TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Before the days when Chris Matthews grilled politicians and their surrogates on his MSNBC show "Hardball," he was a top aide to House Speaker Tip O'Neill, advising him on how to deal with the press. Now Matthews has written a new book called "Tip and the Gipper: When Politics Worked." It's about how the Democratic speaker, O'Neill, and the Republican president, Reagan, managed to work together and reach compromise in spite of the fact that they disagreed not only on policy but on the role of government.
Matthews compares that to today and what he describes as government by tantrum, where rather than true debate we get the daily threat of filibuster, and shutdowns are engineered as standard procedure. Matthews first worked with Tip O'Neill in 1981 in his role as communications director for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Matthews' job was to help the speaker in his new role as party spokesman. Matthews later became O'Neill's administrative assistant. I spoke with Chris Matthews yesterday, before we were certain the government would shut down, but we knew we faced the possibility of the House refusing to raise the debt ceiling in mid-October, which could lead to the U.S. defaulting on its debts.
Chris Matthews, welcome to FRESH AIR. You tell a story in your book about how Tip O'Neill worked with Ronald Reagan to raise the debt ceiling. First of all, what was the sticking point?
CHRIS MATTHEWS: Well, the usual sticking point is nobody gets any points as a member of Congress in either party for raising the debt ceiling. It always strikes people as big spending and debt, and creating more debt when in fact it's the final stage, it's after the bill has been appropriated, the spending has been approved, and they simply have to pay their bills that they've already rung up.
But it sounds like spending, so usually the president's party has to come up with the majority of votes for any kind of debt ceiling extension. In this case, the Democrats had a nominal majority in the House, made up of about 40 conservative Democrats from the South, but the president's man, Max Friedersdorf, who was an excellent congressional liaison, lobbyist if you will, he came to the speaker and said we need Democratic votes to get the debt ceiling extended, and the speaker - this is Max telling the story about the conversation he was in - the speaker said fine, we'll do it. I just want a letter from the president to each of those members on my side asking them to do it, which will immunize them against partisan attack come the next election. And he said deal, and the next day they got the letters. And the speaker was so impressed, this is Max talking, that the fact that: A, he could make such a commitment on his own without the president there; and 2, he could deliver.
And I think that was - that's the kind of thing that happens if both parties simply want to get through it and they don't want to score points, but they want to do what has to be done.
GROSS: There was also a budget summit that you write about, when President Reagan realized he needed to increase taxes because of the national debt and that Social Security needed to be adjusted. But this was a very politicized issue, and, you know, Democrats and Republicans were going to meet about it. There was a big summit.
But the summit was, like, this was like such a sensitive issue. There was a meeting about what the rules for the summit was going to be and who was going to be invited at the summit, whether aides were going to be involved or not. And I thought - I didn't realize that there were meetings about meetings like this. Can you describe that meeting about what the summit should be like?
MATTHEWS: Well, I was pretty partisan in those days, to put it lightly, and...
GROSS: I'm sorry, and you're not now?
GROSS: Can you remember that far back to when you were partisan?
MATTHEWS: I may have leanings now, but I had definitely propensities in those days. And I wanted to make sure that the speaker didn't get set up. And so I was worried about who was going to be in the meeting. And I wanted to make sure, he certainly did, that there would be some substance people in the room.
And he had a young fellow named Ari Weiss, a brilliant guy on numbers and legislation. He relied on him completely. And he wanted to bring him to the meeting. Now on the other side, Jim Baker, the chief of staff to the president, who was a good chief of staff, maybe the best ever, he said no staff.
So I called him up, and I said the speaker wants to bring Ari, and he said no staff. And then I said, well, you're staff, and you're going to be in the meeting. He didn't like that, and I went back and told the speaker, and he said, well, I'm bringing Ari. And then they brought in Stockman and they brought Don Regan, the secretary of treasury and the OMB director to balance out Ari.
But at least there were people in the room who could deal with the numbers, and we thought it was just going to be for show, this summit. The president was willing to walk an extra mile to come up to Capitol Hill. And as you said, it was about a deficit problem, which was arising the year after Reagan took office and got his big tax cuts through, his defense increase and everything, and the deficits were far beyond what they had expected or could defend, and they needed to Democrats to sign on to some kind of change in Social Security or whatever.
I discovered outside the meeting staffers for the president were passing the word that the Democrats were the ones who were giving in on Social Security, in fact urging a cut in Social Security benefits. And I told the speaker when he came out of the room, and he said OK. And then he went back in the room, and he said to the president: Are you calling for a cut in Social Security or not? And Reagan said: No, I'm not doing it. It's you guys that are doing it. And then the speaker said: Well, I'm not doing it.
So they got nowhere in that meeting, but there was good chemistry there according to Jim Baker. He said the guys were working together. And before the big election, the midterm election of '82, the speaker backed the president in raising taxes to make up for the excessive deficits from the year before.
