What Chris Matthews Learned in Washington

Former
MSNBC host Chris Matthews has made a career out of a certain image of American
politics. It’s a nostalgic vision of the heyday of bare-knuckled ward bosses in
and around city halls and orotund lords of patronage on Capitol Hill, of brash
Irish-American presidents and speakers of the house lofting insults at one
another in the press before adjourning for fraternal meals and drinks long into
the D.C. evening. It’s a brand of political combat as glorified stag-bonding, at
once relentlessly ambitious and cheerfully transactional.

This Country: My Life in Politics and History

by Chris Matthews

Simon & Schuster, 352 pp., $28.99

In
the standard D.C. nostalgist’s narrative, this battery of traits is usually held
together by sheer force of personality—the cowboy capitalist reveries of Ronald
Reagan or the New Frontier transports of John F. Kennedy. So it’s no great
surprise that Matthews has titled his memoir This Country: There’s precious
little of his own life story that he doesn’t see reflected in the saga of the
American republic’s journey toward redemption, and vice versa. The same Boomer
grandiosity clearly informs the book’s subtitle: We all, in one sense, have
lives “in history,” but Matthews is clearly referencing capital-h History here—the
stuff that all those bumptious-yet-civil pols were ruminating on, and
transforming, in their many epic campaign appeals and cloakroom confabs. 

Matthews
is, of course, best known as the host of Hardball,
a rapid-fire pundit showcase that enjoyed a 20-year run, first on CNBC and then
on MSNBC. The show’s swaggering mission, as Matthews recounts, was to put
political leaders on the spot in a public forum—“to push beyond what the
politicians and their flacks were saying” to uncover “the awful truth” behind
the canned commentary and talking points that they were all too prone to
unleash into the daily news cycle. In typically outsize homage to this journalistic
calling, Matthews obsessively repeats a mantra that he says viewers he
encounters “in an airport or on the street” have relayed to him: “I like the
way you don’t let them get away with anything!”

This,
of course, is another article of D.C. nostalgist faith: the notion that savvy
Capitol insiders like Matthews—a former Carter speechwriter and senior aide to
House Speaker Thomas “Tip” O’Neill—have both the wit and recondite knowledge it
takes not to be drawn into the rote byplay of spin and doubletalk preferred by
the powerful. By no means does Matthews have the monopoly on this claim, of
course. Bill O’Reilly dubbed his eponymous Fox pundit franchise “the no-spin
zone,” and a corps of former Capitol Hill flacks who’ve traded their lanyards
in for studio earpieces, from the late Tim Russert to George Stephanopoulos to
Nicole Wallace, have all trafficked in the pleasing conceit that they’re using
their precious insider résumés and airtime to subject the cant-prone political
class to the harsh scrutiny of public-interest journalism. 

It’s
also a complete fantasy. The signal examples of unscripted truth-to-power
encounters Matthews cites in his own career are thin gruel indeed: a testy
exchange with former Democratic Congressman Zell Miller, a gotcha interview
with candidate Donald Trump in 2016, and Matthews’s “on-the-spot prophecy
that Barack Obama would be the ‘first African-American president.’” In other
words, while Chris Matthews’s life may not be as intimately bound up with
our country and its history as he would like, his career speaks volumes about the
devolution of both our politics and journalism in an age of empty spectacle and
insider-bred faux authenticity.


The
particulars of Matthews’s life story are familiar to even casual viewers of his
cable franchise: a postwar Irish-Catholic upbringing in the inner-ring suburbs
of Philadelphia; a postcollegiate tour in the Peace Corps; a series of Capitol
Hill policy and speechwriting gigs; a turn in Ralph Nader’s then-ascendant
public-interest advocacy empire; a failed run at a congressional seat of his
own. From then on, the big time beckoned: Matthews served as a speechwriter to
Jimmy Carter in the final years of his presidency and then as a senior aide to
Tip O’Neill from 1981 to 1986.

Matthews
narrates his political coming of age in the clipped, rapid-fire style of his TV
presence. And he presents many of his formative encounters with politics and
journalism in concert with the newsreel-style convulsions that upended this
country’s epic of national self-understanding. Thus, for example, his account of
a successful campaign to be student treasurer at his undergrad college, Holy Cross,
abruptly jump-cuts to this reflection: “Like the rest of the country, my
sentiment about Kennedy’s assassination was a huge catalyst for my own shifting
political loyalties.” (As for the assassination proper, there’s this undeniably
true, yet painfully inane, moral: “The man who had been the focus of all our
political conversation was as gone as Abraham Lincoln.”)

