The Perceptive Books of TV Journalist Chris Matthews

Like a lot of practitioners of opinion journalism, Chris Matthews, host of MSNBC’s weeknight show Hardball, has his share of both fans and detractors. His fans and regular MSNBC viewers, typically more on the Left than Right or Center, often agree with him philosophically and tend to like his unbridled enthusiasm and passion for subjects close to his heart. His detractors, besides often disagreeing with him ideologically, bridle at his frequent interruption of guests, though this is an increasingly common trait among cable news hosts, particularly younger ones.

Having known and liked Chris for 35 years, starting when we both worked on Capitol Hill before either one of us were journalists, I find his enthusiasm and interruptions are two sides of the same coin. They show both his passion and his inability to restrain himself when he feels strongly about something. I saw that firsthand after we both left Capitol Hill and worked downtown, in offices maybe 50 feet apart. Chris would come into my office, plop down in a chair opposite my desk, and begin reading a passage that he had just written for the book that became Hardball, published in 1999. He would periodically look up, as if to seek approval or comment, then launch into another passage. His irrepressible enthusiasm was contagious. You got excited for him because he was so excited.

In my judgment, Chris’s book writing is the most impressive part of his journalistic portfolio. His newly released biography, Bobby Kennedy: A Raging Spirit, is his best yet. Hardball, his first book, put him on the map with readers outside the Beltway and new arrivals in Washington with its inside look at how the game is played in the capital. Veterans were regaled by his anecdotes and keen eye for political nuances. His second book, and I would say his second best, was Kennedy & Nixon: The Rivalry That Shaped Postwar America, published in 1996. Few people knew or appreciated how close the two World War II veterans had been—they entered Congress together in 1946—and how their parallel tracks led them to their fateful 1960 presidential race showdown. Indeed, Joseph Kennedy planned to back Nixon if his son did not win the Democratic nomination that year.

Given the bitter partisanship and lack of comity in Washington today, Kennedy & Nixon is a refreshing story that will come as news to a lot of people, and the political class should give it some hard thought. I confess I still haven’t had a chance to read Tip and the Gipper: When Politics Worked, about the remarkable relationship between House Speaker Tip O’Neill and his fellow Irishman, President Reagan, but I’m sure it was a labor of love for Chris, a former top aide to O’Neill. In recent weeks I read (and listened to on Audible Books) Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero, as well as his new work on RFK. Raging Spirit is wonderfully researched and written, clearly the product of hundreds of hours of interviews with family members, friends, staff, and journalists who covered the Kennedy brothers. After gathering the material for the book, Chris obviously spent even more time thinking about what he had learned, distilling it in a way so that it made complete sense to readers.

The JFK book is good, and definitely worth the read (I emphasize read because the narrator’s weak attempts at Boston accents in the audio version make one cringe). One takeaway involves the idea, which almost everyone believes, that Joseph Kennedy groomed his oldest son, Joe Jr., to be the politician and one day to become president, but that after Joe Jr. was killed on a bombing mission in World War II, the role of president-in-training shifted to the second son, John. But people who knew the family and John believed that while the father definitely hoped that his son Joe would go all the way, John’s personality and ambition would likely have taken him into politics anyway. John Kennedy was the charmer, and he may well have been the more natural candidate of the two oldest brothers.

It is the RFK book (the audiobook is read by Chris with passion and without the awful accent) that was truly insightful, a lens into the complicated politics of the Kennedy family that really helps the reader understand what shaped the third son, who was long in the shadow of his two older brothers and for much of his life vainly sought the approval of his father. The father seemed to think that Bobby was soft and sentimental, even unmanly. Early in the book, Matthews writes that when Lem Billings, a boarding-school roommate of Jack’s, remarked to the elder Joe Kennedy that Bobby was “the most generous little boy, the Dad’s response was, ‘I don’t know where he got that.’” Perhaps it was an early incentive for the third son to become tougher and ultimately, by reputation, even ruthless, ironically more closely resembling his father than either of his older brothers.

As a young man, JFK saw Bobby as something of a pain in the neck and a downer to be around. But when JFK’s 1952 Senate campaign floundered, RFK was brought in to kick ass and take names. He played bad cop and reorganized the campaign staff, making a huge difference in JFK’s upset victory over Republican incumbent Henry Cabot Lodge. Early in the book, the reader gets a sense of how RFK got his reputation for ruthlessness, which was ironic since he was the most religious, emotional, and compassionate of the surviving brothers. Rarely, if ever, have I finished a book and felt that I so thoroughly understood its central character.

By the end of Bobby Kennedy: A Raging Spirit, I found myself wanting to know more about the fourth son, Sen. Edward Kennedy, who only made cameo appearances in the JFK and RFK books. If Chris decides to write another book, EMK would be a fascinating central character.

This story was originally published on nationaljournal.com on December 8, 2017