A Chat with Chris Matthews
I know, I was as surprised as anyone when I asked Chris Matthews a question and he had something to say. The guy so rarely opens his mouth or, really, has an opinion on anything. On the occasion of the fifth anniversary of “The Chris Matthews Show,” Mr. Matthews did a teleconference. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to get this up prior to last week’s election, but we think you’ll find it a really interesting read nonetheless. By the way, in the interest of full disclosure, we should mention that this Q&A was actually done by two people - myself and our head honcho, Mr. Gerardo Orlando - but you’ll be able to tell which questions were asked by him, in that they show an actual knowledge of politics….
Bullz-Eye: Hi, Chris.
Chris Matthews: Hi.
BE: Which blogs do you tend to read to prepare for your shows, and how do you feel about inviting more bloggers to appear as guests on your program?
CM: Well, on the Sunday show we have limited mainly to press and broadcast and some cable, and that’s where we are right now. I’ve sort of made an arbitrary judgment. I like…I mean, I don’t want to get into playing favorites here, but I do think that, you know, we do have a couple of heroes on the show, I mean real…in terms of popularity among our viewers, Andrew Sullivan is probably one of our most passionate panelists. I think he might well be the most passionate panelist. I mean I think that…I think we like journalists, and certainly some bloggers are journalists. Not all of them. We like people who generally have to deal with editors, and Andrew does with his writing for Time. I like people familiar with editing as a collaborative process, and you’re very careful on facts. I think our arguments on the show, although they can be zesty, are always fact-driven. They’re not just simply first principles against first principles; they’re more, “This is it, this is a fact, that’s a fact, let’s compare them and argue about them.” And so, I like Andrew. Beyond him, I’m trying to think who we have used. We’ve certainly used Ana Marie Cox, who made her name as a blogger and is now with “Time,” and, you know, I think is really smart – I mean, really smart – when you talk to her off the air, especially when I’m chatting with her; she’s just getting used to TV. But I’d say it’s something that’s coming, and we’re being careful about it. That’s what I’m saying. But I have to tell you, people all, you know, for better or worse seem to check in with Drudge in the morning; people who have worked with me on the other show certainly do. It’s just a fact of life; there’s no way around it.
BE: What blogs do you actually read to prepare for your shows?
CM: I don’t read blogs to prepare for the show.
BE: Fair enough. I had a chance to speak with Darrell Hammond the other day…
CM: Isn’t he a smart guy? What a great guy.
BE: How much do you think his impression of you has helped increase people’s awareness of you and your program over the years?
CM: Well, it’s a generation thing. I mean I’m a “Saturday Night Live” viewer, and I think that anything that’s sort of, you know, enhances you as a public figure as a person they recognize and know sort of who you are, it broadens the people who would check in with our show in the morning. We’re still a relatively young show, and I personally like anything that opens another traverse, somewhere else to go to another show, whether it’s Jon Stewart or it’s (Steven) Colbert or it’s “Saturday Night Live.” I just think you got to let people know who you are and then they’ll take an interest in what you have to say. You got to get people to sample you. We don’t have an advertising budget, we don’t have a big network pushing us generally; we have local affiliates who push us and introduce us, but, generally, it’s my experience that you got to get people to come in and take a look. And at 10:00 Sunday morning in many markets we’ve had great success with people who find themselves to us. When we’re on a different time than that, it’s harder to get people to come upon us by accident. But it’s tough being a Hershey Bar, you know, being a product that’s never advertised. And I think that I love the kid who studies hard and, at 11 o’clock at night, checks in with a show like Jon Stewart or Steve Colbert, just to relieve themselves from their hard work. And I do want those kids to know about my show. And therefore, Darrell Hammond helps me that way.
BE: My next question focuses more on the media. It really goes back to an observation you made on your program, and also on “Hardball,” about the media over the last couple of months, up until just recently, not really covering the Iraq war there.
CM: You’re not kidding. It was really just…I have to tell you, I don’t know what it was. There was some period over which you didn’t see it on the tube, you just didn’t see.
CM: And maybe I’m talking about my own network – MS(NBC) – or I don’t want to generalize too much, but what I see on the tube during the day when I’m watching the monitors and three or four TV sets, I wasn’t seeing those action pictures. I wasn’t seeing GI’s shooting behind cover or going house to house. Those pictures weren’t on the tube. And I thought that…and certainly they’ve come back big this month because of the casualties and because of the firefights in Baghdad and the attempt to restore some kind of stability there…and I think it’s been that. It’s definitely changed the last couple of weeks…with the exception of this Kerry thing, which bounced it off for a while.
