"You know he's saying exactly what he thinks -- that's the whole trick. You know it's coming straight from his gut. That's what his appeal has always been."
Last fall, as network executives, members of Congress and other hotshots gathered beneath a massive tent at Washington's Decatur House to celebrate the 10th anniversary of "Hardball," Chris Matthews began to address the crowd.
Dispensing with the usual platitudes about his MSNBC show, Matthews vowed not to be silenced by Bush administration officials. And he let loose with this broadside: "They've finally been caught in their criminality."
The political community was soon abuzz: Did you hear what Chris said? What criminality was he talking about? Could he really be fair in moderating the following week's Republican presidential debate?
"I did it on purpose," Matthews says now. "I wanted to make a statement that we had a purpose on the show -- to tell the truth."
MATTHEWS: Let's go to this sub--what happened to this week, which was to me was astounding as a student of politics, like all of us. Lights, camera, action. This week the president landed the best photo op in a very long time. Other great visuals: Ronald Reagan at the D-Day cemetery in Normandy, Bill Clinton on horseback in Wyoming. Nothing compared to this, I've got to say.
Katty, for visual, the president of the United States arriving in an F-18, looking like he flew it in himself. The GIs, the women on--onboard that ship loved this guy.
Ms. KAY: He looked great. Look, I'm not a Bush man. I mean, he doesn't do it for me personally, especially not when he's in a suit, but he arrived there...
MATTHEWS: No one would call you a Bush man, by the way.
Ms. KAY: ...he arrived there in his flight suit, in a jumpsuit. He should wear that all the time. Why doesn't he do all his campaign speeches in that jumpsuit? He just looks so great.
MATTHEWS: I want him to wa--I want to see him debate somebody like John Kerry or Lieberman or somebody wearing that jumpsuit.
Mr. DOBBS: Well, it was just--I can't think of any, any stunt by the White House--and I'll call it a stunt--that has come close. I mean, this is not only a home run; the ball is still flying out beyond the park.
MATTHEWS: Well, you know what, it was like throwing that strike in Yankee Stadium a while back after 9/11. It's not a stunt if it works and it's real. And I felt the faces of those guys--I thought most of our guys were looking up like they were looking at Bob Hope and John Wayne combined on that ship.
Mr. GIGOT: The reason it works is because of--the reason it works is because Bush looks authentic and he felt that he--you could feel the connection with the troops. He looked like he was sincere. People trust him. That's what he has going for him.
MATTHEWS: ...--say you were over in the Middle East watching the president of the United States on this humongous aircraft carrier. It looks like it could take down Syria just one boat, right, and the president of the United States is pointing a finger and saying, `You people with the weapons of mass destruction, you people backing terrorism, look out. We're coming.' Do you think that picture mattered over there?
Matthews says his job "is to be provocative and say things -- you know, 'That's crazy!' -- the way you might at a party."
In a Christmas video for the NBC staff, Brian Williams jokingly called him "Rain Man." Tom Brokaw cracked on "The Daily Show" that "when it comes to politics, Chris has a form of Tourette's syndrome." Matthews is the childlike genius with an uncanny command of political arcana who is sometimes oblivious to his own erratic behavior. In a world of scripted anchors, he fuses passionate punditry with a self-absorption so intense he likes being mocked on "Saturday Night Live." Love him or hate him, it's hard to avert your eyes.
Friends are quick to say that Matthews isn't afraid of strong women. They point to his wife, Kathleen, until recently a top anchor at WJLA-TV, and the hard-charging female producers around him.
Still, some high-profile women are now holding him up as a symbol of the insensitive male pundit.
He enjoys the towel-snapping banter of the locker room, praising women's looks on camera and off. For that matter, he also jokes about people's ethnicity, saying that the Irish hold grudges and teasing pals about being Jewish.
He routinely talks over his panelists, but some women feel especially trampled.
Matthews: Let's go back to women with needs. Women with needs are Hillary's great strength. Women who don't have a college degree, women who don't have a lot of things going for them. May not have a husband, may have kids, have all kinds of needs with day care, education, minimum wage. Will Oprah help with them to move to Barack Obama?(Here's another one, where he gets nasty with Financial Times reporter Christia Freeland, also from last November.)
Julie Mason, Houston Chronicle: Well, they're looking more for issues than they are for a celebrity endorsement. I don't think it's a celebrity endorsement from Oprah or from Bill Clinton, not that he's a celebrity, but you know what I'm saying. I don't think they move votes. I think they bring attention, I think they bring TV cameras, but those particular women are more concerned with health care and other issues than they are with what Oprah says ...
Matthews : (angry, nasty) OK let's get straight. Don't ever say Bill Clinton doesn't bring votes. If it weren't for Bill there wouldn't be a Hill. The idea that he doesn't give her star quality is INSANE
Julie Mason: (startled) I'm not saying he ...
Matthews: He IS her star quality.
Julie Mason: I'm not saying, he doesn't bring votes but if you were undecided...
Matthews:(abrupt) Ok. ... Thank you Matt.
Julie Mason:... I don't think Hillary..er Bill Clinton ...
Matthews: I know I caught you off guard there.
Julie Mason: ...would bring you in.
Matthews: I was too tough on you there, but I know I'm right. Anyway, Matt ... just like Hillary I know I'm going to win.
Others say that Matthews's smartest-guy-in-the-studio intensity is simply his style. "Chris asks a question, he often answers his question, and then he asks you to comment on his answer to his question," says Fineman. "Which I'm perfectly happy to do."
