Though his political career began long before his first TV appearance, Chris Matthews built his media celebrity on being loud, brash and in-your-face. It’s why the show synonymous with his brand of interviewing got the name Hardball, after all.
It is true that Matthews is passionate about politics and other facets of the human condition. His nightly closings were often insightful, eloquent, poetic, even statesmanlike. At times, his zeal and impatience got the best of him, and he’d veer off course from demanding, probing questioning and into the realm of barking or impeding a guest’s response. In fairness to Matthews, that harsh prosecutorial side of his on-air personality was often inspired by maddening Q&As with pols trying to dodge him. He was too quick to dodge. While his interview subject was still formulating spin on one question, he was already crafting two and three questions ahead in his mind. They were always poised on the tip of his tongue, ready to fire at the person in his hotseat.
Matthews now ends his run at MSNBC, shutting down the show entirely, because he could not withstand the increased scrutiny and the calls for his ousting. Viewers and social media chatterers were angry with Matthews for any number of offenses. He admittedly complimented women colleagues and guests on their physical appearances and attributes. He sometimes spoke in the awkward sexual innuendo language of his generation. He failed to take notice that time had moved on, and language and behavioral expectations had evolved. He failed to see that his remarks and actions may be harmful.
Recently, he came off as dismissive and condescending to Elizabeth Warren during an interview. People took issue with that, citing misogyny.
Matthews has been accused of racist proclivities, which frankly I haven’t witnessed firsthand. I have seen the recent unfortunate viral clip of Matthews mistaking the images of two African-American politicians from South Carolina – one a Republican, the other a Democrat.
I cringed. There was no other possible reaction.
He is, without question, a socially awkward old(ish) white dude. I think he’d freely admit that, and acknowledge that he has volumes to learn about women, minorities, and people who enjoy other cultures.
But Matthews wasn’t cringe-inspiring all the time. In fact, he could be quite informative, jovial, a blue-collar pundit of sorts. He could demonstrate great compassion for the poor, the disenfranchised, the average man and woman, anyone getting screwed over by a politician, the government, or some big institution.
It seemed to me that his Philly accent sort of hinted at who he really is.
My father-in-law used to enjoy Hardball every night at 7pm. He appreciated the array of guests, the quick-fire questioning, and that Matthews didn’t let anyone off the hook, no matter their status in life, nor their Party affiliation. “He can smell bullshit a mile away,” my father-in-law used to say.
Sadly, Matthews didn’t intellectually evolve fast enough to discern today’s mores of workplace and commonplace interactions. He was also at the mercy of live television, where even the most eloquent orators can fumble and offend. I can’t begin to imagine the catalog of stupidity I’d speak if I was on live TV every night for decades.
Wouldn’t have lasted a week.
I imagine Matthews is pining tonight for his heyday as a political speechwriter and policy wonk, when there was time to carefully consider every word choice before committing them to paper that someone else would read. I fear he leaves behind a cable-news void, and that those hardball questions he once crafted with the skill of a seasoned prosecutor — or a nimble journalist — will no longer be asked at all.