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The Cable Guy

Hardball's Chris Matthews earned his stripes in Washington as a true-believer Democrat but won his TV audience bashing Clinton. Now he's tearing up the tube -- and tearing into the political Establishment -- playing by one set of rules: his own.

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It's a drizzly late-May morning, and the citizens of Philadelphia are filing in to the City Hall council chambers. The coalition that runs the city is out in force: a horn-rimmed Main Line GOP stalwart, some Italian and Irish reps from working-class neighborhoods, a couple of Hispanic and black councilmen, and a motley group of community activists. Two sign-language interpreters are on hand, clad in black like mimes.

Naked bulbs dot the ornate grid of a ceiling, and a few flicker to dark. A woman rabbi offers some words to open the session, honoring two hometown heroes: a police officer and a talk-show host.

Chris Matthews, the blond, motor-mouth 55-year-old moderator of MSNBC's Hardball, is called up to the rosewood podium, his wife, four brothers, and 81-year-old father in tow. Councilman Frank Rizzo Jr., whose late father turned the cranks of the city's political machine as mayor, lauds Matthews as a man whose crowded family "taught him to eat fast if he wanted seconds and to talk fast if he wanted to be heard." Now, Rizzo continues, Matthews anchors "one of the highest-rated shows on the network."

"It's the highest," Matthews blurts. A wave of laughter rises from the crowd, and a dashikied spectator stands for a lone ovation. The police chief makes Matthews an honorary commissioner. The fire chief gives him a helmet and "permission to extinguish any honorary fire." The mayor has sent a miniature Liberty Bell.

In the hallway after the ceremony, Matthews is standing among a small cluster of men, regaling the old-timers with stories of his earlier political triumphs: "Know what Tip said? This is so Tip . . . "

Matthews's father, Herb, grabs my forearm to tell me of his son's days visiting him in this very building, where the elder Matthews spent 30 years as a court stenographer. It was Chris's maternal grandfather, a Democratic committeeman, who indoctrinated Chris, alone in the family, into the Democratic club. The four other Matthews boys were all Nixon-loving Republicans, like their parents.

Those Democratic convictions are rarely visible on Matthews's rapid-fire mêlée of a talk show, where he rose to glory over the past four years flogging the Clinton White House, inspiring a legion of imitators who covet Matthews's wealthy, all-worked-up audience. But his ease at crossing party lines, it seems, is another skill he learned from his grandfather. As the elder Matthews recalls, watching his son from a distance, his father-in-law's ideology shifted according to what would best serve him. "He switched -- you know, wherever you'd get a job."

The same week, back in Matthews's adopted home of Washington, D.C., another political switch-hitter -- Senator James Jeffords -- was stealing the national political spotlight. "He doesn't like being bossed around by these grits!" Matthews offers on-air, by way of explaining Jeffords's flight from the Republican Party. Newsweek's Howard Fineman -- a frequent Hardballer called upon to offset Matthews's enthusiasms with a Zeppo Marx calm -- reminds Matthews that there was no evidence of a North-South antipathy fueling Jeffords's departure.

"I heard he doesn't like Phil Gramm personally," insists Matthews, referring to the obtrusive Texas senator who himself abandoned the Democrats eighteen years back. "At least Phil Gramm gave the decision back to the voters!" The whole question of whether people like a party loyalist or a lone wolf strikes a nerve in Matthews. He was once a standard-bearer for the Democrats; he scripted Jimmy Carter in the White House, and as Tip O'Neill's aide he helped the Irish populist from South Boston brand himself as the authentic dandruff-on-his-collar antithesis to Ronald Reagan's sound-stage-groomed charmer. From there, Matthews gave up his job behind the TelePrompTer, publishing words in his own name with a left-leaning column in the San Francisco Examiner.

But by 1996, in teetotaling middle age, Matthews had taken up the modern megaphone -- the lapel mike -- and was talking a different game. He was among the first (and noisiest) to rage against Clinton during the impeachment scandal, and he won a fervent audience with his blend of Democratic credentials and unvarnished contempt. What he did not win, of course, was the affection of his old Democratic pals. "He was crazy," recalls a former White House aide, who regularly turned down requests to book top advisers on Matthews's show. "His was just another very large, loud voice out there who marketed himself by beating up on the president." Others are more generous. Old friend and Cheney counselor Mary Matalin says of his ex-cohorts' bitterness about Matthews's change of colors: "It's easy to eat pizza and talk policy all night and live in an English basement. So what they're saying is, 'He's grown up.' "

Matthews's mouthing-off not only sold his show but defined a new form of news in the process. "It's all part of this changing landscape of television news -- cable in particular -- where personality and opinions count for a lot," says Jeff Zucker, the NBC executive producer who first put Matthews on the Today show. "Chris is the face of that."

Think of Matthews as a new kind of machine politician -- and the machine is television. Like a candidate tuned to the polls, he analyzes ratings, segment by segment, to see which topics keep viewers transfixed. His conclusion: Anytime you go hard right, your numbers go skyward.

Hardball's success during the impeachment was followed by another ratings windfall, this one created by the Florida recount, during which Matthews's ward-level knowledge and articulate outrage reached more than 2 million viewers each night. Now, four times every evening, over two cable outlets, NBC broadcasts his hour-long roundtable of Cabinet members, senators, congressmen, lobbyists, analysts.

In his spare, chilled studio, Matthews still suffers from preshow angst, worrying about intros and outros and whether the Commerce secretary on the satellite feed is going to get dropped mid-sentence. (He does.) A congressman and a senator from Florida get miked and take the seats across from their host. Matthews takes his feet out of his loafers and crosses them under his chair. Juiced by unflavored coffee ("Hazelnut is a gender-specific coffee," he says), Matthews launches into a sneering synopsis of Janet Reno's chances to become Florida's governor. "You must have the fastest TelePrompTer in America," says Bill Nelson, Florida's junior senator, as he finishes his round in Matthews's hot seat. "It must scroll 90 miles an hour!"


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