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Swaziland RPCV Chris Matthews - The mouth that scored
Swaziland RPCV Chris Matthews - The mouth that scored
The mouth that scored
'Hardball' player Chris (pardon the interruption) Matthews has become one of TV's most entertaining political talk-show hosts
BY BOB BAKER
LOS ANGELES TIMES. The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Co. newspaper.
August 8, 2004
Chris Matthews is evolving. "This last week I didn't interrupt hardly the whole week," he says earnestly. "I found that if I keep scaring them that I am going to interrupt, they talk faster."
Matthews is the host of what is arguably the most entertaining political show on TV, "Hardball," a favorite of insiders and political junkies - and just about no one else. The MSNBC show drew an average of 470,000 viewers in prime time in June, according to Nielsen ratings, less than a quarter of the crowd Bill O'Reilly attracts. But those who tune in always get what they come for: a fast-talking, inside-baseball-loving information machine, a guy who thinks it's interesting to compare the policy involvement of Nancy Reagan, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Laura Bush on a scale of 1 through 10, who spits questions like darts, who does not hesitate to badger or cut off guests in his quest for a plain-spoken answer.
Shouting at cars
"Hardball" is so intense that his bulging-eye, cougarlike persona became fodder years ago for a "Saturday Night Live" impersonator, Darrell Hammond, whose out-of-control Matthews once warned his audience: "Stick around. I'm going to go outside to shout at cars."
But give Matthews credit. At 58, still full of exuberance, he's trying to refine himself. In moments when he might once have broken into a guest's answer to keep up "Hardball's" manic pace, he now utters an affirmative-sounding grunt or says "right" under his breath, hopeful the long-winded guest will take the hint.
It's a weekday in mid-July. Matthews, whose show is based in Washington, is in Los Angeles for three days to speak at a TV critics gathering and tape a spot on Jay Leno's "Tonight Show" to promote MSNBC's convention coverage. But before that can happen he has to tape his hourlong "Hardball" show (where the on-air countdown to the November election has already begun).
He has grown increasingly annoyed at the refusal or inability of Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John F. Kerry to distance himself from President George W. Bush's decision to go to war with Iraq. So today Matthews asks Kerry adviser Richard Holbrooke, the UN ambassador under President Bill Clinton, to ponder this question: If Kerry had known then that Bush's intelligence assumptions were so apparently flawed, would he have had the guts to vote against giving the president authorization? Holbrooke won't bite on a hypothetical question - which drives Matthews nuts.
"Why is that a hard thing to answer?" he demands. "If the reason for the war was the threat to the United States and we find out there was no threat to the United States, then it's simple. You say, 'If I had known that, I wouldn't have authorized going to war.'"
"One of the reasons I enjoy doing your program," Holbrooke replies good-naturedly, echoing the sentiment of many of Matthews' guests, "is that you answer your own questions so I don't have to do it for you." A few minutes later the taping ends, and the first words out of Holbrooke's mouth to the host are: "You gotta say that was fun."
In a political world turned bitter and humorless by a tightly divided electorate and a polarizing war, Matthews is the closest thing to Mort Sahl, who at his peak in the 1950s and '60s stood on nightclub stages with a newspaper, deconstructing and deflating politicians of all stripes. Sahl was a satirist by trade.
Matthews, by contrast, is a serious guy, a former congressional staffer, presidential speechwriter and newspaper columnist; a big (6-foot-3), white-haired man with a serious countenance and a grating voice whose one-syllable laugh - "Ha!" - explodes out of nowhere and quickly recedes.
To watch Matthews move through his paces in L.A. was to bathe in a stream of observations: The likable Edwards, he declared, is Kerry's "fabric softener" - when they're together, Kerry seems less stilted. Don't expect a close presidential election; margins in re-election campaigns like this one are historically broad. American voters turn against a president reluctantly, like a baseball manager deciding whether to pull a pitcher ("Is this guy getting 'em out?"), but they know "how to go out to the mound and ask for the ball."
The vice presidential debate will be a fascinating lesson in "asymmetrical warfare" - Edwards' charisma versus Vice President Dick Cheney's experience, heightened by the question of whether Cheney can be effective standing at a lectern for a full 90 minutes. The recent release of intelligence data that undercut Bush's arguments for the war makes this "a time of questions, not a time of answers."
Don't give him any lip
Kerry needs to project a real smile rather than biting his lower lip ("the way Clinton did!") to simulate one ("If you're happy, senator, tell your face!"). The fact that Cheney's wife, Lynne, opposed a Republican-backed constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage illustrates how "people are crossing ideological lines to support their families" - the Cheneys have a daughter who is a lesbian.
"I think it's fascinating to watch."
Matthews was raised a Republican, but the Kennedy assassination, Vietnam and a stint in the Peace Corps made him a Democrat. He wound up writing speeches for Jimmy Carter and becoming the top aide to Democratic House Speaker Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill during the Reagan administration. Yet, no one has raised his hackles like Democrat Bill Clinton.
Matthews was impressed by Bush's post-Sept. 11 leadership. "As long as George Bush is the voice and face of America and says, 'We're going to get the people that did this,' he's going to be popular," he said six weeks after the attack. Believing that the war with Iraq diverted from that mission, Matthews soon soured on Bush as commander in chief. In retrospect, he says, "Two years before the war, we were hit with a blanket of lies - no, I'll be careful: untruths."
He says he wishes he lived in a country where people argued about going to war as intensely as they argue over Shaq versus Kobe in bars, or the way they argue with their spouses.
Ask him why he talks so fast, and he'll tell you you're asking the wrong question. To Matthews, everybody else in TV is talking too slow - and he's convinced the audience agrees. "People can pick up on something so fast in this culture and get bored with it so fast. ... In TV you have to be able to make your point like you would to a passing slow-moving train. Something has a beginning and an end in 15 seconds or so."
Steven Scully, C-SPAN's political editor, says Matthews is "what television was made for in this day and age. People watch it because Chris is a personality. As I've often told him, sometimes his mouth is moving faster than his brain. But he provides a lot of information and gives insiders a chance to find out what's going on."
"He may be argumentative," says Merrill Brown, a former MSNBC executive, "but he's also incredibly thoughtful. He is a terrific talker, a devourer of information."
At a loss for words
Shortly before catching a plane home, Matthews was standing inside his small "Tonight Show" dressing room, waiting for his turn with Leno. He headed into the hallway for a secluded area. He knew what he wanted to talk about - the candidates, the vice presidential debate, historical patterns - but he also knew studio audiences tended to be less interested in politics than Leno's at-home TV viewers.
He returned to the dressing room, still struggling to figure out a hip comeback if Leno asked him about a Newsweek report suggesting the election might be moved back in response to a terrorist attack.
Suddenly a stunning blonde in a revealing brown dress appeared at his door and cooed at him, Marilyn-Monroe-sings-to-Jack- Kennedy-on-his-birthday-style: "'Haaardball' ... it's so smaaart."
It was Sharon Stone, Leno's first guest.
For once, if only for a moment, somebody had made Chris Matthews shut up.
Copyright © 2004, Newsday, Inc.