And he went out on the floor of the House and told the Republican members you're here because of Reagan, you owe him your loyalty, and Reagan said in his diary that day it was very strange to have Tip on his side on this issue. So this is the pattern: They would fight like brothers, and then they would deal.
GROSS: So Tip O'Neill, though, set some conditions before getting Democrats to vote for President Reagan's budget. Do you want to explain the conditions?
MATTHEWS: Yeah, he would - this is what I think might be missing today, and this book is not a catechism, it's history, but it does help to understand the context. In those days, I think these two old guys, they wanted it to work. They had not just their own philosophy driving them, but they had a commitment to the republic, to our form of government. They didn't like stalemates and shutdowns and all this kind of thing that slowed everything down, and they wanted to move ahead.
And they also knew the American people needed that for morale. So what the speaker said in 1982 in backing Reagan on what was TEFR, the Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act, which was the largest tax increase in history, he basically said to Reagan: I want 100 Republicans on this baby because we're going to be raises on taxes on corporations, and they're not going to like it. I want 100 votes, and then we'll have - we'll give you the rest. We'll give you the most votes, the 118 on top of that. And Reagan went out and scrounged up the 100 votes, and they did it. They did the same thing on tax reform later on. In that case he asked for 50 votes. So they were always...
GROSS: So the idea was if you're going to get Democrats to vote for this, there's got to be Republicans taking responsibility too...
MATTHEWS: Share the heat.
GROSS: ...so that you can't pin it on the Democrats.
MATTHEWS: Yeah, and in that case you don't want to be known, when you have to raise money in an election time, that you're an enemy of the corporations. And I think it was just share the burden. And the kind of negotiation that I think goes on between labor and business and anywhere you live, in your own contracts where you work, you negotiate, and you haggle a bit, but in the end you know the goal was to keep working there. It's not to lose the job or to lose the contract. It's to keep the business. And I think that's what these guys shared.
GROSS: You worked for Tip O'Neill. You were an aide to him, and you became his communications aide. And you say Tip O'Neill thought that Reagan had the advantage of his good looks and his warm smile and that O'Neill didn't feel like he was, like, physically attractive, and that bothered him, and he didn't think he was good on television, in part because he didn't have TV looks. How much of an issue was that for him?
MATTHEWS: Well, as he used to say to me...
GROSS: And you should describe him because a lot of our listeners won't remember what he looked like.
MATTHEWS: He was a big guy with white hair. He had great hair. He had white hair, and he was a big guy. He was 6'3", strong guy, strong arms. He wasn't just overweight, he was a big guy - and he was overweight, and he felt that, and he used to talk about his cabbage ears and big nose.
He was always very sensitive about his appearance. In fact I always thought he looked great, and I thought the older he got, the more he looked great. By the way, what's Tip O'Neill supposed to look like? He looked like Tip O'Neill.
And Reagan on the other hand had the charm and the good looks of Hollywood and the great - Tip would always talk about his physique, he was an athlete who had made his name in the movies by playing a football star, and he did worry about the camera.
And he also would say things to me like Reagan's voice, that cowboy voice of his is just unbeatable. He thought Reagan's looks weren't quite as important as that wonderful voice of his that in the old days of the drive-in movie theater, like Dean Martin, he had one of those voices that just crackled through the speaker into your car.
And Reagan had that wonderful voice he had used in broadcasting sports in his early career and then later in cowboy movies. And Tip thought that was a challenge for him, to go against him on television, but he decided he had to do it. He brought me in. I was brought in with the encouragement of some other
Tip thought that was a challenge for him, to go against him on television, but he decided he had to do it. He brought me in. I was brought in with the encouragement of some other people back in early '81, and then he made me his administrative assistant with the top job, but my job all along really was to write, he called me his writer, and to encourage him.
He wanted somebody in the room to say come on, let's get on television, because he had a lot older people around him who said don't go on.
GROSS: What was your strategy in trying to make Tip O'Neill more TV friendly?
MATTHEWS: Well, I thought this, and it's easier to do it when you're working for somebody than being somebody. I had this idea that the modern press was not the way the press was when he grew up politically. When he grew up politically up in Boston, you fed your friends and you starved your enemies. So you would give all the time in the world to Barnicle and the other people at the Globe and Healy and those guys, and Nolan and Tommy Oliphant, Curtis Wilkie, all those famous guys on the bus.
And you wouldn't say a word to the Herald. The Herald was a Hearst paper for a while there, and then it was involved with, you know, News Corp. And so you didn't feed them at all because they were the enemy, and they were the enemy of Ted Kennedy too.
So it was very simple, but when you come to Washington, and you get on the big national stage, most of the reporters who work for the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the front pages, the A-section people, are totally, utterly professional. They're mostly well-educated men and women who try to write the truth.
Now, they may have quirks at different times. They may write a column which is tougher on you than you'd like, but generally they're trying to find the truth and get a smart look or a smart angle into what's going on. You can't predict how their day-to-day coverage is going to run.
