The loud, cocksure voice of MSNBC pundit Chris Matthews was silenced in March of 2020 when Matthews, after a meeting with network executives, decided to “move up” his planned retirement. It was moved up to the following night.
Matthews had triggered a nationwide outcry when he took out after the Democratic left, likening Sen. Bernie Sanders’ landslide victory in the Nevada presidential caucuses to the 1940 German invasion of France. “It’s to stop him . . . it’s over,” Matthews told viewers. Sanders is Jewish and lost family members to the Nazis. Matthews also fessed up to inappropriate, sexually suggestive remarks four years earlier.
The battle wasn’t over – Joe Biden surged back – but Matthews appeared to go away. It’s not over for Matthews, however. He has turned out an autobiography: This Country: My Life in Politics and history (Simon and Schuster, $28.99). The media heavies of Washington, D.C., are welcoming him back on the air to sell it. Chris is again being able to indulge in a role he has cherished for 30 years – the instant expert.
“My Country” is part true grit, a Philadelphia boy who worked as a singing waiter on the Jersey Shore, a Peace Corps volunteer who made rounds on his motorcycle telling farmers in Swaziland how to market their crops. He came home and trudged through offices in Congress, finally getting a job with the U.S. Capitol police and then answering mail in the office of Utah Sen. Frank Moss.
Eventually, he would morph into what Canada’s U.S. Ambassador Allan Gotlieb called “high press.” “My Country” becomes a succession of networking stories and airbrushed anecdotes, with a central character who both witnesses and helps make events. Arriving in Berlin with the East German regime on the brink of collapse, Matthews writes: “This was history, my history, and I needed to be there to catch it.”
Matthews has written quality books, notably the perceptive Kennedy & Nixon: The Rivalry that Shaped Postwar America. In this case, however, the author has come too close to the sun – himself. ”My Country” is laden with high press socializing, with himself as central figure. “Whether it’s at a dinner party, or a production meeting, or on the air, I try to enliven the moment,” he writes. And a little later: “What I brought uniquely to the show was my many years inside the country’s political life, both as part of it and covering it for the news.”
The insider’s account reminds me of a TV spot for Canon in which tennis star Andre Agassi says: “Image is everything.” Matthews wrote speeches for Jimmy Carter – we learn of his greatest hits – and six years dueling with the Reagan White House as a top aide to House Speaker Tim O’Neill. We learn about how Matthews operated, little about “Mr. Speaker.”
The host of an MSNBC program called “Hardball” describes in detail the ruthless George H.W. Bush campaign that demonized Democratic foe Michael Dukakis as soft on crime, and the successful 2004 effort to discredit the distinguished war record of Sen. John Kerry. Yet he gushes over the personal decency of Bush I, who had him to dinner at the White House, and the legacy of his one-term presidency: “Looking back, that fine man who hosted my parents grows with history. He made hard decisions and, at the time, paid for them in terms of his public popularity.” He praises George W. Bush’s initial response to 9/11 – “President Bush was voicing the nation’s resilience” – but of course warns against going to war in Iraq.
In the tradition of D.C.’s high press, Matthews has tended to fall in love with politicians from time to time. He is inspired by the straight talk of John McCain in 2000. Of the eloquence of Barack Obama, Matthews told MSNBC listeners: “I feel this thrill go up my leg.” At the annual Al Smith Dinner in New York, McCain poked wicked fun at the pundit: “[Matthews] used to like me, but he found somebody new . . . Maverick I can do, but messiah is above my pay grade.”
Such moments allowed Matthews to share the stage. “My Country” is about such moments. He covers the funeral of Pope John Paul II, surmising that Cardinal Ratzinger was “setting himself up for succession.” An astute observation, but no mention is made of JPII’s doctrinaire conservatism or the sex abuse scandal that married his papacy. Matthews angles to get airtime from CNBC (and future Fox News) boss Roger Ailes, but quickly adds: “I was as disturbed and shocked as anyone to learn years later that Roger Ailes was a dark figure.” (Sexual abuse at Fox News helped give birth to the #metoo movement.)
Observations get tossed off, but “My Country” is curiously lacking in insight. Democrats’ surprising gains in the 1998 midterm elections, against the backdrop of Republicans’ drive to impeach President Clinton, are described as “a case of nationwide jury nullification.” The Rust Belt anger fueling the rise of Donald Trump is given short shrift. Again, image is everything: “What Trump added was the pizzazz of a talented TV performer and a mastery of social media.”
“I have a tendency to quietly root for the side that’s losing: It’s my natural pugnacity,” writes Matthews. Yet, he identifies with top dogs. Becoming a shouting panelist on TV’s The McLaughlin Group became “a highlight of my early years in journalism.” When recognized by Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee, he gushes: Like everyone else, I just wanted the great man’s approval, even if tossed at me backhanded.”
Likewise, the lodestars in Matthews’ life: “If Churchill was my guide in politics, Ernest Hemingway is mine in life’s adventure.” Yet, as time goes on, youthful learning adventures in Matthews’ life are superseded by Washington, D.C. studio punditry and life in the corridors of power.
As a columnist for the San Francisco Examiner, Matthews was a resident bigfoot at 1701 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W., the Hearst bureau in D.C. where I worked four years as correspondent for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. The paper had money then, and I journeyed to South Carolina for a pivotal 1988 presidential primary. I spent a day watching Rev. Pat Robertson campaign in courthouse squares. With my own car, I was able to linger and talk with folks who watched the TV preacher who would be president. They didn’t like him, felt him a kook and – as Baptists – believed in church-state separation. I returned to Columbia to find a message from Chris Matthews.
Over the phone he predicted that Robertson would upset Vice President Bush and throw the GOP race into disarray. I tried quoting back folks I met on the trail who were unimpressed with Rev. Pat. We went back and forth, with Matthews signing off: “You watch.”
On Saturday night, we watched Bush take 48 percent, Sen. Bob Dole 21 percent, with Robertson trailing at 20 percent. “Poppy” Bush was on his way to the nomination. Campaign boss Lee Atwater spun reporters far into the night and then jammed on the guitar. “Would somebody give that guy the hook,” remarked Cragg Hines of the Houston Chronicle.
Such would be my advice for “My Country.” Chris Matthews needs to get out of the studio and back out into the country.