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The Cable Guy

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At one of those meals recently, Matthews has invited a surprise guest, his wife, Kathleen -- "my queen," he calls her -- to join us. She is lovely in a pale-blue, dark-trimmed anchorwoman suit, having taken a break before her five o'clock duties at the ABC affiliate in D.C. Her eyes are sunny, and her opinions strong. But she doesn't get much of a chance to voice them, except to point out to her husband that he has ordered for her the one soup she doesn't like.

When she arrives, Matthews is giving another essay answer, to a question about an on-air shouting match he had with Matt Lauer last October. "Let's be honest here," Lauer had said. "Al Gore irritates you." Matthews had unconvincingly dodged and weaved with answers about his alliance with millions of then undecided voters. (He won't reveal for whom he voted in 2000, although he pulled the lever for Clinton in the previous two contests.) That Gore-bashing accusation was followed in December with Matthews's dewy-eyed praise for the vice-president's concession speech, which Matthews called almost "sacramental in quality." "There's nothing here but a sublime masculinity," he said of Gore at the time.

At my insistence, Kathleen Matthews gets to talk, and she describes other "lachrymose" moments, as conservative commentator Bill Bennett teasingly called Matthews's Gore tribute. Once, in 1994, Kathleen saw him tear up talking with Charlie Gibson on Good Morning America the day after the death of Tip O'Neill. Then there was the time at a Hay-Adams reception for French businessmen when Matthews waxed poetic about General John "Black Jack" Pershing. She looked up and he was weeping, she recalled.

"That was the white wine!" he interrupts. Some baguette crumbs fly from his lips.

We cross the street to his office, where he's got about two hours until his taping begins. The NBC network can be divided into four fiefdoms: 30 Rockefeller Plaza is the Brokaw domain; MSNBC's Secaucus, New Jersey, studio houses Brian Williams's expanding realm; Tim Russert commands the D.C. bureau on Nebraska Avenue; and Matthews gets this spot facing Capitol Hill, on the former site of an old hotel where the then congressional aide Lyndon Johnson, the ultimate modern Hardballer, used to board. It is the lowliest of the perches, with tattered backdrops and a tendency toward technical problems.

At 3 p.m., a steak and five Diet Cokes are doing battle to keep his postlunch energy level high. He beckons some staffers into his office, where they participate in a conference call with executive producer Phil Griffin and other producers in Secaucus.

"Matthews muses about going to a bar after the taping, to see how he goes over. It'd be like Huck Finn going to his own funeral!"

Norah O'Donnell, an NBC reporter who got her start spinning Capitol Hill insights on cable shows like Matthews's, appears on his TV screen, which is emitting CNBC analysis at a low volume. She is blue-eyed and dignified, and Matthews stares at her with a furrowed brow. He interrupts the meeting's proceedings. "Hey, Phil, there's Norah again, busy doing something else." She has begged off a few recent booking requests. He later speaks wistfully of her and her upcoming wedding, noting that when she takes her fiancé's surname, she'll be Norah Tracy, which to him sounds like the greatest name in the history of television. "I said to him, when I met him for the first time, 'So what was it that attracted you to her?' " He ends with a big grin and a wheezy laugh.

On the windowsill sits a series of photos of Matthews with politicians, each of whom have scribbled a quip in the margins. Many older images are evidence of his late-in-life dye job; he was sandy-haired back in the eighties when he strolled outside the Capitol at Tip O'Neill's left flank. In a nearby frame, he shakes Jimmy Carter's hand. In another, he whispers to Bill Bradley during a break in one of his college-tour shows. Dan Quayle and his beautiful blonde daughter joke with Matthews in another shot. He points to the daughter. "Who knew?!" he asks.

The most poignant shot is a 12-year-old photo of him in the yellow-walled private residence of the White House. He has his right arm around his wife and his left hand holding a glass of white wine. His parents and George and Barbara Bush are also in the frame, and Matthews gets a little misty recalling it -- his now-departed mom bursting with pride and his true-believer GOP dad bestowed with a moment that he could carry all his days. The First Couple had shown the Matthews family where they slept, the rug Barbara made with their names woven in it, and their broken clock in the hallway. It was precious and damaged and repaired with tape. "It proved they were from old money," Matthews says.

It's almost 5 p.m. when Matthews tapes his one live program of the day. He goes into what appears to be a mild panic, sweating the details and wondering how the show will be perceived. He muses about going to a bar after the taping to see how he goes over. "It'd be like Huck Finn going to his own funeral!"

"This tells you something," Matthews says, pulling out an NBC News full-page ad in the Washington Post. There's a totem-pole-style layout that puts his face just below those of icon-in-chief Tom Brokaw, Meet the Press host Russert, and anchor-of-tomorrow Brian Williams. "Maybe I could move up," he wonders aloud.

What could Matthews do next? He claims not to think about it, and then relents. "I like what Koppel does," he says, referring to ABC's Nightline host, who seems likely to retire in the next five years. "There's Tim, who's very good at what he does," he says, meaning Russert, who is unlikely to budge but could use some sharper Sunday-morning competition. "And if circumstances change and I were to be given a Sunday show, I think I could do the job, but I'd still want to add to it my touch of a little entertainment, a little liveliness, a little pushing the envelope."

But not the nightly newscast anchor role, which, despite dwindling ratings, remains the top perch in any network. Matthews doesn't volunteer what he must know: In all his on-air railing against the Clintons, he's talked himself out of that job.

The other job he has probably talked himself out of is any elected office, although Pat Buchanan proved a career of sloganeering and pontificating can serve a presidential candidate well -- and boost a pundit's on-air longevity. Recently, the Philadelphia Inquirer claimed Matthews was mulling a challenge to his old friend and on-air regular Arlen Specter. When I put in a call to Specter's office, Bill Reynolds, his spokesman, is clearly infuriated by the question. In the meantime, Matthews says he's considering buying a house in Bucks County, just to keep his options open.

Howard Fineman has heard Matthews muse on his "Walter Mitty dream of being the Man." But he's always doubted it: "I've always thought, 'Why bother?' Why not go straight to emperor?" Says Hertzberg, "In my life, I've met three people who were obscure but I thought could be president. Chris was one of them."

Senator John McCain, to whom Matthews gave ample airtime during the presidential campaign, imagines that Matthews might ultimately have more political power on the air. "I wonder if at the end of the day he might consider that he probably reaches more people and is better-known where he is."

He wants to ascend, it's clear. His old friends note a particular dissing of the old neighborhood in his sending his kids to D.C.'s Waspy St. Alban's. "Did he lose his way?" one dear friend asks with a laugh. "Is he secretly some high Episcopalian -- is that why he hates Clinton? Is that why he likes the Bushes?" He earns eye-rolls from some within his own network, who point out that while he gets maximum mileage out of his Holy Cross tie to NBC chief Bob Wright, who graduated from the Jesuit college two years ahead of Matthews, he has a snappish tendency toward press secretaries and TV producers. "He's trying to make his way in the world. It's calculated and based in insecurity," says one prominent MSNBC insider.

On the wall of Matthews's office is a framed cover of the paperback printing of his first book, also called Hardball, a well-received guide to conniving your way to D.C. power. The central space is reserved for a blurb from one of his first boosters: George Will, who calls Matthews "half-Huck Finn, half-Machiavelli." Matthews takes respectful exception to Will's words. "Some people say I'm more like Tom Sawyer," he says.

"What do you say?" I ask.

"More like Tom Sawyer," he says earnestly. "Huck Finn was an operator."


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