...the "Hardball" host has been particularly hard on the former first lady, to the point where some of her advisers have glared at him at parties. And there is a history here. In 1999, amid speculation that Clinton might seek a Senate seat in New York, Matthews told viewers: "No man would say, 'Make me a U.S. senator because my wife's been cheating on me.' "
The following year, he said: "Hillary Clinton bugs a lot of guys, I mean, really bugs people -- like maybe me on occasion. . . . She drives some of us absolutely nuts."
It was against that backdrop that Matthews sparked a furor last month when he said: "I'll be brutal: The reason she's a U.S. senator, the reason she's a candidate for president, the reason she may be a front-runner, is her husband messed around." The counterattack was fierce.
"I've said a million times, I like her," Matthews says. "We kid around back and forth. She's very charming." But, he says, "the way that got portrayed was, I was somehow against women's aspirations."
"Hardball" mixes interviews of politicians and journalists with Matthews's rapid-fire observations. Ratings are up slightly over a year ago -- averaging 422,000 viewers at 5 p.m. and 468,000 for the 7 p.m. repeat -- but the program finishes well behind Fox News and CNN. Matthews, who is said to earn more than $5 million a year, had long been top dog at MSNBC. But he has been overshadowed lately by Keith Olbermann, who averages 832,000 viewers on "Countdown" and has been co-anchoring with Matthews on primary nights.
Matthews is a Roman Catholic with a strong moralistic streak, which became clear in his constant denunciations of Bill Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky affair.
"I spent a year going after Clinton because he just wasn't straight with the American people. He used the presidency to protect himself," Matthews says.
He brings that same fervor to chastising the Bush administration for launching an ill-advised war in Iraq. "If you ask me what gets me mad, it's the war issue, the sense that we're being lied to," he says now.
MATTHEWS: I was hoping we could come on tonight with purple fingers.
FINEMAN: It's red this time.
MATTHEWS: Red, then.
KORNBLUT: Aren't you going to get a parade of members of Congress now for the next few days who've all gone over and seen it? It strikes me that this is going to be a fairly huge story for days and days to come.
MATTHEWS: Well, it's probably the greatest gamble since Roosevelt backed Britain before World War II. The president deserves credit, if this gamble comes through -- and it's not clear yet. If his gamble that he can create a democracy in the middle of the Arab world and he does it, he belongs on Mount Rushmore.
MATTHEWS: You know, I felt sensitive. I was with him last night, the president. We all went to see the president. You were there -- went to see the president for our Christmas. You get your picture taken with him. It's like Santa Claus, and he's always very generous and friendly.
FINEMAN: You don't get to sit on his lap.
KORNBLUT: What did you ask him for?
MATTHEWS: And I was wearing a red scarf. And I wanted to look a little bit festive for the occasion, look a little preppy. And he came up to me and said, "Matthews, I didn't know you were that preppy." This is the president of the United States after his biggest victory, and he goes, "I didn't know you were that preppy." And I said, "Well, you know, I went to Holy Cross, but you guys started with all this stuff -- the old guys started with all this stuff," and then he started kidding around. I felt like I was too towel-snappy with him. I felt he deserves a little -- I mean, he deserves a lot of respect for this bet he's making.
Matthews is proud of his scars. He says he has learned to be more careful but that bloggers are taking some of his language out of context. And his bosses take the controversy in stride. "Chris puts himself out there, and some people are not going to like him," says Griffin, the MSNBC chief. "He wears his heart on his sleeve."
In the end, Matthews wants to keep swinging away with his racket, aiming for that chalk line.
"Once a show is over, "if you start saying what you shouldn't have said, you really lose it -- spontaneity. . . . I hate to use the word, but it is a show, it is television. It has to have an entertainment factor. It just does."
JAMES CARNEY: [It seems to me that] it's a positive to have people listening to radio, listening to issues, talking about politics and policy. That's about an informed public. That's what is annoying about the condescension — it's that anybody who is tuning into [talk radio], or watching cable, is more engaged than people who are watching game shows.
LIMBAUGH: You are absolutely right. I've been doing radio for 20 years, and there's still these gross and great misunderstandings of what I do, why I do it and how I do it, and I'll get calls from people who are new listeners, and some of them will be critical: "Why are you trying to just continually make people mad. Why can't you help people come together?" And I say, Look, what you do with your life and your thoughts is fine. All I'm interested in here is a more informed, educated, engaged, participatory public in matters of state. The more people that show up to vote informed, the more people that participate and get involved in these kinds of things who are informed and passionately engaged is better off for the country. So you nailed it. You're exactly right.
Appearing on MSNBC's Morning Joe, the Hardball host went off on the Clinton press shop, calling them "knee cappers" who were "lousy" and delve in the business of "intimidation."
"What she has to do is get rid of the kneecapers that work for her, these press people whose main job seems to be punishing Obama or going after the press, to building a positive case for her," said Matthews. "Her campaign slogan right now is don't get your hopes up. That won't work in America. You can't diminish Obama and hope that you will rise from the ashes."
Asked why he believed Clinton had gone negative, Matthews again struck an antagonistic chord about the campaign's media operation.
"The kneecapping hasn't worked. Her press relations are lousy," he said. "If all you do is intimidate and punish and claim you'll get even relentlessly, people of all kinds of politicians -- and in all fairness, the press -- human reaction to intimidation is screw you. That's the human reaction. Don't tell me what to say, and that has been their whole policy. We're going to win this thing. Get out of the way."