Generally it'll be objective, but there may be a point view that it's going to hurt you occasionally. But if you do enough of this, this is my philosophy, if you do enough of this over a series of months, people will get a good picture. It's distillation that matters.
People have read 50 different articles about somebody, but they basically get a distillation of what they think of that person. And I thought Tip was a good guy. I think he was a committed liberal, not a phony liberal. He wasn't out to appease interest groups. He cared about the individual, the young poor kid who couldn't go to college, the older person, the person who's ill and needed health care. He cared about those people.
So I thought if I could just get that heart of the guy out there, the people would sort of gradually fall in love with the guy, and they would disagree with him on big spending, but he would become a really - a cult figure for a lot of people.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Chris Matthews, the host of MSNBC's "Hardball" and now the author of the new book "Tip and the Gipper: When Politics Worked." And he was an aide to Tip O'Neill. Let's take a short break here, then we'll talk some more, this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Chris Matthews. He's the host of "Hardball" on MSNBC. He has a new book called "Tip and the Gipper," and it's about the era when Tip O'Neill was the House speaker, the Democratic House speaker, and Ronald Reagan was president, and Chris Matthews was an aide to Tip O'Neill.
I'm kind of surprised that you didn't stay in politics after Tip O'Neill left office. You had run for the state House in Pennsylvania in...
MATTHEWS: Actually I ran for U.S. Congress...
GROSS: Oh, it was U.S. Congress, I'm sorry.
MATTHEWS: Northeast Philly. I ran for Congress in the 4th Congressional District in the primary, Democratic primary, and I did OK. I got about a quarter of the votes against the machine incumbent. But I didn't...
GROSS: Wait, this was 1974, and you were how old?
MATTHEWS: Twenty-eight, but I wanted to get back, and I wanted to get back to Washington, where I worked before for Frank Moss from Utah. He took me back. He got me a really great job with the new Senate Budget Committee for three years with Muskie, and then I went to the White House.
I've always been very lucky to get these positions and end up where I wanted to go, which is to be a speechwriter for a president. I talk about in the book where I'm riding around in the Rhodesian Railroad, the old Rhodesian Railroad back in '70 in the Peace Corps, where I was working in Swaziland teaching business.
And I just wanted to be a speechwriter. I always wanted to be a writer in different forms - it takes different forms, like being a columnist to being a speechwriter, very similar. I wanted to write opinion. I just wanted to be Ted Sorenson, my hero, who had worked for Kennedy.
I always saw that as my route rather than running for office and having people look at me and cheer me and raise money and do all that stuff. I guess maybe it's an easier route, but it's the one I wanted to take.
GROSS: What was losing like for you when you lost the congressional primary in '74?
MATTHEWS: Well, I knew it was an uphill battle. I was hoping that 1974 was the year of Watergate and that anything could possibly happen, and it did for a lot of people but not for me. To be honest with you, I knew it made my bones, as they say in the mafia, because when I came back to Washington, my old boss, Frank Moss, the senator from Utah, really believed in me. He said you had the nerve to go out and do that.
In fact, he had urged me to get into politics. He said you should dip a little deeper into these political waters. And so I became seen as somewhat of a colleague of these guys for having taken the chance. So it worked for me. I felt good about it. It was a bit of a rite of passage. But you know, I don't know if I'd stuck in Congress how long I would have lasted, whether I would have been good at it, constituency politics.
I like much better to be able to design my own political message and to focus where I want to focus it, on issues of peace and war and race and certainly voter suppression, lately I've been against that, and not have to argue the usual tray of issues that a party person has to do. I get to select where I want to make my points.
And some areas I want to let alone because I don't have a strong view on, or I may disagree with a lot of people on my side politically. I don't agree with them. So I focus on where my passions are.
GROSS: So as everybody knows, you're the host of "Hardball" on MSNBC. Now, having advised Tip O'Neill about how to deal with the press and having fed him kind of lively talking points to say to the press, do you feel like you know the tricks that people have when they're politicians or aides to politicians or spinsters when they come on your show?
MATTHEWS: Yeah, I do.
MATTHEWS: Terry, I know the talking points, and especially when you ignore the question. I do know that, and that bothers me, and I react impulsively, and I try to move them back to the question I asked. I do have one ability with my program, and I don't think you have this manner or this style, which is if somebody dodges a question, I will go back and ask it again. And if I ask a member...
GROSS: And again and again, yeah.
MATTHEWS: Well, I can only do it four times maybe at some point. I think on "Meet the Press" Tim used to do it two or three. But I can go to four at a point where people say I just want them to know that you didn't answer the question. Like I had a member of Congress on who was a Tea Party guy the other day, and I said to him...
GROSS: This is Blake Farenthold?
MATTHEWS: I think so. It was one of the Southern guys. And I said was the president...
GROSS: We got it. We've got the clip, Chris. We're going to play the clip.
