Americans head to the polls today for one of the most anticipated midterm elections in recent memory. A power shift in both the House and Senate appears likely, and the news media has focused in, with predictions, polling and punditry having reached a fever pitch. Chris Matthews, host of MSNBC's Hardball and of the syndicated/NBC News-produced panel program The Chris Matthews Show, is one of those members of the media who believes this election deserves the hype.
"I don't think this is a prelude. This is a main event," Matthews attests. "The voters' attitude about Iraq is the big story for the world. No matter how we read the election at home, no matter what the president says or Democrats say afterward, the world press will read the loss of the House of Representatives [to the left] as a rejection of our president on the issue of the war in Iraq. That is a big story, and I find that very exciting."
It's that excitement that has made Matthews one of the most engaging voices in the news business. After spending four years as a speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, six years as an aide to House Speaker Tip O'Neill and 13 years as the D.C. bureau chief for the San Francisco Examiner, the Philadelphia native not only has the enthusiasm but also knows politics inside and out. And for Matthews, there's only one issue really weighing on voters' minds today. "It's about the war in Iraq and about the ability of the Democratic party to exploit this public disenchantment with the Bush leadership over the war. Could there really be this 40-seat 'tsunami' we hear about from the pollsters, or will the Republican firewall come back and keep its troops organized on the basis of taxes?"
Keeping voters focused on taxes has proved to be difficult for Republicans. Recently, news reports relaying intensified violence and instability in Iraq have captured the public's eyes and hearts. Though media coverage of the struggle increased in October, Matthews has seen that the targeting of journalists by insurgents has made reporting almost impossible. "You can't walk around going door-to-door in Iraq," he says. "The next thing you know, you get killed, or you're taken prisoner and you're [Christian Science Monitor reporter] Jill Carroll. It's just horrendous to cover that war. It's not even like Vietnam, where you could go out with the unit every day."
But despite such difficulties, press coverage seems to be affecting support for a war viewed as being spearheaded by Republican leadership. Polls confirming this discontentment have lately been a hot topic on Hardball and Chris Matthews. Since the 2004 presidential election, in which various polls seemed to point to a closer race (and in some cases a different outcome), skeptics have questioned what can be gleaned from the numbers. Even Matthews finds himself hesitant to embrace the data he's seen indicating that Republican control of the legislature may be coming to an end.
"There's something in me that says, 'Are they going to once again be an unclear trumpet?' But my hunch is that it's two-thirds to three-quarters of what we're going to get. I think [the Democrats] have a good shot for both houses."
With today's election looking like it will impact government for years to come, both parties have made a big push to get their bases out to vote. Meanwhile, some members of the news media, including ABC News political director Mark Halperin, have called for their peers to disaffiliate and refrain from voting to preserve the appearance of objectivity. Matthews, however, roundly rejects that call. "I'm a citizen of the country, and I'm going to vote," he declares. "I'm not going to do this thing about not affiliating, because if you don't affiliate in states like Maryland, you have no say. I think we've got to stop this idea that we're wearing chastity belts."
That passion and inability to mince words has been Matthews' signature style. He credits at least some of his approach to having cut his teeth on The McLaughlin Group. "We took from McLaughlin a sense of speed. It's a fast-paced show. I'm never told to slow down, and we have a lot of fun," says Matthews. "If we don't have a good laugh two or three times a segment, I think we've failed. If we don't have some really good information that people can take away with them, we've failed."
With Hardball, Matthews is allowed to be his most surly. Featuring pundits and elected officials, the host rarely makes it through a show without interrupting his guests to disagree or play "hardball" to goad them into answering tough questions. This confrontational aspect of the show led Saturday Night Live's Darrell Hammond to add an impression of Matthews to his repertoire of characters. And although Hammond portrays the moderator as an aggressive inciter of outrageousness, Matthews finds the skits amusing even helpful from a publicity standpoint. "It broadens the people who will check in with our show," he offers. "I think you've got to get people to sample you. We don't have an advertising budget, we don't have a big network pushing us. It's my experience that you've got to get people to come in and take a look. I think Darrell Hammond helps me in that way."
A greater help to Matthews is an election season like the one now hitting its boiling point. Needless to say, millions of Americans will be glued to their televisions all evening looking for the latest returns. It's a main event that needs a ringside announcer, and Matthews, sure enough, will be filling that role on MSNBC's daylong Decision 2006: Battleground America.
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