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Politically Speaking

by Peter Proko
A conversation with the always talkative Chris Matthews

Long before Chris Matthews would rub elbows with Washington, D.C.’s elite as the host of two successful television talk shows, he was growing up in the Nicetown section of Philadelphia and spending his teenage summers working and living in Ocean City, trying to stay out of trouble. Today, the 65-year-old is known for leading spirited political discussions nightly on MSNBC’s Hardball with Chris Matthews as well as every Sunday morning on The Chris Matthews Show on NBC. Matthews’ calling card for years has been his ability to mix sharp wit with strong opinions and he is no stranger to ruffling a few feathers. In fact, he looks forward to stirring the pot. Commanding his show with a certain amount of fervor, he’s more plugged in than most D.C. insiders and pulls no punches as active participant rather than just a moderator of invited guests. He talks fast and has an unmistakable guffaw—there’s even a Facebook page dedicated to it—whether he’s laughing with someone or at them.

Matthews got his start in D.C. politics as a speechwriter for then-President Jimmy Carter and as former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill’s right-hand man. A former newspaper columnist, Matthews is the author of six books, including the brand new “Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero,” where he takes a closer look at the man behind the legend and how he rose to be regarded as one of this country’s greatest leaders. In anticipation of the book’s release this month, we sat down with Matthews just minutes after wrapping up an episode of Hardball to talk about his admiration for JFK, summers at the Shore, being spoofed regularly on Saturday Night Live, and of course, politics.

SOUTH JERSEY MAGAZINE: With two TV shows and your sixth book out, you’ve certainly been busy. What’s a typical day in the life of Chris Matthews like?
CHRIS MATTHEWS: I get up at seven in the morning and I make my wife a skim latte and take it up to her, then I make my coffee and sit down with the five newspapers I read every day [The Washington Post, The Washington Times, The New York Times, The Examiner and The Politico]. That is something I would like to do, even if I wasn’t working. Then I read all the online sources, and around 9 a.m. I call my executive producer in New York and we talk about [Hardball] and figure out what we want to do. We’ll re-communicate around noon and I bring in the six producers I have [in Washington, D.C.].

At 3:45 p.m., we have a meeting; I write my close to the show and head to makeup. I’ll come out and kid around with my floor director, do a little fist bump. Then I get up and do the show from 5 to 6 live.

For [Sunday’s The Chris Matthews Show], I have a big discussion with producers on Thursday morning and write the teases and questions for the guests. Friday morning, I come in at 9:30 a.m., meet the panel at 11 and do the show around 11:30. That is the hardest part; [Fridays] are like a doubleheader.

SJM: Sounds like Friday nights are your chance to finally unwind a bit.
CM: I like Friday nights. Usually around 6 p.m., I am free. And until 5:30 Saturday night, I am in heaven. Then I realize that Saturday Night Live is coming up, which means Sunday is coming and Monday is coming and I’m starting to dread [the start of the week]. I have been live on the air every week night for 17 years; I believe that’s a record. I started the political show on cable TV. I can’t think of anyone else who did it [before me].

SJM: So tell me about how the idea for the new book came about. It’s not the first time you’ve written about JFK.
CM: I saw the film In the Line of Fire and there was a wonderful line. Clint Eastwood’s character is told he covered for Kennedy when he had a girlfriend and he says, “That was different. He was different.” That grabbed me. I wrote “Kennedy and Nixon” in 1996, and from that I had a lot of sources I worked with, people close to Jack Kennedy, and I got the idea of him as a hero and not just a politician. So I went back to the archives, the oral history no one has ever gotten before. I got the original notes, talked to Jack’s last surviving sibling, who was great. I talked to [former White House Secretary] Tish Baldridge and all his friends I have gotten to know over the years … Chuck Spalding, his closest friend … I spent hours with [former executive editor of The Washington Post] Ben Bradlee.

SJM: There has been much written about JFK, but this book reads different. How difficult was it for you to find a fresh angle?
CM: I wanted to know what he was like … in college, in war, as a political guy, when he’s in a room with people. I wanted to get that firsthand, because no one ever really tried to figure out how this young son of Joe Kennedy got to become a leader. I wanted to follow the whole progression. I don’t think anyone has ever gotten into him as a person. No one is going to read this book and not know he was a hero.

