In a media landscape awash with hype, genuinely shocking television moments are few and far between.
But Chris Matthews, the Irish-American host of MSNBC’s political talk show “Hardball,” delivered just such a moment during last year’s Republican National Convention.
Senator Zell Miller of Georgia, a conservative Democrat, spoke in support of President Bush at the convention, held at New York’s Madison Square Garden.
Miller appeared on “Hardball” shortly after his fierce oration. His encounter with Matthews quickly became testy. Then it became testier. Then it blew up completely. Miller, furious about Matthews’s line of questioning, expressed regret that the era had passed when he could have challenged the host to a duel.
The exchange was replayed and discussed endlessly — and it did neither man any harm. Miller became even more of a hero to conservatives, and Matthews saw his show’s profile rise to even greater heights.
Many people would imagine — wrongly, according to Matthews — that the exchange with Miller would not discomfit the talk show host. After all, the name of his show celebrates his reputation for toughness. His fondness for explaining political tactics by reference to the gory “Godfather” movies is famous. His caffeinated, shouty style has helped “Hardball” punch above its weight, even though Matthews still trails his rivals on Fox News and CNN in the ratings.
Hosts on other cable news channels may have more viewers than Matthews, but none is more imitated. Darrell Hammond’s “Saturday Night Live” sketches, in which he portrays Matthews as a fearsome and slightly unhinged — but oddly likeable — character, have played a big role in making the Irish American a cult hero. These days, Matthews’s curious charm is as likely to be celebrated on snarky blogs like Wonkette.com as at inside the Beltway parties.
During a lengthy phone interview with the Irish Echo last Saturday, Matthews seemed to be, in essence, a slow-mo version of his television persona.
The manic verbal delivery slowed down to normal speed off-air — perhaps a testimony to the calming qualities of Nantucket, where he was weekending with his family — but all the other well-known characteristics are in place.
He was extremely loquacious, talking for 90 minutes over the course of two phone calls. He was also a difficult man to interrupt — several answers to straightforward questions took 10 minutes or more.
Matthews’s engaging on-air penchant for tangential remarks also remained intact in person. A question about the prevalence of Irish Americans in the news media was interrupted as soon as the name of Norah O’Donnell, MSNBC’s telegenic Chief White House Correspondent, was invoked:
“Ohhhh, Norah O’Donnell!” Matthews erupted in a paroxysm of delight. “Inn’t she somethin’? She’s somethin’ else. She’s the pride of the island. She’s 100 percent Irish. Both parents are immigrants, I think. The parents look nothing like her, I must say.”
There were a couple of stark contrasts between Matthews in conversation and his public image, however. In person, he seemed less bullish. Often, he sounded fretful. Nowhere was this gloominess more apparent than in relation to the war in Iraq.
“I just think it is not in America’s interest, and I’ve said that in as many ways as you can say it in my questioning of people,” he noted.
“I was right about the people pushing the war — like Bill Kristol and Wolfowitz and those guys. The neoconservatives. They wanted this war and I was right about that. I didn’t realize they were going to be so successful. It was ideology that led us to this war, very right-wing policies towards the Middle East.”
Matthews’s opposition to the war is based on two contentions — first, that it is extremely tough to democratize a nation by the use of military force, and second, that American actions may have the effect of exacerbating the threat to America itself.
Referring to the Bush White House, he said with a tone of exasperation that “I think they’d benefit from military men who know what it means to fight a war and really know how rough it is and how limited your conquest tends to be.”
Later he added:
“Great powers are always resented. But when you notch it up a couple of notches, from resentment to hatred to zealotry, then you have suicide bombers. They are created by events. Everybody knows this.”
For all his trenchant criticism of the war, Matthews is at pains to assert that he does not see himself as a partisan. Presumably his sensitivity on this score is related to the fact that some right-wingers view him with skepticism because of his background.
Matthews’s political insider image is founded on his work for two Democratic legends. He was a senior aide to the late House Speaker, Tip O’Neill (“he was a great boss. He stuck to his guns,” Matthews said), and he toiled in relative obscurity as a speechwriter for President Jimmy Carter.
“I have to be equally hardball with everybody,” Matthews insisted, “and I tend to be. I was very tough on President Clinton.”
Matthews has come a long way from his background in an Irish family in Philadelphia. He is, he said, “three-quarters Irish.” His maternal lineage encompasses two Irish families — the Conroys and the Quinlans — while his paternal grandmother was a Northern Irish Presbyterian, hailing from the coastal town of Portrush:
“She was like Mrs. Doubtfire,” Matthews remembered with a laugh. “She was so Irish. She had that strong northern Irish accent.”
Matthews returned to Ireland in a journalistic capacity for the signing of the Good Friday agreement in 1998:
“I had the most amazing several days,” he recalled. “[But] I learnt some things that I never knew could be so stupid.”
Matthews’ driver on the trip was a Protestant.
“He was a very likeable fellow, but he would say things like ‘why do Catholic school kids have to wear uniforms in crazy colors — why don’t they wear black and white like we do?'”
The talk show host said of the northern conflict in general, “It’s stupid, from an American point of view. But at least the big violence has reduced and people aren’t getting killed.”
Matthews, to his unconcealed delight, will soon add another string to his bow. At the start of next month he will appear in the hit TV series “The West Wing.” Senator Arnold Vinick, the fictional Republican presidential contender played by Alan Alda, will be subjected to a “Hardball” interrogation:
“I was smiling through it,” Matthews laughed. “They wanted me to be tougher. By the fourth take they said it was perfect. But Alan Alda was perfect in every one of the takes. He’s a pro!”
Matthews’s love for politics itself seems undimmed by passing time or the hard fight for TV ratings. By way of explaining his apparently limitless enthusiasm, he recalled his time working for Senator Ed Muskie in the mid-1970s:
“He said something that I’ve never forgotten. He said that the only reason to be in politics is to be out there all alone and to be proven right. I think that’s not selfless, it’s not totally idealistic, but it’s a tough statement of why you would want to be a politician.
“Why would you want to be a politician to go along with what everyone else thought? Or why would you want to be a loser in a good cause? You want to be a winner in a good cause.”
Chris Matthews may be more of an observer than a participant in the game of politics these days. But it’s difficult to stifle the thought that when he talks about the desire to be “a winner in a good cause” he is really talking about himself.