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What Chris Matthews Learned in Washington

“This Country,” a new memoir from the host of “Hardball,” speaks volumes about the state of political punditry.

Chris Matthews in the spin room after the Democratic Presidential Debate at the Fox Theatre on July 31, 2019 in Detroit, Michigan.

Former MSNBC host Chris Matthews has made a career out of a certain image of American politics. It’s a nostalgic vision of the heyday of bare-knuckled ward bosses in and around city halls and orotund lords of patronage on Capitol Hill, of brash Irish-American presidents and speakers of the house lofting insults at one another in the press before adjourning for fraternal meals and drinks long into the D.C. evening. It’s a brand of political combat as glorified stag-bonding, at once relentlessly ambitious and cheerfully transactional.

This Country: My Life in Politics and History
by Chris Matthews
Simon & Schuster, 352 pp., $28.99

In the standard D.C. nostalgist’s narrative, this battery of traits is usually held together by sheer force of personality—the cowboy capitalist reveries of Ronald Reagan or the New Frontier transports of John F. Kennedy. So it’s no great surprise that Matthews has titled his memoir This Country: There’s precious little of his own life story that he doesn’t see reflected in the saga of the American republic’s journey toward redemption, and vice versa. The same Boomer grandiosity clearly informs the book’s subtitle: We all, in one sense, have lives “in history,” but Matthews is clearly referencing capital-h History here—the stuff that all those bumptious-yet-civil pols were ruminating on, and transforming, in their many epic campaign appeals and cloakroom confabs. 

Matthews is, of course, best known as the host of Hardball, a rapid-fire pundit showcase that enjoyed a 20-year run, first on CNBC and then on MSNBC. The show’s swaggering mission, as Matthews recounts, was to put political leaders on the spot in a public forum—“to push beyond what the politicians and their flacks were saying” to uncover “the awful truth” behind the canned commentary and talking points that they were all too prone to unleash into the daily news cycle. In typically outsize homage to this journalistic calling, Matthews obsessively repeats a mantra that he says viewers he encounters “in an airport or on the street” have relayed to him: “I like the way you don’t let them get away with anything!”

This, of course, is another article of D.C. nostalgist faith: the notion that savvy Capitol insiders like Matthews—a former Carter speechwriter and senior aide to House Speaker Thomas “Tip” O’Neill—have both the wit and recondite knowledge it takes not to be drawn into the rote byplay of spin and doubletalk preferred by the powerful. By no means does Matthews have the monopoly on this claim, of course. Bill O’Reilly dubbed his eponymous Fox pundit franchise “the no-spin zone,” and a corps of former Capitol Hill flacks who’ve traded their lanyards in for studio earpieces, from the late Tim Russert to George Stephanopoulos to Nicole Wallace, have all trafficked in the pleasing conceit that they’re using their precious insider résumés and airtime to subject the cant-prone political class to the harsh scrutiny of public-interest journalism. 

It’s also a complete fantasy. The signal examples of unscripted truth-to-power encounters Matthews cites in his own career are thin gruel indeed: a testy exchange with former Democratic Congressman Zell Miller, a gotcha interview with candidate Donald Trump in 2016, and Matthews’s “on-the-spot prophecy that Barack Obama would be the ‘first African-American president.’” In other words, while Chris Matthews’s life may not be as intimately bound up with our country and its history as he would like, his career speaks volumes about the devolution of both our politics and journalism in an age of empty spectacle and insider-bred faux authenticity.

The particulars of Matthews’s life story are familiar to even casual viewers of his cable franchise: a postwar Irish-Catholic upbringing in the inner-ring suburbs of Philadelphia; a postcollegiate tour in the Peace Corps; a series of Capitol Hill policy and speechwriting gigs; a turn in Ralph Nader’s then-ascendant public-interest advocacy empire; a failed run at a congressional seat of his own. From then on, the big time beckoned: Matthews served as a speechwriter to Jimmy Carter in the final years of his presidency and then as a senior aide to Tip O’Neill from 1981 to 1986.

Matthews narrates his political coming of age in the clipped, rapid-fire style of his TV presence. And he presents many of his formative encounters with politics and journalism in concert with the newsreel-style convulsions that upended this country’s epic of national self-understanding. Thus, for example, his account of a successful campaign to be student treasurer at his undergrad college, Holy Cross, abruptly jump-cuts to this reflection: “Like the rest of the country, my sentiment about Kennedy’s assassination was a huge catalyst for my own shifting political loyalties.” (As for the assassination proper, there’s this undeniably true, yet painfully inane, moral: “The man who had been the focus of all our political conversation was as gone as Abraham Lincoln.”)

