The Harder He Blows

Chris Matthews blows hard. This may sound less like a news flash than a crashing redundancy. And it's true that yelling is nothing new for the omnipresent MSNBC/CNBC barking head, for whom picking up the pace and pumping up the volume almost always substitute for picking apart the fairy tales that keep the Bush White House intact. But in recent months Matthews' obsequiousness toward his favorites and nastiness toward his bêtes noires have ballooned to new proportions. He's told Tom DeLay, for instance, “You are not in this business for the money,” and said about incoming House Majority Leader John Boehner, “You can see this man's greatness,” while declaring that the country went Republican in the 1994 elections because it was “tired of Hillary Clinton's, you know ‘I'm going to run the country' mentality.” As the faith-based bubble of George W. Bush goes on veering away from reality -- even from reality as seen by many conservative politicians -- Matthews, weirdly, is having trouble disengaging, with the one (important) exception of Iraq.

If you think the problem with public-affairs television is that it never scrapes a surface it doesn't like -- or that it worships at the altar of power; or that it tilts so far right as to send reason sliding overboard; or that it's alternately boorish and stuffy, then pious and jeering -- a cheerily bombastic Chris Matthews would tell you that you're wrong on every count: The problem is that it's slow -- or used to be. Paying tribute to John McLaughlin, who gave him his start in motormouth television, Matthews once told The Washington Post's Paul Farhi, “To his credit, John knew that speed was the missing element in public-affairs television.” Speed -- that's what we need more of in American life.

Matthews learned his prime televisual lesson from the bullying McLaughlin, who kept his show, The McLaughlin Group, moving with fatuous prophecies, bolting from subject to subject before anybody could go off-message and flattering listeners into thinking that they'd just garnered the skinny from insiders. With his piping tones and a half-cherubic, half-self-regarding smile, Matthews uses his frantic manner to signal that he's above the gritty work of serious journalism -- or argument.

Matthews is always running aground as he zooms rightward. On the eve of the State of the Union address, he did call Bush “a president who, for four years, has said one thing and done another,” but few of his interviews push the point home. Personal admiration triumphs. September 11 was not proof of the president's failure but “the moment of the president's greatest heroism.” You'd never know that the charmer in chief had gone so wrong in Iraq or Louisiana, or on medical care for Americans. The only problem Matthews has recently hinted at is that Dick Cheney has somehow acquired too much power -- as if Bush were not colluding with the vice president. Poor, well-meaning czar, victim of nasty old Rasputin.

Matthews has a visceral love for tough guys with the common touch, as opposed to creepy wimps like Al Gore, who, he said in 2000, “would lick the bathroom floor to be president” and “doesn't look like one of us. He doesn't seem very American, even.” Contrast Matthews on Bush: “Sometimes it glimmers with this man, our president, that kind of sunny nobility,” he said to Washington Times editorial-page editor and former Newt Gingrich minion Tony Blankley.

Matthews always knows who the good guys are. They're mainly Republican. To Chertoff on January 5, four months after Hurricane Katrina, he oozed, “You're doing a great job.” To former Bush oil crony, campaign manager, and Commerce Secretary Don Evans, who had just admired the president's “really straight talk” in the State of the Union address, Matthews cooed: “You're one of the good guys. We all like you here. You're great. We wish you were back in Washington because you're a very civil kind of guy, and you're bipartisan, and everybody likes you, and we could use you here in Washington again.” “Who knows, who knows?” said Evans. “Be sure to say hello to [Matthews' wife, TV anchor] Kathleen for us.” Matthews: “I will. And maybe you'll be chief of staff one of these days.” When Democrats are civil, he baits them for mushiness.

Mr. Hardball can also toss some fat ones right down the pipe. For Tom DeLay: “You live modestly. You commute back and forth from Washington to Houston, Texas. Why? What drives you every day?” This is the Tom DeLay who, as House majority leader, in the words of the Associated Press' Larry Margasak and Sharon Theimer, “visited cliff-top Caribbean resorts, golf courses designed by PGA champions and four-star restaurants -- all courtesy of donors who bankrolled his political money empire.”

