Candid Talker Chris Matthews Pulls No Punches

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.' "

A History With Hillary

Friends are quick to say that Matthews isn't afraid of strong women. They point to his wife, Kathleen, until recently a top anchor at WJLA-TV, and the hard-charging female producers around him.

Still, some high-profile women are now holding him up as a symbol of the insensitive male pundit.

He enjoys the towel-snapping banter of the locker room, praising women's looks on camera and off. For that matter, he also jokes about people's ethnicity, saying that the Irish hold grudges and teasing pals about being Jewish.

Matthews has said on the air that he finds Teresa Heinz Kerry "very attractive." He told Gennifer Flowers she is a "knockout." He told Elizabeth Edwards, "I love your smile." He said Michelle Obama was "attractive" and "classy." He told radio host Laura Ingraham, "You're beautiful and you're smart." And he jokingly urged CNBC anchor Erin Burnett to move closer to the camera, calling her "beautiful" and a "knockout." (Matthews says he was in "a whimsical mood" that day.)

He routinely talks over his panelists, but some women feel especially trampled. Matthews challenged Dee Dee Myers, the former Clinton White House spokeswoman, when she argued last month that nobody expected Hillary Clinton to be the inevitable nominee. Everyone thought Clinton would win, he insisted.

"That's wrong, Chris," Myers said.

"Hey, that's a fact," Matthews said. He kept interrupting her, saying: "This is revisionism, Dee Dee."

"Chris," she said, "you ask me a question, if you would let me answer it, it would be helpful -- "

"You are answering it and you're wrong," Matthews declared. Myers was so annoyed she refused to return to the next night's show until Matthews called to apologize.

"Chris was very disrespectful to me," Myers says. "He has every right to disagree with me, but he did it in a way that was dismissive and wrong. Not only was it bad manners, it was bad television. . . . My only regret is I didn't make him apologize on the air."

Others say that Matthews's smartest-guy-in-the-studio intensity is simply his style. "Chris asks a question, he often answers his question, and then he asks you to comment on his answer to his question," says Fineman. "Which I'm perfectly happy to do."

Among the women with whom Matthews has tangled, Clinton may be the most curious case study. Kathleen Matthews, now a Marriott executive, has given Hillary Clinton's campaign the maximum allowable donation of $2,300, and one of their three children, Michael, has worked in Africa for Bill Clinton's global initiative.

Yet the "Hardball" host has been particularly hard on the former first lady, to the point where some of her advisers have glared at him at parties. And there is a history here. In 1999, amid speculation that Clinton might seek a Senate seat in New York, Matthews told viewers: "No man would say, 'Make me a U.S. senator because my wife's been cheating on me.' "

The following year, he said: "Hillary Clinton bugs a lot of guys, I mean, really bugs people -- like maybe me on occasion. . . . She drives some of us absolutely nuts."

In 2005, when Clinton criticized the administration on homeland security the day after terrorist bombings in London, Matthews said: "It's a fact: You look more witchy when you're doing it like this."

In recent weeks, he has asked whether Clinton's criticism of Obama makes her "look like Nurse Ratched." He has said that "Hillary's loyal lieutenants are ready to scratch the eyes out of the opposition" and likened her to Evita Peron, "the one who gives gifts to the little people, and then they come and bring me flowers and they worship at me because I am the great Evita."

It was against that backdrop that Matthews sparked a furor last month when he said: "I'll be brutal: The reason she's a U.S. senator, the reason she's a candidate for president, the reason she may be a front-runner, is her husband messed around." The counterattack was fierce.

"The question is not how dumb he is, but how dumb he thinks the rest of us are to listen to this drivel," wrote Susan Estrich, a former Democratic strategist. Salon's Rebecca Traister denounced what she called his "drooling excitement at the prospect of her humiliation."

Ten days later, Matthews told viewers he had been unfair to Clinton and that his remarks had come off as "nasty," "callous" and "dismissive." At a New Hampshire event, he turned defensive when she mocked him for being "obsessed" with her as he attempted to interrogate her. When Clinton walked over for a brief hug, Matthews playfully pinched her cheek.