It
was, indeed, the Kennedy mythos that spurred Matthews to pursue a career in
politics. During his Peace Corps tour in Swaziland, Matthews read Kennedy,
Kennedy speechwriter Ted Sorensen’s memoir of his time serving with Kennedy in
the Senate and the White House. “For whatever reason, this is something I just
assumed I could do,” Matthews writes—typically with no mention of Kennedy’s
actual politics or governing record. He seems to have been less interested in
his immediate surroundings in Swaziland, as he confesses: “There was just so
much I never learned about the country. It started and ended with how people
actually survived. How did a rural family get by twelve months a year on that
scraggly harvest of maize?” Instead his time in the Peace Corps forms the
template for what he regards as a career infused with daring and adventure;
without his headlong plunge into the unknown world of economic development
policy there, Matthews writes, “I doubt I could have broken into politics as I
did.”

Back
stateside, Matthews hustled toward his dream of shaping politics and history
from a perch on Capitol Hill, signing on to the legislative staff of Utah Senator Frank E. Moss, a liberal who’d made his name in consumer and environmental
protection. There, Moss’s top legislative aide detailed his new hire with the
task of seeking a loophole in the highway use tax for the owners of mobile oil-drill-operating equipment who’d donated to the senator’s 1970 reelection
campaign. Despite the “bad aroma” the assignment emitted, Matthews leapt to the
task: “I wanted to do what politics required. I wanted to go pro.” When
the loophole fell out of the pending tax bill, Matthews learned that the whole
thing was “a masquerade”—a stage-managed set piece only intended to
demonstrate that Moss had done what he could for his donors, and failed nobly. 

As
he built out his Capitol Hill résumé, Matthews learned and relearned this same
basic lesson of impression management: Beyond the small-bore scrum for
legislative influence in Washington, the real action is in the messaging. Take
his initial encounters in the Carter White House: Matthews, like the president,
was an ardent fiscal hawk; he was keen to see Carter deliver on his “promise to make
government more efficient and less aggravating.” But the unions and special
interest groups who then formed the backbone of the Democratic Party had little
appetite to shrink and rationalize government operations:

Carter may have out-campaigned the liberal
establishment in spring ’76, but he had not defeated it. Liberal factions were
not going to be denied top positions in his government. Nor was their blood to
be stirred by greater government efficiency. Cutting back on regulations and
reforming the civil service all became solid Carter achievements. But they
never thrilled the liberal soul.

Once
he’s free of Carter’s plodding wonkery, Matthews swiftly positions himself as a
baron of messaging; he goes pro with a vengeance. When he moved over to
the Speaker’s office in 1981, one of Matthews’s first signature initiatives was
to create a whole para-journalistic operation devoted to effective impression
management on Capitol Hill: the Congressional News Service, a subsidiary of the
Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee devoted to pointing out the
embarrassing hijinks carried out by lawmakers in the opposition party. (The
experiment was short-lived: An early report on GOP House members joining a
high-end junket to the swanky lobbying extravaganza known as the annual Paris
Air Show inadvertently drew attention to the female travel companions of
certain lawmakers—an issue that also hit home to members of the Democratic
majority, and so the Congressional News Service died on a bipartisan accord finding that it was in danger of uncovering and disseminating the wrong sort of
news.)

Undeterred, Matthews dedicated himself to the “main job”: “coming up with ammo to use in
O’Neill’s daily back-and-forth with Reagan” and plotting a series of agitprop
stunts and rallies meant to highlight the impact of Reagan’s budget cuts and austerity
plans on ordinary Americans. Recounting one such event—a predawn rally outside
the White House highlighting the threatened jobs economy, in which autoworkers
and steelworkers brandished signs that read, “Wake up, Mr. President”—Matthews
recalls with relish that “it was at such moments that Tip O’Neill would look at
me and ask, ‘Is this one of yours?’”


After
O’Neill retired in 1986, Matthews followed the traditional career path of
former senior aides on the Hill and ran a for-profit think tank, backed by
Canadian investors, called the Government Research Center. But the work proved
too dry and wonky for the restless political entrepreneur, and so when the San
Francisco Examiner
offered to make him a columnist, and eventually the
paper’s D.C. bureau chief, Matthews eagerly seized the opportunity. As he settled
into the new gig, he drew some unwelcome criticism from other Washington
journalists as an interloper from the nation’s political caste. The Washington
Post
’s David Broder excoriated the rise of “a power-wielding clique of
insiders” in and around D.C.’s centers of power: “a clique where politicians,
publicists, and journalists are easily interchangeable parts.” Broder didn’t name
Matthews in his jeremiad, but in a piece the following week, his Post
colleague Richard Harwood did, noting that Matthews’s rapid journalistic ascent
was largely thanks to the “connections” and “access” that he brought to the
gig. 

The
attacks did not harm Matthews in the long run—the Post fell into line
soon enough, running a front-page Style section profile the following month of
Chris Matthews, the conquering journalistic hero from Capitol Hill. Who would
you rather get your news from, he asked the Style reporter: “guys who’ve spent
their lives hanging out in hallways” or “guys who’ve spent their lives in
backrooms?” He ended his defense brief with an off-topic flourish—an appeal to
his First Amendment rights of free speech: “I feel like doing it,” he
pronounced. “That’s my defense. I feel like doing it.” 