It was, indeed, the Kennedy mythos that spurred Matthews to pursue a career in politics. During his Peace Corps tour in Swaziland, Matthews read Kennedy, Kennedy speechwriter Ted Sorensen’s memoir of his time serving with Kennedy in the Senate and the White House. “For whatever reason, this is something I just assumed I could do,” Matthews writes—typically with no mention of Kennedy’s actual politics or governing record. He seems to have been less interested in his immediate surroundings in Swaziland, as he confesses: “There was just so much I never learned about the country. It started and ended with how people actually survived. How did a rural family get by twelve months a year on that scraggly harvest of maize?” Instead his time in the Peace Corps forms the template for what he regards as a career infused with daring and adventure; without his headlong plunge into the unknown world of economic development policy there, Matthews writes, “I doubt I could have broken into politics as I did.”

Back stateside, Matthews hustled toward his dream of shaping politics and history from a perch on Capitol Hill, signing on to the legislative staff of Utah Senator Frank E. Moss, a liberal who’d made his name in consumer and environmental protection. There, Moss’s top legislative aide detailed his new hire with the task of seeking a loophole in the highway use tax for the owners of mobile oil-drill-operating equipment who’d donated to the senator’s 1970 reelection campaign. Despite the “bad aroma” the assignment emitted, Matthews leapt to the task: “I wanted to do what politics required. I wanted to go pro.” When the loophole fell out of the pending tax bill, Matthews learned that the whole thing was “a masquerade”—a stage-managed set piece only intended to demonstrate that Moss had done what he could for his donors, and failed nobly. 

As he built out his Capitol Hill résumé, Matthews learned and relearned this same basic lesson of impression management: Beyond the small-bore scrum for legislative influence in Washington, the real action is in the messaging. Take his initial encounters in the Carter White House: Matthews, like the president, was an ardent fiscal hawk; he was keen to see Carter deliver on his “promise to make government more efficient and less aggravating.” But the unions and special interest groups who then formed the backbone of the Democratic Party had little appetite to shrink and rationalize government operations:

Carter may have out-campaigned the liberal establishment in spring ’76, but he had not defeated it. Liberal factions were not going to be denied top positions in his government. Nor was their blood to be stirred by greater government efficiency. Cutting back on regulations and reforming the civil service all became solid Carter achievements. But they never thrilled the liberal soul.

Once he’s free of Carter’s plodding wonkery, Matthews swiftly positions himself as a baron of messaging; he goes pro with a vengeance. When he moved over to the Speaker’s office in 1981, one of Matthews’s first signature initiatives was to create a whole para-journalistic operation devoted to effective impression management on Capitol Hill: the Congressional News Service, a subsidiary of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee devoted to pointing out the embarrassing hijinks carried out by lawmakers in the opposition party. (The experiment was short-lived: An early report on GOP House members joining a high-end junket to the swanky lobbying extravaganza known as the annual Paris Air Show inadvertently drew attention to the female travel companions of certain lawmakers—an issue that also hit home to members of the Democratic majority, and so the Congressional News Service died on a bipartisan accord finding that it was in danger of uncovering and disseminating the wrong sort of news.)

Undeterred, Matthews dedicated himself to the “main job”: “coming up with ammo to use in O’Neill’s daily back-and-forth with Reagan” and plotting a series of agitprop stunts and rallies meant to highlight the impact of Reagan’s budget cuts and austerity plans on ordinary Americans. Recounting one such event—a predawn rally outside the White House highlighting the threatened jobs economy, in which autoworkers and steelworkers brandished signs that read, “Wake up, Mr. President”—Matthews recalls with relish that “it was at such moments that Tip O’Neill would look at me and ask, ‘Is this one of yours?’”

After O’Neill retired in 1986, Matthews followed the traditional career path of former senior aides on the Hill and ran a for-profit think tank, backed by Canadian investors, called the Government Research Center. But the work proved too dry and wonky for the restless political entrepreneur, and so when the San Francisco Examiner offered to make him a columnist, and eventually the paper’s D.C. bureau chief, Matthews eagerly seized the opportunity. As he settled into the new gig, he drew some unwelcome criticism from other Washington journalists as an interloper from the nation’s political caste. The Washington Post’s David Broder excoriated the rise of “a power-wielding clique of insiders” in and around D.C.’s centers of power: “a clique where politicians, publicists, and journalists are easily interchangeable parts.” Broder didn’t name Matthews in his jeremiad, but in a piece the following week, his Post colleague Richard Harwood did, noting that Matthews’s rapid journalistic ascent was largely thanks to the “connections” and “access” that he brought to the gig. 

The attacks did not harm Matthews in the long run—the Post fell into line soon enough, running a front-page Style section profile the following month of Chris Matthews, the conquering journalistic hero from Capitol Hill. Who would you rather get your news from, he asked the Style reporter: “guys who’ve spent their lives hanging out in hallways” or “guys who’ve spent their lives in backrooms?” He ended his defense brief with an off-topic flourish—an appeal to his First Amendment rights of free speech: “I feel like doing it,” he pronounced. “That’s my defense. I feel like doing it.” 

