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Swaziland RPCV Chris Matthews loves stirring the pot
Swaziland RPCV Chris Matthews loves stirring the pot
Chris Matthews: MSNBC's best shot at staying in the game 'Hardball' aims to keep politicians, CNN on their toes
By Peter Johnson
The new chief of also-ran cable news network MSNBC, Rick Kaplan, brings with him two decades of broadcast news experience at ABC and, more recently, three years of cable news work at CNN.
But the first point Kaplan made after being appointed to the beleaguered network last week was that he didn't plan any quick fixes.
Although his prime-time talk show lineup -- Chris Matthews, Keith Olbermann, Deborah Norville and Joe Scarborough -- places a distant third behind CNN and top-ranked Fox News, Kaplan said it should have time to grow.
The brightest light on Kaplan's roster is Matthews' Hardball.
This rough-and-tumble political chatfest is increasingly must-see TV for a small (443,000) but driven number of viewers whose thirst for politics extends far beyond what's in the newspapers and on the evening news.
Lately, with Democratic primaries at the top of the national agenda, Hardball has been making inroads against CNN's young contender Anderson Cooper (455,000) in a battle for second place in 7 p.m. ET/4 PT cable news -- though both are far behind the king at that hour, Fox's Shepard Smith, who draws 1.3 million.
In Matthews, a former top aide to the late House Speaker Tip O'Neill, political junkies have a kindred soul. Matthews, who also hosts a successful syndicated weekend public affairs show, lives and breathes politics.
''On Hardball, we assume that issues are important to the American people. What America does in the world, what kind of government we have, all that stuff is damn important,'' Matthews says. ''But we also know that politics, in addition to having incredibly high stakes, is not always on the level and that what politicians say about why they do things and what they say about interest groups and what they do to win votes is not the truth. You have to wangle that from them.''
As such, it's no surprise that Matthews delights in describing how he got Howard Dean, who dropped out of the Democratic presidential race last week, to admit that during Vietnam he went to an Army induction center with a letter from his doctor and X-rays ''hoping to get out of the draft. He was never going to tell me that, but I got it out of him. You've got to rattle the person.''
Doing so can be revealing, Matthews says, such as when the Democratic front-runner, Sen. John Kerry, told him his favorite movie is The Blues Brothers and his favorite philosopher is Yogi Berra. ''There was a certain kind of condescension in that,'' says Matthews, a movie fan who recites lines from his favorites. ''I thought it was a serious question. A lot of people identify with a politician based on who they believe in, what actors they care about. We have a popular culture.''
(By contrast, Kerry's rival Sen. John Edwards named The Shawshank Redemption as his favorite flick, and Matthews approved: ''It's something an average middle-class guy would say.'')
Former Clinton spokesman Jake Siewert says Matthews, like NBC's Tim Russert, ABC's George Stephanopoulos and Fox's Tony Snow and Bill Kristol, ''has spent enough time in politics and campaigns that he actually knows what he's talking about. That reservoir of practical knowledge separates him from a lot of the airbags out there in the cable wasteland.''
Democratic political adviser Mandy Grunwald, media consultant for Sen. Joe Lieberman's presidential campaign, agrees. ''Chris doesn't put up with bull, which is the tough thing about doing his show. If people try to get away with just doing their talking points, he'll interrupt and say, 'That's ridiculous,' or, 'Come on, answer the question.' It makes for very good TV, but can be pretty high risk for the guests. If Chris wants to go after someone, he can make politicians look like they're full of it faster than almost anyone on TV.''
Not everyone is so enamored by Matthews or Hardball, now in its seventh year. Jim Miller, who produces CNN's Anderson Cooper 360 opposite Hardball, notes that even during this highly charged political season, Cooper's 5-month-old program continues to win. ''I'm not worried one bit,'' Miller says. (On Thursday, 360 trounced Hardball, 450,000 to 299,000 viewers.)
And Miller says that although Matthews may make inroads in this election year, 360 is all about exposing ''viewers to a lot of things, whether it's a political year or not.''
Matthews, no shrinking violet in the ego department, does credit his regular ensemble guests -- MSNBC political talkers Pat Buchanan and Scarborough, Ron Reagan and former Dean campaign manager Joe Trippi -- with making Hardball stronger of late.
These days, Matthews seems less prone to shouting, a former trademark -- regularly lampooned on NBC's Saturday Night Live -- that might have scared off some viewers. ''Am I getting mellow?'' he says. ''I listen more.''
But, he adds, ''I still love stirring the pot. I love to take on people who come on with what they think they have gotten away with 50 times before and stop them in their tracks. When I get that delight, I'm a happy troll: I catch the guy coming over the bridge and I'm waiting to bite the ankle.''