GROSS: OK, so let me set this up. So you're interviewing Blake Farenthold, who's a Republican congressman from Texas, and you're talking about defending Obamacare and Ted Cruz's fake filibuster. And then you asked Farenthold if he thinks that Ted Cruz would be eligible to run for president since Ted Cruz was born in Canada but his mother was born in the U.S., even though his father was not born in the U.S., and if Ted Cruz is eligible to run for president, what does that say about Obama and whether Obama was legitimately elected. So here is an excerpt of your interview with Blake Farenthold.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HARDBALL")
MATTHEWS: Well, let me ask you about the president. Is he eligible to be running for president? I've said he is. Do you agree?
REPRESENTATIVE BLAKE FARENTHOLD: I wouldn't be surprised. You look at where some of his...
MATTHEWS: No, eligible. No, stick to the point, Congressman. I said I believe he's eligible. He had an American mother, no matter where he was born, you have an American mother. I believe you're a natural-born citizen. Do you agree with that?
FARENTHOLD: Listen, we've had this discussion about President Obama, so I...
MATTHEWS: Is this too complicated? I'm talking about Cruz. Stick to the point, Congressman.
FARENTHOLD: He's as eligible as Obama is.
MATTHEWS: Well, what does that mean?
FARENTHOLD: Obama's president. Ted Cruz can be president.
MATTHEWS: Well, what do you mean? Explain terms. This is serious business, Congressman. You're chuckling about this.
FARENTHOLD: No, absolutely.
MATTHEWS: Is he eligible to be president or not? You've been touting the guy. You said he could run for president. Explain. Is he eligible? You brought it up, I didn't.
FARENTHOLD: I think he's eligible, and I'm giving you a yes answer.
MATTHEWS: So if Obama was born overseas to an American mother, even if that crazy theory of Donald Trump is true, he'd still be eligible to be president by that standard.
FARENTHOLD: Listen, we're talking about Ted Cruz. Obama is...
MATTHEWS: Can't you project an inch mentally? Just an inch?
FARENTHOLD: I'm telling you that President Obama is the president. If he's eligible to be president, then Cruz is.
MATTHEWS: No, no, you brought this up. (Unintelligible) Congressman. Is he legitimately...
FARENTHOLD: The answer I can give you is yes.
MATTHEWS: Was he a legitimately elected president of the United States?
FARENTHOLD: I wasn't in Congress to determine that. That was determined before I got here.
MATTHEWS: When does Congress get to determine whether a president meets the standards of being a natural born citizen? What would that formulation be? In other words, there's going to be a vote in Congress sometime between now and 2016 whether Ted Cruz is legitimate?
FARENTHOLD: It's when they accept the electoral votes. It's when the Congress accepts the electoral votes. That's when it would have been timely to raise.
MATTHEWS: And what would you have done?
FARENTHOLD: Listen, I wasn't here.
MATTHEWS: Why are you afraid of this? What is in the water down there?
FARENTHOLD: I'm not afraid of it all. I'm not afraid of it at all.
MATTHEWS: Say yes or no.
FARENTHOLD: I've said yes.
MATTHEWS: Is Obama a natural born citizen? Is he a natural born...
FARENTHOLD: I have said Ted Cruz is as eligible to president...
MATTHEWS: This is - this is the problem with your party. It has gotten so far into the wacko bird. What's wrong with saying Barack Obama was a natural born citizen and therefore eligible to be president? Why can't you say that?
FARENTHOLD: I'm saying President Obama is president. What else is there to say than that? We're nit-picking over words here.
MATTHEWS: No, no, no, because you were playing a game once again of trying to somehow make him not quite the president - yeah, he got into the office, you're admitting that, but he didn't do it legitimately. Did he? Just say he did.
FARENTHOLD: He's president. He's president. What more is there to say?
MATTHEWS: OK, can you repeat after me: He was legitimately elected president.
FARENTHOLD: President Obama was elected president.
FARENTHOLD: The people elected him, yes.
MATTHEWS: So he was a natural born citizen?
FARENTHOLD: I didn't make that judgment when he was brought in.
MATTHEWS: Well, everybody watching knows what you're doing, you're dodge-balling.
GROSS: Wow, a Chris Matthews moment with...
MATTHEWS: I don't create these moments, Terry. I just smell them. When these guys start dodging, that's one talent I've nurtured. If somebody's dodging the answer, why don't they just say because it's not that he doesn't believe it - I will project here. He has five or 10 percent of people in his constituency who will never forgive him if he says President Obama's a legitimately elected president of the United States. They still hold to that birther thing out there, which is very - well, it's awful, I'd say it's awful.
GROSS: OK, so listening back to that clip with Republican Congressman from Texas Blake Farenthold, what was your take on that excerpt and on what it did or didn't accomplish?
MATTHEWS: Well, what it accomplished was to show that this fellow had a problem with the words legitimately elected president, and he hadn't come to peace with the interesting parallel between Ted Cruz being born overseas to an American mother, which I believe makes him a natural born citizen, and the charge made against President Obama forever, and still it sits out there, that he was born to an American mother, nobody challenges that, but he was born in Kenya or Indonesia and therefore he's not a natural born citizen and therefore not legitimately elected.
