Chris Matthews' interest in the Pennsylvania Senate seat currently held by Republican Arlen Specter raises the possibility of something that is all too rare among the nation's media elite: accountability.
It has long been clear that if we applied to journalists who cover politics the standards they purport to apply to politicians -- truthfulness, judgment, being in touch with regular Americans, and so on -- many of them would fare quite poorly.
Few journalists are as aggressive as Chris Matthews in purporting to speak for average voters -- or as quick to declare (liberal) politicians to be out of touch with those voters. And few have his track record of failing to live up to the standards he sets for politicians, particularly Democrats. But there is no real accountability in cable news -- no matter how often Matthews is wrong on the facts, or how frequently he offends the concepts of fairness and rational thought, there are rarely consequences.
True, Matthews did have to apologize after a particularly offensive string of commentary about Hillary Clinton earlier this year, though given his long track record of misogynistic comments, it is clear he got off easy even then -- particularly in comparison to his colleague David Shuster, who was suspended after an inappropriate comment of his own. Shuster likely paid the price not only for his own nasty remark about Clinton, but for his more famous colleague's long string of sexist commentary as well. As long as Matthews stops short of Imus-level offensiveness, MSNBC seems quite happy to continue broadcasting his false claims and inane commentary.
Should he run for the Senate, however, Matthews might finally have to answer for his dubious track record. And he'll have to do so outside of his comfortable cocoon of fellow Beltway journalists and political insiders who are too eager to get invited back to ever truly challenge him on his cable program. Indeed, he'll have to do so while facing the very "regular Americans" he has caricatured so grotesquely over the years.
True, Pennsylvania voters aren't much more likely than MSNBC executives to care about Matthews' long string of false claims on Hardball.
But they may well be less pleased than Matthews' bosses at General Electric with his at times effusive praise for President Bush -- and even less pleased with his insults of people who disagree with him. In 2005, for example, Matthews said of Bush: "I like him. Everybody sort of likes the president, except for the real whack-jobs, maybe on the left -- I mean -- like him personally." At the time the "real whack-jobs" who disliked Bush constituted a majority of the American public. The following year, Matthews called Bush "a wise man ... almost Atticus Finch."
Matthews' praise for Bush was at its most effusive when Bush gave his "Mission Accomplished" speech in 2003. Praising Bush's "amazing display of leadership," Matthews gushed:
He won the war. He was an effective commander. Everybody recognizes that, I believe, except a few critics. ... He's like Eisenhower. He looks great in a military uniform. He looks great in that cowboy costume he wears when he goes West. I remember him standing at that fence with Colin Powell. Was [that] the best picture in the 2000 campaign? ... The president's performance tonight, redolent of the best of Reagan ... He looks for real. What is it about the commander in chief role, the hat that he does wear, that makes him -- I mean, he seems like -- he didn't fight in a war, but he looks like he does. ... Look at this guy!
Later that day, Matthews was back at it:
We're proud of our president. Americans love having a guy as president, a guy who has a little swagger, who's physical, who's not a complicated guy like Clinton ... They want a guy who's president. Women like a guy who's president. Check it out. The women like this war. I think we like having a hero as our president. It's simple. ... We want a guy as president.
Matthews' breathless claim that Bush had "won the war" was, of course, premature. But his affection for Bush remained intact. In October 2005, Matthews declared that Bush "glimmers" with "sunny nobility." Later that year, when Bush unveiled his "strategy for victory in Iraq," Matthews praised his "brilliant political move" and derided Democrats as "carpers and complainers." (Keep in mind, it had been more than two years since Matthews announced that Bush "won the war," and still the president felt the need to unveil a "strategy for victory." Yet Matthews didn't care; any criticism of the "strategy for victory" outlined by the president who had supposedly won the war nearly three years earlier was whining.)
If Bush could do little wrong in Matthews' book, it sometimes seemed Barack Obama could do little right, as Matthews frequently ridiculed the Democratic presidential candidate for a preposterous variety of purported shortcomings. (True, Matthews also effusively praised Obama at times, often contradicting his own previous -- and future -- criticisms. Matthews rarely appears burdened by a need to maintain consistent, coherent viewpoints.)
In April, Matthews ridiculed Obama for ordering orange juice in a diner. Let that sit in a moment: Barack Obama asked for a glass of orange juice in a diner, and Chris Matthews belittled him for it. That came shortly after Matthews announced that Obama's bowling form was insufficiently "macho" and said Obama's lack of bowling prowess "tells you something about the Democratic Party." A few weeks later, he suggested Obama was out of touch for playing pool: "Playing pool, not a bad start, but it's not what most people play. People with money play pool these days." Last year, Matthews seemed to suggest that Obama was a flawed candidate because he isn't "beefy" enough: "I don't see a big, beefy alternative to Hillary Clinton -- a big guy. You know what I mean? An ... every-way big guy. I don't see one out there. I see a lot of slight, skinny, second- and third-rate candidates."
