Rachel Maddow: America's Next Top PunditRachel Maddow, liberal MSNBC pundit, was supposed to get Chris Matthews' show when his contract ran out, but MSNBC decided to capitalize on election fever and complete her transformation from feminist Rhodes Scholar AIDS policy wonk to television star right away. They gave her Dan Abrams show, even though everyone at the network loves Dan and his show's been doing well. But he's a soft-spoken legal analyst and she's a phenom in the making. She's the Keith Olbermann liberals won't be embarrassed to admire! Keith, stentorian wiseass and former sportscaster, is clearly a raving egomaniac. When his ire is directed outward at figures deserving of his scorn, it's incredibly watchable television. But you cannot ever escape the obvious fact that the man, admirable moral center or no, is a smug jerk in private and public life. Which is a plus in televised punditry, but it's exhausting. Maddow, smart and cool, is now poised to make the most of an Obama presidency. She presents a perfect liberal alternative to a Bill O'Reilley or Sean Hannity: not because, like them, she's a bullying cheerleader for Obama and his party (that's a little more Olbermann), but because she's principled enough to fight for the Democrats when they're right and criticize them when they're wrong, without engaging in the partisan horseshit of official party mouthpieces like Carville and Begala. (This, by the way, is the important difference between the liberals of MSNBC and the liberals of CNN: Olbermann and Maddow are angry constituents, not party operatives.) In other words, she's an idealized version of her theoretical audience (educated urban liberal), much like O'Reilley is a caricature of his own (enraged suburban/exurban male). And mark our words, we'll soon be seeing her on the front page of the Times Magazine or Newsweek as THE NEW FACE OF CABLE PUNDITRY and then will come the longer psychoanalytical think-pieces in New York and The New Yorker (she's slightly less suited for that Olbermann-profile treatment in Esquire but you never know). Which, it could be worse. We like her! Plus, as the 2000s have taught us, Americans are totally willing to and love out lesbians on their televisions (thanks Ellen!) as long as they're not really annoying (sorry Rosie). (And in the [totally likely!] event of a McCain presidency, Maddow might actually do even better, as advocate-y liberals always operate best in opposition—which is why they always undermine the Democrats so effectively.) [Photo: dipdewdog]