They don't see the contradiction in their easy acceptance of Ted Cruz's background, which I share in acceptance of, I believe he's a naturally born American, and the fact that their worst-case scenario, President Obama has pulled some con, as Donald Trump would say, on the American people, that he was in fact born in Kenya or somewhere else and claims to have to have been naturally born through some manipulation of the Hawaiian press back in 1961 or '2. And so I just was trying to get to that, and I think I got there.
GROSS: Chris Matthews will be back in the second half of the show. He hosts the MSNBC program "Hardball" and is the author of the new book "Tip and the Gipper: When Politics Worked." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Chris Matthews, the host of MSNBC's "Hardball," and author of the new book, "Tip and the Gipper: When Politics Worked." It's about the relationship between Democrat Tip O'Neill and Republican Ronald Reagan in the 1980s when O'Neill was speaker of the House and Reagan was president. At the time, Matthews was a top aide to O'Neill and advised him on how to deal with the press.
When we left off, we were talking about how Matthews deals with politicians on his MSNBC show "Hardball." And we played an excerpt of a particularly contentious interview.
So some people are very critical of you and your interview style and call you like a blowhard and...
MATTHEWS: Yeah. Not lately.
GROSS: OK. And other people just like applaud you for like, he doesn't let anybody get away with anything. He hammers them until they give an answer or demonstrate that they're unwilling to give an answer. What's your kind of self-critique of your style?
MATTHEWS: Well, I was talking to my brother the other day, up in New Jersey and he's a Republican, held office for years, and he said, my Republican friends like it when you - even if you go after a Republican, they like it when you press for an answer. They consider that hardball. They want that to be the nature of the show. And it is at its best. I mean when I'd gotten Zell Miller to want to have a duel with me and some of the stranger things that Michele Bachmann has said on the air about wanting to have a kind of a McCarthy-ite investigation of the Congress, those people do it under pressure. I'm sure they walk away saying, how did I get buffaloed into that?
Because if you listen carefully - Ed McMahon, of all people, said: The key to the interview is to listen to the last answer. And if you're hearing the last answer equivocation, well, I go for it, I'm heat-seeking. And I think that's what I do. And I don't think it's everyone's taste. I think on Sunday mornings for example, "Meet the Press," that audience may be different. I know when people come looking for me at seven o'clock Eastern Time, they want that. And it's their way of seeing that I'm not on the side of the persons or I'm not caballing with the person who is on the program, but trying to work for the audience.
GROSS: On election night in 2010, you interviewed Michele Bachmann and no matter what you asked her, she kept giving four of the same talking points, and you finally said to her, are you hypnotized?
GROSS: You keep saying the same thing over and over.
MATTHEWS: Because she obviously, she's a very attractive person and she was very winning with the crowd for a while and she did have a lot of spunk, if you will, a lot of energy and excitement about what she believed. But when I asked her a question, she just kept giving that actually robotic answer. And I guess I suppose it was disrespectful of a public official to say are you hypnotized, because she wouldn't, it didn't seem to bother her to be giving an answer. In fact, I saw a congressman doing that about nine months ago. He's been told by his media people, just give the same answer over and over again and you'll be OK. And that's not true. People can tell if you give it over and over again. It's not really true.
I remember watching a wonderful film. Again, a movie reference to lives of others, where the Stasi guy said, they listened to these interviews and these interrogations over and over again.
GROSS: This is a film set in East Germany...
GROSS: ...and everybody is being spied on by the government and by their neighbors. Yeah.
MATTHEWS: And if he said, if they gave the exact verbatim explanation of something again and again you know they're lying because they have to give a verbatim answer that's always exactly the same. They can't let their mind wander and give it a different way because it didn't happen. It's so interesting. I've tried to remember that. So if they give me a robotic answer I know that they haven't really considered it as a truth or something they believe, it's simply something they're repeating.
GROSS: When I said before that some people think of you as a blowhard, you said not lately. And so...
MATTHEWS: Well, it's all a question of timing...
GROSS: ...do you think people have changed or you've changed, if it's true that people don't think of you as a blowhard now?
MATTHEWS: Well, I think people have their own styles. As I said, there's the Sunday morning audience, then there's the cable audience and I think that well, you do it very well obviously, Terry. I mean reducing the length of your question is a good thing to do. Try to find economy of language so that you can ask a three-word question and get a long answer. That's very good. Learning how to cue people, but also to race them a little, get them working a little faster than they like to think out loud, so they begin to think just on their feet and they have to answer more impulsively, and that way you can get closer to the truth. And I know it has an aspect of the interrogation room, of Sipowicz or somebody interrogating a guy.
