Every night is opening night for Chris Matthews and since I’ve been around for so many of them, I was asked to write about his ninth book, This Country: My Life in Politics and History.
To those who know Chris from his 20 years shouting questions and frequently bellowing the answers on “Hardball,” you may pick up the book to find out how a kid who lived above a grocery store in North Philly got lucky enough to shoot to the center of the political universe, bouncing from the White House to the Speaker’s office, to being a pop culture figure on Saturday Night Live, and a guest on Jay Leno’s couch 29 times, cameos on “The West Wing,” “30 Rock” and in “Dave.” He would be a candidate for Congress, a pundit on CBS and NBC. One summer during grad school, he was a singing waiter at Your Father’s Mustache, fortunately before the age of iPhones to record it.
But keep reading and luck reveals itself to be fickle, as usual, and gives way to doggedness and pony-in-the-manure optimism. In 1971, he moved to Washington with no money, no plan, and a $35-a-month room. He caught the early bus every morning, going door to door in the halls of Congress asking strangers, whose job it was to tell him to get lost, if he could work there. Finally, he got his break: by night, he’d work as a Capitol Policeman; by day, as a lowly legislative assistant in the office of Senator Frank Moss, a moderate Democrat from Utah, in the days when such a creature existed. The new hire answered every piece of mail that needed more than a form letter as if its recipient would frame it.
Several jobs later, he got to the mountaintop on the other side of the dome: As Speaker Tip O’Neill’s right hand man, Chris devised the counter message to the voluble Reagan White House. That came after Chris’s stint as speechwriter to President Jimmy Carter and an interlude where he shed the protective gear of an aide and jumped into the arena. He ran for Congress in the spring of 1974, a disaster by the obvious standard of winning, but a triumph if measured by the political wisdom that can only be acquired firsthand.
Chris grew up Catholic, Irish, one of five boys, and—hold on—a Republican. To Chris’s dad, unlike the aristocratic JFK, Nixon was the one. Nixon, the dour Quaker, was the first in his family to wear a suit, just as Mr. Matthews was in his. That was enough to earn his vote over the toff. Life for Chris was early Mass at St. Stephen’s—only the vaguely devout filed into the pews at noon—fish on Friday, a paper route, and parish school, much like mine, except his nuns tried to crush his spirit with a ruler while mine gave me old Time magazines and a spot in the citywide spelling bee. His intellectual life began when he got into the hands of the Christian Brothers at LaSalle College High School, edited the school paper, and made it into Holy Cross.
By the time he graduated, the times, they were a-changing. The draft was looming, the anti-war movement growing, and generations dividing. He won a full scholarship to the Ph.D. economic program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Not a protester by nature—the police weren’t pigs to him, he’d ducked under his desk in grade school fearing the Soviets—Chris nonetheless joined the March on the Pentagon, raising alarms at home when his mother wondered what he was doing “down there with the Communists.” With his draft deferment running out, Chris applied to the Peace Corps but kept turning down assignments as not different enough until one came along that was.
Part of reading a memoir is watching the writer open doors you left closed. I thought I’d broken away from the old neighborhood of Knights of Columbus bingo nights and chaperoned dances for a semester studying abroad. How small-bore. Chris busted out when he got an offer of two years in Swaziland at the Ministry of Commerce helping Africans adopt modern economic practices. With little more than a table at the ministry and a Suzuki 120 to weave his way through the veld, he taught weekly business courses, met individually with 200 traders to set up their books, and put on the first industrial show on the national fairgrounds attended by the king. Better yet, broadcasters in South Africa called his group helping black farmers “do-gooding intellectuals.”
Back then, southern Africa—“the last stop” the British called it—was almost as remote as the moon, with no trips home, not even a phone call. From there, Chris saw his country “as an astronaut does, whole and from a beautiful distance,” but once home was a visitor to “a country that looked familiar but was not the same.” Being alone for so long was one way for a boy to become a man. He went to UNC to tell his advisor he wouldn’t be returning and set out on his own for the twinkling lights of the Capitol that had fascinated him since his trip there with his parents and two brothers, age seven, in his Sunday best. His second visit to D.C. would last 15 years, touching down in the Senate, the White House, and the Speaker’s rooms. The cigar smoke of the back room had run its course, and when O’Neill retired in 1987, so did Chris.
They say there are no second acts, but Chris at 41 embarked on his fourth, depending on how you count. He’d tried his hand at journalism in between jobs and decided to dive in full time. After The New Republic, where I was managing editor, he published a piece that began, “I don’t know how you spent 1982 but I spent it Reagan watching,” about what it was like in the Democratic trenches, he got an offer from Simon & Schuster to write a book about politics as it’s really played and soon after, got his own column and a contract with CBS.
The high priests of journalism didn’t like the partisan Matthews invading their turf, but it was Chris’s time on the other side that made the book Hardball a bestseller. From his time as a candidate, he actually knew what it was like to shed the protective shield of an aide for the vulnerability of a candidate who has to openly ask to be liked. Running on a shoestring, he knew how to make do: go where there’s already a crowd; at a grocery store start at the exit and work back to the produce section so you’re running into voters, not chasing them. When there’s no money for flyers, jury-rig “Honk & Wave” signs on busy roads—but careful, don’t snarl the traffic. Your old friends would love to help; like voters, they want to be asked. The young volunteers, so inspired they’ll stay up all night stuffing envelopes, are what inspires the candidate at the end of a 20-hour day of empty diners and half-full veteran’s halls. His loss taught him how hard it is to lose and how sacred the moment is to democracy to have the loser concede, to, in a way, ratify the result, a rite the ex-president deprived the country of.
Even if I hadn’t known Chris for decades, I would like This Country. I like Washington books by people whose ambition didn’t begin with getting into the most elite nursery school on their way to the Ivy League, followed by the right internship wired by a professor or well-connected parent. The pole they climb isn’t slippery.
Proving he’s not my brother by another mother, Chris took the end of his show at MSNBC last March, just before the world shut down, with more grace than I possess. After a guest complained that he upset her upcoming appearance on his show by complimenting her appearance, he apologized shortly thereafter to her and his viewers without hemming, hawing, or equivocating. He said his comments “were never OK. Not then and certainly not today. And for making such comments in the past, I’m sorry.” And with that, he said goodbye to “Hardball.”
Chris hasn’t been on TV since his “Hardball” farewell until this week with the start of his promotional tour for This Country. He’ll be on the other side of the table answering questions, and possibly asking a few, on “The Today Show,” “The View,” “Meet the Press,” Bill Maher, and Stephen Colbert holding up a book to be proud of. He always finds the pony.