Hardball with Chris Matthews marked 20 years on MSNBC Nov. 8, the longest-running program on the network. Host Matthews has had a colorful career. After working for the Peace Corps in Africa, he then went to work in the U.S. Senate, for Sen. Frank Moss of Utah. He was a speechwriter for President Jimmy Carter, then was an aide for Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill.
Matthews switched to journalism in the late ’80s, serving as Washington bureau chief for the San Francisco Examiner. He went on television in 1994, hosting the nightly show In-Depth on America’s Talking. Hardball premiered in 1997 on CNBC and shifted to MSNBC in 1999.
News analyst Andrew Tyndall called Matthews “an institutionalist and a centrist,” and a bridge between John McLaughin and The McLaughlin Group from the days of yore and all the political commentary on cable today.
Matthews recently got through a health scare, taking a few days off in mid-October to undergo surgery for prostate cancer. “Long ago I came to believe heartfelt prayers matter,” he tweeted to those who expressed support for him amidst his surgery. “Thank you for all the kind words.”
Hardball is averaging 1.53 million viewers in 2019, down a tick from 1.66 million a year ago.
“There is no one who loves politics and has a passion for it like Chris does,” said Tina Urbanski, Hardball’s executive producer. “He comes in every day and just loves what he does.”
As the 2020 election heats up, Matthews offers real authority on presidential politics. He spoke with Multichannel News about Hardball over the years, how long the red state-blue state rift will persist and who will win next fall’s monumental election. An edited transcript follows.
MCN: How has Hardball evolved over its 20 years?
Chris Matthews: What I hope hasn’t changed is, asking the right questions and being willing to hang on through two or three tries. I always thought my advantage over the Sunday shows is that I can be a little bit more difficult for a guest. When they do the usual avoidance, where they give you words but not an answer, I can say, “Well, answer the question,” and I can try two or three times. And then after the third time, I’m as limited as everyone else. You can only ask a question about three times before people say you’re badgering the witness.
People always say, “Keep at them, don’t give up, don’t stop.” They never say, “Be nicer.” Occasionally, they say, “Don’t interrupt.” But interruption means the person’s not answering the question and you’re saying, “Okay, now answer the question.”
At my best, I get the answer.
MCN: Who has been your most memorable guest over the 20 years?
CM: Trump, of course. I’ve known the guy for … my god, I was at his wedding. My wife Kathleen and I were a few of the people there that weren’t in the business world — Billy Joel, Pat O’Brien from Access Hollywood. I’d had Trump on the show four or five times. Interviewing him is always interesting, because he is vulnerable. He’s actually a person. When you’re with him in the room with maybe one other person, he’s not some big shot, yelling and pushing his way around the room. It’s different than you’d think.
All politicians are different in the room alone.
MCN: Viewers have a lot of options for political news and commentary. What does Hardball offer that nobody else does?
CM: Compared to my younger colleagues, who are all brilliant and very policy-oriented, I am the most politically-oriented. Just the politics, the gamesmanship, the way things work. The flackery, I think I cut through it pretty well. I stick to the focus of the battle. I focus more on the politics of it, the sheer personality of it.
[Former Washington Post executive editor] Ben Bradlee once said I write like a sportswriter about politics. I’m very proud about writing about politics as a sport, because it is a sport. Notwithstanding all the stakes, it’s a contest. People like Bill Clinton are good at it. People like Al Gore are not good at it. Dubya [President George W. Bush], for all his weaknesses in terms of his thinking, is really a good one-on-one politician. John Kerry: a really good guy, but not a great politician. Hillary Clinton: not as good as her husband, not in the same league. Barack Obama: totally aloof, but yet incredibly politically successful.
MCN: How do you see the future playing out in terms of this red-state, blue-state rift, this culture war in the U.S.? You see that subsiding?
CM: I think this is going to go on. I think that opinions are going to be stronger. The medium for expressing is going to get stronger. In the end, we all know the decision is going to be made somewhere on the 50-yard line. It comes down to the same three things all the time: The white guy who works in a factory, the white woman who reads the newspapers in the suburbs and the African-American vote, which is the Democratic base, which doesn’t seem to like some of these candidates. They’re going to decide this thing.
It’s not going to be the people that just watch [cable news]. It’s going to be decided by people who we call the Dancing with the Stars audience. The people who just want to be entertained at night, it’s 9 o’clock and they want a break from all this argument, they want to take it easy. They’re going to vote.
MCN: Who do you see winning the Democratic race?
CM: I really do believe Elizabeth Warren is the front-runner. She’s running the best campaign. She’s sharpest on the issues. She’s got to answer some questions, but she’s the sharpest and the most aggressive and she’s done just about everything right. I think she can win Pennsylvania and other states. If she wins Pennsylvania, she’s the next president. It’s as simple as that.
It’s a challenge for a woman in Pennsylvania. It’s a state that has never voted for a woman statewide. The same with some of the other states that don’t elect women, it’s just a challenge. States on the coast have been much better for women. My wife explained this to me, why trading areas are better for women as opposed to manufacturing areas.
It’s going to be one hell of a race. I think it’s going to be Trump versus Warren.
MCN: Who do you see winning that one?
CM: I pick Warren.
