Thursday, February 14, 2008
Last fall, as network executives, members of Congress and other hotshots gathered beneath a massive tent at Washington's Decatur House to celebrate the 10th anniversary of "Hardball," Chris Matthews began to address the crowd.
Dispensing with the usual platitudes about his MSNBC show, Matthews vowed not to be silenced by Bush administration officials. And he let loose with this broadside: "They've finally been caught in their criminality."
The political community was soon abuzz: Did you hear what Chris said? What criminality was he talking about? Could he really be fair in moderating the following week's Republican presidential debate?
"I did it on purpose," Matthews says now. "I wanted to make a statement that we had a purpose on the show -- to tell the truth."
On his show, on the street, on the phone, on the party circuit, this 62-year-old refugee from Democratic politics wants to tell you what he thinks. Now. Right away. Not after the next commercial break. Not after the guest finishes talking. He blurts out what's on his mind, seemingly without a filter. And that quality, which is the essence of his television success, also keeps getting him into trouble.
That's precisely what happened last month when Matthews said on his show that Hillary Clinton owed her political career to sympathy stemming from her husband's infidelity. He eventually offered a mea culpa , but in some ways the dust-up was classic Matthews: operating on the edge, praising and prodding and poking people in the eye.
That has always been his formula. "You know he's saying exactly what he thinks -- that's the whole trick," says Tammy Haddad, the show's former executive producer. "You know it's coming straight from his gut. That's what his appeal has always been."
Few would dispute that Matthews thrives at campaign time. "Chris has an unbelievable feel for the flow of politics, the emotion of politics," says Newsweek correspondent Howard Fineman, a frequent guest on "Hardball." "It's like meat and drink to him. He just lives politics with every pore."
Matthews is not easy to pigeonhole. He has liberal sympathies on most issues, but can hammer Democratic guests as aggressively as he grills Republicans, often annoying his left-leaning friends. He is impulsive and unpredictable, reeling off snap judgments, sometimes punctuated with his trademark "Ha!": John McCain, 71, claiming victory in Virginia alongside octogenarian Sen. John Warner, "looks like an army in retreat." If you "don't cry" when Barack Obama gives a speech, "you're not an American." And what made Mitt Romney think "a Mormon guy could win in the Bible Belt"? In fact, MSNBC executives have encouraged this approach -- while also cautioning him to watch his tone.
Matthews says his job "is to be provocative and say things -- you know, 'That's crazy!' -- the way you might at a party."
In a Christmas video for the NBC staff, Brian Williams jokingly called him "Rain Man." Tom Brokaw cracked on "The Daily Show" that "when it comes to politics, Chris has a form of Tourette's syndrome." Matthews is the childlike genius with an uncanny command of political arcana who is sometimes oblivious to his own erratic behavior. In a world of scripted anchors, he fuses passionate punditry with a self-absorption so intense he likes being mocked on "Saturday Night Live." Love him or hate him, it's hard to avert your eyes.
"I aim for the chalk line," Matthews says, reaching for a tennis analogy. "You try to keep it in. If it hits the chalk line, that's perfect. People have that little gasp and say, ' I can't believe he said that.' "