Wednesday, August 09, 2006
We spoke with Chris Matthews of MSNBC earlier this week. Here, in a J4 exclusive, are the notes from the interview, which were condensed into a story for the New Haven Register on 8-11:
On Joe Lieberman’s problems in the primary, Matthews did say that "It’s supposed to be a process here. These elections are supposed to matter. If you live in Capitol Hill and work in politics, some days we all go around glumly and someone says, ‘What’s his problem?’ ‘Oh, he’s got opposition.’ I’m like ‘Excuse me, isn’t that the job?"
"You gotta look at the person’s position, not past voting record. Joe’s position is hawkish. I’m just extrapolating what any voter might have to think about this. It’s not about him; it’s about position. If George Bush were to attack Iran tomorrow morning, drop a bomb on some site, you know who would be saluting by noon: Joe (and) Hillary probably. They’ve established a pattern now."
On George Bush:
"I don’t think any other president would have taken us into Iraq. I look at any other president we’ve had, could have had. It was a unique perfect storm of advice he got from Cheney and the other guys..."
Even Matthews was on the Bush leadership bandwagon for his leadership in the days following Sept. 11, 2001.
"I thought on Sept. 14th (that Bush had become a strong leader in the wake of 9-11), but it was the missed opportunities in the first year (that became the story). A million Iranians in the streets supporting us, Europe supporting us, the world supporting us... and not being able to harness that to do what we had to do to stop terrorism.
"And I think there’s two things on terrorism. One, have we created more terrorism since he’s been in office? Yeah, clearly, more people hated us... more people are willing to die to kill a Westerner. There’s no doubt it’s been incendiary. The other thing he hasn’t done... and I’m not a politician, but look, every American president since Harry Truman has accepted two hats in the Middle East. Friend of Israel for a lot of reasons, right? And second hat, great power/peace broker in the region. Clinton did it pretty well. You gotta have that second hat, and ... this president hasn’t put that second hat on.
"Maybe it requires sophistication, book learnin’, history, a sense of duty instead of just politics. ... All presidents have said, ‘Look, I’m pro-Israeli’ but when the time comes, I’ve gotta step back and look at both sides and say, ‘Hey, you Mubarek and you Abdullah and you over here, let’s deal.’ ... I wonder why we haven’t talked to Syria because we’re going to have to. And I wonder why we can act like we can talk Hamas away. ... You don’t ignore them."
On his personna in the media and being attacked by left and right, especially in the blogosphere:
"Every day of my life. You’ve got David Brock of Media Matters with his glass-menagerie sensitivity, and then you’ve got the people on the right who seem to think I’m some kind of lefty. And people on the left who think I’m some kind of righty. ... What they do is, bloggers — and I know it’s their job — they simply try to find something to disagree with. Not that’s ‘wrong,’ just disagree with. And they throw out everything else you do. ... I was tougher on Bill Clinton than anyone. I’ve always been reasonable with George Bush. It’s always been a mixed bag with both these guys. And I think I have been opposed to the war from day one."
On his pointed interviews with right-wing lightning rod Ann Coulter, Matthews said, "I asked her if she had a soul. ... I asked the audience, which was full of ‘pinks’ and ‘limes’ in the audience, a bunch of rich kids, ‘How many of you love this person?’ And many were there because of her celebrity. And then I said, ‘How many vomit at the sound of her name?’ And that’s considered not tough enough? The first time I interviewed her, I asked, ‘Was Jack Kennedy a traitor?’ (based on Coulter’s remarks about Democrats being traitors). She’s very well read and her book is beautifully written. ... Read the part about Willie Horton... It’s like the early George Will."
Matthews, in a New Haven speech during 2003’s early military successes in Iraq, second-guessed his opposition to the war but now says, "I am covering events and (at the time) there was no insurgency whatsoever. Now, as events developed, my hunch was right. I am not a visionary. Two years in Africa in the Peace Corps taught me a number of things. One was that people ... want to rule their own lives, and when someone comes in, no matter how nifty they are ... they resent them. They’d rather have their own crowd do it badly..."
We quoted an old column Matthews wrote about Lieberman in which he said about the senator, "That tearful voice masks an engine of ambition."
"You mean that Sandy Dennis post-nasal drip, is that what you’re talking about? The lacrimose (tone)... He’s a very ambitious guy. He’s a guy who’s very apologetic, plaintive. How come he was almost vice president of the United States? ... Hey, look, I’m all for the guy. He’s a great student of history. He wrote a great book, ‘The Power Broker,’ about John Bailey. I’ve been watching him all through his career. But certain things he’s done, I think, have not been consistent with what he stands for."
On the issue that got Lieberman in trouble with Democrats — his support of the Iraq War as a good thing to do — Matthews refused to speculate about whether it had anything to do with Lieberman’s strong Jewish faith.
