Chris Matthews is a master of multiple streams of income. Host of “Hardball With Chris Matthews” and “The Chris Matthews Show;” author of several best sellers; former newspaper columnist and bureau chief; former political operative; past (and possibly future) candidate for Congress, the multitasking Matthews managed to squeeze in a conversation with Quill after rescheduling several times since 2007. Certainly another cancellation would have been understandable; it was the day after Tim Russert’s funeral.
Q: How are you doing?
A: Well, I’m doing OK. I’ve had a very sad and tragic week. I’ve been Tim’s friend for, God, 20 years at least. We’re pretty much unsettled here emotionally.
Q: There’s a lot of talk about who will be succeeding him in his many roles. Your name was one of the first to be mentioned.
A: Tim was an umpire; I’m an opinionated person. I’m not partisan, but I’m damn opinionated. I have an attitude that comes through. People know where I stand on the war in Iraq. They know I’ve been impressed with Barack Obama. I’ve always been fond of John McCain. They know my general attitudes about things. They know I love politics. I’m pretty much an open book, and I think people don’t see me exactly as an umpire. They see me as a commentator, as an opinionated guy who enjoys sparking a debate and does it his way.
I know I love my jobs, and I love “Hardball.” I created it more than 10 years ago, and I created the style of the show, which is my style, which is my kind of questioning, and my kind of, I think, excitement level. And I’m kind of a tummler, to use a Yiddish term. I try to shake things up. And also, the Sunday show I really love doing. It’s very breezy and debonair and, I think, charming. It’s a different kind of show, which is four really good, serious journalists — no one else allowed except serious journalists. And I really love it. And I’ve got two jobs to fill my plate, and I wish them well in finding somebody for Tim’s various responsibilities to fit them well. I know what I’m doing fits me very well.
Q: You kept it real in your personal tribute to Tim Russert. On your show, you said some very meaningful and moving things, and you also had the guts to describe him as a rival.
A: Well, we’re all rivals, I think. Certainly, we’re journalists, and journalists are rivals. And clearly, you know, I think “rival” is a good word. I think we all try to be better at the business. You know, we’re all playing in the same league, and yeah, we’re all rivals. I’m not gonna have a problem with that word. I think you could be friends and rivals, and “rivals” isn’t a bad word. We’re trying to get the story first. We’re trying to look good, we’re trying to look the best, and be the smartest, and the most impressive, and yeah, we’re all rivals. I think it’s odd to think otherwise. I think we’re teams. We’re on a team together, work together, but we all want to look good. There’s no doubt about it.
Q: How did you get to be so fearless?
A: I’m not fearless. I am fearful. I understand that I work for a network. I understand that they are my employers. I understand that I have the First Amendment going for me, but I have to honor the protocols. The fact is that I do honor them. My questions are objective, but my attitude is always apparent, and it’s been tough. I’m pretty direct.
Q: During the Democratic primaries, you were accused of being too tough on Hillary Clinton.
A: I understand why the Clinton campaign found it useful to point out people they see as their bête noirs, their critics. They’ve done it to a number of people on television, I’m not the only one. They single out people they find useful to criticize because it’s a way of building up their own base. I understand; it’s politics.
Q: What was your take on The New York Times Magazine’s take on you? [published April 13, 2008, “The Aria of Chris Matthews,”]
A: You know what my take is? “We’ll see.” That’s exactly my reaction: “We’ll see.” I don’t know. My sense is it will end up a positive force in my life. That’s my hunch. I really believe that, and I say that with full honesty. My experience in life is — things like that, step back from, and look at the whole picture, look at the whole impact. And the final impact of something like that, I believe, is going to be very positive.
Q: You just left the set of “Hardball” and got in the car, and we’re having this conversation on the phone while you’re on your way to the cleaner’s. You pick up your own dry cleaning?
A: What, do you think I’ve got a valet? Ha! I’ve gotta get there by 7. I’m in Cape Cod tomorrow. I’m on the board of the International Fund for Animal Welfare. We save the whales, we save elephants, save seals, and I’m going to go see them open the new headquarters. And then I’m going to Nantucket, for the Nantucket Film Festival, for the weekend, and then I’m coming back. I’m going to the Churchill Society event on Monday, because we’re going to honor the merger of the Churchill Center, which I’m on the board of, with the American Friends of the Churchill Cabinet War Room, in London, where he fought the war from, and I’m going to do that. And then I’m going to come home, and then I’m going to go to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, on Wednesday night right after the show and get ready for an address to the Pennsylvania League of Cities. Most of the mayors of the cities of Pennsylvania are going to be there, and I’m going to address them. And then I’m going to come back and do the show. Then I’m going to do two Sunday shows on Friday, and then I’m going to go to Hawaii with my wife with the Academy of Achievement; she’s on that board. This is the first time we’re going to Hawaii. That’s my next two weeks.
Q: Have you always had this kind of energy?
A: Yeah, but a lot of it is driven by caffeine. Ha!
*[Disclosure – being a hardcore Hardball aficionado, I felt a thrill going up my leg upon hearing the trademark Matthews laugh.]
Q: Caffeine. Oh, yeah, you quit drinking, right?
A: I just thought I drank too much. Back before 1994, which is what, 14 years ago, I quit. I stopped drinking altogether. I just thought it was bad for me. I was never in the program [Alcoholics Anonymous] or anything like that. A lot of friends of mine are in the program, recovering from their addictions, and I’m very proud of them. They go to meetings a lot. I’ve never done that. But I thought it was good for me, good for my career, to quit completely.
Q: Um, tell me something I don’t know. [That’s always Matthews’ last question for the panel of reporters on “The Chris Matthews Show.”]
A: I have a great marriage, with Kathleen Matthews, who’s an executive vice president of Marriott, who was an anchorwoman for 15 years. She was on Channel 7 [WJLA-TV, Washington, D.C.] at 5, 7 and 11, and now she’s traveling the world from Dubai to Macao to Shanghai, seeing the world. We have three kids, all in school, two at NYU, one in grad school, one undergrad. We’ve got a daughter at Penn. We’ve got a busy family — a brother in politics in Pennsylvania, who’s the chairman of the County Commission in Montgomery County. We have a very thriving community in our family. It’s great. Now I’m gonna go in here and get my shirts.
*If you don’t get it, Google “thrill up my leg.”
Editor’s note: This interview was edited. Assistance provided by Ilya Lisovets and Vanessa Koury, with thanks to Tina Urbanski.