Originally published June 30, 1997
As a political aide to a pantheon of Democratic stars from the last 25 years, including the late Senator Edmund S. Muskie and former House Speaker Tip O’Neill — as well as a speechwriter for President Jimmy Carter — Chris Matthews knows power when he sees it.
And as Washington bureau chief for the San Francisco Examiner, he also knows bullshit when he smells it.
Combine these attributes with a hard-charging, uzi-sprung delivery, a nightclub bouncer’s physical presence, blonde hair, brown eyes and a zealot’s demand for truth, justice and the American way and you must be watching Matthews’ cable TV show, “Hardball.” Seen nightly on CNBC, Matthews, 51, grabs viewers in his teeth for 30 minutes and doesn’t stop shaking until he forces them to take one side or another of the day’s top political issues.
“This is a program about the contest which is implicit in just about every big story,” Matthews says, “whether it is the Republicans against the Democrats, prosecutors against defense attorneys, defense attorneys against the media, whatever. There is usually an omen of the contest in just about every major story. That is why there is conflict and that is why there is a story.”
Like “The McLaughlin Group,” a show on which Matthews was himself once a frequent panelist, “Hardball” features a revolving cast of political and media savvy commentators who the host jabs and provokes, sometimes into a frenzy. And despite his blue-chip credentials as a former behind-the-scenes Democratic policy maker, Matthews doesn’t always take predictable sides in a debate. In fact, it sometimes appears as if he chooses the position most likely to get a rise out of his guests. It makes great television, even if it leaves an occasional squishy area in his own ideology.
“If I were sitting around the dinner table with you, with my family or anybody else,” he says, “I would like to think that the voice you heard as the evening wore on would be very similar, very recognizable, from my books and columns and what I do in television. If I am in the company of a lot of conservatives who are all self-satisfied or ideologically secure, I love to challenge them and go to the liberal side of things. But if I am in a group of people where I think that the politically correct point of view is liberal, I will be extremely tough on that view, coming off as more conservative than I am, because I am surrounded by liberals. If I were put on a desert island with a bunch of conservatives, I would quickly adapt my skepticism to the other side of things. I have sympathy for people that tend to be losing, too. I find myself sympathizing with any side that lost a war.”
Conservative? Liberal? Opportunist may be the best label for this political manimal.
“If you can isolate the conflict,” he explains, “and find out where the contest of wills and wits and tactics and strengths and weaknesses is at work, then you can usually find a different way of looking at a major news story than other people are using.”
When Bill Clinton‘s lawyer suddenly began attacking Whitewater special prosecutor Kenneth Starr, it opened a delicious can of squirming worms for Matthews. “What’s this going to the air about?” he wondered aloud. “Why go to the media? Why resort to a media strategy at this point, what’s that about? What about the tactic of leaking and attacking and leaking, what’s at work here? Are they trying to discredit Ken Starr, or are they trying to intimidate him into not leaking? What are they up to?”
“Hardball,” which debuted in January, is probably on the crest of big things. Matthews masterfully finds fresh edges in even the most well-aged of news stories by giving each an infusion of sports-like energy. It’s no accident the show is named “Hardball” instead of “Meet the Week Group” or something equally vague and obsequious.
Does the format work every night? Can Matthews rub his guests and himself into a lather five days a week? For 30 minutes a day, couldn’t you?
“It is a heat-seeking program,” says the host, “and I think that you can detect the heat (in certain topics) such as the JonBenet Ramsey (murder investigation) or the sentencing of Timothy McVeigh. In politics, you can sense it around the Clintons, especially Hillary Clinton. I think whenever there is a lot of heat and argument about something, it makes a more interesting program, because people are already tuned into it emotionally, and then the question is to give them another look at it from a totally different prism, which is the contest. Not who is right and who is wrong, but who is winning, who is losing, and how are they doing it, how are they managing to compete with each other.”
In fact, each edition of “Hardball” opens with a tight camera shot of Matthews’ face as he blasts through the day’s “Winners & Losers” as he sees them. And each show closes with a personal essay by Matthews, taking viewers further into his heart and sometimes tortured soul.
A Peace Corps veteran, Matthews first worked as a journalist in 1973 under the aegis of consumer activist Ralph Nader. “I wasn’t really big on investigative reporting,” he recalls. “I didn’t really like it. Some people are good at it. Bob Woodward is obviously the best, but I just didn’t like doing it.”
