How Blue Is Your Collar?

The cover story of last Sunday's New York Times Magazine profiled Chris Matthews, host of MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews and leading light of the political-media universe. The article portrays Matthews as a pathetically insecure man, searching for his face on barroom television screens -- desperate for everyone to acknowledge his importance. In a different time, someone like Matthews would be eagerly casting off his modest Philadelphia upbringing and embracing the accoutrements of the upper crust, assuring all who cared to look that he indeed belonged among the country's elite.

But not today. With Matthews, as with so many of our media and political figures, the premium now is on those with collars dyed the deepest blue, claiming to speak for the man and woman in the street. "I don't think people look at me as the establishment, do you?" Matthews plaintively asks the profile's author, Mark Leibovich. "Am I part of the winner's circle in American life? I don't think so." Please, he seems to be saying, don't consider me part of the elite.

This will be no surprise to viewers of Hardball, on which Matthews regularly trumpets his connection to the masses. This has never been more true than in the last few weeks, as the upcoming primary in his native Pennsylvania has sent Matthews into paroxysms of self-congratulatory rhapsodizing on the regular folks among whom he so desperately wants us to believe he still resides. Every night at 5 and 7, Matthews acts like a psychic channeling the spirit of the working class. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, he insightfully informs his viewers, are just not the type to whom Joe Sixpack takes a liking: "Pennsylvania prefers a beefier sort to either of these people, Matthews claimed, "a more rustic, tougher sort than either of them." When neither Obama nor Clinton turned out to be particularly skilled bowlers, Matthews said gravely, "Maybe that tells you something about the Democratic party."

In the days since, he has returned to the alleged symbolic importance of Obama's lack of bowling skills so often, and with such a combination of glee and indignation, that you would have thought that before launching a gutter ball, Obama had donned a powdered wig, sipped from a snifter of brandy, then smacked Rocky Blier across the face with his riding crop. "This gets very ethnic," Matthews said at one point, a preface that no doubt made his producers whisper, "Oh God, please don't." He then went on, "But the fact that he's good at basketball doesn't surprise anybody, but the fact that he's that terrible at bowling does make you wonder." Makes you wonder what, exactly? Whether he would be a better president, were he a better bowler? No, what Matthews wonders is whether Obama can "woo more regular voters -- you know, the ones who actually do know how to bowl."

According to the Times Magazine article, Matthews makes a salary of $5 million a year. When it comes time to relax, he doesn't head to the Jersey shore, where the typical blue-collar Philadelphian might go to get some sea air. Instead, Matthews repairs to his $4.35 million house on Nantucket.

But while he's there, perhaps he throws back a couple of Yuenglings with his fellow working man, Tim Russert. Russert never hesitates to remind us that he's just "a blue-collar guy from Buffalo," Joe Sixpack's tribune in Washington, grabbing the powerful by the collar and snarling, "Look here, fancy boy, are you going to tell me the truth, or do I have to beat it out of you?" Russert and Matthews have more than their blue-collar affectation in common -- Russert too has a house on Nantucket, where it's safe to say any regular folks he encounters are either busing his table or mowing his lawn. As Howard Kurtz of CNN and The Washington Post lovingly described him in 2004, "Tim Russert is the anchor as everyman, the big talker with the street smarts, the man who hobnobs with presidents but aims his delivery at the working stiffs." Or so he wants us to believe.

Russert and Matthews may be at the top of their profession's hierarchy, but their proletarian pose has become the standard affectation of the media elite. This Blue Collar Chic unites the allegedly neutral journalists and the conservative commentators, whether it's Peggy Noonan dismissing the "intellectuals, academics, local clever people who talk loudly in restaurants, and leftist mandarins," so distant from "a bigger America and a realer one -- a healthy and vibrant place full of religious feeling and cultural energy and Bible study and garage bands and sports-love and mom-love and sophistication and normality," or Michael Barone harrumphing about "soft America," where those pathetic liberals sip merlot and listen to NPR, in contrast to "hard America," where the real folks do the real work. The Washington journalists themselves are as elite as they come, but they know who the good guys are -- they're the residents of the small towns, whose "values" can't possibly be matched by those who live in cities; they're the people whose lowbrow tastes make them "authentic"; they're the earthy, regular Americans defined by their modest tastes in food, drink, and entertainment. The journalists may not actually know too many of these people, but they know they're there, and they know they're better than the rest of us.

And when it comes to Blue Collar Chic, nobody can touch Bill O'Reilly, who has raised it to the level of performance art, infusing his every utterance with the pose of the average Joe, all toward convincing you that you're under attack from a bunch of college professors and ACLU lawyers. Pick up any of his books and you'll find that his ghostwriter (I'm presuming) has captured the voice perfectly; not too many authors punctuate their arguments with interjections like "I mean, come on" and "So there." A few years back, Michael Kinsley offered an absolutely perfect takedown of O'Reilly's "fantasy that he is a stiff among the swells," one that could apply to many others as well:

Why fake a humble background? Partly for business reasons: Joe Sixpack versus the elitists is a good posture for any talk show host, especially one on Fox. Partly out of vanity: It makes the climb to your current perch more impressive. Partly for political reasons: Under our system, even conservatives need some plausible theory to qualify for victim status, from which all blessings flow. But mainly out of sheer snobbery. And it's the only kind of snobbery with any real power in America today: reverse snobbery. Bill O'Reilly pretends (or maybe sincerely imagines) that he feels the sting of status from above. But he unintentionally reveals that he actually fears it more from below. Like most of us.

The contempt for the eggheads and latte-sippers may be offered with an angry sneer from the likes of O'Reilly and the pretense of objective analysis from the likes of Matthews and Russert, but the motivation is one and the same, the millionaire media giant?s hope that his own authenticity hasn't disappeared with his high station, that under it all he's still one of the guys.

And the easiest way to show you're still cool with the folks back in the neighborhood is to blather on about how Democrats (and it's always only Democrats) aren't. Had you been watching cable television in the days following the release of Bill's and Hillary's tax returns, you would have seen copious braying about whether the fact that the Clintons have made over $100 million since leaving the White House means that Hillary will have trouble "connecting" with regular folks with modest incomes. But no one brought up the fact that, according to the Associated Press, Cindy McCain is worth the same amount, $100 million. Among the McCains' many homes are a $4.6 million condo in Phoenix (that must be some condo), another condo in Virginia, and their $1.8 million estate on 15 acres in lovely Sedona.

But the default assumption for the press is that Republicans, no matter where they summer or who their fathers were or where they went to school, just relate to honest, hardworking folks. For Democrats, on the other hand, the assumption is just the opposite. Would any Democrat whose father was a president and whose grandfather was a senator, and who attended Andover, Yale, and Harvard, have been able to get away with George W. Bush?s down-home reg'lar fella routine without the likes of Matthews and Russert ridiculing them mercilessly for being not just an elitist but a phony to boot? Not in a million years.

Asking whether a Republican might be an elitist would run the risk of committing that most cardinal of sins, "class warfare." Chris Matthews, Tim Russert, or Bill O'Reilly can pretend that they prefer Schlitz to chardonnay, but they can't pretend they're not the people who benefit from the offerings on the GOP economic menu. What does John McCain drink, on the other hand? Nobody asks, and nobody cares.

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