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Rachel Maddow on skinhead protests, AIDS activism, and why she skips the op-ed page

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The Weeds podcast has been so much fun (subscribe here!) that I'm launching another podcast. The Ezra Klein Show — and, yes, it's weird to write that out — will feature weekly longform interviews with politicians, media personalities, academics, business leaders, and other people who are influencing the world in interesting ways.

The first edition is out today, and it's with one of the most fascinating minds in American journalism right now — MSNBC's Rachel Maddow. You can listen to it on SoundCloud, but the best way to follow along is to subscribe on iTunes (or whichever podcast program you use) so you get each episode as soon as it comes out.

Rachel Maddow is, of course, the host of MSNBC's top-rated, Emmy-winning primetime news show and the best-selling author of Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power. But Maddow took a winding path to cable news — a path that included scheming to disrupt skinhead rallies, radical AIDS activism at the height of the plague, a gig as a sidekick on drive-time morning radio, and a stint at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar (where she, um, may have temporarily borrowed some very rare books).

In this conversation, we talk about that path — as well as her favorite graphic novels, the best time to neuter a dog, her belief that Bill Clinton should have resigned over the Monica Lewinsky scandal, and why she tries to avoid reading op-ed columns. She also gives the single best description of what activism is — and what it isn't — that I've ever heard.

Not convinced to download the whole thing yet? Here are some highlights:

1) On Maddow's strategy for disrupting skinhead protests in high school: "At one point, we went to Oakland to a meeting of the anti-racist 'skins' ... and asked them to go to one of the white power concerts where the skinheads from our town were going to be — to ask them to please beat up the racist skinheads.'"

2) On activism as a math problem: "What I tried to do as an activist was to approach each thing I wanted to get as a math problem.

"So, here's a thing that I think should be different in the world: I want people who are dying of AIDS in prisons to be allowed to die in secure hospices rather than dying in jail infirmaries. That's what I want. Me just saying that and expressing the moral righteousness of that is not enough.

"Who is the person who can decide to make that happen? The hospices need to be good with it, so, okay, let's go to the hospices. Who is the person who makes the decision about who goes to the hospices? Well, there's a category of decision-making here that is for people who do not have life sentences; they're susceptible to these kinds of decision-makers. And then there's a whole another category of decision-makers who say as a matter of policy ... so let's change the local decision-makers; now let's change the law.

"And just doing it piece by piece by piece, why won't this law change? Because the committee chairman who is responsible for this as an issue doesn't care about this. What does he care about? He cares about golf. Okay, let's find whoever he golfs with's wife, and find who his pastor is and talk to her about this."

3) On Pat Buchanan's unexpectedly crucial role in her career: "It's the George W. Bush reelection effort, and so every cable news Punch and Judy show in the world is looking for liberals to fight with conservatives. So I was getting paired up with G. Gordon Liddy and Pat Buchanan.

"Pat Buchanan really helped me. He said, after I got booked opposite him on some show, he said to the producers: 'Hey, I like that liberal girl. Have her come on with me more.' He was very sweet to me."

4) On why she doesn't read opinion columns while preparing for her show: "I try really, really hard to avoid all opinion. I don't read columns. ... Sometimes you get an op-ed that's actually introducing a ton of new information. I don't want to absorb other people's opinions, and I don't want to become [part of] a tide of common wisdom on something."

5) On why Bill Clinton should have stepped down over the Lewinsky scandal: "I think Bill Clinton should have resigned the presidency because of his sexual impropriety with an intern. ... I think that's not a popular view, but because it was somebody who was in his employ — it was wrong enough that it was an affront to his presidency.

"I think Al Gore probably would have been a fine president. I think that Bill Clinton was, to the extent that he carried out his responsibilities as president, he sort of did fine. But the damage done to expectations, both of behavior and accountability — I think specifically because of the sexual misconduct — it's hard to quantify, but I feel that way."

You can listen to the whole conversation with Rachel Maddow — and subscribe to all future conversations — on iTunes.