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America’s Political Ringmaster

Apr 21, 2003  •  Post A Comment

“Americans are a self-invented people,” Chris Matthews wrote in his fourth and most recent book, American: Beyond Our Grandest Notions. “Here, any person has a right to try and become who he or she wants to be.”
Mr. Matthews himself is one of those people. He has risen from a lower-middle-class Irish background in Philadelphia to become the celebrated anchor of MSNBC’s popular talk program Hardball and star of The Chris Matthews Show, which is syndicated by NBC.
In L.A. recently to guest on The Tonight Show and make other appearances, he spent a lunch hour sharing his thoughts. As demonstrated on TV, he has a striking intellectual intensity and a speaking style that has been called his “machine-gun mouth.” He isn’t easy to pin down, which is the way he likes it. There is clearly a liberal element to his philosophy, but that didn’t stop him from being a leading Clinton basher. Some of his views are conservative, but before the war with Iraq began he was one of the most stalwart opponents.
Since then he has made it a point to camouflage his views even more. “I simply put on my reporter’s hat and said my job is to report the news, not to question,” Mr. Matthews explained.
That doesn’t mean Mr. Matthews doesn’t have opinions. They seem to explode out of him. However, he is savvy enough to be guarded when it comes to criticizing his own bosses or even competitors like Bill O’Reilly.
fox’s `great gatsby’
“O’Reilly is the best there ever has been at cable,” Mr. Matthews said. “O’Reilly had this whole doctoral thesis or something up at Harvard. He designed the perfect character in television and he became the guy. He’s like The Great Gatsby. He created this notion.”
Is Mr. O’Reilly a put-on? “I don’t know what he is,” he responded. “I think he’s much more complicated than that. He’s more of a class angry guy. I’m not knocking him. I think he’s sort of an angry guy who feels he doesn’t belong.”
Mr. Matthews sees class warfare at the heart of much of what is happening in America. “Entertainment right now is culturally liberal,” he explained. “Everybody’s pro choice, pro gay rights. … Everybody’s psycho. Nobody goes to church. It’s all secular, sophisticated, urbane. All the things regular people have a problem with. I think that’s more the reason for the cable [news] phenomenon’s going to the right.”
He may no longer live in a row house in North Philly, but Mr. Matthews clearly identifies with the working class. These days he makes his home in Chevy Chase, Md., with his wife, local news anchor Kathleen Matthews, and their three children.
Fox, he said, has benefited from the rise of conservatives and election of President Bush. “The liberal is going out on a date or to a movie or playing with the computer or watching West Wing,” he said. “The conservative is festering over a particular point of view they are angry about, and just loving the festering. The festering is enjoyable. It’s a pastime.”
Mr. Matthews refuses to criticize MSNBC for an apparent slide to the right with the hiring of Michael Savage and others. However, he insists he will not go down that path. “Mine is a debate show,” he explained. “I don’t have a constituency per se, except some people who sort of like me. And people who like the argument. They love the fact I’m tough. But there’s no doubt, if you just want to take your pants off and go hard right, you’d get a certain audience.”
Before it began Mr. Matthews thought war with Iraq was a very bad idea. He wrote in August 2002: “If it goes off [it] will join the Bay of Pigs, Vietnam, Desert One, Beirut and Somalia in the history of U.S. military catastrophes.”
It has not played out as he expected: “The bottom line is I wouldn’t have chosen the war, but it was handled the best it could be handled.”
His opposition has cost him. “I don’t have [Fox News’] access,” he said. “We can’t get anybody on the show from the White House. It’s just tough. … They see no interest in helping us.”
As a result, Mr. Matthews has turned to journalists happy to share their views. He credited Don Imus as his inspiration. “Imus brings out the best in the best journalists,” he said. “He goes through their notebooks. He’ll say, `What happened in that meeting? Who was there and what did they say?”’
His love of journalists also colors his feelings about the fate of friend and former colleague Peter Arnett: “I’d say look at the guy’s whole record and what he has done for us in three months. Damn it, the guy’s given us the best pictures over there. He was tired. Take him off for a week. Send him a signal. Do it with prejudice. You were bugged at him. And do it before anybody knows about it. But don’t let him off for two hours and then fire him.”
“That’s why I’m not a management guy,” he noted. “I also made a vow years ago I am not going to be a media critic. That’s your job. I’m not going to criticize other people in the business.”
Yes, that is my job, and I am not afraid to say that I continue to be impressed with Mr. Matthews’ passion, professionalism and single-minded vision. He has put himself at the center of the American political whirlwind and he relishes his role as the ringmaster constantly offering up new guests who are happy to share their opinions about everything under the sun.