And
so he has. Over the balance of This Country, Matthews’s
flat-yet-confident pundit voice moves forcefully onto center stage, as the book
becomes the sort of then-this-happened march through recent political history
you’re apt to encounter on any cable news channel of your despairing choosing. There
are, inevitably, some embarrassing disclosures along the way, such as the
launch of his TV career under the tutelage of the late Fox News impresario Roger
Ailes, or Matthews’s rushed resignation from his Hardball post ahead of
a raft of #MeToo allegations in early 2020.

Mostly,
though, we see Matthews being dispatched on assignment from the Examiner
to various landmark events—the Good Friday peace accords in Ireland, the fall
of the Berlin Wall, and the end of South African apartheid, the funerals for Tip
O’Neill and Pope John Paul II—with extended riffs on the same subjects from his
Examiner (and later, San Francisco Chronicle) columns. This is
capital-h History as Chris Matthews lived it—but he evidently never quite
grasped that the old saw about journalism being history’s first draft meant
that one’s understanding of it should be revised and reworked in the fullness of
time. No, the point of history, Matthews-style, as with any other exercise in
punditry, is to be shown to be right, in real time—and then you can confidently
clamor forward to the next segment. Thus, for instance, the Chris Matthews
formula for the overthrow of communism: “Courageous citizens call for ‘reform’
but end up denouncing the ruling Communists.… The rivalry is joined. Elections
are held. The public rejects the tainted Communists and chooses the democratic
alternative.” You don’t say. 

Even
the observations collected here that aren’t actually drawn from repurposed column
content bear the telltale thumbprints of on-the-fly punditry. When Matthews
sizes up the unexpected gains that the Democrats clocked in the 1998 midterm
elections, amid the impeachment of Bill Clinton over the Monica Lewinsky scandal,
he calls the outcome (of all things) “a case of nationwide jury nullification.”
At a loss to come up with any more compelling explanation of the rise of Donald
Trump, Matthews breezily references Trump’s affinities with past demagogues, such as Joseph McCarthy and Pat Buchanan, and then delivers this deeply insular
and cable-centric take: “What Trump added was the pizzazz of a talented TV
performer and a mastery of social media.” (In the broader scheme of things,
though, Matthews reassures us that “demagoguery has not been a good career
choice.”)


Even
Matthews’s appeals to history qua history are correspondingly punditized, and
miniaturized for seeming televisual consumption. As he winds up this career-driven
tour of his life and times, Matthews hurriedly invokes the wisdom of a host of
modern presidential elders. On a single page, he has JFK both intoning his inaugural
plea to “ask what you can do for your country” and invoking his rhetorical Berlin
citizenship in the wake of the Berlin Wall’s erection; Ronald Reagan delivering
his patriotic address to the nation after the Challenger space shuttle
crash; President George W. Bush shouting his bullhorn exhortations to the
workers at Ground Zero after the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center;
Teddy Roosevelt cheerfully characterizing the presidency as a bully pulpit; and
Abraham Lincoln pledging, in his second inaugural, to “bind up the nation’s
wounds” and to act “with malice toward none, and with charity toward all.” For
good measure, Matthews even throws in some dialogue from the Aaron
Sorkin–scripted presidential rom-com Dave, the precursor to Sorkin’s
dreadful primetime workplace drama about the American presidency, The West Wing. 

It’s
a classic Chris Matthews performance, rendered on the printed page—a blizzard
of deeply clichéd, executive-sanctioned sentiment about everything and nothing.
It begins as a gloss on FDR’s (also exhaustively quoted) pronouncement that the
attack on Pearl Harbor marked a “date which will live in infamy” and the
president’s forecast that the United States would prevail in the global
struggle ahead.  Yet that’s exactly what
presidents are supposed to say in such moments; it’s all too easy to unearth nearly
identical sentiments from, say, James Polk’s dishonest conduct of the Mexican
War, Lyndon Johnson’s dead-end commitment to the debacle of the Vietnam War, or
George W. Bush’s mendacious cheerleading campaign for the moral catastrophe of
the second American invasion of Iraq. Matthews’s citations of other
presidential utterances here seem mostly to serve as totemic reminders that,
throughout our history, presidents have said things that are presidential.

To live
through, and reflect on, history in any meaningful way is to wrestle with the
tragic limits it imposes on the ambitions of the powerful, hubristic class of
men and women who claim to know its foreordained course—what the historian John
Lukacs called the interpretation of history as “chastened thought.” But that’s
not something that Chris Matthews or his legions of cable imitators are about
to blurt out on set. And that, in turn, leaves his long-suffering audience to
marvel at the very many types of leaders who are, in fact, getting away with anything
and everything—and to exclaim, yet again, in bitter wonderment, “What a
country.”

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