Well, long live the old majority leader, long live the new. On February 2, Matthews marveled: “What a coup d'état,” and exalted the “new man out there, John Boehner, who has no connection to the history of the leadership,” leaving it to David Gergen to mention what MSNBC itself had reported earlier that day -- namely, that Boehner had once passed out tobacco-company checks on the floor of the House of Representatives. Matthews added a few moments later: “I like the way Gergen operates. He put that shiv in really good. I like that. Everybody else forgets -- forgives and forgets, but not Gergen.” You get the sense that Matthews really does admire smooth shiv work.

No hero looms as large for Matthews as a war hero, and among war heroes, none looms as large as John McCain, whom he always credits, unironically, for “straight talk.” When McCain wrote a sardonic letter to Barack Obama trashing the Illinois senator for daring to disagree over the tactics of lobbying reform, Matthews went into full servility mode. Among his questions to McCain: “Did [Obama] welsh on the deal? Did he double-cross you by going partisan after promising to go bipartisan with you, senator?” While McCain had bashed Obama as “self-interested, posturing, and disingenuous,” Matthews commiserated with McCain about “the way in which Obama treated you here.”

Matthews is most interesting, though, when his heroes collide. Whenever he finds a rugged vet at odds with Republican policy, his circuits jam. So he bent over backward to encourage crusty old Pennsylvania Congressman John Murtha to thump Bush the day after the State of the Union address. “Mr. Murtha,” he said, “do you think the president's consciously trying to confuse the American people as to who attacked us on 9-11?” The two Purple Hearts Murtha earned in Vietnam made Matthews wonder aloud more than once just whom Bush meant by his reference to “defeatists.” But he was ambivalent about John Kerry. One moment he likened a Kerry ad to the work of a Nazi propagandist: “Who made that ad -- Leni Riefenstahl? You know what I'm talking about: a lot of flags.” He declared that Kerry “seemed to be saying” in his 1971 war-crimes testimony that “we are all Lieutenant Calleys,” a reference to the soldier who was convicted of murder for his role in the My Lai massacre. But he did press hard the Kerry-baiter John O'Neill, and asked the fire-eating Zell Miller, “Do you believe that John Kerry and Ted Kennedy really only believe in defending America with spitballs?” -- leading Miller to famously “wish we lived in the day where you could challenge a person [i.e., Matthews] to a duel.”

But America's most famous draft dodger and his wife get no passes from Chris Matthews. Like many other of the airwaves' testosterone-supercharged motormouths, Matthews has it in for the Clintons. In the wake of the 1996 election, when Bill Clinton made nice with the Secret Service and the permanent staff of the White House, Matthews asked aloud, “What do those two institutions have in common?” and proceeded to answer his own question: “They're witnesses… He's trying to work the jury.” The Monica Lewinsky affair was catnip for Matthews: His Hardball swelled from a half hour to an hour. Meanwhile, he found Ken Starr sufficiently aggressive to warrant respect. “I'll tell you one thing,” Matthews said. “If every prosecutor in this country were as tough as Ken Starr, the streets would be swept of criminals right now.” By contrast, Clinton was weak, therefore contemptible. In 1996, Matthews was asking, “Would Bill Clinton ever turn over … the secretary-of-state job to a real heavyweight like Bill Bradley or George Mitchell and give them the chance to be the big shots?”

And Hillary? Maybe too tough by half. She chews gum. Matthews calls her “Evita.” She has to shake “her past image as sort of a Madame Defarge of the left.” He says she looks “witchy” when she knocks Bush, and asks rhetorically -- as if the problem were strictly tactical -- whether “you can set two different tones at the same time, national solidarity and whack the president in the kneecaps the same day.” He tried to egg Rick Santorum and Boehner -- no softies -- into calling her “a socialist.” Santorum first said yes, then backed away; Boehner said he “wouldn't go that far” (whereupon Matthews asked, “What stops you?”).

Matthews sometimes gets fairness points for having once been a Democrat. An expired party card is a useful deflector when critics observe that his guests, his animus, and his vulgarity generally tilt right. As Ronald Reagan discovered long ago, when General Electric's money was being passed around, a Democrat is something to have been way back when, and to have been born again from. It helps a hardball player get away with throwing beanballs.

Todd Gitlin is a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University and the author, most recently, of The Intellectuals and the Flag. Elizabeth Spellmire, Nelson Harvey, and Media Matters for America helped with research for this article.

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