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Playing Tough

Chris Matthews courteously takes a turn answering questions about what makes politicians successful and why the war in Iraq keeps getting worse

  I’m just about to hang up when Chris Matthews thinks of one
more thing. Well, actually several more things. Matthews, who
recently wrote Life’s a Campaign: What Politics Has Taught Me About
Friendship, Rivalry, Reputation, and Success (Random House), is one
of those people for whom ideas flow like constant lava. One of those
ideas is that the most successful politicians are those who excel in
making connections. We may joke about former President Bill Clinton
being able “to feel our pain,” but it’s a quality that drew
people to him.
    “It’s like having a decoder ring,” says Matthews, host of
the hour-long, nightly MSNBC talk show “Hardball with Chris
Matthews” and NBC’s “The Chris Matthews Show.” His book walks
us through his encounters with famous politicians and relays what he
learned about them and from them.  “I think it’s a way to read
these fellas and women. It’s also a way to learn from them. When you
think about it, they deal with people. That’s what they do. They
don’t build things—they deal with people, and that’s their
    One of his posits is that people would rather be listened to
than to listen, which may be one reason Bill Clinton is the master at
connecting with the public.
    “Richie Daley is like that too,” says Matthews. “It’s
their regular-ness at knowing people and remembering things about
people, just everyday human attention, that people really like.
Hillary Clinton stopped me the other night before I interviewed her
out in Iowa, and she talked all about my daughter. They’re just very
attentive to people, very likeable.”
    Mentally collating the information he’s acquired from countless
interviews with politicians, Matthews says he wondered if there were
some general rules as to why they were successful.
    “I just thought I’d write something that was educational and
try to do it in an entertaining way, but to try to find out what you
can use and value from all these years of dealing with politicians,”
Matthews says, noting that the book is based on what he learned about
human behavior and “how you can actually benefit from this
    Matthews, whose show “Hardball” recently celebrated its 10th
anniversary, is known for his hard-hitting questions, but exhibits a
friendliness, an almost courtly courtesy, when on the other side of
an interview. It’s easy to connect this Matthews with the idealistic
kid who served in the Peace Corps in Swaziland from 1968 to 1970 and
then upon returning knocked on hundreds of doors trying to find a job.
    “People who are good askers get ahead; people who are
optimistic get ahead; people who are willing to break into the game
whatever way they can get ahead, too,” says Matthews, recalling how
in 1972 he went from office to office at the House of Representatives
looking for a job. He says he was willing to endure a stream of
seemingly endless “no’s” until he got hired. He broke into the
game by landing a staff position with Utah Democratic Senator Frank
    Matthews had a politically saturated career before TV.  He lost
a bid for Congress in 1974, but went on to write speeches and work as
an advisor for both Senator Ed Muskie and President Jimmy Carter
before settling in with famed Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill.  He
also was a bureau chief and syndicated columnist for the San
Francisco Chronicle.
    This background—and his penchant for really thinking things
through—taught him the Machiavellian side of politics worked, which
gives him an interesting perspective that goes deep into human
nature, exploring why alliances succeed or fail. It’s easy to see,
when talking to him, that Matthews doesn’t take much at face value.
    Political alliances, he says, are almost tribal. As an example,
he talks about the bond between Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, a
wealthy San Francisco liberal, and Rep. Jack Murtha, a traditionally
hawkish Democrat who is a former Marine and comes from a working-
class Pennsylvania district. According to Matthews, they have more in
common than we realize. They’re both Roman Catholics from ethnic
families and know traditional street corner politics. Matthews says
that gives them a lot of commonality and comfort and that Pelosi
wouldn’t have become ascended to her position without people like
Murtha in her corner.
    “It’s like in the old days,” Matthews says.
     Speaking of old days, Matthews may be one of the few talk show
hosts that has ever been challenged to a duel. That happened during
