For most television personalities, the release of a book is akin to tossing a giant, bleeding hunk of red meat to their most fervent admirers. Substantive content be damned, Daddy needs a new yacht! But Rachel Maddow's

Drift addresses questions that people of every political persuasion should be asking as we approach our twelfth year embroiled in wars both acknowledged and covert. How did American society become so disengaged with its military? When did the executive branch effectively swallow Congress' warmaking powers and how do we shift the balance back?

We spoke with Maddow about the real legacy of Ronald Reagan, cornering Dick Cheney, and pitching Drift to the FOX News faithful.

Much of your book addresses the problems presented by the sprawling reach of the military industrial complex, and it's become standard to invoke Eisenhower's farewell address, in which he warns the country of its influence. I don't think it's in your book once. Was that a conscious decision? Well, I think that if you read that address and if you read his papers, Eisenhower was referring to these militarily industrial companies becoming political in a sense, because doing what they were doing in a permanent way would create a lobby. And that lobby would encourage the United States to wage wars that weren't in the country's interest, but were in their interest. He didn't spell it out that conspiratorially, but that was essentially what he was saying.

But the book isn't about that idea very much. The book is about the politics of making war and whether or not we have been keeping with our Constitutional inheritance whether we have war. It's in the same spirit except that it's about how the structures of our country affect our decision-making about war, but he's actually speaking about something different.

For my generation, the Bush administration has become the gold standard of a fear-mongering, evidence-fabricating presidency. But in Drift, you make the case that Ronald Reagan was actually the president who perfected these tactics. Why don't more people remember him for this legacy? [Laughs] I'm happy to hear that's what you took from the book! One reason why I wanted to write the book is because I felt like there was so much consternation, particularly on the left, but by a lot of different types of people, over the way our nation approached politics in the post-9/11 era. And what I wanted to write about was the fact that, that came from something. That political place that we were in where we felt like we didn't actually make much of a choice about whether or not we were going to war. And that didn't just happen, that was part of a long process. We all slid into that place gradually.

And so the book kind of ends before George W. Bush. There's very little about Barack Obama, very little about the post-9/11 wars in a major sense, because I wanted to inform the frustration people have with what we've done post-9/11 with the things that allowed it to happen.

The presidency of Ronald Reagan not only undercut those reforms made after Vietnam to wrest the power over war back from Congress to the Executive Branch, but swung them way back in the other direction. And the office inherited the growth of executive power from the Reagan administration into the George H.W. Bush administration into Clinton and beyond—I think that's important context for understanding how we got to this point.

And you know, Dick Cheney is really really important to the story not just because he was the Vice President after 9/11 but because he was a former congressman and the White House chief-of-staff, and then Defense Secretary.

You dedicate the book to Dick Cheney. If you could ask him one question that he had to answer truthfully, what would it be? You know it's a little bit wonky but I really think about this all the time. When the Iran Contra scandal happened, it was like nothing that had ever happened before. I mean, senior officials were being indicted, charged with this completely illegal action ordered by president Ronald Reagan. And if you asked the president if that happened he said he "didn't remember"? It was a disaster, it was a political disaster and a huge crisis.

And so part of the reason that I focus so much on Reagan, is that the Republican Party permanently reinvented Reagan as a saint, because the Republican Party needed a modern saint. That being said, we tell ourselves stories about Ronald Reagan that really don't make sense when you look back at presidency. There were a lot of good things to remember about his presidency but boy, were there a lot of bad things too, and we should remember that as well.

But in terms of Cheney, when the Reagan administration got caught in Iran-Contra, in the huge scandal, the way they tried to save Reagan's butt, is that they came up with this super radical and ridiculous theory that the president can do anything he wanted on national security by definition of the fact that he was just presenting it. Just totally ridiculous. It completely violates the letter and the spirit of the law that Congress made.

And in the midst of the Iran-Contra scandal Congress investigated they found that Reagan had done a lot of things wrong. And Cheney actually said, you know what? I buy that argument. That crazy idea that a president can do anything involving national security, with no constraints for other law or any other branch of government? I think that, I believe that.

What I want to ask him is, when he did that, when he said I believe what Reagan did was legal and anything the president does with national security is by definition legal because he is the president: was he just trying to get Reagan's butt out of trouble? [Laughs] Or did he actually believe it? Because if he did; what a radical thing to actually believe in!

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President Reagan meets with his advisors about Iran-Contra
Dick Cheney is presumably a very intelligent person. Why do you think conservatives like Cheney (or Supreme Court Justice Scalia, who recently compared broccoli to the health care mandate) make these brilliantly ridiculous arguments? Do you think they see it as a sort of intellectual exercise?

Right, the question becomes: are you arguing this to achieve some short-term goal or are you really ideologically that radical? And do you understand the implications of how radical you're being here? Dick Cheney went on to live that in his political life. I want to believe that [it's for a short-term goal.] And I find it hard to believe we put someone that ideologically radical in charge of that much.

