Chris Matthews is a political junkie of unyielding enthusiasm. His nightly talk show, Hardball, has been an MSNBC staple for more than a decade, a showcase for its irascible host’s boundless passion for politics and the importance of good governance in the lives of everyday Americans. Say what you will about the guy’s presentational style (aggressive and often emotionally driven) and views (which skew liberal, though he did vote for George W. Bush in 2000), Matthews cares deeply about his country — and he wants you to care, too.
After graduating from Holy Cross and serving in the Peace Corps, the Philadelphia native started his career in Washington, D.C., as a staffer for various Democratic politicians, eventually landing a job as a speech writer for President Jimmy Carter. After Carter lost the presidency to Ronald Reagan in 1980, Matthews became a top aide to Democratic Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill from 1981 to 1987, an era covered in Matthews’ latest book, Tip and the Gipper: When Politics Worked.
CityBeat recently tracked down the ever-busy Matthews via phone to discuss his latest passion project, a book that mixes his own personal experiences with the behind-the-scenes machinations of two men who rose to the apex of American political power in the 1980s.
CityBeat: The subtitle of your book infers that politics no longer work. How are things different now compared to when you were working for Tip?
Chris Matthews: I think there’s a degree of party regimentation that there wasn’t before. For example, on the Republican side, if you don’t vote with the party you’re portrayed as a RINO (Republican In Name Only) today, you’re portrayed as almost a traitor. The Democratic Party back in the ’80s voted for President Reagan’s programs — spending cuts, for example — and I don’t think there was any permanent schism. They paid a price, but I don’t think they were considered traitors by the party. No one ran a national campaign against the Democrats who voted for Reagan’s program.
Today if you vote with Obama, you’re gone. I’ve watched what happened to (Republican senators) Bob Bennett in Utah and (Richard) Lugar in Indiana and what’s going on around the country — there’s tremendous pressure on anyone who breaks ranks.
Look at what happened to (former Governor) Charlie Crist in Florida. Even Chris Christie up in New Jersey is paying a price for being cooperative with the president during Hurricane Sandy. I think that’s new.
CB: It’s pretty clear that you did a lot of research for this book. What did you uncover about that period of time that surprised you?
CM: I do think looking back there’s no doubt that Reagan was a far more restrained president than he was as an outside crusader. He made a lot of compromises as president, which has become clear to me now. What surprised me was the degree to which he was willing to compromise on Social Security, on tax reform, on the Cold War compromise with (Soviet Union President Mikhail) Gorbachev. No one could have foreseen that he would have been the grand dealmaker in terms of the Cold War going in, and certainly we didn’t sense that at the time, because he was fighting for (the) Star Wars (defense system). He didn’t seem like the guy who was trying to end the Cold War but to prosecute it more dramatically. I think that he and Tip O’Neill, my boss, were compromisers when it came down to it.
CB: The Tea Party often raises Reagan as the apex of conservatism, yet why do they not understand that he raised taxes and that he often would compromise for the good of the country? Why is there a disconnect there?
CM: They’re unaware, or they don’t want to be aware. I think Reagan has become a figure who can be used for all kinds of arguments. He can be used as a simple (war) hawk, which he really wasn’t. He hated the idea of a nuclear war. He hated mutually assured destruction. I don’t think he would have gone into Iraq. I think he was pretty cautious. He got into these very modest military campaigns like Grenada. He saw the weakness of our role in Lebanon. I don’t know if he would have gone as far as the neocons would have gone. He seemed to have a pretty limited interest in the military. He wanted to fight the Communists. That was his interest.
CB: You wrote this book — all of your books, in fact — while simultaneously doing Hardball. Where does your boundless energy and drive come from?
CM: I guess it’s the ambition to get the story told. I really enjoy writing books. I guess I think books have a deeper impact than TV, but I’m not sure that’s true. I’ve got commitments to make these books good. It’s a work ethic. I really make an effort to source them, to write them myself, to get to every source I can and to read everything I can and to educate. In the seven books I’ve written there’s not an ounce of real political argument in any of them. It’s never an argument from the liberal side; it’s always an account of what actually happened. People find that surprising, because on television we argue politics all the time. In the books, I’m really trying to give people who don’t know the period the truth, not the argument.
CB: The other thing that’s interesting about you is this boundless enthusiasm for politics. How do you keep your enthusiasm up despite the fact that our political system seems more broken than ever?
CM: It’s been my passion since I was a kid. Believe it or not, I was fascinated with things as early as about 6 years old. I think it’s a big-picture thing. I’ve never been really interested in local office, in mayors’ races or in governors’ races. I’ve always been interested in national issues like the Cold War. When you grow up with air-raid drills and hiding under your school desk, it doesn’t take much imagination to understand that this is important: who runs the country. We were just coming out of World War II when I was growing up. Peace and war had to be dealt with by the best possible people and the best possible thinking. I always figured it was important for me and the country. I focus on the country. I’m a nationalist. I care about America. I don’t claim I’m better at it than anybody else, but I may be more intent about it.
CHRIS MATTHEWS will appear at Joseph-Beth Booksellers 7 p.m. Tuesday.