the 2004 Democratic convention when former Senator Zell Miller, a
Democrat backing President George W. Bush for reelection, told
Matthews during an on-air interview, "I wish we lived in the day
where you could challenge a person to a duel."
    “We didn’t know what the choice of weapons was,” says
Matthews, who laughs now about the comment, but at the time was
concerned, he says. “Arnold Schwarzenegger called me the next day on
my cell phone and said, ‘That man’s a moron because he gave you a
million dollars in publicity.’ I was worried about the guy. I told
my producers, ‘Cool it. Don’t brag. Don’t say anything. This guy
could be one or two steps away from showing up with Confederate
    Obviously Miller believed that Matthews was showing a liberal
bias, but the TV host, who has 17 honorary doctorates and has
received numerous awards, including the David Brinkley Award for
Excellence in Broadcast Journalism, the Abraham Lincoln Award from
the Philadelphia Union League and the Gold Medal Award from the
Pennsylvania Society, is often also labeled as too conservative. It
may well be that he’s just outspoken about his beliefs. A devout
Catholic, Matthews, one of five children, comes from what has been
described as a conservative Irish Catholic family. He was born and
raised in Nicetown, Pennsylvania, a Philadelphia suburb, and received
an undergraduate degree from Holy Cross College. He and his wife
Kathleen have co-chaired a campaign for D.C. Catholic Charities.
    But whatever his conservative credentials, Matthews has always
been an outspoken critic of the war in Iraq.
    “I think the problem is that, and I base it somewhat on my
experience in the third world, is that there’s a pattern to these
occupations,” says Matthews. “You go in, and you win, and the more
you stay the more you have to deal with resistance and insurgency
because every people produce insurgents eventually. Then you have to
deal with the insurgency, which means dealing with informants and
ultimately torture. That’s how you prevent insurgency from
succeeding. That’s just a fact, and that’s why all occupations end
up being very brutal. Whether it’s the British in Kenya or anywhere,
you end up having concentration camps. That’s what we have over
there.  It’s a very horrible thing to have to repress a people who
don’t want you there. I learned in the Peace Corps that every
country has a strong sense of jealousy about its country. It doesn’t
want anyone to come in and tell [the people] what to do.  If they got
to choose any day between a more competent government run by
outsiders and a less competent government run by their own people,
it’s an easy decision. They don’t want more ideology, they don’t
want a different form of government—they want a country run by their
own people, and I’m not sure that President Bush was aware of that.
I think he just wasn’t worldly enough as he should have been if he
had had more sense of history or more sense of the ways countries
react. Countries end up exercising tissue rejection, like the human
body. That’s what they do. And we are part of the foreign tissue in
    Matthews says he’s concerned that President Bush is about to
take us into another international fiasco by bombing Iran.
    “I fear it because I think they’re the country of many more
people with many more ways to hurt us,” says Matthews. “They could
unleash Hezbollah. They could cut off the gasoline. The idea that we
can strike against a potential nuclear facility and expect that to be
the last— when you start a war, you don’t get to end it.”
    The host has had to deal with something more serious than an
overwrought politician with dreams of drawing swords.  He was
hospitalized last year for complications because of diabetes and has
since made major changes in his life.
    “I’ve lost a lot of weight, all because of giving up refined
sugar,” Matthews says. “I’ve given up candy. I’ve given up
French fries. I’ve given up white bread and all pastries. I’ve cut
out a lot of the pasta. I’ve got my blood pressure where it ought to
be, and my heart’s where it ought to be, and my cholesterol’s
where it ought to be.”
    So with his show a success, his book selling well, his diabetes
under control and no Zell Miller waiting in the wings, life should be
good. Except that Matthews, who really does seem to understand how
politics and human behavior work, couldn’t sell his teenage daughter
on his ideas. When she ran for student council, he shared his
strategies with her, which included playing to your base and not
riling up your opponents
    “She didn’t listen to me,” Matthews says. “And she lost
to somebody very big time.”

Published: December 02, 2007
Issue: December Philanthropy 07