Stayed up late last night to read the Chris Matthews profile in the NYT magazine, a rather astonishing document, all things considered. Matthews comes off as a loud, crafty, needy, insecure, boastful toad who’s every bit the sexist shitheel you suspected he was, only utterly unaware of it. I say “all things considered” because the NYT generally doesn’t truck with this sort of thing. Here’s the lede:
Whenever Chris Matthews says something he likes, which happens a lot, he repeats it often and at volumes suggesting a speaker who feels insufficiently listened to at times. “Tim Russert finally reeled the big marlin into the boat tonight,” Matthews yelled — nine times, on and off the air, after a Democratic debate that Russert moderated with Brian Williams in late February at Cleveland State University. Matthews believed that Russert (the fisherman) had finally succeeded in getting Hillary Clinton (the marlin) to admit that she was wrong to vote in favor of the Iraq war resolution in 2002. “We’ve been trolling for that marlin for what, a year now?” Matthews said to Russert.
Comparing Hillary Rodham Clinton to a big flopping fish will do nothing to stop criticism — from Clinton’s presidential campaign, among others — that Matthews and his network, MSNBC, have treated the former first lady unfairly. But this didn’t keep Matthews from bludgeoning the marlin line to death in the postdebate “spin room.” “Russert caught the marlin; he got the marlin,” Matthews shouted to a school of downcast reporters who had been hanging on every canned word of Clinton’s chief campaign strategist, Mark Penn.
The spin room is a modern political-media marvel whose full-on uselessness is perfectly conveyed by its name, but Matthews appeared in his element. He wore a dreamy smile, walking around, signing autographs. As he went, Matthews seemed compelled to give his “take,” which is how he describes his job each night at 5 and 7, Eastern time, on “Hardball” — “giving my take.”
It goes on from there. It doesn’t get nicer. Matthews has bugged me for years and enraged me for most of them, but by the end I almost felt sorry for him. The era of the cable shoutfest is waning, and he hasn’t figured it out yet. The appeal of listening to two or three blowhards is pretty thin in ideal conditions, and when you can surf on your laptop to eight or nine smarter amateurs’ “take,” or watch the considerably more entertaining “Daily Show,” it goes utterly flat. And when you’re sitting with your laptop in front of the TV, and the comparison is right there in your face, it’s even less appealing. This gets it, I think:
Cable political coverage has changed, however, and so has the sensibility that viewers — particularly young ones — expect from it. Matthews’s bombast is radically at odds with the wry, antipolitical style fashioned by Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert or the cutting and finely tuned cynicism of Matthews’s MSNBC co-worker Keith Olbermann. These hosts betray none of the reverence for politics or the rituals of Washington that Matthews does. On the contrary, they appeal to the eye-rolling tendencies of a cooler, highly educated urban cohort of the electorate that mostly dismisses an exuberant political animal like Matthews as annoyingly antiquated, like the ranting uncle at the Thanksgiving table whom the kids have learned to tune out.
Nothing illustrated Matthews’s discordance with the new cable ethos better than an eviscerating interview he suffered through last fall at the hands of Stewart himself. Matthews went on the “The Daily Show” to promote his book “Life’s a Campaign: What Politics Has Taught Me About Friendship, Rivalry, Reputation and Success.” The book essentially advertises itself as a guidebook for readers wishing to apply the lessons of winning politicians to succeeding in life. “People don’t mind being used; they mind being discarded” is the title of one chapter. “A self-hurt book” and “a recipe for sadness” Stewart called it, and the interview was all squirms from there. “This strikes me as artifice,” Stewart said. “If you live by this book, your life will be strategy, and if your life is strategy, you will be unhappy.”
Matthews accused Stewart of “trashing my book.”
“I’m not trashing your book,” Stewart protested. “I’m trashing your philosophy of life.”
(Can I just say that a book titled “Life’s a Campaign: What Politics Has Taught Me About Friendship, Rivalry, Reputation and Success” will probably be in Hell’s library. The only book I want to read less is “Big Russ and Me.” Or anything by Mitch Albom.)
Funny how these things change, how you go to bed in the summer and wake up and it’s autumn. The temperature’s the same but the wind has just a hint of north in it, the slant of the light is just a little different, and you know a new season is coming. Being able to feel those changes early on is a good skill to have, but once you get to a certain level of success, the world conspires to keep you in the dark. I once read a story about Bill O’Reilly’s sexual-harassment problem, and someone described the thin-air culture of national-TV anchors, how they go through their life trailed by squadrons of young women — interns, assistants, relentlessly ambitious climbers — whose job it is to make sure these hothouse flowers stay happy, hydrated and at the top of their game. They go, essentially, to a Graceland-without-walls, with the entourage saying, “Yes, boss” at every turn. No wonder they can’t feel the air.
I imagine reading Sunday’s NYT magazine will be like having a broken window in the house in January, however. At least at the Matthews’.
OK, I’m running late and trying to get to the gym while simultaneously listening to a “Fresh Air” podcast that explains the national economic meltdown in simple terms. I am but human, and so I’m going to cut one activity short — this one. Enjoy this bloggage, which finds the roots of Indian curry and Mexican mole in medieval Islamic cuisine. Mmm, mole.
Back in a bit.