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Daily Howler: Leibovich lets us laugh at Matthews. But a great deal has been disappeared
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WHAT’S MISSING! Leibovich lets us laugh at Matthews. But a great deal has been disappeared: // link // print // previous // next //
MONDAY, APRIL 14, 2008

TOO DEPRESSING: Are Obama’s comments about small-town voters even worth discussing? For the record, the Post and the Times largely avoid the topic this morning. The Times avoids the matter altogether, except for a few comments by John Harwood. The Post offers this report by Shailagh Murray on page 14. It gives front-page play to this ho-hummer about some Obama supporters.

Are Obama’s comments worth discussing? On the merits, we’d have to say they pretty much aren’t—like 90 percent of what gets discussed in our political discourse. But here comes a fact about electoral politics, a fact which often escapes liberal observers: Elections aren’t about what we at THE HOWLER may think. Elections are about the values, views, outlooks and reactions of 100 million-plus voters—people who may not see the world in the way we do.

What will voters think about this flap? We have no way of knowing. But it’s depressing to see how many liberals seem to have no earthly idea what issues may be at play in this matter. This cluelessness has badly harmed progressive interests since the late 1960s. It’s depressing to see how widespread it is around the liberal web.

This is depressing to watch—and for us, it’s largely off-topic. We may do more tomorrow.

Special report: Profiling Matthews!

PART 2—WHAT WAS MISSING: If you want to laugh at Chris Matthews, Mark Leibovich gives you the chance in his profile of the big lug—the lengthy profile which graced the cover of yesterday’s New York Times magazine. A large numbers of Matthews’ foibles are there, put on display for the world to see (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/11/08). But alas! More essential elements of Matthews’ work on cable are missing in action.

We get to laugh at some of the things Matthews does. As usual, though, we’re kept from knowing—and wondering about—more essential parts of his record.

Let’s review what we are allowed to see. The profile begins with Matthews behaving semi-boorishly toward several young woman, while watching himself on TV in a bar (and making rude statements about Hillary Clinton). By the end of the piece, we’re at the kitchen table in Matthews’ home—and much of that loud conduct continues. (“The degree to which the cadences of the Matthews dining room mimic ‘Hardball’ is striking.”) Along the way, we chuckle at Matthews as makes a string of absurd remarks. We watch him try to explain away the ridicule dumped on his head by Jon Stewart. We watch him “dumbfounded”-ly fail to see why Mike Brzezinski once asked him, on the air, if he was endorsing Obama. We watch him say he’s considered a blowhard only by those who haven’t watched him—or by those who are jealous of his success. Repeatedly, he brags about his honorary degrees—and he brags about quoting F. Scott Fitzgerald. Most absurdly, we see him make the following statement, after Leibovich tells us that Matthews is paid $5 million per year:

LEIBOVICH (4/13/08): Matthews fashions himself a blend of big-think historian and little-guy populist. Steve Capus, the president of NBC News, who is also from Philadelphia, says that Matthews has internalized the “inferiority complex” of his native city. Matthews says that although he’s now 6-foot-3, he was little as a child and has always viewed himself as “a short guy.”

“I don’t think people look at me as the establishment, do you?” Matthews asked me. “Am I part of the winner’s circle in American life? I don’t think so.”

In fairness, that inferiority complex has been richly earned. But who else could be so clueless about his role “in American life?” Only Matthews could think he’s not “in the winner’s circle” when he jets off to his $4.4 million summer home on Nantucket—the one down the lane from corporate titan Jack Welch, the near-billionaire conservative Republican who made him so wealthy and famous. But then, only someone so cosmically clueless could review American politics as Matthews has done through the years. Yes, Leibovich lets us laugh at various aspects of Matthews’ buffoonism. But he skips past the gruesome basics of Matthews’ career, as we’ll discuss below.

Of course, if we want to be fair at all, we have to give Matthews his due—and, in one area, it’s substantial. From the fall of 2002 on, his instincts were largely correct about the war in Iraq. “I hate this war that's coming in Iraq,” he wrote in his syndicated newspaper column on September 1 of that year. “I don't think we'll be proud of it...You talk about Bush trying to avenge his father. What about the tens of millions of Arab sons who will want to finish a fight we start next spring in Baghdad?” Yes, he later staged a famous clown session with Gordon Liddy when Bush declared his “mission accomplished.” But, through most of the past six years, Matthews has largely been right on Iraq. Over the years, he may have shown better instincts about the war than anyone else on cable.