But I don't know how he sees himself. I do have a feeling that he would own up to that.

At the end of Drift you have a series of prescriptions for the country to undo some of the damage that has been incurred over time, and the last one refers to the "Gordian Knot of executive power." Is that "knot" responsible for our current administration going from a pledge to shut down Guantanamo to, just a few weeks ago, redefining what "due process" means in order to give the president more leeway in ordering the death of American citizens? How much of that change is due to the president being swayed by enormous executive power and how much is just, this is the candidate we got? That's a very good question. I think presidents can't be relied on to give away executive power. There are some instances, like after the Watergate scandal, where the scope of executive power was reined in by the Carter administration. There are a few examples after huge, cathartic, national scandals in which the presidency has been able to relinquish unwarranted power.

But most people don't give up power once they have it. Presidents want as much power as possible to have. And I understand that. I don't think the Obama presidency is immune from that. But we shouldn't be counting on the executive to hold the power that it has. We should be counting on Congress to stand up and assert the power that it's supposed to have.

So people don't give up power willingly, you have to take it, and the Obama presidency is no different. They're not giving anything up. And the executive branch has as much power now as it did under president George W. Bush and we have to count on Congress to assert itself to fix that problem.

Another central theme in the book is that Congress should have a rigorous, open, honest debate before the country takes any sort of military action. This is what the founders wanted. But do you think that our current Congress is capable of having such an open, honest debate? Is there some truth to the executive branch's argument that Congress is too mired in politics to act quickly enough in some instances? Yeah, I mean, our low expectations of Congress will continue to prove us right. There's a big chapter in the book on George H.W. Bush and the lead up to the Gulf War, and that the was to show an example of Congress doing the right thing, even though they were kind of lame. [Laughs]

George H.W. Bush didn't think that Congress should have been part of the decision to go to war, he thought that it was. And Congress was just straddling this line in the middle— they wanted to take credit if it was successful, and not have to take responsibility if it wasn't. They were sort of a hot mess. And they did debate the measure and it went through but not because it was a Congress full of heroes. It was a Congress much like the Congress we've got right now.

But when pushed to assert their Constitutional right, they didn't blow it, and they fought like hell, whether or not to wage the Gulf War. They had a really positive debate that engaged the entire country in the question of whether or not we were going to wage that war. They voted on it, and both times the votes weren't very partisan. And the entire country was riveted and engaged what ended up being a very short war. It functioned not because of any one person—it works. When you do it right, it works. And it's not an example that we look back to frequently.

You excerpt George H.W. Bush's diary and it is fascinating to see how pained he was about the decision to go to war. So what happened with his son? Where was the agony in 2003? Well, I'm going to dodge the question a little bit because I don't write very much about George W. Bush in the book and you know, I'm not quite as well read on the subject compared to H.W. But I have read his book, Decision Points, and I think if you asked him about his anguish over deciding to start the wars, he would say that he was anguished.

I think one of the reasons that it is worth reading the diary entries of H.W.'s is how he says, "It's my decision, it's my decision, me alone." And as for Congress, "it's not their decision, because they don't have all this additional information that I have to deal with. It's me, it's me, it's me, it's me." It's not you. It's not supposed to be.

But one of the happy byproducts of reading a president's anguish, is that you learn that they think there's supposed to be one person making that decision. The founders never wanted the president to have that responsibility. I think they knew it would be too much for one person. So the byproduct of that is that it shouldn't ever be that much agony for one person.

My grandmother keeps FOX News on all day—she actually told me that she "didn't approve" of me interviewing you. Pitch your book to someone like her, who sees Drift as a piece of liberal propaganda rather than the incisive, nonpartisan analysis that I read it to be. [Laughs] Well, Roger Ailes actually gave me a blurb for the book, and he said some nice things about it. So maybe that will help! You know, I think if you sit there with her just—start in the nuclear weapons chapter about this challenge with the huge reserve of them we have—I think that is the most entertaining, if not illustrative in a way that has absolutely no ideology about it. I think that about the rest of the issues in the book as well but in particular the nuke stuff—like, there's nothing liberal about it! [Laughs]

There's no room to put your ideological bent in that issue. The fact is that we have so many of them, sometimes we're actively moving [nuclear weapons] around the country without knowing where they are. I'm not writing about that because I want to disguise my liberal ideology and bring it to bear on the matter, I don't think there's an ideological angle to it.

There are a lot more issues in our politics that are real problems for the country that are dominated by this left/right, ideological model—national security, or taking care of our veterans, or education policy: the left/right whole Judge Judy show model just doesn't apply. There's a lot of truth to both sides.

I have been very humbled by the fact that I have had so much support from conservative-leaning readers, and even conservative-leaning reviewers. And even the people who hate the book, they're just as likely to be on the left as they are on the right.

Last question: have you spoken to Keith Olbermann recently, and if so, how's he doing? No, I haven't spoken to him recently, but I hope everything works out well for him, and I hope everything works out well for Current.