Q&A: Rachel Maddow, Author of Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power

For most of Rachel Maddow’s adulthood, the United States has been at war. In her long-awaited first book, Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power, due out March 27th from Crown, she charts our “drift” into repeated circumstances of military intervention, from Lyndon Johnson’s fateful decision to send active-duty troops to Vietnam to today’s unpopular war in Afghanistan. She recommends “a course correction,” a return to honoring the disincentives to war deliberately built into our American system of government.

You can click here, then scroll down the page to my starred review of Drift, posted with other starred reviews from our March 15, 2012, issue.

I was lucky to catch up with Maddow, electronically, to learn more about her as a writer, reader‚ and puddle? Some puddle!

Photo by Bill Phelps

MH: You mention being a really slow writer. Slow in that your life is so full that you can only fit the writing in every so often, or slow in that you write and rewrite every sentence over and over?

RM: All that and more. Even when I clear time to write, my procrastination skills are epic. I will read for years, I will read for miles before I ever finally force myself to put pen to paper. And even then, I’ll just write bullet points and outlines and new research questions indefinitely.

In the end, it is only shame and panic that make me write a paragraph. Once I do get myself writing, I can build momentum, but the whole thing grinds to a halt again as soon as I take a break. Editing doesn’t kill me as much as writing does‚ but writing kills me.

MH: Your book’s subtitle defines our use of military power as unmoored. If you were to write a book on what’s happened to the GOP since 2008, might the subtitle instead refer to being unhinged?

RM: Unhinged implies random and purposeless movement‚ I don’t think that’s what’s going on in the GOP. I think the conservative movement (including the leviathan conservative media) knows where it’s going, and it doesn’t much care if it makes Republican politicians look nutso on the way there.

MH: I stand corrected!

RM: They’re engaged in a long-term project to move the center of the country far to the right of where it is now, and that means constantly moving the rightward edge of politics further and further out there. Today’s moderate GOP positions would have been seen as certifiably, almost maniacally, right-wing not even a generation ago. What they’re doing looks crazy, but it’s working.

MH: Is there a particular book you recommend relating to the 2012 presidential election?

RM: Gail Collins’s new book [coming out in June], As Texas Goes‚Ķ: How the Lone Star State Hijacked the American Agenda, is rip-roaringly funny and offers great insights on where conservative policy ideas are coming from these days. It would be the book of the year if Rick Perry had been the GOP nominee, but even though he won’t be, it’s still the smartest and most enjoyable thing I’ve read this year that directly pertains to this election season.

MH: When it comes to reading, what’s your preferred method? For example, do you opt for e-sources for professional research, but prefer the codex for leisure reading? Or do you also prefer print sources for professional reading as well, in order to underline, make marginal notes, etc.? Not in library books, of course!

RM: I am a paper monster. I am happy doing all of my digging and cross-referencing on a screen, but as soon as I’ve got something I’m going to use, I have to have it on paper. And get me a yellow highlighter and a mechanical pencil, stat!

I print about a ream of paper every day to produce my show (I’m sorry‚ I will plant a tree in your name). I use a lot of physical books for research‚ if I own them, I write all over them (sorry again). If I’m using a library book or a borrowed text, I will often photocopy what I need so I can scribble at will. I can’t read for leisure on a screen of any kind‚ paper only, please. Probable cause of death: crushed by falling tower of unfiled notes.

MH: And I’ll be crushed by some pile of books. But I’ll have kept the paper industry happy along with you. Speaking of leisure, in your downtime at home, would we recognize your personality, or do you operate at a different energy level?

RM: I’m a puddle of nothingness at home. I bug the dog, I make drinks, I read comic books, I put on country music really loud and make Susan dance around with me in the living room. I split wood for therapy and sleep as late as I possibly can and take unnecessary showers. Oh, and Yahtzee!‚ there’s a lot of Yahtzee. I go to great lengths to turn the brain off, in other words. If I don’t, I get cranky and dull-witted.

MH: Hard to imagine that last bit. Now, about making drinks‚Ķmy favorite cocktail of those you’ve recommended on your show is the whiskey skim, but what’s the best beverage to drink while reading Drift?

RM: Depends. If you’re prone to dyspepsia, probably Alka-Seltzer, at least for the chapter about all the accidental dropping and losing of nuclear bombs. But if you’re just cuddling up with the book for fun, there’s a great cocktail called a French 75 that’s supposedly (read: apocryphally) named for an artillery piece‚ half an ounce each of lemon juice and simple syrup, an ounce of gin, top with champagne. That should at least get you through the prolog, if not the part about what LBJ shouted from the toilet about Ho Chi Minh.

Margaret Heilbrun About Margaret Heilbrun

Margaret Heilbrun is a former Senior Editor, Library Journal Book Review.


  1. Karl Helicher says:

    Excellent review and fun and informative interview! Glad to read that despite her busy schedule, Ms. Maddow spends some quality time “bugging the dog.” Interestingly, her reference to Collins’s forthcoming, AS TEXAS GOES… is not the first book to take this view. Robert Bryan covered the same turf in his 2004 CRONIES: HOW TEXAS BUSINESS BECAME AMERICAN POLICY AND BROUGHT BUSH TO POWER.

  2. Tom Nunny says:

    This book panders to the sheeple like no other has. Hate the government? Write a book! Hate the military? Write a book!!!

    I hate to tell you this Rachel, but if it weren’t for the military you would be wearing a hajab and be one of many wives.