Last time around, Trump came in pretty clean. He had done Access Hollywood [Trump spoke lasciviously about women alongside then-host Billy Bush in 2005, with the tape surfacing in October 2016], but he was younger. He looked better. He’s getting old. He looks a little rough around the edges. He looks like he’s gained weight, all the usual things that happen when you get older.
He also was known as the guy that can solve problems because he’s a rich guy. I don’t think he has that edge anymore, that the rich guy can solve all these problems. He didn’t have the bad-language issues. Parents tell their kids not to talk like Trump. When you refer to your opponents in the Republican party as human scum, I’m sorry, that’s street corner. That’s worse than street corner.
[Some] people will be embarrassed to vote for Trump again. But I’m sure he’ll do a last-ditch effort, spend $2 billion attacking Warren. That’s why we have the election.
I think she’s going to win. I’m closer to the center than she is, but I just think she’s got it this time. We’ll see.
MCN: Does President Trump remind you of any other president that you’ve covered?
CM: No. There’s a bit of Gatsby in him, there’s a bit of Citizen Kane in him. There’s a bit of him that is just over-the-top American, and that’s something people like about him. It’s too much for the establishment, but the people that root for him, root for him because he sort of takes it all on. He’s got a bit of Sinatra in him.
I don’t think he has any political [peer]. Reagan was a gentleman. Kennedy was a gentleman. Eisenhower, of course. There’s never been somebody like Trump. Roosevelt was a gentleman. Their sense of humor, they were always sort of subtle, ironic. They never used trash talk. They didn’t talk like this guy.
Maybe Huey Long [former Louisiana governor, former U.S. senator], but I didn’t really know Huey Long. He was kind of like, I’m a hick, and you’re a hick, and admitted his loucheness.
I don’t think we’ve had anybody like Trump on the national stage.
MCN: What’s your main source for political news?
CM: I get up in the morning and make the coffee. I sit down quietly before my wife gets up and try to read two or three papers. I’m not just traditional. I also read Anna Palmer and Politico Playbook, NBC’s First Read and Axios AM Newsletter. I read all the newsletters. I’m not big on social. It’s mainly The [Washington] Post, The [New York] Times, and I read The [Wall Street] Journal Op-Ed page. If I get it at home I read Politico, which I love in print.
I try to get a lot of the conventional stuff. And then I get a lot of stuff from Mother Jones because of [D.C. bureau chief ] David Corn.
Then I come in and watch the network. My producers are fabulous. A job like this is so great. By mid-afternoon I have a pile of paper on my desk of stuff that’s moved that day. When I read the paper, it’s generally what we did the night before. So we are a half-day ahead. And then by the next day, we are a half-day ahead.
I have a tremendous advantage over Rachel [Maddow] and Chris [Hayes] and Lawrence [O’Donnell], because they have to do a lot of feature stuff, and a lot of news analysis and advanced journalism. All I have to do, in many cases, is break the news at 7, because so many stories are posted at 6:30.
The best nights around here are when something comes at 6 or so, and we throw out what we have and go with that. Because that means we are really breaking it, we are screaming the news, which is the best thing in the world. There’s nothing like being the one who gets to tell the story first, and then the shows after us have to do what we’ve already done. So that’s a tremendous advantage at 7 [o’clock]. We hate it when a story breaks at 8:05.
My show, and the shows after me especially, are the Op-Ed page. The old Sunday newspaper, the old afternoon newspaper. Before supper, a guy gets to go sit somewhere with a beer or a coffee. He sits down and reads the paper, and he’s reading the Op-Ed pages. He’s reading a take on today’s politics and news. I think that’s what we do — it’s a different way of doing the Op-Ed page.
MCN: Is there a guest that you’ve always tried to book that has never been on the show? Kind of a white whale?
CM: How about fricking Joe Biden? How about that one? I’ve known him for 1,000 years and I can’t get him on the show. [Biden appeared on Hardball as senator and vice president, but has not during his current presidential campaign.] You wouldn’t believe how hard he is to get on the show. I guess they have a strategy. It’s one thing for him not to do [the shows of ] some of my friends, who are a little more skeptical of him than I am. I’m not skeptical, I just want to see him come alive. Like everybody else. Come alive, show your stuff.
Winston Churchill would be my dream guest.
MCN: Have your health issues changed the way you go about your life?
CM: A life-threatening situation, there’s no doubt it has an effect on you. I’m going to love my friends a lot more, I think. And my wife.
MCN: What’s your next book project?
CM: I’m writing about my adventures. All those years in Africa, all of these incredible events, like the fall of the Berlin Wall and the first election in South Africa, the Good Friday Accord, the Pope’s funeral [ John Paul II]. All the adventures of a lifetime in journalism and politics. I hope it’s good storytelling — not about me, but the characters I’ve met.
MCN: How much longer will you do the show? Do you ever think about an end date?
CM: I think about it. I don’t know the answer. Part of me says I want to see the world with my wife while we’re both young. And the other part of me is, I just love coming in here every day. So I haven’t had another plan yet.
One advantage I have over the younger people I work with is, this is what I got to after years of politics in print. I got here at a time where I really enjoy it, and I’m not going to end up like Mickey Rooney 30 years after his prime, or Sid Caesar. These guys who were my heroes growing up and they spent 30, 40 years pining for what was.
I’ve got a really good relationship with the bosses here. I think it’s great.