For the past two years, Rachel Maddow has been a hero of her own spy thriller.
She has written, directed and starred in a hit production based on the unlikely premise of a prime-time cable TV show host unraveling the most dastardly plot in American history — one opening monologue at a time.
Only the story had a surprise twist at the end — she was completely wrong.
Few people invested more in the Russia probe, night after night, monologue after monologue, with an ever-building sense of anticipation.
It is perhaps unfair to say that Maddow believed in a conspiracy theory, although her theory was quite literally that there was a conspiracy between Donald Trump and the Russians, perhaps an ongoing one.
The Mueller probe was obviously newsworthy. Yet Maddow approached it with a notably conspiratorial cast of mind and style.
She covered the story with a consistent breathlessness. She took evident pleasure over even minor jail sentences for minor players. No proceeding related to the probe was too small for her long, involved explications.
Pervading it all was the sense that she could see the deeper forces behind the headlines, she could discern the pattern in all the dots, and you could, too, as long as you paid close enough attention to her program. The reward would be everything finally making sense, from the 2016 presidential election to President Trump's foreign policy — all traceable back to Russia and its sinister tentacles.
She worried in March 2017 that the Russians had not just stolen the election, but our government. "We are also starting to see what may be signs of continuing influence in our country," she warned. "Basically signs of what could be a continuing operation."
No matter how alarming all this was, there was always an underlying sense of glee in Maddow's coverage, the bastards were finally getting their due, the whole treacherous plot coming undone via Robert Mueller's investigation and the brilliant, long-form explications of it by America's champion at 9 p.m., please set your DVRs.
It was almost touching how excited Maddow was to come back from a trout-fishing trip last Friday to host her show on an emergency basis upon the arrival of the long-anticipated report. Little did she know she only was setting the stage for her own discrediting.
No one should deny Maddow's considerable talents. She's smart and a sprightly writer who does her homework and who can carry an hour of TV compellingly almost entirely on her own — a rare skill.
This wasn't simply mindless partisanship. It was a deeper delusion.
Yes, there were disturbing developments in the Mueller probe, but the evidence always tilted away from any Trump-Russian conspiracy.
Believing otherwise required ignoring common sense (why would the Russians need to collude with the Trump campaign in the first place?), ignoring statements from more sober-minded intelligence officials that there was no evidence of collusion, ignoring the policy areas where Trump was tougher on Russia than President Barack Obama, and ignoring how the Mueller probe was unfolding, with no indictments for espionage or conspiracy with the Russians.
Even now, all Maddow has is more questions. She's right to want the release of the full report, yet she still hasn't truly grappled with the fact that Mueller came up empty on collusion.
Not only should she do that, she should consider how she did the left a grave disservice in feeding its paranoia, stoking its unrealistic expectations and diverting it from more politically fruitful paths.
The Russia episode demonstrates how, strangely, Nancy Pelosi is now one of the more restrained, politically astute progressives on the national stage. You can be entirely in the business of checking and defeating Donald Trump, or you can be in show business; Pelosi is in the former, Rachel Maddow is in the latter.
The MSNBC host staged a hell of a drama during the Mueller probe, but life usually isn't a John le Carre novel.
Rich Lowry is the editor of National Review. firstname.lastname@example.org