CM: It will be back…
BE: You think it’s more of…is it a budget issue, is it just editorial decision?
CM: Green zone issue probably, probably part green zone…
CM: Part you can’t do…you can’t walk…
BE: Just for safety.
CM: You can’t walk around like David Broder is going door-to-door in Iraq. You’ll get killed. You get taken prisoner and you’re…next thing you know, you’re Jill Carroll. I mean it’s just horrendous to cover that war. It’s not like even covering Vietnam, where you can go out with a unit every day. It’s just tough and I think that’s part of it. I think it’s budgetary. I’ll bet there’re a lot of issues I don’t even understand. I don’t know. All I know is…all I can do is be a consumer and say the number issue in every voting poll, every poll of voters says it’s the number one issue and yet it’s not on the tube and it’s not in the papers. But now it’s back – the last two, three weeks – it’s back.
BE: Do you ever have discussions with, you know, the powers that be at MSNBC about things like that? Does that ever come up?
CM: I’ve had a person or two say I was wrong, that they are covering a dispute at my position on that, my assessment…
BE: Yeah. Well, I think you’re right! (Laughs)
CM: But nobody in management’s ever said anything to me or anything. They don’t…they leave me alone.
CM: They’re pretty clear. You know, occasionally I think these people let me know that I’m not exactly the point of view they think is prevailing these days but, you know, that’s part of my life. I think I’m pretty much with the folk right now in terms of assessing events right now. Now, it’s changing.
BE: I think you hit the nail on the head with that one.
CM: Thank you.
BE: One thing that’s being talked about on the ‘net is, are we seeing an emergence possibly of a new trend in the Democratic Party for the libertarian democrats? These western democrats that are starting to emerge and more democrats who are starting to embrace the small-government argument when it comes to, you know, civil liberties and social justice, sort of as a counterbalance to the emergence of the religious right and big government conservatives who want to basically legislate morality.
CM: Yeah, and also within the Democratic Party, I should say. It wouldn’t be so much, you know, the guardian role of government that Hillary Clinton sort of personifies. It’s the opposite of that, right?
CM: We need a hall monitor that shows us how to live or we need big programs and big charts and big bureaucracies. And the problem, of course, is the things people care most about today… healthcare, you know, nobody’s figured out a way to make that a simple system, something really simple. It could be managed and rationed because you can’t…the rationing problem of Medicare is pretty extreme. You can’t find a way to stop the people who just want to keep going for testing and drive up the cost. You’ve got to find some way to build in some sort of restraint, so that there is a limit on how much healthcare we have, and we have to ration it so that everybody gets enough. And that’s troublesome in a bureaucracy. I mean, it’s just very hard to figure out a way to do that. The things people really…I mean, it sounds almost too easy. I mean, the big challenges we face are bureaucratic, and I mean, how can you have a system of healthcare you can draw on at a certain age – which is a problem – and then say that everybody can draw on it at any time in their life and there will be a doctor or nurse there or a surgeon or a specialist who has the capability and the sufficient ability to deal with your problem and meet your health requirement, and, at the same time, somehow limit how much money goes into this and who’s going to pay for all of this. And it is a huge challenge. And I don’t think Hillary came up with the answer. And I think for libertarian guys…I mean, would the liberals be more open to gun ownership? Would liberals be more open to vouchers? I mean…
BE: Well, that’s sort of what I was…
CM: I haven’t seen that yet. I mean, I would be…
BE: Well, that was Paul Hackett. I mean, you know, part of this comes from what Hackett was saying in Ohio. He was basically going around the state and getting a lot of positive feedback, saying, “Look, I own guns, I don’t want the government involved in my life, and that involves the bedroom.”
CM: Yeah, well, that’s an attitude in…well, Pennsylvania, you can bet, but that’s more driven by politics than by thinking. Guys like Casey are in with the NRA because if you’re not with the NRA, you’re dead. I think the Republican Party…
BE: Well, the Democrats have tactfully backed off that issue.
CM: Yeah, I know, because I heard that Al Gore dropped off it, and it still cost him the middle of the country, and his own state. Hillary is …I’ve told Dingell and others, John Dingell, that the Second Amendment will not be an issue in her campaign for President. I’ve heard that story from a damned good source…in fact, an incredibly good source, I’ll just tell you that. A first-person account. And…
BE: Well, they know how to run campaigns, right?
