Chris Matthews on Politics, Hometown Ties
by roland flamini
Chris Matthews, the host of MSNBC’s Hardball with Chris Matthews, is sitting in his cluttered office on the third floor of the NBC building in Washington. There are books everywhere, and the walls are festooned in campaign memorabilia and photos of America’s top political figures—archrivals Jack Kennedy and Richard Nixon photographed standing side by side; Matthews with his former boss and legendary Democratic Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill; portraits of Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. There’s also a large painting of a baseball, which Matthews bought from a local artist’s exhibition.
He sits at a round table where every afternoon at 3 PM his staff gathers for the daily—and often lively—debate on material for that day’s show. The program airs live from the NBC building five evenings a week. Matthews jokes that “the staff meeting around the table is very much like the old Dick Van Dyke show, where the writers got together to haggle it out. It’s fun—almost like the old Jack Benny show in the ’30s and ’40s, because you’ve got Dennis Day and you’ve got [Eddie] “Rochester” [Anderson]; you’ve got all these characters, and you’ve got the Mel Blanc character who is always there.”
On the day of this interview the main Hardball topic would be a no-brainer: Missouri Republican Representative Todd Akin’s bizarre comment about women and rape. Matthews tells the staff he wants to focus on the decline of party control over individual politicians. Later, the show moves at its trademark brisk pace, framed between its host’s brief “Let Me Start” introduction and the “Let Me Finish” concluding remarks.
As if Hardball were not enough to do, he has a Sunday political program, The Chris Matthews Show, and he writes books about the key political figures of his day. Matthews knows that, as good as it can be, Hardball fades into the ether along with the show’s closing credits—but books are solid. Books will outlast him, and be his legacy. Long after he has gone, historians will list Matthews in their bibliographies.
For his current book project on the relationship between President Reagan and Speaker O’Neill, he has amassed a mountain of material, but of course he also has his firsthand memories of six years as the speaker’s top aide in the Reagan years. In part, the book will discuss his denunciation of the ideological trench warfare that undermines politics today. He relates that when O’Neill visited Mikhail Gorbachev (with a letter of introduction from Reagan), the Russian leader assumed that the speaker was part of the administration. Not so, said O’Neill, he was the opposition.
“Gorbachev wanted to know how that worked, and Tip’s first line was, ‘It means that we don’t disagree on everything,’ and I think that’s a great chapter title,” Matthews says. Reagan and the Speaker may have been on opposite sides of the political spectrum, but “they were compatriots; they didn’t want chaos, they didn’t look for fights; they disagreed, but they agreed on Lebanon, on social security, on Northern Ireland, on many issues.”
Matthews writes late at night, and like all writers, he procrastinates. Then, as his deadline approaches, “I go crazy, which [means] eating burgers from across the street and typing like a maniac. Luckily I write fast.” He worries about how to keep his readers glued to the pages. For his biography of President Kennedy, Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero, published last year, Matthews first created a storyboard of the narrative. He drew scores of sketches of the incidents that he wanted to include, and says the visuals helped with the writing.
Matthews left Philly in his twenties, but like most Philadelphians he returns often—“enough to keep up my accent,” he says, with one of his broad, infectious smiles. It’s actually more than that. For a while there were visits to daughter Caroline, who went to Penn and has just graduated magna cum laude. Then son Michael, an aspiring filmmaker, moved near Washington Square with his wife and new daughter, the first Matthews grandchild. (His son Thomas, an actor, appeared in the first season of Aaron Sorkin’s HBO series The Newsroom, which is at least partly modeled on Matthews and Hardball. Thomas has a political connection of his own—he is rumored to be dating cast-mate Katherine “Kick” Kennedy, daughter of Robert Kennedy Jr.) “Plus, I have certain rituals,” adds Matthews. “My brother Jim has a Christmas party, and we go to that.” That’s Jim Matthews, former county commissioner of Montgomery County.
This past summer, Matthews—born in Nicetown but raised in suburban Somerton—took time off from a hectic election-year schedule to help two of his aunts, Catholic sisters of St. Joseph in Philadelphia, celebrate the 60th and 70th anniversaries of taking their vows.
Matthews is surprisingly laid-back despite the daily scrutiny that comes with hosting a top-rated political show. And why not? He is one of those fortunate people who is doing what he loves and is getting paid a great deal for it. He would have preferred a political career, he says. At 28, Matthews made an unsuccessful bid for Philadelphia’s 4th Congressional District in the US House of Representatives. As recently as 2009—more than 30 years later—the hankering was still there, and he came close to becoming a candidate for Arlen Specter’s seat in the US Senate. By then, however, he was already host of Hardball; to keep the show and explore his political chances at the same time smacked too much of conflicting interests. He still keeps up with politics in Philadelphia, though, through his friendship with the likes of Mayor Michael Nutter, Comcast’s David Cohen, and Congressman Robert Brady.
But despite failed political ambitions, the man is marinated in politics. In a long career on Capitol Hill, Matthews worked successively for a congressman and US senators—Democratic presidential hopefuls Ed Muskie and John Kerry—and then was an administrative assistant to Tip O’Neill. He wrote speeches in the Jimmy Carter White House; and for 15 years before launching Hardball, he wrote a Washington-based political column for a daily newspaper. So for Matthews, talking about politics every evening is a natural progression—and one reason why Hardball is among the longest-running political commentary shows on national television. “One reason why I want to keep doing [the show] is that I’ll do it anyway,” he says. “People meet me on a street corner and ask me what I think, and I’ll [direct the conversation] the same.”
Election years brings larger challenges, starting with the party conventions, and then the long campaign. Matthews was enthusiastic about Barack Obama in 2008, but now he is disappointed. “I vote for heroes,” he says. “Obama’s strengths were apparent; his weaknesses weren’t. We saw someone who was very brilliant, but what we didn’t see was someone who didn’t have the necessary skills as a backroom deal maker.”
This time around, he thinks it will be close. A lot depends on three factors, he says, such as “how Romney performs during and after the debates—does he come across as a human being? If he does, look out, Obama. Then, [the subject of] unemployment—if it goes up again above 8.5 percent in October. Put them together, with the huge amount of spending that the Republicans can use to trumpet any triumphs in those two areas in the last week or so— the money they have now that they could never spend before—just trumpeting the latest bad economic news, pounding it home to people. Don’t tell me that’s not going to have an impact.”
As for his own political ambitions, he says that dream is over. “I know this: If I had run and won and beaten [Senator Pat] Toomey, I would be one of the Democrats people talk about today,” Matthews says. “I’m not dreaming here. I would be one of the stars of the Democratic Party—there aren’t that many. My agenda now is to do what I’m doing, which… if you’ll notice, I like.”
photography by andrew eccles; Styling by Alvaro Salazar at Agent Oliver; Makeup by Alisa Gurnan; Hair by Losi for Martial Vivot Salon at The Wall Group