Iraq is very important. But there’s little else Matthews has ever done right—and, for the bulk of the past dozen years, he has played a deeply pernicious role in American politics. Leibovich entertains us well, letting us watch Matthews bluster in bars. But much of what matters about Matthews’s work is AWOL—missing from this profile. For that reason, this isn’t the profile we’ve long requested. For starters, these two things aren’t here:

Something historical: Leibovich suggests there has been a long-standing problem with Matthews’ approach to both Clintons. As noted, he opens with Matthews in a bar, making rude remarks about Hillary Clinton—and he takes the story further. “Matthews made his name as a battering critic of Bill Clinton during the Monica saga,” he writes. Later, he notes that Hardball “had its debut in 1997...and was catapulted by the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal.” In passing, Leibovich also makes it clear that Matthews’ problem with Hillary Clinton has a rather long history:

LEIBOVICH: [I]t’s hard to watch Matthews and conclude that he has been anything less than enthralled by Obama and, at the very least, is sick of Clinton. The antipathy dates back some time. Just before the start of Clinton’s first campaign for the Senate in 2000, Matthews said: “Hillary Clinton bugs a lot of guys, I mean, really bugs people—like maybe me on occasion. . . . She drives some of us absolutely nuts.” During this campaign he has repeatedly referred to her sense of entitlement and arrogance. Meanwhile, David Shuster, a correspondent for MSNBC who appears frequently on “Hardball,” was suspended for two weeks earlier this year for asking whether the Clinton campaign had “pimped out” Chelsea Clinton by enlisting her to court celebrities and superdelegates.

By contrast, Matthews has called Obama “bigger than Kennedy” and compared the success of his campaign to “the New Testament.” His reviews of Obama’s speeches have been comically effusive at times, as when he described “this thrill going up my leg” after an Obama victory speech. (“Steady,” Olbermann cautioned him on the air.)

Someone that foolish shouldn’t be on the air, and Leibovich makes it fairly clear that Matthews’ problem with both Clinton has a fairly long history. But his curiosity about this is lacking. There is no sign that he ever asked Matthews about this apparent predisposition—and another part of this twelve-year political story is totally AWOL here. Leibovich never even mentions Matthews’ astonishing conduct toward Candidate Gore during the 2000 White House campaign—the two-year trashing he dumped on Gore’s head as part of his ongoing war with Bill Clinton. World history changed thanks to Campaign 2000—and no one worked harder than Matthew did to keep Gore out of the White House. (When Pew did this astounding study of the press corps’ coverage of the character issue, it singled out Hardball as a place where Gore was relentlessly trashed.) But from that day to this, liberal “leaders” have agreed to avoid discussing this part of our recent history. It disappears in this profile too.

We get to laugh at Matthews’ buffoonism as he sits in a bar at the Ritz. We aren’t invited to ponder his war on the Clintons—or his deeply consequential war against Gore. We get to enjoy what is basically trivial. The meat is disappeared from the bones.

Something corporate: Just how wealthy is Chris Matthews? And what does he do to “earn” all that dough? Matthews makes $5 million per year, Leibovich says. (In a recent profile, Howard Kurtz reported that the loud cable talker “is said to earn more than $5 million per year.”) He has three Mercedes in his Chevy Chase driveway, Leibovich also notes. But that’s as far as Leibovich’s curiosity extends about this part of his subject; there’s nothing else in this profile that touches on Matthews’ vast wealth. But then, this lack of curiosity should be familiar to anyone who has watched the press corps profile its own—even those it chooses to mock. Indeed, even when Matthews opens the door with that absurd “winner’s circle” remark, Leibovich doesn’t inquire about his vast wealth—or about his vast connections. We never visit his home on Nantucket, right down the lane from his corporate benefactor. He’s never asked about his relations with Welch. He’s never asked about Welch’s politics. He’s never asked why he has trashed the Clintons—and Gore—all these years.

He’s never asked if he thinks that his trashing of Gore helped produce the vile war he opposed.

As we’ve long noted, there are fascinating aspects to the story of NBC News in the Jack Welch era. Beyond that, the story is wonderfully comic; by normal standards, any writer worth his salt air would long for the chance to poke and prod at the facts of life on Nantucket in the age of the “NBC mafia.” As we’ve long noted, the Washingtonian went there in 2003, but no one else has ever followed (links below). People like Leibovich simply don’t go there. Neither, therefore, do their readers.

In this profile, we laugh at Matthews’ boorish conduct as he presses the flesh in a bar. But in large part, we’re directed away from the history-altering things he has actually done on TV. Nor do we hear about the odd history of NBC News in the Welch/GE era. Why did Matthews trash Gore so hard? Sorry! As is the norm all over the press corps, we aren’t even told this occurred.

As with Hardball, so with this profile. We get handed amusing distractions—and are kept from considering what’s real.

TOMORROW—PART 3: Life of Brian.

WEDNESDAY—PART 4: Matthews disappeared once again!

VISIT OUR INCOMPARABLE ARCHIVES: In August 2003, Sallie Brady profiled “the Nantucket NBC crowd, one of the cliques that fuels the isle's social engine.” By normal journalistic standards, this is a remarkable story—and in some ways, it’s wonderfully comic. But no one else has ever gone there. The mainstream press corps seems to know this commandment: Thou shalt not discuss press corps wealth.

For our initial citation of Brady’s report, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/22/04. Later that year, Matthews was voted onto the island; see THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/24/04. We’ve returned there often in the years since. Understanding the rules of their tribe, people like Leibovich don’t.