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June 2001


The Matthewses regularly attend Mass at The Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament in Washington, which is often referred to as the "pundit's church." Mark Shields passes the collection plate there. Former Secretary of Education William Bennett, Senator Edward Kennedy, and ABC This Week host Cokie Roberts also worship there. In addition, the Matthewses are active in Catholic Charities of Washington, as well as with an organization called SOAR!, or Support Our Aging Religious, which raises money for elderly priests and nuns.

One Hardball guest learned the hard way that it is not wise to insult Matthews's religious sensibilities. In September 1997, Matthews tossed political consultant and former Clinton aide Dick Morris off the set mid-show for a perceived slight to the Church. In the segment, Morris discussed former Massachusetts governor William Weld's bid to become the U.S. ambassador to Mexico. Weld, Morris said, was trying to showcase himself as a "poster boy for the moderate Republicans," which Morris deemed "a little like getting to lead a church after being crucified." At that, Matthews retorted, "I didn't like that last remark from Dick Morris one bit" and abruptly dismissed him from the show. As he closed that night's Hardball, Matthews explained, "There's certain things, by the way, to bring up a point I made earlier in the show rather loudly, there's certain things I'll let people say on this show and certain things I will not let them say. And one, I will not let them debunk anybody's race or religion, or make fun of anything like that on this program. Do it somewhere else."

After graduating from Holy Cross in 1967, Matthews studied economics at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and then joined the Peace Corps, serving in Swaziland. "Back then, Chris was very similar to what he is now," observes Fred O'Regan, the CEO of the International Fund for Animal Welfare, who served in the Peace Corps with Matthews. "We used to hitchhike around the bush in Africa, and Chris would always be wearing a necktie and arguing. We nicknamed him the William F. Buckley of Swaziland, because he always liked to…play devil's advocate."

When he returned from the Peace Corps, Matthews landed a spot as an aide to U.S. Senator Frank Moss, a Utah Democrat, and worked at night as a Capitol Hill cop. Matthews ran for Congress from Philadelphia in 1974 and lost. After that, he worked as an aide to U.S. Senator Edmund Muskie, the Maine Democrat. Then, in 1977, Matthews joined President Jimmy Carter's staff. "He was a mesmerizing talker, full of ideas and fun," recalls Hertzberg, who hired Matthews for the speechwriting job.

"When we left the Carter White House, we were all talking about what we wanted to do, and Chris just one day announced, 'I want to be a pundit!'" says Paul Costello, a New York public relations executive who had served as press secretary to first lady Rosalynn Carter. "At the time, I thought, What the hell are you talking about, 'I want to be a pundit'? But in hindsight, it was all very thought out."

Punditry would be a while in the making, however. In 1981, Matthews joined the staff of Speaker of the House Thomas "Tip" O'Neill as O'Neill's administrative assistant and chief spokesman. "The Republicans…went after Tip O'Neill in a big way," recalls Tony Coelho, at the time a congressman from California and the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "So we fought back, using Tip O'Neill as a spokesman. And in 1982, the Democrats were able to pick up 26 seats in the House and take political and philosophical control of the Congress….And Chris had a lot to do with that.

"For one thing, Chris started the whole thing of…having the Speaker make a statement…to the press every day," continues Coelho, now the general chairman of Vice- President Al Gore's presidential campaign. "And Chris would spin whatever it was that we were trying to do."

Karen Tumulty, a White House correspondent for Time magazine, covered Congress for the Los Angeles Times during the early to mid-1980s. "Chris did not have a light touch with spin," laughs Tumulty, a Hardball regular. "Quite to the contrary, he would very directly tell you what a story should say, and if you did not do it, you would hear about it. Believe me! I remember being in California, and Chris calling me and waking me up at, like, 6 a.m. Chris did not like something I had written, and he was on the other end of the line, hitting me with both barrels…." Today, Matthews describes his O'Neill days as "the best work that I ever did."

After O'Neill retired in 1987, Matthews worked briefly for a private company called the Government Research Corporation. He also started writing his first book, Hardball: How Politics Is Played -- Told By One Who Knows The Game, which is now part of the curriculum of some political science courses and required reading for aspiring Capitol Hill staffers.

In 1987, Matthews traveled to San Francisco to attend a wedding. While there, he had lunch with an editor at the San Francisco Examiner. "[He] said, 'Do you want to have a column?'" Matthews recalls. "And I said, 'Are you kidding!? I have been waiting my whole life for somebody to say that to me! Of course I want a column!'" For several months, Matthews wrote for the paper on a freelance basis, and then in the end of 1987 signed on full time as the Examiner's Washington bureau chief. In addition to stories for the paper, Matthews wrote a 1996 book, Kennedy & Nixon: The Rivalry That Shaped Postwar America.

Matthews may have been thrilled with his print job, but, in his heart, he had always wanted television. Around the time that he became the Examiner's Washington bureau chief, Matthews started to make that dream come true. He approached Howard Stringer, then the president of CBS News, about appearing on air. Stringer in turn introduced him to David Corvo, then the executive producer of CBS This Morning and now NBC's vice-president for news. Corvo hired Matthews to do political commentary. In 1991, Matthews moved to ABC's Good Morning America.