The common thread in all these comments -- and many more -- is Matthews' belief that Obama couldn't relate to "regular people." And by "regular people," Matthews repeatedly made clear, he meant "white people":
- "How's he connect with regular people? Does he? Or does he only appeal to people who come from the African-American community and from the people who have college or advanced degrees?"
- "He can't walk into a dinette with five or six guys there, white guys, in some cases. ... He can't just shake hands and hang out."
- "They're the working-class white voters Hillary won and Barack didn't. Can Obama win over the regular folks against John McCain?"
Matthews even suggested that Obama is an "elite" who might not be able to "talk regular" to "the middle class." As evidence for Obama's purported excessive pride and elitism, Matthews pointed to ... the fact that Obama sometimes wears sunglasses when it is sunny. Most "regular people" probably don't think it's all that unusual to wear sunglasses, as long as the wearer isn't courtside at a Lakers game.
Indeed, Matthews himself can be seen wearing sunglasses in this photo of him sitting by the pool at his Nantucket vacation home. No doubt he was thinking about how to "talk regular" to the middle class at the time.
Hosting Ann Coulter in July 2006, Matthews told her, "You write beautifully," adding, "You have a brilliant brain." He described her as "the picture of heaven." Then Coulter called former Vice President Al Gore a "total fag," and Matthews ended the interview by saying of Coulter, "We'd love to have her back."
Which isn't to say he has always praised Coulter. During one broadcast, he asked guests if they find Ann Coulter "physically attractive" and declared that she "doesn't pass the Chris Matthews test."
Which brings us to the most troubling aspect of Matthews' on-air behavior: his treatment of women. When Matthews apologized for what he called a "callous," "nasty," and "dismissive" comment about Hillary Clinton earlier this year, he and MSNBC tried their best to pretend the controversy erupted over a single comment made about a single woman. In fact, Matthews' misogyny goes far deeper than that.
Matthews' comments about Clinton alone paint a clear picture: He has called her a "She devil" and "witchy" and said that men who support her are "castratos in the eunuch chorus" and compared her to a "strip-teaser" and questioned whether she is a "convincing mom" and said she speaks in a "scolding manner" and described her laugh as a "cackle" and suggested that "being surrounded by women" might "make a case against" Clinton being "commander in chief" and called her an "uppity" woman and described her as "anti-male" and obsessed about her "ambition" while ignoring that of the (all male) Republicans running for president.
But Chris Matthews hates Hillary Clinton. He has reportedly said so himself: "I hate her. I hate her. All that she stands for." (If Matthews does run for the Senate, he may soon discover that Pennsylvania Democratic primary voters share neither his hatred of Hillary Clinton nor his view that Barack Obama is insufficiently "macho.") Maybe he doesn't treat other women that badly?
He has described House Speaker Nancy Pelosi as "scary" and suggested she would "castrate" House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer. And he has wondered how she could disagree with President Bush "without screaming? How does she do it without becoming grating?" He claimed there isn't a plausible female presidential candidate "on the horizon" because there aren't any "big-state women governors" -- but Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire, Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, Connecticut Gov. Jodi Rell, and Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius all run states with populations comparable to male governors who have recently run for president, including Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, and Bill Richardson. How large a state does a woman have to run before she qualifies as a plausible presidential candidate to Chris Matthews? One that is twice as large as Mitt Romney's Massachusetts? Three times as large?
One example of his infamously lecherous treatment of female guests was described by the New York Post as a case of Matthews "perving on CNBC hottie Erin Burnett on live TV the other night." Burnett is far from alone in receiving such treatment from Matthews. During one interview of Laura Ingraham, Matthews managed to stop short of asking the radio host on a date -- but just barely. The interview began with Matthews announcing, "I'm not allowed to say this, but I'll say it -- you're beautiful and you're smart" -- and ended in much the same way: "I get in trouble for this, but you're great looking, obviously. You're one of the gods' gifts to men in this country. But also, you are a hell of a writer."
In August 1999, Matthews hosted notorious liar Gennifer Flowers, during which he told her: "I gotta pay a little tribute here. You're a very beautiful woman, and I -- and I have to tell you, he knows that, you know that, and everybody watching knows that; Hillary Clinton knows that. How can a woman put up with a relationship between her husband and somebody, anybody, but especially somebody like you that's a knockout?" After Flowers told him, "Gosh, you make me blush here," Matthews replied, "[I]t's an objective statement, Gennifer. I'm not flirting."
Glad he cleared that up.
None of this has ever seemed to get Matthews into much trouble with his bosses at MSNBC, who are reportedly interested in keeping him around after his contract expires next year. But if he runs for the Senate, with no record to run on other than years of television transcripts, he may soon find that Pennsylvania voters are less indulgent of his cheerleading for Bush, his near-constant ridicule of Democrats, and his frequently offensive treatment of women.