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The Cable Guy


Yet, like our current president, Matthews reserves contempt for the intellectual elite. This caste, for him, is embodied in the Times critic Michiko Kakutani, his disdain for whom comes out in his numerous syllable-by-syllable mentions of her name. "I bust my ass six years on a book!" he says, inveighing against her tepid review of his 1996 historical tome, Kennedy and Nixon. "I wasn't part of her Weltanschauung."

Nevertheless, he delights that his show has won him a viewership beyond the rank-and-file readership he reaches in his nationally syndicated column. He also now wins over country-club Republicans, who stop him in airports to praise his anti-Clinton rants. Al Michaels has declared himself a major Matthews fan on Monday Night Football. Lou Diamond Phillips stopped him at an Inaugural ball and praised him. On a recent trip to L.A., so did Mary Tyler Moore. And Milton Berle too. "Uncle Miltie, with the food coming out of his mouth!" Matthews recalls giddily. "I'm a little kid about this!"

Chris Matthews was born in Nicetown, a working-class section of Philadelphia. Once a week at minimum, he mentions on-air his roots in the Catholic row-house neighborhood in which Irish and Polish kids like him would sit around and watch trash collectors load up their horse-drawn wagons, a practice that continued into the fifties. By the time he reached first grade, his family moved farther out to Somerton, and the Matthews brothers were altar boys at St. Christopher's. On Sundays after church, they played piano for the nuns from a nearby convent that two of their aunts had joined.

During Chris's LaSalle High School days, at a quiz-bowl competition against a crosstown rival school, Jim Matthews recalls, he sat in the stands when a classmate gave him a chuck to the rib cage, wanting to know "Who's that asshole on the end?" Jimmy had to admit that the junior with his buzzer going before the question came out was his older brother. At the time, he remembers, Chris told him, "I'm not bright. I'm not brilliant. I'm not intelligent. I just remember things."

Matthews hit the books at Holy Cross College and started work on a Ph.D. in economics at the University of North Carolina. In 1968, he avoided the Vietnam War by enlisting in another kind of national service, the Peace Corps, which won him a two-year draft deferment. He went to Swaziland, where he taught bookkeeping, hitchhiked across the continent, read Siddhartha, and talked politics with other expats. On his return in 1971, he knocked on doors of lawmakers all over D.C. (at least 200, he says) and got a job with a Democratic senator from Utah. The gig required him to work nights for three months as a Capitol Hill cop. He later won a loftier job on the Senate Budget Committee, in the employ of Maine Democrat Edmund Muskie.

In 1974, he abandoned his job on a Brooklyn congressional candidate's staff and traveled back home across the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge to put what he had learned to better use. He ran for U.S. Congress at the age of 28, soliciting votes and checks door-to-door along his old paper route. "It was the McCain campaign," he says vigorously. "Same platform." He got walloped in the primary (78 to 22 percent) by Joshua Eilberg, the Democratic incumbent who eventually left Congress under the cloud of indictment, admitting to breaking federal conflict-of-interest laws.

He went in 1977 to the Carter White House, then to Tip O'Neill's office, where he stayed until O'Neill retired in 1987. After that, Matthews spent 15 years in the media boiler room -- metropolitan op-ed pages, small local-affiliate roundtables, morning-show political patter -- and was even, according to Hertzberg, approached to be Clinton's press secretary, though Matthews issues a shaky denial about this when asked. Then, in 1996, he scored his own show, Politics, on the America's Talking cable network, which became MSNBC. In 1998, his half-hour program doubled its airtime (and had its name changed to Hardball) when the president's affair became a huge story. As happens in politics, one man's extracurricular activity became another man's career.

In his office, Matthews lifts his feet off the kelly-green carpet and rests them on the kelly-green seat of a big, gray plastic adjustable chair. He has the makings of a Santa belly, which has tugged his shirttails loose. I ask him what's behind his tsk-tsking of Clinton's adultery, and he answers with a reminiscence.

"Before I was married, you had girlfriends you had a fondness for. Old girlfriends. Most people do. You know, it's a nice thing. You bump into them or have lunch with them once in a while or something. You know what I mean?" he asks. "I'm kind of a romantic. I've always thought that I would never hold it against a guy, even one who was married for 20 or 30 years, who fell in love with his secretary. Just honestly it happens, you know? And you feel sad about the consequences and argue about the morality of it, but I would always understand, and I would never like the guy less. I would say, 'I get it.' " He pauses. "I think this isn't like that."

Matthews once got confessional about his own wandering eyes and hands. Last May, in one of his highest-profile bookings, he confided in his guest, George W. Bush, about his reasons for quitting drinking (he's been sober six years). A roomful of the traveling press corps -- as well as a live audience surrounding the two -- could hear their conversation, as Matthews rambled on during a commercial break. "It was one of these parties, Sam Donaldson's daughter's party," he said to Bush, relating three hours of afternoon drinking. "And I am gone at about six or seven at night. I've got my hand on somebody's leg. Where's this going? Who am I kidding?"

Bush nodded and said simply, "Yeah, yeah," remembering the mike was live.

"I don't mind occasional disasters, but I was heading in the wrong direction," Matthews said. Bush assured him he did the right thing by cutting himself off the booze. By occasional disasters, Matthews meant only flirting, he says months later by way of explanation.

But then he wants to know why I asked. He knows that he has enemies, that some have told me that Matthews's anger toward Clinton has a weird dissonance with his own insensitivity toward women in his workplace.

"There's two governing emotions in this city: jealousy and fear, and you can't tell 'em apart," Matthews says. Maybe he was mean one day to an underling, snapped at a hairdresser, he admits. Maybe he's reached a height where bigger guns are aimed at him.

"What's the bounty on Chris Matthews?" he asked me in our first lengthy phone conversation. "What do you get for bringing back Chris Matthews in a bag?"

On a typical Chris Matthews day, he takes the kids -- two boys and a girl -- to diving practice, maybe does a Today show spot, and then books guests from his home phone. (An often uphill battle, especially among Clinton-friendly Democrats, though the new White House is happier to oblige.) Then he goes to lunch.

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