MATTHEWS: But I'm telling you, if you really want the truth, you can't just let them come in and Bogart it and just keep giving long answers. And thank you for the mic, I'm now going to talk for 10 minutes. Which some people on either side of the aisle do that. They come on and say, thank you for that question, which I now will ignore and I will give you the speech.
MATTHEWS: And he tries me crazy because I can't interrupt them. And then when you do say please or interrupt, they go would you let me finish? And what they want to do then is give another speech totally unrelated to your question. And it is a question and answer format.
GROSS: You had been on at five o'clock with a rerun of your show at seven, now you just have the seven o'clock time. What happened?
MATTHEWS: Well, they want to try to have - I think Phil Griffin, the head of my network, in fact, this doesn't take a lot of conjecture, wants the numbers to go up every hour. And as long as I was on twice in the same three-hour period, a lot of people were watching me at five and not watching me again at seven. And so he wants to build every hour. So we put, we go on at seven every night. And, you know, you know, for a total audience, of course, I'd like to have both hours, but in terms of the rating - the audience you draw in that hour - I think it's proven to be very successful in coming in between seven and eight. Of course, we all on television want to be on all the time. But...
MATTHEWS: ...you know, I think seven is fine and I think it's good because it's, I always say in the early part of the evening you want to ingest as well is digest. So people are coming home from work on the East Coast or an hour earlier in the Central time zone. But they're coming home and they want to sit down and relax a bit, maybe before dinner or during dinner, and they want to learn in a rich way what happened that day of political consequence. But then they want to learn a little of the analysis and the point of view that it's brought out.
Later in the evening it's much tougher to do a program like Rachel Maddow does, where you have to go almost to the back of the book immediately and you have to do a very enriching kind of discussion about a policy question or something that's come up and it becomes much more challenging to come up with a totally novel discussion. Whereas, I have the benefit of bringing the news and bringing the news at that time of night when people just want to know what happened is much more favorable to me and it's what I want to do, which is grab the news, say what I think of it and then have some more arguments about it, and that usually sharpens...
Martin Agronsky, who started this whole thing of talk television years ago, in "Agronsky & Company" told me, the purpose of his program - and it's the purpose of all our programs - is to sharpen the issues so that after you've watched the show you know what the fights about.
GROSS: My guest is Chris Matthews, the host of MSNBC's "Hardball" and author of the new book, "Tip and the Gipper: When Politics Worked." We'll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Chris Matthews. He's the host of "Hardball" on MSNBC and his new book is called, "Tip and the Gipper: When Politics Worked." And it's about the years when Tip O'Neill was House speaker and Chris Matthews was Tip O'Neill's aide and Ronald Reagan was president.
You're Catholic. You went to Catholic schools. You went to Holy Cross College. And you love movies. Like all of your viewers know, you always...
GROSS: ...kind of recasting actors as the politicians you talk to and...
MATTHEWS: I know.
GROSS: But anyways, did you grow up with a problem of not being able to see movies you wanted to see because they were on...
GROSS: ...the Catholic do not watch list?
MATTHEWS: No. I think for some reason my mom didn't want us watching "Donna Reed" of all shows.
GROSS: "Donna Reed?"
MATTHEWS: Yeah. I know. And she didn't want us watching the...
GROSS: Oh, what a wholesome show.
MATTHEWS: I know.
GROSS: What was her problem with "Donna Reed?"
MATTHEWS: ..."The Untouchables." We weren't allowed to watch "The Untouchables."
GROSS: Well, they have machine guns.
MATTHEWS: I know.
GROSS: "Donna Reed" didn't have machine guns.
MATTHEWS: But we were allowed to watch monster movies late at night. I don't know. No, I've always said my dad used to take us two films when mom didn't want to go. I had a bunch of brothers, four brothers. So we'd always go to a drive-in for $1 and we'd all fall a sleep in the car. And Dad would drive us home after the midnight spook show and all the cartoons and all the double features and I just grew up loving the movies. And Kathy and I go all the time and we've seen all the good movies this year. And I see things in life that remind me of something I've seen in the movie over and over again. I don't know why that is.
GROSS: So I want to ask you about a controversial policy now at CNN. The show "Crossfire" has been restarted, and that's the show where there's somebody from the right and somebody from the left and they go at each other and disagree on the issues. And one of the people on the right on the show is Newt Gingrich, who has given money to - well, apparently, to one of the people he had on the show. So the policy, as stated by CNN now, is that if a "Crossfire" co-host has made a financial contribution to a politician who appears on the program or is the focus of the program, disclosure is not required during the show since the co-host's political support is obvious by his or her point of view, as expressed on the program.
I'd love to hear your reaction to that.
MATTHEWS: Well, I think there have to be real walls between even conservative commentators and conservative politicians, and the same on the other side, on the liberal side, I think there has to be walls. You shouldn't benefit from someone else's election. You shouldn't have a deal with them where you can have an opinion that you share with them and you can sympathize with them and says so on the air. That's what a commentator does. But you shouldn't benefit if they win. You shouldn't have an investment in their winning. I think that's where you draw the line. That's where I would draw it and I think they're wrong not to draw that line. I think people who've invested in someone winning will benefit either through patronage or favoritism or something. Anybody knows this. You give money to somebody, you're part of their team. And I think that you can agree with them. I mean Peggy and I have talked about this. People in the White House, when she was writing outside...
