AP Television Writer
To his boss, Chris Matthews has become a statesman. His critics probably have other words.
The veteran MSNBC host raised his profile as much as any member of the television commentariat during the presidential campaign. His 5 p.m. “Hardball” show has seen viewership jump by 24 percent this year from 2011, 17 percent for the rerun two hours later.
Matthews symbolized MSNBC’s growing comfort in being a liberal alternative to Fox News Channel. He engaged in an uncomfortable on-air confrontation with Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, seemed nearly apoplectic when President Barack Obama flubbed his first debate and had to apologize for appearing grateful that Hurricane Sandy might have helped Obama’s re-election effort.
With Keith Olbermann out of sight, Matthews essentially replaced him as the commentator that most annoyed conservative viewers.
“During the run-up to the Iraq War, he just became really, really partisan and became even more so when MSNBC decided to become the anti-Fox,” said Geoff Dickens, who used to watch Matthews as a fan and now monitors him regularly as part of his job with the conservative Media Research Center.
Matthews is not afraid to say what he thinks. He’s a former newspaper columnist and one-time aide to a 1980s era Democrat, House Speaker Tip O’Neill. He seriously considered running for the U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania a few years back, where he probably would have been asked repeatedly to explain why he voted for George W. Bush in 2000.
He’s a motor-mouth infused with a love of politics that borders on the pathological.
“He’s as good as he’s ever been,” said Phil Griffin, MSNBC president. “He’s at a place in his life where he’s really comfortable in his own skin. He’s a statesman. He has so much knowledge and I think he understands it better. He’s always been great, but I really think he’s been at the peak of his game.”
Iraq turned Matthews against Bush. He said war and peace, and civil rights, are the issues that drive him most and explain his enthusiasm for Obama.
Matthews seemed personally offended by efforts in individual states to tighten voter registration and identification laws. Republicans called it an attempt to curb voter fraud; Matthews said it was to suppress voters friendly to Obama. He said Republicans would use welfare and other issues to subtly appeal to white voters still uncomfortable with a black president.
“The number of African-Americans who have come up to me in the last three to six months has been unbelievable,” Matthews said in a recent interview. “They come up, six inches from my face, and say ‘thank you.’ A lot of the times they say we can’t do this like you do it. It’s harder for them because it sounds like complaining.” He’s disappointed that more whites didn’t express gratitude, too.
His repeated attention to the issue “irritates some people, because they can’t stand being called bigoted. It drives them crazy. And I agree, it would drive me crazy.”
The issue drove his confrontation with Prebius, which occurred on “Morning Joe” during the GOP convention. Matthews challenged Prebius about playing the “race card” during the campaign and for references to Obama’s birth certificate. It devolved into a schoolyard insult match.
“He should have kept it together in terms of tone,” Griffin said. “But in what was said, going back and forth, it was a legitimate point.”
Prebius later called Matthews “the biggest jerk in the room.” Matthews doesn’t seem to have any regrets.
“I’d been talking like that for awhile,” he said. “He didn’t like it. I didn’t expect he would. I felt that I had in my presence the guy who represented the party and it was an opportunity I shouldn’t let pass. It’s one of those moments in the campaign that’s going to have endurance.”
The one quote Republican critics repeatedly throw back at Matthews is when he reacted to an Obama speech in 2008 by saying “I felt this thrill going up my leg.”
Matthews points out that he said something similar in 2004, after Obama addressed the Democratic national convention. Its frequent citation annoys Matthews, who knows it will never leave him, but probably also because he thinks people miss the point. He was speaking more about what Obama represented — a black man seeking the highest office in a land with a troubled racial history — than Obama himself.
It hasn’t exempted himself from some high-level teasing, like when Obama appeared at the campaign’s Al Smith dinner after the president’s disastrous first debate.
“I particularly want to apologize to Chris Matthews,” Obama said. “Four years ago I gave him a thrill up his leg. This time around, I gave him a stroke.”
Matthews said “Hardball” has gotten a sharper focus. The editorial opinion has moved to the front of the show. Saying what he thinks isn’t hard; Matthews’ flirtation with running for the Senate ended in part because the need to adhere to party orthodoxy wouldn’t mix with a man comfortable with voicing a dozen opinions per minute.
“I never want to do what everybody else is doing,” he said. “I don’t want to be part of the chorus.”
Like most in his trade, Matthews seems a little lost with the end of a long campaign. He’s done a few speculative 2016 stories, not recognizing the subject is enough to send most people screaming from the room.
Every day is one day closer to another election, though.
“He is sort of the model figure for who we are,” Griffin said. “He doesn’t stick out loving politics and being passionate about politics. It comes across in everything we do ... And that’s Chris.”