The Cable Guy

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!”

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.”

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.

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.”

The Cable Guy