"I've said a million times, I like her," Matthews says. "We kid around back and forth. She's very charming." But, he says, "the way that got portrayed was, I was somehow against women's aspirations."

From Capitol Cop to Cable

Chris Matthews pokes at the fireplace in his whitewashed Chevy Chase home, in an art-filled dining room dating to 1885, and contemplates the question: Did you always, even in your political hackery days, want to be on television?

He talks about his five years as a Senate aide. He talks about riding in Marine One with Jimmy Carter, in his days as a White House speechwriter, when the president got the word from his pollster that he was about to lose his reelection bid. He talks about his work as the top aide to Tip O'Neill, when his job was to come up with something pithy for the House speaker to say each day. He talks about taking $200 a week in 1987 to write a political column for the San Francisco Examiner, joining the paper for half of what he was making in a corporate job, about writing a New Republic piece that got him on "Good Morning America," signing with the CBS morning show, meeting Roger Ailes, accepting Ailes's offer to launch a show on an obscure network called America's Talking, and learning the game from John McLaughlin.

Twenty-five minutes into his answer, he's still talking.

It's clear that Matthews hasn't forgotten the media establishment's initial scorn toward an ex-pol. "It wasn't an easy door to get through," he says. "I never thought I could get through it."

But Matthews still reveres his former profession. Phil Griffin, the onetime Matthews producer who runs MSNBC, recalls making a dismissive remark about Washington when they first met a decade ago. "He said, 'No, you don't get it. These people give up their lives; they care so much about making America a better place.' "

As Matthews grew more prominent, his tightly coiled style became fodder for Darrell Hammond of "Saturday Night Live," who soon got an invitation to appear on "Hardball."

At times, Matthews told the impersonator, "I find myself locking into you. I find myself doing Darrell Hammond doing me, because it's sort of comfortable to get into that sort of slipstream of the way you do me. Isn't that weird?"

"Yes, that's weird," Hammond agreed.

The son of a Philadelphia court stenographer, Matthews served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Swaziland, arriving in Washington three decades ago with a patronage job as a gun-toting Capitol Police officer. After years of smoking and drinking, he quit both, swearing off liquor in 1994. Over the years, though, he kept ignoring a troublesome medical diagnosis.

In December, after a day of entertaining at his Nantucket vacation home that included, despite his wife's warning, a bacon cheeseburger and fettucine Alfredo, Matthews was rushed to the emergency room with complications from diabetes. He was off the air for two weeks.

"If all your life you're afraid of needles, and you're afraid of blood, and you're notoriously afraid of doctors, you put things off you shouldn't put off," he says. Matthews has since dropped 35 pounds and injects himself with insulin four times a day.

At times, his natural confidence turns into condescension. At an industry luncheon in 2002, Matthews chided Ted Koppel for working three days a week at ABC's "Nightline," saying: "I think we in the cable business have overtaken them. . . . Koppel, if you can't make it in the market, go work for public television for 200 [thousand] a year instead of $7 million." He also took a swipe at Jim Lehrer's PBS "NewsHour," saying: "What is it, eight hours long? I never sat all the way through it." Matthews later apologized to both men.

He does not enjoy being on the receiving end. When Jon Stewart mocked his book "Life's a Campaign" -- "I'm not trashing your book, I'm trashing your philosophy of life," the comedian told him -- Matthews grumbled for weeks about what he called the "book interview from hell."

He works a backbreaking schedule these days. He co-anchored late on Tuesday night for the Potomac primaries, for instance, and then appeared on "Morning Joe" early yesterday. Sometimes he anchors coverage in mid-afternoon, and he also hosts a syndicated Sunday show.

His mind wanders the cultural landscape, often leaving guests speechless, as he compares Obama to Lawrence of Arabia one day and Mozart the next. He meanders through metaphors, switching yesterday from football (Clinton lacks a ground game) to basketball (Clinton needs to keep fouling Obama as the game winds down) before reverting to old-school pol (Clinton must "get the Irish guys to work the neighborhood").

And he loves taking chances: Talking about the Republicans with Jay Leno, Matthews announced, "Here is where I get into trouble," before comparing the candidates with various Iraqi factions, complete with "Shiite wing fanatics."

"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."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company