There are a couple gems in Boston Phoenix alum Mark Leibovich’s profile of Chris Matthews. Leibovich, for example, delves into a subject about which I’ve always been curious — the rivalry between NBC’s two Irish American political gurus, Matthews and Tim Russert:
“Tim — as in Russert, the inquisitive jackhammer host of ‘Meet the Press’ — is a particular obsession of Matthews’s. Matthews craves Russert’s approval like that of an older brother. He is often solicitous. On the morning of the Cleveland debate, Matthews was standing in the lobby of the Ritz when Russert walked through, straight from a workout, wearing a sweat-drenched Buffalo Bills sweatshirt, long shorts and black rubber-soled shoes with tube socks. ‘Here he is; here he is, the man,’ Matthews said to Russert, who smiled and chatted for a few minutes before returning to his room. (An MSNBC spokesman, Jeremy Gaines, tried, after the fact, to declare Russert’s outfit ‘off the record.’)
Matthews has berated Russert to several people at NBC and has told friends and associates that Russert is like John F. Kennedy while he is more like Richard Nixon. Kennedy was the golden boy while Nixon was the scrapper for whom nothing came easily. It’s an imperfect comparison, certainly (Matthews is Irish Catholic, for starters, and Russert is not charismatic by any classic Kennedyesque definition), but it does offer a glimpse into how Matthews perceives himself, especially in relation to Russert. It’s also worth noting that Nixon was obsessed with Kennedy, and Kennedy could be dismissive and disparaging of Nixon.
A number of people I spoke with at NBC said that Russert can be disdainful of Matthews, whose act he often sees as clownish. They also told me that Russert believes Matthews is something of a loose cannon who brings him undue headaches in his capacity as NBC’s Washington bureau chief. This friction was immortalized in notes revealed during the trial of Scooter Libby. Mary Matalin, an adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney, was quoted as having suggested that Libby call Russert to complain about Matthews’s rants against the White House’s Iraq policy. ‘Call Tim — he hates Chris,’ Matalin supposedly told Libby. Russert denies that he felt this way then or now. ‘I’ve always had a very good relationship with Chris,’ he told me. ‘We do different things.’ Matalin, for her part, insists that she doesn’t remember ever saying that Russert ‘hates Chris.’ ”
It was a gutsy piece for Leibovich, who shares a literary agent with Matthews, to do. He seemed to be pushing the envelope of on and off-the-record a bit. For example, I’m curious as to whether Matthews considered the following two exchanges on-the-record. To me they have the sound of classically off-the-record discussions.
” ‘Don’t talk to anyone who hasn’t known me 30 years,’ he instructed, not for the first time. That, he said, will show readers that Chris Matthews hasn’t changed, that he has always been the way he is. The implication, also, is that it would be hard to change him now.”
“He’s big into the Pennsylvania primary, talks a lot to ‘Eddie Rendell’ and urged me repeatedly to call the Pennsylvania governor’s office and ‘talk to Eddie Rendell about me.’ ”
My best guess about what happened is that Matthews did what he always does, talk, talk, talk.
I view myself as a borderline fan of Matthews. I find his opinionated brand of questioning infuriating, his anti-Hillary bias maddening. Yet, at the same time, I completely respect his knowledge and his mastery of the details of Washington.
Leibovich reports that the NBC bigs are pushing Olbermann as the heir apparent, a notion I find completely disheartening. Olbermann is snarky, but that’s about it. Sitting through an hour of Olbermann is like watching a televised version of a Daily Kos diary, and the Kos plays much, much better online than it would on t.v.