    • EJ says:

      I think you should understand the difference between hate and criticism. Also, your comment about her wearing a hajab shows just how effective the right is at making sensationalist talking points almost ubiquitous. The fear mongering must stop. Were we attacked? Of course, but that attack was not an attempt to take over the US as a country and institute a theocracy. It was an attack to illustrate the displeasure with the way we live. Our military should have and did respond accordingly.

    • Bill Crane says:

      I assume you mean “hijab” the traditional Islamic garment (especially headscarf) worn by women. Anyway, if you ever actually paid any attention to her TV show you wouls see that she is a very strong supporter of the US military, especially the men and women that make up our Armed Forces. Her problem is with the civilian (political) aspects that continues to put our military in awkward, intransigent, and often undefensibly dangerous situations. In America, we have civilian control over the military and all too often the politicians treat the men and women who have dedicated their lives to serving as just another commodity to be used for political advantage.

    • Jerd Richards says:

      I am responding to the post: “I hate to tell you this Rachel, but if it weren’t for the military you would be wearing a hajab and be one of many wives.”

      That’s an odd thing to say when we know that we women in the U.S. are equal to men, and are in the military, and do and say as we see fit. Criticizing U.S. policy is our right, and it is discussion that helps us arrive at consensus. If it weren’t for the Constitution you would be living in a dictatorship. I

    • blossom says:

      tom, you are a perfect example of what’s wrong with the republican party today…just open your mouth and let anything spew forth. who cares if it’s totally uninformed and needless inflammatory, all the better! can’t wait to see that smug attitude smacked back when the president is re-elected. i completely agree with bill crane, i doubt you’ve ever watched rachel’s show, something tells me it’s a little over your head.

    • Jools says:

      A comment from someone who obviously does not know Rachel Maddow.. or cares. Rachel Maddow can be critical of how the military is used but is very supportive of the troops. Which is partly why she is critical of the way they are used… so many deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan and for what.

      She supports groups like IAVA and on her radio days had frequent interviews with troops who were home but were recieving no assistance from the government. Over the years she has shown a great interest and support in the needs of US troops. It’s a pity you didn’t do your homework beefore commenting.

  3. CF says:

    Tom, typical right wing rhetoric with no basis in reality. You have absolutely no idea what the book is about, but since you disagree with Maddow’s politics, you decide to pop off and make a fool of yourself. It’s not an anti-military/anti-government book. It’s about how the military has been used to pollute our politics and make the country comfortable with perpetual war. Your good buddy Roger Ailes even wrote a passage for the dust jacket saying it’s a smart book well worth a read. Go find your Pandering Palin book saying everyone who’s not a right wing warmonger hates America.

    P.S. You right wingers who actually believe the military is the only thing standing between religious freedom and a forced Muslim culture are an embarrassment to our country. McCarthyism is alive and well. Instead of “commies,” you’re new scare is “Muslims.” And you call us “sheeple!” Grow up.

  4. ADR says:

    “You you you.” Silly folks. Let’s bring in more “I” and “we” statements! I love all you fabulous nanny-goats, but I don’t understand what any of us wants out of this discussion. Rachel is, as ever, going to speak eloquently for herself. Love long and prosper, biznitches! :)

  5. Len Bourret says:

    I am a Rachel Maddow supporter. If I was deaf, dumb or blind, Rachel would enable me to hear the struggles of people, and I would listen to what Rachel has to say (she uses critical analysis). Why? Because she is a professional journalist who does her homework. She is a researcher and reads, reads, reads. In every instance, she attempts to be impartial. When she is unable to do so, she meticulously points out why she takes a particular position. She defends the underdog, even when another journalist does not think that the story is newsworthy. If I was dumb, she would treat me with dignity and respect, guide me, and enlighten me. If I was blind, I could actually see a journalist who has a dynamic story to tell. She is gifted in being able to increase one’s ability to comprehend, increasing one’s intelligence, and broadening one’s horizons. A professor once did that for me, and I began to realize that I was not only intelligent, but I possessed intellect as well. What’s really refreshing about Rachel is that she is willing to listen, even when she disagrees with another person’s position. And, people that disagree with Rachel (at the very least) end up liking Rachel (she uses negotiation and compromise). She turns people’s heads by using a cognitive-behavioral approach (an interrelationship between thoughts, feelings, behavior, and situations). Rachel pays attention to various contexts and settings because she realizes that they make a difference. She is an amazing and remarkable woman, who impresses people with the hard work she puts into each and every story. Like Ellen DeGeneres, Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, she has the ability to change heads and hearts. So much so that one craves for more, and more, and more. Rachel Maddow is a treasure that one cannot put a price on–which is good, for me, due to the fact that I am not a materialist. When one speaks about Rachel Maddow, the word ‘kindness’ comes to mind, along with (inner and outer) ‘beauty’, ‘warmth’, and ‘excellence’. Rachel Maddow is a lovely person, who is well informed. To sum it up, she leaves someone with a significant gift that he or she can apply to his or her micro life. In broadening the micro, she is an enlightened guide, who takes someone on a journey to the mountaintop and back. One is “zapped” with a magical wand that takes them there. She moves me, and my head is so positively impressed that all my empowered heart can say is “wow!”


    LOVE, LOVE, LOVE you and ED. Keep up the good news.
    I was more than facinated by your book, your honesty and truthfulness.
    Would it be possible for me to send my copy of the book to you for you to sign. How can this be arranged?
    Thanks for being you.

  7. eva says:

    I can barely read this interview much less consider reading an entire book by Maddow. She is just not interesting.
    She can feel free to criticize but leaving out facts and basing statements on percentages rather than actual numbers makes the work questionable.