SJM: It sounds like you enjoy being an author and tackling these topics in depth.
CM: You have to be interested to give all the years of your life on a topic. Kennedy, [Winston] Churchill, [Ernest] Hemingway … I just want to read about these people I find fascinating.

SJM: I know you grew up in Philly, but I remember hearing you tell Jay Leno that the worst job you ever had was as a singing waiter at Your Father’s Mustache in Somers Point. Sounds like a pretty interesting summer gig.
CM: I had every job in Ocean City; my parents bought a house there while I was in high school. My dad ended up retiring down there, at First and Atlantic, and my stepmother, Trude Matthews, still lives there. I worked at The Chatterbox, a great place to work. I worked at a couple of gas stations, one on 34th Street … I worked at Watson’s, too. My brother and I probably spent more time in New Jersey than Philly. We’d end up staying up all night, go to the dunes until 3 a.m., and then go to work at six, that’s how you lived.

SJM: And I know your Jersey ties also extend beyond the Shore as well, correct?
CM: My daughter-in-law works for a federal judge in Camden and we have lots of relatives in Jersey, not many left in Philly.

SJM: You say that you became interested in politics at 5 years old. Seems rather young, when most of your friends were probably trading baseball cards. What was it that initially attracted you?
CM: I remember distinctly the race between [Dwight] Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson in ’52.

SJM: Decades ago, you had an unsuccessful run for office in Pennsylvania. What made you decide to switch gears into covering politics instead of being directly involved?
CM: I borrowed some money from my dad … the whole campaign cost $1,500. I could have stayed and kept trying; I almost ran for Senate a few years ago. But I’m very lucky to talk about politics on TV; it’s one of the great breaks in my life, to have this big audience every night.

SJM: Do you like being that voice and the certain celebrity element that comes with that?
CM: I actually like people coming up to me and saying hello. I am not a celebrity; they don’t call me Mr. Matthews or anything. It’s very comfortable to think people know me as a friend. I want to be good company. I want to be like Johnny Carson … people will come up to me and say, “My husband watched you until the end.” That is very comforting, I was there and I added to their life. I like that people are very familiar with me; they don’t need to be distant when they see me.

SJM: Having been directly involved with D.C. politics while working for Tip O’Neill, then becoming a newspaper man before transitioning into TV, is there one common trait that has allowed you to excel in these different areas?
CM: Writing. I always had a job writing. I write for my shows, I wrote for Tip O’Neill, and I loved working for the newspapers. I was assistant editor of my high school newspaper, my first success in life.

SJM: What about the two shows you host? They have different feels, by design, I’m sure. Do you get different levels of satisfaction from each one?
CM: The joy of the job is to get the truth out of people. Or catching some B.S. artist and exposing them. I like that.

On Sunday morning, you don’t have to sell every minute, [the audience is] committed. We have really good guests on the weekend that are hard to get every night on [Hardball]. I treat the panel as the stars of the show. It’s very important to get out of the way or you’re not going to last. They are news people and they have facts I want, so I really listen.

The shows that die are the shows that just talk. The ones that survive give you value, you have something you didn’t know at the end. If you don’t walk away with something, you are not going back for it.

SJM: You also branch out, appearing on The Colbert Report, or with Bill Maher, making a cameo on 30 Rock. Do you feel that you are more connected to the public than some of your counterparts?
CM: I just did a thing for The Good Wife. I’ve done like eight movies, I love that. You know, Tip O’Neill became really connected when he did Cheers. I mean, The Good Wife debuted with 10 million people. Those are huge numbers of people not related to politics.

SJM: Was it a surreal moment the first time you saw yourself spoofed by Darryl Hammond on Saturday Night Live?
CM: I loved it! Darryl is a great guy and I know how great he is [with other impressions], and everyone thinks he’s good at doing me.

SJM: It’s easy for people to dismiss you as another talking head on TV, but does it bother you that some people debate the depth of your knowledge on certain subjects?
CM: Anyone who watches the show for more than a couple of weeks will know I know what I am talking about. And if they don’t, I will challenge them right now.

Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 8, Issue 8 (November, 2011).
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