard, but I love this. And maybe that’s what comes through, just that I find this to be a joyful business.
Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power is available now.