Chris Matthews by Lisa Berg/NBC
Chris Matthews recently celebrated his 10th year as the host of MSNBC's Hardball, and he spent a few decades in politics before that tenure. He's distilled his observations into a new Random House book, Life's a Campaign: What Politics Has Taught Me About Friendship, Rivalry, Reputation and Success. Ah, but can politics teach you how to handle Daily Show host Jon Stewart when he calls your book "sad," as he did when Matthews recently appeared to get a plug? Matthews tells The Biz how he survived what he called "the worst interview I've ever had in my life." What made you think your experience in politics would make a good advice book?
Chris Matthews: It's what I know. You write what you know. I've spent 36 years watching politicians, and I've learned the traits that work with people. The absence of those traits usually suggests the failure of a career. I'm talking about people who get elected time and time again and succeed in American politics: Generally they have a set of common traits that are valuable in any kind of human relations - in listening, asking, being upbeat, relishing competition. These are the kind of people that succeed - whether it's Bill Clinton or Ronald Reagan. The amazing thing about most politicians you meet is that they are incredibly patient and attentive in conversation, more so then I am. One of the points you make in your book is the importance of not interrupting people, which you admit is not one of your own traits.
Matthews: I am a student as well. Do readers want to take lessons from politicians at a time when their popularity is nearing historic lows in the polls?
Matthews: You can argue that. One of the best nonfiction books Ernest Hemingway wrote was Death in the Afternoon. He explained bullfighting, and he explained it as if the person reading it were going to be surprised by it and disagreeable and resistant to it. I recognize the irony here. I know. That's why I wrote it. There's a pearl in the oyster here - that human nature and the knowledge of human nature are incredibly winning. How did you feel about your interview with Jon Stewart, which became a YouTube moment?
Matthews: If you were under 25, you think it was great and I was great, and it will sell books. If you're about my age, you're going away saying "God, that was something." He was clearly setting himself up as the grand inquisitor. But were you surprised that he seemed hostile to the whole idea of the book?
Matthews: I was, but I shouldn't have been. His whole shtick is that he questions pundits. He had just done a segment right before I went on making fun of pundits. He makes fun of politicians. I should have known that his worldview would be challenged by this book. I'll tell you one thing: I'm glad he had me on the show. I sent him a Bible the next day. I told him, "This can be the companion volume." Jon Stewart has one of the rare jobs where you don't have to get along with people. He doesn't have to be winning with people. He just has to be outrageous. He's a genius. I love to watch the guy. It will probably take me a few weeks to get used to liking him again. But I'll go back there. You caused a stir with some remarks you made at the 10th-anniversary party for Hardball, at which you said [referring to the perjury conviction of Vice President Dick Cheney's aide Scooter Libby] that the Bush administration had "finally been caught in its criminality."
Matthews: I thought on the 10th anniversary it would be good to celebrate the First Amendment, which gives us all our living. We reviewed in brief the remarkable experience of covering the Clinton [scandal] and the defense of the war with Iraq. And the difference in these two cases was that although I was extremely tough on Clinton, there was never any attempt to silence me - whereas there was a concerted effort by [Vice President Cheney's office] to silence me. It came in the form of three different people calling trying to quiet me. Why are you coming out about this now?
Matthews: I think people ought to know this. There's a lot going on among our producers, our young bookers, now that I never noticed before. There is an almost menacing call that you get whenever someone hears something they don't like - their people call up and threaten, or challenge, and get very nasty. That's now become the norm. I told people, just tell me this from now on. Every time someone calls and tries one of those things, whether it's the Mitt Romney campaign or the John McCain campaign or whatever, I will put it on the air. I'm tired of this kind of pressure that's now become normal among the young staffers on these campaigns. When it's coming from the vice president's office - there was a concerted effort to stop me from reporting on what the vice president's office was doing in terms of making the case that there was a nuclear threat from Iraq. I wanted to remind people that having a talk show that is outspoken is not without its troubles.