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"Hardball" mixes interviews of politicians and journalists with Matthews's rapid-fire observations. Ratings are up slightly over a year ago -- averaging 422,000 viewers at 5 p.m. and 468,000 for the 7 p.m. repeat -- but the program finishes well behind Fox News and CNN. Matthews, who is said to earn more than $5 million a year, had long been top dog at MSNBC. But he has been overshadowed lately by Keith Olbermann, who averages 832,000 viewers on "Countdown" and has been co-anchoring with Matthews on primary nights.
Several friends expressed concern that Matthews, who assumed the title of managing editor last summer, is growing more ill-tempered. His periodic outbursts can be hard on the staff. When an aide screwed up the teleprompter years ago, he shouted at her, "I'm not some rape victim who's going to sit here and take it!"
Last spring, he was caught on the air using a curse word for excrement -- he didn't realize the show had come back from commercials -- about a taped segment he did not want his staff to run.
But staffers say he also apologizes -- sometimes with a hug and a declaration of love -- after inappropriate remarks. He even offers unsolicited romantic advice. And some colleagues swear by him.
"I have tremendous respect for Chris," says Ann Klenk, a "Hardball" producer. "He's a good husband, a good father, and he's good to his staff. He works 10 times harder than we do."
What Gets Him Mad
Matthews is a Roman Catholic with a strong moralistic streak, which became clear in his constant denunciations of Bill Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky affair.
"I spent a year going after Clinton because he just wasn't straight with the American people. He used the presidency to protect himself," Matthews says.
He brings that same fervor to chastising the Bush administration for launching an ill-advised war in Iraq. "If you ask me what gets me mad, it's the war issue, the sense that we're being lied to," he says now.
In 2003 he became inadvertently entangled in the Scooter Libby scandal. Adam Levine, then a White House spokesman, called Matthews -- for whom he had once been a producer -- to complain that the host had been harping on the Iraq role of Libby and other neoconservatives with Jewish-sounding names. "Some of what you're saying about this sounds anti-Semitic," Levine told him. (Levine and other Jewish friends in no way consider Matthews anti-Semitic, but tensions were running high.)
Libby, then a top aide to Vice President Cheney, soon called Tim Russert, NBC's Washington bureau chief, to complain that Matthews was always taking aim at "Libby and Wolfowitz and Perle." That phone call became the linchpin in Libby's conviction for obstruction of justice, after Libby claimed that Russert told him during the conversation that Valerie Plame was a CIA operative. A jury believed Russert's account that Plame was never mentioned.
As Matthews sees it, he was "pointing out the ideology behind the war," but the incident focused attention on his brash delivery. Cheney, he said on the Don Imus show last year, "always wants to kill."
Matthews is proud of his scars. He says he has learned to be more careful but that bloggers are taking some of his language out of context. And his bosses take the controversy in stride. "Chris puts himself out there, and some people are not going to like him," says Griffin, the MSNBC chief. "He wears his heart on his sleeve."
In the end, Matthews wants to keep swinging away with his racket, aiming for that chalk line.
Once a show is over, "if you start saying what you shouldn't have said, you really lose it -- spontaneity. . . . I hate to use the word, but it is a show, it is television. It has to have an entertainment factor. It just does."