GROSS: Peggy Noonan?
MATTHEWS: Peggy Noonan, when she wrote about George Bush. They thought oh, you're on the team. No. No. I agree with you on this stuff. That's why I'm saying it, not because I'm on your team. I happen to agree with you. And that's my view with Obama. When I agree with him most of the time, I agree with you. I'm not on your team but I agree with you. That distinction has to be made and kept. Just like for example, at NBC and on MSNBC, we can't give a speech for money and not give it all - every nickel of it - to charity. And you just can't do it because if you start taking money from a health group or whatever, you are part of their team. And they may never call on you, but it looks like it, it looks like they can. And that's why you have to draw these lines. And I think it's very appropriate what our network does. It's tough. There's money to be had out there. But it's better that it goes to charity than into your pocket, because at that point you become invested, I think.
GROSS: So I don't mean...
MATTHEWS: I think people expect this, by the way. And I really think, why would you keep it secret? That would be my question. And that gets back to politicians. They always, if it looks better than it is they'll tell you. If it looks worse they may not. And that's why you ought to know the worse, I think.
GROSS: So I don't mean to make a comparison between, you know, giving money to a politician and then interviewing them with what I'm going to ask now. But, you know, one thing that bothers me a little when I watch your show is when you have a new book, as you do now, you plug it a lot on your show.
MATTHEWS: Yeah, I do.
GROSS: Yeah. It makes me uncomfortable. I feel like...
MATTHEWS: Well, it doesn't make me uncomfortable. I want them to read the book. In fact, I'm going to...
GROSS: I know you want them to read the book.
MATTHEWS: In fact, I'll ask them to read it at some point, because they watch my program. I've invested, in this case, a half dozen years of my life and more than two years of hard work in trying to accumulate this information and get it right, through Reagan's diaries and my diaries and on the record reporting and verbates of press conferences. I wanted to get it right. I want them to know this history and I want them to buy the book. And I'm going to ask them to do it. I think it's important that they read the book, just like it's important they listen to me.
GROSS: But you are making money on the book, so there is a little bit of a, you know...
MATTHEWS: Oh, yeah.
GROSS: ...using the mic to...
MATTHEWS: Because I put the work in.
MATTHEWS: Usually people get paid for work.
GROSS: OK. So...
MATTHEWS: We disagree.
MATTHEWS: We disagree, Terry. I think - I think...
GROSS: You're not going to budge on this one.
MATTHEWS: I'm not going to budge because I work very hard on these books and I think they're worth the time of my viewer to learn what I've learned and to benefit from it. I absolutely believe my book on Kennedy helped them. I believe everybody who read the book is better off for having read it and they're going to be a lot better off for reading "Tip and the Gipper" because it'll give them a sense of the American political norm and it's not what we have today. The American political norm is to have the right and the left finally reach agreement in keeping the government working because they believe in our form of government. And I want to make that case. Hold your ears, Terry, next time.
GROSS: So we've established my...
MATTHEWS: You are so National Public Radio, because that...
MATTHEWS: See, the non-commercial aspect of your employment is probably why you think like this. But there are people who have said that to me. I'm sure some of my producers think that way, but I, I disagree.
GROSS: Well, but I feel the same way about O'Reilly. Like on O'Reilly's show, like...
MATTHEWS: Oh, he does it too, but he does it...
GROSS: Yeah. All the time. Yeah. And so I feel that, you know, like the same way about...
MATTHEWS: But you don't have to watch. And they know why I'm doing it. And if they think I want people to buy my book, they're right. Of course, I want them all to read...
GROSS: Chris Matthews, I'm going to have to challenge you to a duel.
MATTHEWS: I wish we still lived in a time when I could challenge of man to a duel. That would be really great.
GROSS: What was it like...
MATTHEWS: That guy was...
GROSS: That was Zell Miller.
MATTHEWS: It was so scary.
MATTHEWS: It was scary because I thought he meant it. And I said to my producers around me, don't...
GROSS: Wait, he was governor of Georgia then?
MATTHEWS: Then Senate, he was senator.
GROSS: Senator from Georgia. Yeah.
MATTHEWS: He said I wish I was over there so I could get into your face and all this stuff. And I know he's a good, served in the country in the Marines. And I felt, why am I in this fight with him? And he just was at me that night. And when I tell everybody it's...
GROSS: It was just like a - it was like an election night and he was a conservative Democrat.
MATTHEWS: It was on Broadway at 34th Street in New York and Broadway, right next to Macy's - "Miracle On 34th Street," I call it - and he was in a remote location at the convention hall. And I was just interviewing him and he just jumped on me. But after it was over, I said to my producers, now don't build up this and don't giggle about this because, you know, I do not want to end up on a bluff somewhere in New Jersey tomorrow morning with dueling pistols.
