August 10, 2004: Headlines: COS - Swaziland: NPCA: Reference: NPCA: Chris Matthews' Speech at the closing ceremony of the NPCA National Conference in Chicago

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Chris Matthews' Speech at the closing ceremony of the NPCA National Conference in Chicago

Chris Matthews' Speech  at the closing ceremony of the NPCA National Conference in Chicago

Chris Matthews' Speech at the closing ceremony of the NPCA National Conference in Chicago

Chris Matthews' Speech
Delivered on August 8, 2004 at the closing ceremony of the NPCA National Conference in Chicago.

Chris Matthews is host of MSNBC’s political analysis show, “Hardball with Chris Matthews.” A best–selling author and veteran print journalist, he was a Peace Corps volunteer in Swaziland. To read more about Chris, click here.

“Kennedy had this idea that there would be three goals and I only have five minutes but I ought to be able to do it in five minutes with some political. I’ve gotten involved in politics so this has all been covered….

Now, first of all, he thought of an idea that a big rich country like the United States should send people out as equals to countries that aren’t as great, who aren’t as strong, so we would meet people on an equal level. What an amazing idea!

You think about it. Thinking outside the box. In the middle of the Cold War when we were both…the tanks were facing each other at checkpoint Charlie and in Cuba…and he says, “Why don’t we try to go out and do this at a human level.” This is a Cold War you’re talking about! This isn’t some flower child. This is Jack here! Jack Kennedy is no lefty. Read your books. Read the one I wrote.

Number Two. The idea of me riding around on a motorcycle, a Suzuki 120, teaching business to guys. I thought I could be the most right-wing guy in the world because I’m trying to teach capitalism. What’s wrong with that? You know, that’s what I was doing….

I said to my kids, one of my kids, Michael… He wants to join the Peace Corps and I had such amazing emotions about it. I’m sure you’ve all been through it. You know, when I’m all worried he’ll want to go off into Turkmenistan or somewhere. Jesus! You know, what’s that, what is that? I don’t know what it is! It’s former Soviet, that’s about all you know…Waziristan…”The Man Who Would Be King,” for all I know. But I’m thinking, it’s so wonderful, there are kids like him. He thinks the 60s were the greatest thing in the world. All my kids are Deaniacs. First of all, my wife’s a Deaniac. They’re all Deaniacs….

But I always thought of myself as a bourgeois American. This is a pretty healthy, pro-American thing to be doing. We’re doing it for the good of the world and all that. It sure beat the hell out of Vietnam. I thought it was a good thing to be doing…. Ernest Hemingway talked about the Left Bank of Paris in the early 20s being his ‘movable feast.’ My movable feast was from 1968 to 1970 in Southern Africa. I have so many memories. I have tried to put them in books. I’ve had two books this wide of notes. There weren’t that many days! It was the loaves and the fishes. How can I have so many memories when I was only there for two years? How come? There must have been 20 impressions a day. Down days, too.

You know, I used to say I’ll join the Peace Corps: Misery loves company. I mean, you could have been hitchhiking, I mean, you could hitchhike through East Africa alone like this. I didn’t know what plan B was. I took a 26-hour bus ride with goats and chickens. I went to Moshi at the foot of Mt. Kilimanjaro. I walked across Victoria Falls in the middle of the night. We drank every Coke in Zanzibar, a bunch of Peace Corps guys and I. You know, I went to Mozambique so many times, you wouldn’t believe it. I was at home in Mozambique! That was a great place to hang out. I’ve done all those amazing things and my roommate, Cliff Sears, was here last night and we were just talking. We read almost every book. We were, like, literary figures. We were the Lost Generation, we were reading Thomas Wolfe. We’re finishing books. We’ve read everything. We were into Jung. We were into Fitzgerald. Everybody in the Peace Corps was into something...who was that guy?...Siddhartha! So, it was a good thing. People on the human level. Outside the box. Kennedy didn’t even know the phrase ‘outside the box.’ Outside the box is a code word, coming outside of the box in this so-called war on terrorism. What does it mean, terrorism? Get outside of that.

Number three. I think the idea of relations, if you want to call it PR or whatever you want…I like being liked in the world. I liked going from the streets of Cairo to South Africa. Safari jackets, army surplus whatever it was in East Africa, those khaki things, and I belonged there, I guess, and these kids come up to me and ask, ‘You know John Wayne?’ I say, ‘Oh yeah. I know who he is.’ Every time I gave a little talk, someone said, ‘You know Muhammad Ali?’ You don’t say nothing against Muhammad Ali. Muhammad Ali was a boxer emeritus. But back in those days he was highly controversial. That was great! They knew where we were on that whole front of American left and right. They got it. It was healthy. They knew our politics…they had a sense of who these guys were. We knew we could argue with kids in the street.

That’s a level of frisson I like. They get different politics in the world. Different views. They’d come up and argue with us. That’s the way it was. In the late 60s. What a great world it was in the late 60s and in the early 70s! You could argue politics on the street corner, with kids. And they had a feeling about us, positive or negative. And I think that was the idea of us. We were the first group in Swaziland; I was Swaziland I. They didn’t have anything against us. We weren’t really in there like this colonial stuff. We didn’t have enemies. We had different accents. We looked different. We weren’t spit-polished. We were more regular. We spoke the language. We seemed to be regular, people. The guys I taught business to loved me. When I came to see them they’d give me a Coke and they’d feel sorry for giving a warm Coke. We used to kid in the Peace Corps about the chair that arrived, always arrived, from somewhere. There would be a chair that came from somewhere. They were so kind to us. They liked us. What’s wrong with that? It’s an amazing thing.