And so he has. Over the balance of This Country, Matthews’s flat-yet-confident pundit voice moves forcefully onto center stage, as the book becomes the sort of then-this-happened march through recent political history you’re apt to encounter on any cable news channel of your despairing choosing. There are, inevitably, some embarrassing disclosures along the way, such as the launch of his TV career under the tutelage of the late Fox News impresario Roger Ailes, or Matthews’s rushed resignation from his Hardball post ahead of a raft of #MeToo allegations in early 2020.

Mostly, though, we see Matthews being dispatched on assignment from the Examiner to various landmark events—the Good Friday peace accords in Ireland, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the end of South African apartheid, the funerals for Tip O’Neill and Pope John Paul II—with extended riffs on the same subjects from his Examiner (and later, San Francisco Chronicle) columns. This is capital-h History as Chris Matthews lived it—but he evidently never quite grasped that the old saw about journalism being history’s first draft meant that one’s understanding of it should be revised and reworked in the fullness of time. No, the point of history, Matthews-style, as with any other exercise in punditry, is to be shown to be right, in real time—and then you can confidently clamor forward to the next segment. Thus, for instance, the Chris Matthews formula for the overthrow of communism: “Courageous citizens call for ‘reform’ but end up denouncing the ruling Communists.… The rivalry is joined. Elections are held. The public rejects the tainted Communists and chooses the democratic alternative.” You don’t say. 

Even the observations collected here that aren’t actually drawn from repurposed column content bear the telltale thumbprints of on-the-fly punditry. When Matthews sizes up the unexpected gains that the Democrats clocked in the 1998 midterm elections, amid the impeachment of Bill Clinton over the Monica Lewinsky scandal, he calls the outcome (of all things) “a case of nationwide jury nullification.” At a loss to come up with any more compelling explanation of the rise of Donald Trump, Matthews breezily references Trump’s affinities with past demagogues, such as Joseph McCarthy and Pat Buchanan, and then delivers this deeply insular and cable-centric take: “What Trump added was the pizzazz of a talented TV performer and a mastery of social media.” (In the broader scheme of things, though, Matthews reassures us that “demagoguery has not been a good career choice.”)

Even Matthews’s appeals to history qua history are correspondingly punditized, and miniaturized for seeming televisual consumption. As he winds up this career-driven tour of his life and times, Matthews hurriedly invokes the wisdom of a host of modern presidential elders. On a single page, he has JFK both intoning his inaugural plea to “ask what you can do for your country” and invoking his rhetorical Berlin citizenship in the wake of the Berlin Wall’s erection; Ronald Reagan delivering his patriotic address to the nation after the Challenger space shuttle crash; President George W. Bush shouting his bullhorn exhortations to the workers at Ground Zero after the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center; Teddy Roosevelt cheerfully characterizing the presidency as a bully pulpit; and Abraham Lincoln pledging, in his second inaugural, to “bind up the nation’s wounds” and to act “with malice toward none, and with charity toward all.” For good measure, Matthews even throws in some dialogue from the Aaron Sorkin–scripted presidential rom-com Dave, the precursor to Sorkin’s dreadful primetime workplace drama about the American presidency, The West Wing. 

It’s a classic Chris Matthews performance, rendered on the printed page—a blizzard of deeply clichéd, executive-sanctioned sentiment about everything and nothing. It begins as a gloss on FDR’s (also exhaustively quoted) pronouncement that the attack on Pearl Harbor marked a “date which will live in infamy” and the president’s forecast that the United States would prevail in the global struggle ahead.  Yet that’s exactly what presidents are supposed to say in such moments; it’s all too easy to unearth nearly identical sentiments from, say, James Polk’s dishonest conduct of the Mexican War, Lyndon Johnson’s dead-end commitment to the debacle of the Vietnam War, or George W. Bush’s mendacious cheerleading campaign for the moral catastrophe of the second American invasion of Iraq. Matthews’s citations of other presidential utterances here seem mostly to serve as totemic reminders that, throughout our history, presidents have said things that are presidential.

To live through, and reflect on, history in any meaningful way is to wrestle with the tragic limits it imposes on the ambitions of the powerful, hubristic class of men and women who claim to know its foreordained course—what the historian John Lukacs called the interpretation of history as “chastened thought.” But that’s not something that Chris Matthews or his legions of cable imitators are about to blurt out on set. And that, in turn, leaves his long-suffering audience to marvel at the very many types of leaders who are, in fact, getting away with anything and everything—and to exclaim, yet again, in bitter wonderment, “What a country.”