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Chris Matthews’s Last Hurrah

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eye on the news

Chris Matthews’s Last Hurrah

Reflections on the long-time host of Hardball March 6, 2020
Politics and law
Arts and Culture

This week, MSNBC’s Chris Matthews abruptly ended his reign, and an era, as long-time host of Hardball. His departure is a reminder that cable-news stardom remains ephemeral. Years of sparring and provocation became untenable for the network, especially after a recent trifecta: a controversial comment, a viral gaffe, and accusations of inappropriate behavior. There is no palliative care in this censorious age, and so Matthews was forced into retirement. “We’ll always have Hardball,” he said, paraphrasing Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca.

In a sense, Matthews, always armed with a film reference, became a version of The Last Hurrah’s Frank Skeffington, the aging, big-city politician felled by a changing culture. Written by Edwin O’Connor in 1956 and adapted into a movie starring Spencer Tracey, The Last Hurrah revolves around Skeffington, likely modeled on James Michael Curley, a former Massachusetts governor, then Boston’s intermittent mayor between 1914 and 1950. In the novel, Skeffington, 72, embarks on another run as Democratic mayor, but his Irish-Catholic brand of campaigning—pursued in funeral homes and smoke-filled rooms—conflicts with the postwar, Kennedyesque dawn of television advertising. Matthews grew up in this evolving world in 1950s Philadelphia, a city undergoing demographic and economic change and transitioning from a Republican-run political machine to Democratic leadership.  

Tim Russert, the late host of NBC’s Meet the Press, once remarked that in Buffalo, “You were born a Democrat and baptized a Catholic.” The same applied to Philadelphia’s Irish, but Matthews’s immediate family voted Republican, including for Richard Nixon over John F. Kennedy in the 1960 election. From a young age, Matthews was hooked on politics, especially during the Kennedy era. “From the black-and-white world in which we’d been drifting we suddenly opened our eyes, feeling alive and energized, and saw Technicolor,” he wrote in one of his several Kennedy books. “JFK was wired into our central nervous system and juiced us. He sent us around the planet in the Peace Corps, and then rocketing beyond it to the moon.”

The Kennedy spell, no doubt, inspired Matthews’s political career, one shaped by the Democratic Party. He enjoyed a charmed, campaign-like trajectory, from Capitol Hill cop to congressional aide, then speechwriter for Jimmy Carter and later chief of staff to House Speaker Tip O’Neill (who succeeded Kennedy in Massachusetts’s 11th district). By the 1990s, he was a syndicated columnist and Washington bureau chief for the San Francisco Examiner, and, finally, host of Hardball, named after his bestselling book.

Matthews’s Irish Catholicism and political background—combined with a love for movies, sports, novels, and history—made Hardball a colorful program, filled with anecdotes, name-dropping, witty rejoinders, and cantankerous questioning. I started watching the show with my father in 1997. Matthews became a nightly instructor in politics; our similar backgrounds made his commentary relatable. I, too, was raised in an Irish-Catholic family, one that had been politically involved in Republican politics in Hazleton, two hours northwest of Philadelphia. I kept watching Matthews through successive presidencies, school years, and sacraments. In summer 2008, I watched Hardball on the set at MSNBC’s Washington bureau. This was shortly after Russert’s death, when Matthews opened his program with a “Hail Mary,” with Mike Barnicle and Pat Buchanan joining him on air. Meeting him after the show, I noted our shared culture. “It’s a great thing to be,” he said, listing all the Irish-Catholic mayors holding office in Pennsylvania.

Matthews nurtured a center-left outlook, but his liberalism—rooted in patriotism and Kennedy-era idealism—didn’t always jell with MSNBC’s increasingly progressive agenda. In 2010, the network launched “Lean Forward,” a branding campaign that embraced this leftward direction. A year later, MSNBC’s Steve Kornacki, then a writer for Salon, called Matthews the network’s “most conservative voice after 5 p.m.” In 2012, when Buchanan was axed by MSNBC, Matthews defended him, noting that “loyalty is the heart of Pat’s being. He is loyal to country, to church, to neighborhood, to heritage.” In 2013, on Morning Joe, he acknowledged his vote for George W. Bush in the 2000 election.

Over time, Matthews abandoned moderation, especially by the 2016 campaign. Yet following the network’s rigid ideological direction proved impossible for him. In this primary cycle, Matthews’s more traditional views reemerged, but he was increasingly treated like the troubling relative with problematic opinions—relegated to the sidelines before his departure became inevitable. “The younger generations out there are ready to take the reins,” he said in his farewell. He had become a character in an O’Connor novel. “It was a new era, sport, and your uncle belonged to the old,” said a political operative about Skeffington in The Last Hurrah.

Unlike Skeffington, however, Matthews will live to see another day. He’s a prolific writer, author of several books, and he loves the research and discoveries of America’s political history. Ironically, his exit from Hardball occurred the same week as the resurrection of Joe Biden, an Irish-Catholic politician molded by the Kennedy era. Matthews’s downfall at MSNBC partly stems from a media culture that no longer allows for absolution; sins go unforgiven. In true Irish fashion, what Matthews loved most—politics—ultimately ended his career. Matthews’s audience will mourn the loss of his insights and his gift for analogy. We’ll have to interpret what promises to be a frenzied 2020 campaign without him.

Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

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