MATTHEWS: This guy may be real.
GROSS: You really thought he might be?
MATTHEWS: The look he had in his eye was real, yeah. It was something.
GROSS: And did he apologize or anything?
MATTHEWS: Anyway, that's the - that'll go in the real...
MATTHEWS: I've asked - I probably should at some point sit down and write a letter saying I respect your service to the country. But I don't think he missed - he probably enjoyed it every inch of the way so why take it back from him? But it was colorful, wasn't it? Memorable.
GROSS: Obviously, it was memorable.
GROSS: So how much do you enjoy being on television?
MATTHEWS: Well, in the beginning of the week, Mondays, I love it. Tuesdays I love it. Wednesdays I like it. Thursday I'm getting tired. Friday it becomes work. It's all about the gung-ho energy that comes off the weekend. And I always say to people if you want to want to give a speech somewhere give it in the morning around 11. If you don't want to give a speech, don't give it at 8:30 at night after dinner.
I think different times of the day you get gung-ho and it's harder at 5 o'clock and it's harder at 7. It's not easy, but by the end of the week it is harder because it's that time of the day we sort of slow down. But I love it. I love being able to ask the questions and to sort of control the time and keep it moving and laugh and bring up my movies and my beliefs.
And the people I get to work with, like Howard Fineman and David Corn and Joan Walsh and all the - and Jo-Ann Reid and all the people I work with, I respect them enormously. E.J. Dionne and Gene Robinson. The people that are on my program regularly, I really, really like and I really respect the reporting they do. Especially people like Howard who report all the time. And I get to ask them questions. It's great.
GROSS: You love politics and the political process and American government. You've always wanted to be a part of it or writing about it or talking about it. When you interview people who think government is the problem and not the solution and who want to dismantle as much as possible, defund as much as possible, what's your emotional reaction to that as somebody who, you know, just loves the political process so much?
MATTHEWS: Well, I do respect their - sort of the Libertarian cowboy-ism of I want to be self-reliant. I do think that's an American character, of being on your own out there in the sage brush and not needing anybody. But in fact, we do need people. I was fortunate to go to college. You mentioned I went to Holy Cross. I got there because of the National Defense Education Act loans.
My four brothers - my parents weren't wealthy and all of us went to school on loans and they were 3 percent. You paid for them when you got out of the Peace Corps or grad school. I got a National Defense Education fellowship at graduate school. My father was on the GI Bill when he came back when he was in the Navy in World War II and we became middle class because of the GI Bill.
I was in the Peace Corps. My father worked for a city government. I never thought that government wasn't a good thing. People don't - they always resist admitting it, but when most people who are listening now think of what did the government do for me, they're going to find some surprising answers. Whether their parents - usually in the area of education.
And I think Social Security is a great thing. I think people - the pressure is under them, they can't save a lot of money. And they need to have that bit of money that's going to guarantee that they do not end up in poverty. The greatest anti-poverty program in American history is Social Security. We always underestimate because we think the older people are getting well or getting too much. They're not.
Most of them are living on Social Security and that's it. These programs really changed America for the better. And so, I think the argument is still there for people to say, you know what? Stop knocking what works. And we have a system of mixed capitalism in this country, a bit more conservative than Europe or Germany or England.
It's not a socialist country but it aspects of social democracy that we have come to like and appreciate. And I think we should be proud of the compromise we've made. And it works.
GROSS: You were a young man when you worked for Tip O'Neill and he was about 70. You're now just a few years away from Tip O'Neill's age.
GROSS: And I wonder if it surprises you to be close to his age.
MATTHEWS: It sure does. In fact, I was kidding somebody the other day who was having a 40th birthday party and I said 40 is the new 10.
MATTHEWS: I mean, everybody is still kind of keeping going and running and people are jogging and everything to stay youthful and we're trying to push back time. And people look younger than they did at the same age. I do think about it all the time. Say like what did Grandpop look like? What did Charlie Shields look like when he was my age, 67? What did it seem like to me? And he was an old cigar-smoking neighborhood Democrat.
And what was that like? What's it like? Was he really that old? I can't believe it. Am I that old? I can't believe it. So I still feel 20-something. You know, so it doesn't affect me. But I am kind of amazed when I look in the mirror sometimes. I say I'm beginning to look more like dad. That's the way it is.
MATTHEWS: I always thought I looked like my mom. But, no, it doesn't bother me and I'm healthy, so I'm a very lucky guy.
GROSS: Well, Chris Matthews, it was a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you so much.
MATTHEWS: Terry Gross, thank you.
GROSS: Chris Matthews is the host of the MSNBC program "Hardball" and author of the new book "Tip and the Gipper: When Politics Worked." You can read an excerpt on our website freshair.npr.org. Coming up, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews a new album by bassist David Holland. This is FRESH AIR.
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