The first time I saw Rachel Maddow was on Tucker Carlson's MSNBC show "Tucker," which was canceled in March.
Carlson was wearing his trademark bow tie at the time. He hadn't yet turned into a contestant on ABC's "Dancing With The Stars" (where he was ousted so fast his fox barely got to trot and his paso was never allowed to doble.) Nor, for that matter, had anyone spoken of him as a future game show host.
He was just a brainy conservative political commentator not given to O'Reilly hysterics or Hannity smarm -- smart enough, in fact, to have regular visits from Maddow, progressive bulwark of radio's Air America and often lauded as the first openly gay American to win a Rhodes Scholarship.
As I watched the terrific give-and-take of Carlson and Maddow, it instantly occurred to me that Maddow was a cable-TV news star in the making. Her intelligence was electrifying.
It seems to me in this world that intelligence comes in a bewildering variety of shapes, colors and flavors -- literary, scientific, political, academic, street, sexual, emotional, you name it.
The only woman I've ever known who actually bragged about being in Mensa and wore her 180 IQ like a badge was such a clearcut dolt about the aptness of that fact in ordinary conversation that it was instantly clear to everyone she had all the emotional and political savvy of a cantaloupe.
I've known math and science geniuses who literally squeaked instead of talked. And I've known literary types who could probably improvise off the top of their heads a sestina about traffic lights but who'd genuinely have no idea why everyone in a radius of 30 yards had suddenly fled to the bar.
What was -- and remains -- arresting about Rachel Maddow is that she comes off like a woman who may well possess most known forms of human intelligence at the same time. She can probably do her own taxes and explain the Boer Wars while doing them.
Maddow is on nightly at 9 p.m. in Dan Abrams' old time slot.
She seems to me the smartest person in all of TV news. She radiates intelligence in a truly rare way -- including enough emotional and social intelligence to know how to be circumspect about her own brainpower. That, in fact, may prove to be a tiny bit of a problem in the long run.
Cable TV news has, thus far, been the province of blunderbussses, bloviators and buffoons -- all those Chris Matthewses and Keith Olbermanns on one side and Bill O'Reillys and Sean Hannitys on the other. (And let's not forget their sister in browbeating, hanging judge Nancy Grace, who may literally have harangued a guest into suicide.)
As hair-raisingly articulate as Maddow is, she actually speaks like someone who says "please" before she asks someone to pass her the salt. She seems incisive enough in any conversation to have little or no interest in shouting anyone down -- not even the biggest idiot in the room.
In the same way that Katie Couric's truly extraordinary interviewing skill and caginess were crucial in painting a portrait of Gov. Sarah Palin that no watcher is likely to forget, Maddow may well be genial enough to play well with others no matter who they are.
Her ratings have been good so far and, frankly, I don't think that's despite her brainpower but because of it. If the Bush years have done anything, they have shown the world the truly terrifying and damaging doltishness that comes from dumbing everything down.
Rachel Maddow may turn out to be an entirely new kind of nightly cable news talk host -- one who always makes her points better than others but lets them talk because she's genuinely interested in what they say.