You’ve got to come to a country in some other uniform besides a tourist or soldier. The problem is they think they have us figured out. We want the oil. Or we want to protect Israel. We have political ambitions. It was so intriguing to talk about other parts of the world in trouble right now. I think Clinton, in the end (Like always, he was slow getting to the exam. You know he studied for the exam five minutes before taking the test….) he was a genius. You know he had the idea of the thing that all foreign policy has to be based on the Middle East. Sure, U.S interests. And sure, U.S. alliances like Israel. And sure, we have those, but we always have this other song being played over and over of we’re trying to bring peace. You have to do both.

It’s like that song, ‘Brazil,’ when you have two songs being played at the same time. That’s what genius in foreign policy is and we don’t have it. I mean that’s the genius we miss. The sophistication we just heard from the vice president, that’s what you have to be. You have to be able to see things from different perspectives. To honor different missions, not just one simple mission. And I think that’s what sophistication is all about. And I love sophistication. I think you’re supposed to get smarter as you get older.

So, the first goal is to help people develop their country as equals. Not with a lot of money behind it. I can’t think of anybody who had any money to spend. I had a bike and I had to share it with another guy. We got paid 72 bucks a month. I hear it’s better now. It was a lot, though. In Swazi, it was a lot.

The third goal is one I want to talk about just for a minute and I only have like … I don’t have any time left. People ask me, ‘What did you learn? The take home. The tschotsches. What did you come back with? What were the gifts you brought back from your country?’ Well, they’re enormous. They’re so enormous. I had gone to all-white schools. I spent most of my time in Africa with black people around. I went to meetings where I was the only white guy there. And I think it did a lot for me. I think it just made me better. I just think that experience I had when I was 23 or so was so good for me. Getting to know total strangers, regardless of background. Being able to walk into a room. Well, they weren’t rooms, actually. It was big open spaces. You know, you get off your bike and you meet this guy and say… I come in here and say something in Zulu like, ‘I work for your government. I’m here to teach you business. I’m going to help keep your books.’

And the ability to meet total strangers in an environment where you’re not very familiar with things. Just getting over that was a great deal for me. These are just things that I came home with. They are not exactly value-laden. You see people from different perspectives. You learn two things about the world. One, we are different in the way we look at the world. The religions are different. There was no cold war in Swaziland. The perspectives are just different. And yet the human existence, the friendliness you get from people, is really based on being in a father-son relationship you establish with these guys I was teaching. A lot of us had that relationship. People your age usually had that mutual kind of competitive relationship. All these things are so human. And you realize that people are, at a certain level—in terms the vice president said, sympathy and empathy—are basically similar, in a family setting especially. And at the same time everything else is in play. It’s so great to understand. You come back with the attitude, well, maybe you aren’t quite so religious in a traditional sense. Maybe you do step back from your own religion and say, well, a lot of this is relative, and lot of this is where you come from, and you learn a lot about respect.

And there are some basics. First of all, human dignity. Nobody wants to be treated like a bum. Nobody wants to be treated badly. They want to be loved. They want to be respected. And that’s one thing you pick up pretty quickly. You know, the idea of this country was ‘Don’t tread on me’. It was a picture of a rattlesnake on our first flag. It wasn’t the stars and stripes, but a rattlesnake. Don’t tread on me. And when we were weak, that was our philosophy. We’ve got to just remind ourselves when other countries are weak, that’s their philosophy. Don’t tread on me.

If you really want to scare yourself, read one of these platforms issues. It’s not meant to be read. It’s not meant for the campaign, it’s meant for the campaign contributors, mainly, I guess, if anyone reads them. I don’t know who reads those.

People who are good-willed can disagree on whether we should have gone to war with Iraq. I don’t know. Maybe that’s true. But in terms of the tradition of the United States, I think you have to make a judgment on these things. I think you have to decide is this consistent with our history or isn’t it. You have to have a philosophical discussion about it and I think this election should be about that, but I doubt that it’s going to be about that. I think there’s a lot of things you get in the Peace Corps about a third world sense. We were told if you walk into an elevator and stand the wrong way, people there will think you’re a whack job. Right? You have your back to the door and people think you’re crazy. That’s an example of how sensitive people are to cultural signals. Well, imagine how sensitive they are about an invasion.

No matter where anybody stands on this war, this President and the guy that’s running against him are imperfect people, obviously. Policies aren’t right or dead wrong— I don’t think. People of good will can honestly disagree. One thing is, if you’ve spent a lot of time in the third world, it’s very hard to say that the “evil” one’s here and the “good” people are here. That’s sort of baby talk.

I remember I had a Peace Corps guy in my group who was kicked out of a barroom conversation about politics. That’s how sensitive they were. I once kidded a guy who was a friend of mine who was a Swazi and said, ‘I’m CIA.’ And this kid, he’s a communist, and he said, ‘Don’t kid about that.’ And this is a guy who thought the Pope was in London….

The Peace Corps idea was brilliant. It was outside the box. It’s just as good today—in a world where we call this a war on terrorism—as when we had the Cold War, which was real. The idea of going out and learning and coming home and being smart and speaking out. It bugs me that there are so many Peace Corps volunteers in the country that I don’t see more op-ed pieces from them, or people who just say, ‘I worked in the third world; I worked in the Arab world; or I worked in the Islamic world. You’ve got to be real careful about some of our policies. You’ve got to understand what they’re saying to people to the young kids.’”

When this story was posted in November 2004, this was on the front page of PCOL:

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Story Source: NPCA

This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; COS - Swaziland; NPCA; Reference



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