CM: Well, they just don’t want to run on the gun issue in Pennsylvania and Ohio because they’re going to lose the whole thing. They know it.
CM: And Michigan. But I think that division is a more interesting thing to watch than the Republican Party, where you have the traditional conservatives, the Barry Goldwater conservatives who say, “Gay rights is okay, choice is okay, but I want lower taxes and less government,” but they also want less restrictions on their social life as well as on their economic rights. The Democrats…
BE: I think you’re right, and…
CM: Wait, and it’s a fascinating idea that the Democrats would have that kind of dispute between big government and less government, but I haven’t heard it yet. You’re ahead of me.
BE: Yeah. That’s part of what’s being discussed on the ‘net. We’ll see if it goes anywhere.
CM: Well, it sounds like…I just want to see where the fighting line is.
BE: Yeah, and there’s another one, up in Montana.
CM: Well, his might be the only way Tester wins. People say he’s very popular up there.
BE: And, lastly, how much would you say your show has been influenced by your experiences on “The McLaughlin Group”?
CM: Well, I think…you know, when we put this together this program – Nancy Nathan is listening in here – and we put the show together, we had a little advice from people in NBC, but it was mainly our decision on how to do the show. We thought of having a panel. We started with some other part of the program, which is sort of an interview with a news reporter. We thought that ended up being redundant and slow. We thought we’d go right to the panel. So we developed organically, with things like “Tell Me Something I Don’t Know” and other parts of the show, the commentary… we developed those. I think that was really just testing and thinking it through and seeing what was working. It’s generally a full panel show, with the exception of the commentary at the end. Certainly, that fits the model of “Agronsky & Co.,” which was on and I loved and watched every Saturday night in Washington here since the early ‘70s. And that was…what we took from Agronsky was journalists who were prominent with major magazines, with major broadcast nets, and some cable. We really focused on tested journalists who have editors and producers that are used to being checked on facts, and not just people with opinion. We also took from McLaughlin, I think, a sense of speed. It’s a fast-paced show. I’m never told to slow down. It has a lot of fun. So it’s a combination. It’s sort of a hybrid of a very serious Washington-based show with another show which had more color, more speed, more…culture, if you will, without being too pompous about it. References to movies, references to the things people are talking about…not just baseball references, like most political reporters used to do. And it has kind of a mix of…we have better women. We have half women, half our panelists are women. Nobody else has ever done that before. It’s always two women and two men. We really pushed for ethnic diversity. We have a number of African Americans who participate regularly. I think we’ve really tried to be the state-of-the-art in a number of ways. But also…I’m not going to take away from it…it’s fun. If we don’t have a good laugh, two or three times a segment, I think we have failed. If we don’t have some really good information that people can take away with them and say, “Where’d you hear that?” “Well, I heard it on the Matthews show,” we’re failing. So it’s… the takeaway of the old Agronsky show, and the McLaughlin show, when he used to have journalists on the show, and then the fun of McLaughlin and the speed of McLaughlin. What we don’t do that McLaughlin does is the ad hominem. There’s never a time on our show when somebody points to somebody else and says, “You’re a bad person,” or, “You’re not thinking this right” or…it’s always about ideas and the arguments. It’s never about the individual making the argument. And I think McLaughlin engaged in those and was part of the sport of that show. But we don’t do that.
BE: Would you ever have McLaughlin on your show?
CM: We might have him someday. But he has to give up his show first.
BE: All right. That’s fair.
CM: I really like the guy, by the way, and I find him a treasure to learn from. I also love Agronsky. Martin, who I love, would call me up, and I’ve done Seder at his house and stuff like that. Martin would call me up on Friday morning at 8:30 and say, “What’s going in the Hill?” And I get on the phone, before I could go to work, and my wife would go crazy. “He’s keeping you home, you got to go to work.” And I’d say, “Let me answer his questions.” And then Morton Kondracke would call me up, or Fred Barnes would call me… they’d also be calling me. Because I was the short hand working for the Speaker, I get some of everything going on in politics. And they… all they do is call me for ten minutes, and it’s as if they’ve been in town all week! So I enjoyed… what do you call it?…the apprenticeship very much. I really enjoyed playing that part.
BE: Thank you very much.
CM: Okay, thanks.