He quickly turned his back on journalism to work for Utah Senator Frank Moss (D), which eventually led him to a series of prominent appointments with Muskie, Carter and O’Neill.
His TV career kicked off in 1988, with Matthews proffering political commentary, first on “CBS This Morning” and then ABC’s “Good Morning America.” Along the way he made frequent appearances on “The McLaughlin Group” before being tapped to host a two-hour show on the little-watched NBC cable channel that preceded MSNBC, America’s Talking. A year ago, he joined CNBC as host of “Politics,” which was on at 8 p.m. EST, and which gave way in January to “Hardball” at 8:30 p.m.
Being on the tube is a way of life in the Matthews household; his wife, Kathleen is a top-rated local news anchor at WJLA Ch. 7, the ABC affiliate in Washington, D.C.
The 25-year-old Watergate break-in recently helped score major publicity for Matthews both in his twice-weekly column for the Examiner (syndicated by Tribune Media Services) and on TV.
“I will brag a bit: I broke all the stories on the Nixon tapes. All those stories that ran in the Washington Post, I broke four major ones (in the Examiner),” he says. “I broke the story that Nixon organized the surveillance campaign. I lifted it out of the archives at the beginning of last year. He was the one who got the whole stupid campaign going. He ordered the sneaking into the National Archives. He ordered the break-in of the Republican National Committee Headquarters the week after Watergate to make it look like both sides did it. He did all that, and I got all that from the archives and broke all those stories, and in each case, the Washington Post gave me credit.”
He gained another coup in June when newspapers nationwide ran a compelling picture of him and former Nixon aide-turned radio talk show host G. Gordon Liddy looking out from a terrace at the Watergate Hotel the week of the break-in’s 25th anniversary.
Actually, 1997 has the potential of being an even bigger year still for Matthews, with publication of the paperback edition of his second book, Kennedy and Nixon: The Rivalry That Shaped Post-War America (Simon & Shuster/Touchstone) in August. The paperback will include new material based on discoveries Matthews made while researching the latest Nixon tapes.
Matthews’ first book, a political primer called Hardball (Harper Collins), was first published in 1988. It is still in print and selling steadily.
Frequent “Hardball” guests — maybe targets would be a better word — include Time magazine’s Margaret Carlson Newsweek‘s Howard Fineman, Republican pollster Kellyanne Fitzpatrick, GOP strategist Ed Rollins, disgraced advisor Dick Morris, Michael Barone of Reader’s Digest; Fred Barnes, Cokie Roberts, former Washington Post editor Ben Bradley and Ben Wattenberg of the American Enterprise Institute.
“They are my people,” Matthews says, “exciting people to have around and they come loaded for bear.”
But when them come loaded with bull, this host isn’t afraid to call them on it.
“‘The bigger they are, the harder they fall’ would be a good motto for the show,” he says. “I think I am skeptical of power and most skeptical of the most power. I harbor a good dose of good old American, Irish-American, resentment. Probably makes me a fairly familiar voice. I think I resent people in power and may even envy them some, and I would even admit that. I think that I have a voice which is experienced because I have been there all those years, and I think I have a pretty good crap detector.”
Sometimes, Matthews gets his guests all lathered up just in time for a commercial break. But rather than politely waiting for them to finish spinning their message or trying to kindly interrupt the way Ted Koppel or Larry King might, he looks into the camera and talks over them, teasing what’s coming up next with the combatants still drawing blood in the background. It makes great television but Matthews swears it’s not done with intentional rudeness.
“Maybe that’s show biz,” he says, “but I do have somebody in my ear saying, ‘Break!’ Or else I am saying, ‘Let’s leave the audience asking for more.’ The program is only 22 minutes long and each segment really tries to deal with a different contest.
As for his rapidfire delivery and execution, Matthews compares himself to a high-performance race car.
“You have to get around that track as fast as you can,” he says, “but you have to drive fast enough to win and not too fast to get killed. McLaughlin’s great strength is speed. He says, ‘Let’s get out of this.’ People are very quickly bored today; they want you to move or else they will surf you right off the planet.”
Working in print and electronic media, Matthews exalts in the best of both.
“On TV,” he says, “you can reach half a million people instantly, and you can revel in a kind of a phenomenon that you can’t in print. Print, you can only write the story and describe the event; television, you can be the event. I think it is like the difference between going to a party at someone’s house and being mailed a description of the party.”