imageLesbian Rachel Maddow is bringing her liberal take on life to television on a new show debuting this week on MSNBC.

And she does so at a time when the cable network is coming under increasing fire for what critics called its politicized coverage of the recent presidential nominating conventions.

Maddow, a 35-year-old lesbian and host of a show on Air America, brings with her an usual background for a television host, even one on MSNBC. She’s a Rhodes Scholar and AIDS activist who’s now working on a book about the role of the military in U.S. politics.

According to her MSNBC biography, Maddow was named an MSNBC political analyst in January 2008; she is a regular panelist on MSNBC’s “Race for the White House with David Gregory” and a frequent contributor on “Countdown with Keith Olbermann.” She has been the regular guest host for “Countdown,” has filled in for David Gregory on “Race,” and has been a regular panelist on MSNBC’s 2008 election coverage.

“I’m trying to have a role in the national discussion,” she tells the Wall Street Journal. “Saying no to television, because I was initially so squeamish about all the ways I felt that I didn’t fit into that world, that would have been dumb.”

An unknown when she joined fledgling Air America four years ago, Ms. Maddow quickly became a political pundit on cable news and recently began substituting for Keith Olbermann on his show “Countdown.” She has gained a following for her snappy commentary and goofy humor.

But she’s not pulling any punches for “The Rachel Maddow Show,” which begins tonight at 9 p.m.

“The culture wars are back on, baby,” said MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, a liberal commentator whose “The Rachel Maddow Show” premieres on the cable network Monday. “Sarah Palin’s speech was so hotly anticipated because so little was known about her. Who would have thought that she would have got up there and start channeling Pat Buchanan 1992?”

The difference now, Maddow said, it “is sort of being done more self-consciously than it was then,” Maddow said.

“Then, the ascendant right wing was really looking to change America by steamrolling out of the country people who they felt like were anathema to their idea of American values. Now, there is a more self-conscious sense that they are saying they want to do that so as to create a divide in the electorate that they can exploit for political gain.”

Maddow and her show are already drawing praise, even as media critics lament the current state of talking—sometimes screaming—heads on TV news shows.

Even as they praise Ms. Maddow, however, some media analysts lament the widening partisan gulf. “Rachel Maddow manages to make strong arguments without being shrill or obnoxious,” says Rem Rieder, a media columnist and editor of American Journalism Review. “But we are seeing a trend where people are watching news only to have their own views reinforced. You get further and further away from any conversation and I think that’s unfortunate.”

Ms. Maddow says she doesn’t want to be typecast. “I don’t take talking points,” she says. “If Barack Obama wins the presidential election, we’re going to have a field day the same as if John McCain wins.”

She’s even toned down her look leading up to the new show.

Though Ms. Maddow vows she won’t tone down her message as a TV host, she has softened her look. She now tolerates an on-air style she calls “dowdy chic”—a pantsuit and just enough makeup “to make me not look like I’m Nixon debating Kennedy.”

Maddow lives in New York City and Massachusetts with her partner, artist Susan Mikula. For more on Maddow, there’s her web site and her daily newsblog. There’s also Mikula’s web site.

Photo: Ashton Worthington, Wall Street Journal