Then, in 1994, Roger Ailes, now the chairman and CEO of Fox News, started NBC's new cable network, America's Talking, and hired Matthews for a show called In Depth. When MSNBC took over America's Talking in 1996, Ailes moved Matthews to CNBC. "Chris talks like the guy who is on the barstool in Akron, Ohio, and that is part of his appeal," observes Ailes. "A lot of people ask long questions because they want face time, but Chris just can't shut up. The decibel level can disguise how talented he is" -- Ailes chuckles -- "If you have lunch with him, you have to put a fork in his hand just to get a word in edgewise!"

When he first joined CNBC, Matthews hosted a half-hour show called Politics with Chris Matthews, which in January 1997 was renamed Hardball. Later that year, the show was given a new look and feel, built around Matthews's personality. "At the time," Matthews says, "there was a definite decision to enlarge the show from what you would call politics -- in the sense of elections, congressional action, who is up, who is down -- to the more broader issue of what kind of country we want to live in….I think we vote all the time now, not just in November. People vote through what kinds of issues they focus on and become enraptured with." Or, it could be said, Matthews votes for them with the issues he chooses to cover on his show.

Former Hardball producer Michele Remillard will never forget that fateful day in January 1998 when the world got wind of Monica. "The Pope was in Cuba, and Chris was in Miami when Lewinsky broke," recalls Remillard. "Chris called me at home at 7:30 in the morning, woke me up, and all but blasted me out of bed! He was so excited that I could barely understand him."

"Believe me, Chris was into that story from the get-go," sighs former Hardball producer Clara Frenk. "I remember, early on, a staff meeting in which Chris flat out said, 'Anybody who does not like the way that we are covering this story can get up and walk out of the door because we are going to put red crosses on our chest and march to Jerusalem on this one!'"

In March 1998, Hardball was expanded to an hour to cover the president's debacle, and a month later started rebroadcasting at 11:00 p.m. Rarely did a day go by without the Lewinsky matter lurching front and center. "I have always felt that there were three factors that made this such a big story," Matthews explains. "One was the presidency, the second was sex, and the third was suspense. For a long time, we did not know what exactly what was going to happen, so there was sort of this Hitchcock factor. But the presidency was the primary justification for that story.

"The president," Matthews muses, "has to know where he is. He is in the White House. He has to remember that. Let me get this straight. I am in the White House. I remember as a presidential speechwriter, it never went away, that sense that you were in this historic spot. You would smell the rhododendrons or the wonderful smell -- that aura -- when you walk over to the West Wing. Everything is historic, and you just feel this place. And the history that went on there, the magic…"

In addition to inflaming Matthews's patriotism, the scandal has served Hardball well. After its debut on January 15, 1997, Hardball drew an average of 252,000 households in its first year. During 1998, however, Hardball averaged a 0.85 total rating, reaching some 559,000 households per show. According to Nielsen Media Research, Hardball averaged 251,000 households in June.

Not surprisingly, Matthews's top-rated shows have all focused on the White House scandal. The number-one show aired on August 19, 1998, two days after the president confessed his affair to the nation, and reached 1,028,000 households. The show that ran the night before, on August 18, is a close second, having reached 1,023,000 households.

On August 17, the day the president admitted to the country that he had had an "inappropriate relationship" with Lewinsky, Hardball ran two shows, the regular taped episode, and a live show after the speech. On the first, Matthews ranted, "I'd like to suggest that in every household and every car pool and every barroom in America, and every party you've been to in the last seven months, there's been somebody who's spoken up for the president and said, 'I believe he didn't have this relationship.' All of those people are part of the recruited commission and put-in-the-field army of Clinton liars. He has made them all into liars….And tonight he better come on and apologize to those people…."

Before the second show, Matthews watched the president's speech with some of his guests. "I remember Chris responding much more instinctually than I did to the president's anger," recalls Major Garrett, a senior editor for U.S. News & World Report. "I was focused on what Clinton said, and Chris was more focused on how he said it, and how the audience would respond to his larger tone."

In addition to Garrett, panelists on the later live show included Michael Barone of Reader's Digest (who has since moved to U.S. News), jury consultant Jo-Ellan Dimitrius, former Democratic New York congresswoman Elizabeth Holtzman, former Democratic Georgia congressman Ben Jones, former federal prosecutor Michael Murphy, and U.S. Representative Chaka Fattah, a Pennsylvania Democrat. Even for Hardball, the show was a free-for-all that featured sharp words from all sides -- and a rather unhinged Matthews. Consider the following passages:

Matthews: "…I have never said that the president had to answer all these questions tonight."
Fattah: "…Chris…Chris…that's…Chris…"
Matthews: "But I want to get you to -- on one point."
Fattah: "…Chris…"
Matthews: "You've been on the show many times.…"
Fattah: "…Chris…"
Matthews: "…Congressman, defending the president, saying he didn't do it because he told you he didn't do it. Don't you think he owes you an apology for being out -- one of those people defending his lie for the last six months -- the last several months?"
Fattah: "He owes…"
Matthews: "Don't you -- doesn't he owe you an apology for this?"
And later:
Matthews: "Chaka, let me -- let me ask you a question about the -- about the people in this country. You have defended the president against the charge that he denied he had sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky, believing he was telling the truth, apparently. The vice-president of the United States, a man who everybody believes a pretty noble fellow, even if you disagree with him -- here's what he said tonight a short time ago, blah, blah, blah, blah, I am proud of him, not only because he is a friend, blah, blah, blah, but because he is a person who has had the courage to acknowledge mistakes."

The next day, Washington Post TV critic Tom Shales excoriated Matthews as "the screaming meanie of TV news -- and last night's performance was no exception."

Matthews and his producers maintain that they are enjoying life after Monica and the freedom that it gives them to pursue other subjects. "We really try to mix the shows up…," explains Hardball executive producer Rob Yarin. "I try to read all of the e-mail that we receive. We did a show recently on George W. Bush's military record, and a lot of people thought we should look into Al Gore's record, too. So we are working on a show about that. And [in mid- July] we will also have the writer Elizabeth Drew on a new book that she has written, The Corruption Of American Politics: What Went Wrong And Why."

One of Yarin's favorite recent shows appeared on June 1. "Over the weekend, there had been a news story in Maryland that revolved around a student protesting that there would be a traditional student-led prayer during the graduation ceremonies. And we used that as a stepping stone to talk about religion and schools."

"Cable created an opportunity for Chris to bring ideas and opinions to life and put them on TV," observes his wife, Kathleen. "In reality, Chris thinks that debating ideas on TV is the same as doing so on the floor of the Senate. He has never thought of himself as being an objective, take-no-sides reporter. He is a different kind of journalist….He wants to be at the center of the debate. He believes that he is fair, but would not think of himself as being objective. To the contrary, Chris wears his opinions on his sleeve."

Earlier this year, Matthews's blustery unpredictability landed him in trouble. In May, without checking the facts, Matthews identified Cody Shearer, a freelance journalist whose sister is married to Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, as one of the people alleged to have threatened Kathleen Willey, who claimed that President Clinton had approached her sexually. "Kathleen Willey speaks for the first time in more than a year, for the next hour here on Hardball," Matthews announced when he began the show, as if he had a great scoop. Later, Matthews asked Willey, "[I]s there something in you that's been burning to get out about this whole matter, how you've been portrayed? You're breaking your silence. Do it right." Toward the end of the interview, Matthews said -- referring to Willey's insistence that she had been threatened by so-called Friends of Bill -- "Let's go back to the jogger, one of the most colorful and frightening aspects of this story. You were confronted as you were out walking." After a brief discussion, he blurted, "So it's Cody Shearer."

"I can't tell you," Willey replied.

As it turned out, Shearer provided documentation that he had been in California at the time of the incident. Matthews later apologized on the air, saying that "I now regret having…not spoken beforehand with [Cody Shearer] before I mentioned his name on the air. I should have never brought his name up till we had vetted it." For this article, Matthews declined to comment, other than to refer Brill's Content to his on-air statement. Likewise, NBC vice-president for news David Corvo declined to comment, and cited Matthews's apology.

Apparently, the gaffe has not hurt him with his bosses. At press time, Matthews and the network were close to signing a new five-year contract that would give Matthews a hefty raise as well as a presence on MSNBC, and perhaps even move Hardball to that channel.

It's a third of the way through the taping of the June 28 Hardball, and Matthews is about to start his interview with former vice-president Quayle. "I'm going to be nice to you, as always," Matthews grins. Quayle laughs knowingly, throwing his host a genial "Yeah, right" look. "No, really," Matthews retorts. "I am just going to let you sit out there and swim. I'll just say, 'Tell me about yourself!'" Later on, as the cameras roll, Matthews tries to put Quayle on the defensive about the notion that -- cigars, thongs, impeachment, and all -- President Clinton is commanding radiant economic numbers: "If you're president and you -- rather, you were president and you had a 4 percent growth rate, unemployment rate about 31/2 percent or something, hardly any inflation, wouldn't you be jumping up and down for glee and saying, 'Look how great we are?'"

Quayle: "I…"

Matthews: "If you had the same numbers, wouldn't you be saying, 'Hurray for our side?'"

Quayle: "Absolutely, but I'm not there. And here's what I say. Here's what I say. We can do bet -- "
Matthews: "You're honest, at least."

After the taping is over, Matthews asks Quayle, "Seriously, when was the last time we had the economic indicators that this president has? When was the last time?"

"We had numbers like that in the second half of 1992," Quayle replies.

Matthews folds his arms, tosses his head back and unleashes a grin: "A lot of good that did you!"

Matthews has delivered yet another zinger. He's playing hardball.
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