MSNBC's Rachel Maddow has recently returned from Afghanistan, where she donned alternately a steel helmet, a veil, and just the fresh-faced look that she carries everywhere. And, somehow, she got the keepers of the American flame in that country to answer her probing questions -- all of which led up to, "What are we doing in this forsaken place?"
To paraphrase The Who, "How do you think she does it? I don't know." Everyone speaking on behalf of our involvement knew going in -- and if not before, within a few minutes of her questioning -- that Rachel is a doubting Thomas. She simply doesn't buy the President's and the military's explanations of our goals and likelihood of success.
In one crushing instance, Maddow asked an officer what plan B was in case -- after nine years of failure -- we continued to fail to establish a sustainable government in that country. She then summarized his response (something about that at least we gave the Afghanis their best chance of succeeding), succinctly, as: there is no fallback position.
Somehow, Rachel - without pretense, without hectoring people (like her shrill male colleagues at MSNBC), without arousing defenses - gets what she wants. She presents concise, well-informed questions that people try to answer. If they don't, she persists. When they do answer, as was the case with Rand Paul, they often get into trouble. But they don't realize it at first, given Rachel's pleasant, non-invasive, non-gloating, manner. She penetrates without puncturing.
But she's certainly no patsy, either. In notable run-ins with the likes of MSNBC's own Joe Scarborough and, especially, former Congressman Dick Armey, she not only holds he own, but does so without mussing her hair. And she has gotten her own back by exploring Armey's dubious positions as a go-between for the Tea Party and corporate funders. I suppose she has reached an armistice with Morning Joe (has anyone seen the two of them together lately?).
Ms. Maddow followed her Afghanistan coup (how did she even get permission from the government to go, let alone enlist the military's cooperation?) with a surprise interview with Richard Holbrooke. Indeed, Holbrooke -- who has overall responsibility for implementing our Afghanistan policy -- noted that it was watching Maddow's dispatches from that country that convinced him to talk to her in front of a camera.
It seemed like a risky strategy to me too. And Maddow made Holbrooke pay. Questioning him about the training of the Afghani police and military, Maddow -- while acknowledging improvements -- expressed skepticism that things can be turned around at this late date. She described what she had seen on the ground in terms of how the billions we have spent there have corrupted the nation and will leave an irreplaceable vacuum when we depart.
She brought up the recent assassination of three British soldiers by an Afghani soldier, and asked what that augured for the future. Holbrooke was game, but if you ever dreamed of seeing a government official confronted with the undeniable, the unexplainable and the inescapable -- well this was such a public auto-da-fe.
And neither Maddow nor Holdbrooke broke a sweat. Indeed, Holbrooke seemed to be enjoying himself.
How do you think she DOES it? What makes her so great?
Follow Stanton Peele on Twitter: www.twitter.com/speele5