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The Cable Guy

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For the next segment, with Margaret Carlson, the Time columnist, he is running the reel from the latest Saturday Night Live parody of his show. A Darrell Hammond impersonation has become a de rigueur status symbol in D.C., and even Katie Couric noted on-air that Matthews's gleeful airings of the segments were signs that he "thinks he's arrived." But now the critiques are getting pointed and less flattering -- Matthews is portrayed as cynically inciting radicals for shock value.

A Hardball cameraman jokes with him about the recent skit. "I was laughing so hard! I had to wake up my wife," he says.

"And the really funny thing was you were having sex at the time!" Matthews replies dryly. He's getting prickly now. He is focused on another turn Hammond's portrayal has taken. "He's fatter. He's sweatier. He's got a hairline back farther," he says to Carlson just before they go live. "They decided he was too glamorous."

In the first of many off-hours, hour-long phone conversations, Chris Matthews bellows into the receiver, insisting repeatedly that he's the same man off-air as he is on. Idling in his driveway, on the cell phone, he plies me with digs at Bush's Inaugural shimmy onstage with singer Ricky Martin ("There's his pass at the don't-ask-don't-tell rule!"), with buzz about NBC's attractive new White House correspondent ("Campbell Brown is a knockout!"), with a protestation that he has a good heart. But just before his wife appears at the doorway of their Chevy Chase home, wondering why he's still sitting in his car, he confides that he has a calculated on-air plan. "It's like tennis," he says of his verbal freestyle. "Hit the chalk line a lot, but you just don't want to go over it."

Matthews believes he travels by a fixed star, however hard it may be for others to track. "I am what I am," he says, growling like Popeye. He abhors abortion but condones it on the grounds of privacy (and the unfeasibility of anti-abortion-law enforcement). He supports gay rights. He celebrates civil rights. He loathes Hillary Clinton, whom he calls "Evita," and Upper East Side hostesses who fête politicians "to buy a contessaship."

"Chris is to Bill O'Reilly as Edmund Burke is to Rush Limbaugh," says longtime pal Hendrik Hertzberg.

"He has five ideas where other people have one," says former Utah congressman Wayne Owens, who mentored Matthews in the Senate when he was starting out, "but he's good enough to figure out that three of those are bad, and he discards them." Former Philadelphia mayor and ex-Democratic Party chair Ed Rendell agrees: "Even when he's at his most infuriating, nobody gets a free ride. He can be partisan; he's certainly not Peter Jennings. But then he's got an inherent streak of fairness that comes out."

MSNBC's Brian Williams -- a traditional-anchor-in-the-making -- admits that "Chris has said some hair-curling things, but in the context of the show, it works." It's not a role Williams envies, but he believes it has its place. "He can cajole. He can tweak. Hell, he's even free to express opinions," Williams says. "I'd sooner put my hand in a food processor."

The hand-to-hand combat inside Matthews's arena thrills network executives. "It surprises me how few others are willing to put themselves out there in the same way," says Tom Rogers, former president of NBC Cable (now chairman and CEO of Primedia, which owns this magazine). "You find it in talk radio, but those people are not nearly as informed. In TV, there are very few who do it. And Chris owns the upper echelon of that landscape."

And Matthews's bombast has spawned a series of imitators. Roger Ailes, who first launched Hardball for Matthews, moved over to run the Fox News network in 1996, where he arguably created Bill O'Reilly in Matthews's image: a tough-talking Catholic commentator drubbing Clinton defenders and stoking conservative critics. Not that there's much love lost between Ailes and Matthews now: A Fox spokesman declined an interview with Ailes, saying simply, "Ailes is the one who made Matthews. He doesn't want to talk about him. He's moved on."

Though O'Reilly has bested Matthews's numbers in the 8 p.m. time slot, sometimes by a three-to-one ratio, MSNBC points out that Hardball has better demographics: an audience with an average age of 55, compared with O'Reilly's 61. And he's more sophisticated.

"Chris Matthews is a longtime student of political and social wars in America and the deal-making that drives our primary social and political contracts," says MSNBC general manager Erik Sorenson. "O'Reilly's program is about class warfare in this country."

"I'll never use race," Matthews attests. "And I won't mention some people who do." He earlier has suggested that Fox gooses its numbers with wall-to-wall Jesse Jackson-bashing on certain shows.

As longtime Matthews pal and New Yorker commentator Hendrik Hertzberg puts it, O'Reilly is "without any of Chris's nuance -- if Chris and nuance can be used in the same sentence. Chris is to O'Reilly as Edmund Burke is to Rush Limbaugh."

And unlike O'Reilly, Matthews is enough of a political insider to cut through his guests' evasions. "He can have a politician on and say, 'C'mon, don't BS me, I understand how this works.' He does have the goods on them," says Howard Fineman.

Those lawmakers, pundits, and political kingmakers make up Matthews's most important constituency. "In the scheme of people who watch TV, those who are devotees of news shows are a small percentage of overall viewers but are a huge slice of influential people in the business world and the political world," says Rogers. "Shows like Chris's can define agendas, shape the perception of public policy."


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