"Anybody suggesting they can probe into somebody’s conscience is full of it. Tip O’Neill once said to me ... ‘You never know what’s going on in someone else’s heart.’ And if somebody came up to me and said, ‘You’re a Catholic; that’s why you’re against abortion,’ I’d say, ‘First of all, I’m pro-choice’ and secondly, if I have a point of view morally about abortion it’s because of my moral beliefs. It’s not what somebody tells me to believe. ... There are a lot of people I know who are journalists, who are very skeptical about this war, who happen to be Jewish, too. You can’t judge... we had a guy we interviewed this morning (in New Haven) who was traditional, Orthodox and he was saying, ‘I speak for all members of the Jewish community, liberal... orthodox, all are supporting Joe.’ Well, a guy in our truck, one of our crew who is Jewish said, ‘I didn’t get the memo.’ I am very uncomfortable about talking about another group’s ethnicity. I know most Americans are pro-Israel ... The first place I went after the Peace Corps was Israel, I was there for a month, and it was like going home. I’m from northeast Philly... But don’t drag me into this thing. I can’t read Joe’s mind. If you were to interview Joe on that question, you might get an interesting answer."
Matthews said the Iraq issue looms large in America today, regardless of a person’s faith.
"I do think that this election, if Joe gets blown away, will have an effect on fund-raising. Because a lot of people who are conservative and hawkish will feel, ‘Oh, I don’t belong in the Democratic Party now? Is that the message I’m getting here, that I’m not welcome after all these years of helping the party, because I’m more of a Scoop Jackson guy?’ You’re gonna hear some of that, if he gets blown away."
Matthews sees the story as one of insider politics:
"It’s the establishment vs. the outsider. I’m telling you, that’s what this election is about. It’s about the guys like (Don) Imus, the big shots in the media, the big shots in Washington, they all love Joe. He’s sort of their uncle... if you know the guy, he must be a good guy. It’s the great Washington problem: If you know the guy — ‘Oh, he’s a great pal of mine! I’ve known him for years!’ — circle the wagons. And that’s what people resent."
Matthews did a noon report outside on the Church Street sidewalk and urged Connecticut viewers to go vote.
"It’s the biggest story in the country today," Matthews told viewers at the start of the live report, which included a sound bite from Lieberman filmed earlier in the day.
"Every wire service, the Czech news.. will have this tonight. This will be a big story for two days," Matthews says as he settles into a back office at the studio to do a live interview for a San Francisco radio station. With his shoes off now, he tells California listeners that the Connecticut vote is "the big bellweather" and that "as the numbers say, Democrats up here don’t think the war should have been fought... (and) Joe’s on the wrong side of that issue with Democratic voters."
Also on the radio, Matthews says that "today the guy who looks like he’s playing defense is the 18-year veteran. And he has a very likable family... And he’s a guy making a gutsy fight for his career here."
On the message of such bellweathers:
"I’ve always believed the current presidential election is a corrective for the guy we have in there. And the problem we have with the president right now is, he doesn’t seem to be alert enough, vigilant enough, he’s always three days late. That’s at least the perception that I share. He’s a little late for Katrina, he’s a little late for 9-11, a little late for everything."
Matthews, an opinion machine, says today’s media can be overwhelming in its scope.
On the state of the TV business:
"There are so many opportunities, so many options and such a diminishing audience. The competition for eyes and ears is overwhelming, and it’s stressful. We’re fighting on MSNBC for something less than 1 percent of the market. People are watching Colbert and nothing else; they’re watching Keith Olbermann and nothing else. They’re watching me and nothing else. ... You can’t watch everything so you choose."
What does that mean for democracy?
"The danger is you already know everything so you turn on to somebody who says ‘You’re right.’ They don’t inform; they just confirm."
On the war and the media:
"The biggest thing I’ll say is the embedded (idea) was political as well as military, and that there was a sense that serious debate about the war going in was somehow unseemly. And I’ve been critical of this war from the start... We were clearly getting off the trail of Bin Laden and onto Saddam... But my job on the air is twofold. I am expected to be a commentator, to give people the benefit of my thinking. But I’m also supposed to keep an open mind on the air so that other views are allowable, so that people don’t have to choose me based on what they think. It’s a tricky situation for me."
Matthews said his ratings numbers have gone up since last fall because of the program’s focus on the Valerie Plame CIA leak story, because "it was a story that people knew that told us a lot about how we got talked into the war. People are very sophisticated about intrigue, they can smell intrigue." Contrast that to just "a sort-of sports coverage of the war," he said, that others were offering. Instead he did "metaphysical coverage," as he called it, about what was really happening and whether new terrorists were being minted.
At interview’s end, Matthews says, "I hope you figured out me ... but you never will. You’ll never figure me out, because I’m a completely conflicted, patriotic American who sometimes sounds like he’s on the left but also can sound like I’m on the right. Pat Buchanan and I... a broken clock is right twice a day, you know?"
He launches into a riff on real conservatives, neocons, the British and the accents of those who tore down the Saddam Hussein statues. It is stream-of-consciousness Chris Matthews but it’s an interesting ride, for sure.