The Bitter Comes Out Better in the Rachel Maddow Mix

About halfway through their companionable onstage conversation at the Castro Theater in San Francisco Thursday night, Daniel Handler, aka Lemony Snicket, mixed a cocktail for Rachel Maddow.

It was a cognac-based drink, "based on a cocktail called Scorch the Earth, which I thought was appropriate," Handler said, "and you may add as many shakes of bitters as you are embittered by American political prospects."


As the broadcast star and 1,400 of her assembled fans witnessed the famous writer's bartending skills, Handler explained that the drink was inspired by her new, already best-selling book.

"I was going to call it Drift, (short title), but that was too California," he said, "so I'm calling it (subtitle) The Unmooring of American Military Power."

She shook the bottle of bitters generously into her cocktail.

"I'm never going to have a child, but if I did, I'd call it Angostura," Maddow confided.

Clunky name; good drink, apparently, for it lubricated another pleasant half hour of the MSNBC television host's signature exposition of current events and the state of the nation. Their conversation, hosted by InForum, a program of the Bay Area's Commonwealth Club, covered such topics as why San Francisco is "magical"; the Republican Party's lack of definition; the Affordable Health Care Act; the CIA's overreaching of military power; the Obama presidency; his possible second term; and, of course, the liberal and conservative media.

Outside it was a night of torrential rain, punctuated by thunder rolls which at times penetrated the auditorium. One such thunderclap came right at the end of a fine piece of Maddow rhetoric, at which sound she raised her long arms incredulously and indicated she'd always wanted that kind of affirmation. The audience cheered.

"The voice of Rachel Maddow," the dry-witted Handler said by way of introduction, "is the voice that all of the overeducated leftist-leaning have in our heads. That's what we think we sound like when we're stumbling our way through political discussion. In fact the only time I think I've won a political discussion is when I'm quoting Rachel Maddow."

Without crossing into sycophancy, Handler praised her book as "a real book... powerfully intelligent and intelligently powerful." It was not, he implied, a mere spinoff of her celebrity as host of the nightly Rachel Maddow Show on MSNBC: "Her picture's not even on the cover!"

In fact, she signed the contract for the book before she began to host her current TV show, the Stanford -- and Oxford-educated Maddow explained: "I wanted to write a book because I have this idea about the country, and the argument took longer to explain than I could do in broadcast format."

So just what is Rachel Maddow's big idea? That the American Revolution and the nation-founding that followed were stamped by the colonists' objections to being required to help the British empire's military interests. Thus: the constitutional separation of powers, the preference for peace.

There was, in those seminal times, "a lot of colonial consternation over the fact that there's too many frickin' wars!" she exclaimed. And because of that concern, the framer of the Constitution structured it "not to make us pacifists -- we never were -- but to be deliberately peaceable. Peacetime would be normal and war would be the aberration. "

The nation's founders, she argues, specifically put war making powers not under the executive branch, but with the legislature, fully aware that while "the legislature can often not get its act together," they are also "not as likely to make that decision to go to war."

"We wanted to do away with the kingly prerogative to wage war at the whim of one person," she said.

That bias, that "disinclination for war," as she calls it, was not a prescription for every national decision awaiting in the nation's future, "but I think that's how they meant us to be inclined as a nation. They created a lot of hassle for presidents who want to wage war," and would have to find ways to get around those hassles, if war was their objective.

Maddow's point is that America has drifted, if not veered radically, from this founding proposition.

"We have come to a place in 2012 in which there's way too many workarounds for the things that are supposed to impede our president. Which doesn't mean that the president has no authority. But he's got to defer to Congress on the larger issues of war and peace."

Since Congress passed the War Powers Act in 1971 in order to rein in President Nixon's ongoing war in Vietnam, our legislature recognizes no claimed presidential powers to wage wars, outside the imperatives of that act. When was the last time you can remember an actual U.S. Declaration of War?

And yet...

The war in Afghanistan, following the short Gulf War, has been "at 11 and a half years the longest war in American history, while part of that time we were simultaneously fighting an eight and a half year long war in Iraq," Maddow said.

"And THAT war ended, you know, 27 times," quipped Handler.

"We have evolved in our national security state such that there almost never is a declaration of war," Maddow asserted.

Maddow then offered a prescription for this problem consonant with her status as an enormously popular, liberal television commentator: we need to talk more.

"I think that the more important something is, the more we should probably fight about it," she urged. "War is more serious than regular politics."

And we need to make it harder for the presidents -- whoever they are -- to make such momentous decisions for the nation.

"One of the things that's happened is that we've made it easier to go to war. We don't feel like we can control it. If the president wants to -- we're gonna; if the president doesn't want to, we're not going to. Right now we don't feel like we have any say in whether or not we're going to Iran."

The use of military contractors, as well as CIA operations that constitute covert military actions, contribute to the powerlessness of the American public in this regard, she said.

Given the tenor of the national discourse in this election year, Maddow proves to be an optimist.

"I want for there to be good partisan fighting. I want there to be a good, articulate, constructive policy-based conservative voice in this country, just like I want that on the liberal side, because I want there to be an argument (for or against war) that you only win if you park it in the center."

Asked whether her book was "a call to action," she explained that she was an activist as a gay Bay Area youth growing up in the age of AIDS, until she decided to work in media.

This book, however, "has more of an activist agenda than what I do on TV. On TV my role is to explain the world. This is an attempt to say that there are things in the world that we ought to change."

Interestingly, even in a city as known for its radical activism as San Francisco, no one challenged her central thesis that this "drift" away from "Jeffersonian prudence" regarding war was a new thing, starting with the Reagan Presidency. Maybe Bay Area radicals just don't buy tickets to Rachel Maddow events.

But as journalist Charles Davis writes in Al-Jazeera English:

The history of the U.S. is characterised by near-constant military action and threats of war, including during the first century and a half when all those constitutional checks and balances were purportedly operating at full capacity... Long before Reagan purportedly created the imperial presidency, U.S. presidents were authorising the killing of hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese, Cambodians and Koreans. And then there's the whole matter of the people who lived here first: the United States didn't exactly expand from 13 colonies to a continent by asking politely.

So while calling for a more independent Congress and more meaningful public debate about such a critical national act as military engagement, she still operates on the liberal premise of an essentially acceptable political system, only requiring that we elect better presidents and better people into Congress, in order to form a more perfect system.

The final question from the audience came down to this: "What is your 60 second-idea to change the world?"

"Can I give you two 30-second ideas?" she negotiated. Consent was given.

"Number One: Stop treating the CIA as a branch of the military... and make rules that would allow the public to weigh in on what we want our military to be fighting," she summarized.

"And Two: Stop calling anything that doesn't consist primarily of gin and dry vermouth, a martini."

And this San Francisco audience, at least, bought that agenda.

To thunderous applause.

Take a look at images from the evening below, courtesy of Drew Altizer Photography: