The Salon Interview: Chris Matthews

He made his name bashing Clinton. But the "Hardball" host has broken from the cable TV pack over war with Iraq. And he has even warmed up to Clinton -- Hillary, that is.

Published February 14, 2003 11:59PM (EST)

Chris Matthews barreled into American living rooms during the Clinton impeachment saga, when his CNBC show "Hardball" became the official cable clubhouse for Clinton haters -- and must-viewing for Clinton defenders with a masochistic streak. Nobody who watched Matthews' shouting, spittle-spewing performance art night after night could question his sincerity: Here was a one-time Peace Corps volunteer from a blue-collar family -- and a lifelong Democrat who had worked for House Speaker Tip O'Neill -- and he clearly loathed Clinton for bringing shame to his office and his party. But it was also true that Matthews saw the rightward drift in cable's audience, and he knew there were ratings in his rants against a liberal president. "Hardball" moved to MSNBC and became its top-rated show, and Fox News czar Roger Ailes (who launched Matthews' program when he was at CNBC) would build his primetime schedule around faux-Matthews scold Bill O'Reilly, another Irish-Catholic heckler who knows that the culture war matters as much as politics does to cable TV's angry, (largely) white male audience.

"Hardball" lost some of its edge in the early days of the Bush administration. Matthews needs an enemy, or at least a cause, to keep him charged. But the show has become must-viewing again for anyone tuned into the nation's latest political drama (one that cable news poohbahs also hope will boost ratings): Who wants to bury a dictator? This time around, though, Matthews is bucking the right. He's the only mainstream cable host who's openly opposing the administration's rush to war, and almost every night he battles bloodthirsty Iraq hawks and rails against spineless Democrats who won't muster the power to stop them. Even more remarkably, considering the media establishment's reluctance to take issue with Israeli leaders, he never misses an opportunity to critique the Bush administration's pro-Ariel Sharon Middle East policy, which he insists endangers the U.S. as well as Israel by denying the Palestinians' legitimate aspirations to statehood.

Some liberals still won't watch "Hardball," remembering the excesses of Matthews' impeachment shtick. In his new book, "What Liberal Media?" Nation press critic Eric Alterman insists Matthews is no better than Fox's O'Reilly, calling him "a showman rather than a journalist," though Matthews was a Washington correspondent for the San Francisco Examiner and then the Chronicle for 15 years. Like O'Reilly, Alterman notes, Matthews is never more apoplectic than when going after elitist liberals, especially Hillary Clinton, whom Matthews nicknamed "Evita." He once bragged to Ad Week, "You're never going to see Hillary Clinton on my show," because, he predicted, she wasn't man enough to face his hardball questions.

But Hillary Clinton, at least, seems to have forgiven Matthews -- and he's sweetened on her, too. They sat down for an hour-long conversation late last year as part of the "Hardball College Tour," at State University of New York's Albany campus, and it was as flirtatious as a first date. In a long talk with Salon, Matthews admitted the New York senator has won him over with her hard work, but he says he still can't stand her husband. Still, with the Bush administration on the verge of war with Iraq, the "Hardball" host even admitted to second thoughts about his over-the-top crusade against Clinton, given the magnitude of the issues that threaten the nation today.

In the wide-ranging conversation conducted earlier this week, on the day that ratings-challenged MSNBC announced it had added ultra-right attack dog Michael Savage to its lineup, Matthews assailed neo-conservative Iraq hawks, slapped Bush for sitting "on Sharon's lap" (but explained why he likes him anyway), laid out what's wrong and right with Fox News, and worried about whether his antiwar stand is hurting his ratings.

You like to say that the missing element in the war debate is a debate. Why do you think that is?

It's so tricky to give an honest answer to this. Motives are so hard to get to. There are people opposed to this war who are trying to stop it, and there are people who are just posing as critics. For example, if the Democrats wanted to stop a court appointment because it was essential to NARAL, or Norman Lear's group, People for the American Way, they'd do everything they could: They might filibuster, you know they'd campaign hard against the person, they'd really try to win. From Bork to Thomas to Estrada, they go in, they try to win. And back during the Vietnam War, that was a real opposition, where you use all the power in your hands to stop something that's wrong for the country. You had [Sen. Wayne] Morse, you had [Sen. Frank] Church -- they went after the money. I don't see that in this debate at all. I see people who are just posturing.

Well, Ted Kennedy wants the president to come back to Congress for approval before we invade.

But they voted for the resolution before the election. And I can't explain that -- I can't explain Dianne Feinstein's vote. I can't explain John Kerry's vote. I can't explain Chuck Schumer's vote. This was a blank check for war

Though some of them tried to spin it differently.

This was worse than the Gulf of Tonkin. It was, "Whenever you get around to it, here's your hall pass, Mr. President." The Democrats just don't have a foreign policy that they're willing to defend, that they're willing to use to take down the president's. We're dealing with the power of suggestion here. Once it was suggested that Saddam Hussein might give his weaponry to terrorists, or might use weapons himself in the region, then it became hard for the Democrats to say, "Well, that can't happen." They were unable to stand up and say: "Here's our policy. It's 'Unite the world against terrorism.'"

Unity is the most important thing on the road to stamping out terror. You need global rules of law and order, and they have to be enforced. Start with that principle. Certain arms agreements have to be enforced. There has to be respect for multilateral action. Then you use all that force to stop certain things from happening.

You don't say, like the Bush crowd, "I got this guy over here and I don't like him and I'm gonna get him, whether you back me or not." That's like what's-his-name, the guy who shot the kids in the subway

Bernard Goetz?

Yeah, that's what it reminds me of. It's that kind of foreign policy. We just go after the guys we don't like. I think we were on the road to greatness at the end of 2001. You had Germans picking up all kinds of terrorists in their country. The world was united behind us. Even Iran was helping out. There was an active effort to stop al-Qaida.

Then the administration tied it in to the regional dispute between Israel and its enemies, as if that's about international terrorism. No, it's not. That's a particular regional issue involving people who don't want Israel to have whatever it has, and Israel wanting to play tough with them. But now we're against that too -- as if we're going after the Basques, and the Provisional IRA too. We're not. We supported the contras. We're not against all opposition to government, or all paramilitary operations.

But we started to sit on Sharon's lap, and say, "Oh we have the exact same foreign policy as Israel." Well, not necessarily. We support a two-state solution -- that's been our policy. Sharon's not adopting that. I understand why -- he's under pressure. But the U.S. has married a down-the-line, right-wing policy toward Israel with an anti-Arab, anti-Muslim policy toward the region. And that's too bad. We've always had a dual role in the region -- friend of Israel, and honest broker. We've given up the honest broker role completely.

And you think that's driving our policy in Iraq?

Well, the right-wing policy with regard to Israel -- the people who don't want to deal with Arafat, who don't want a Palestinian state -- the whole sort of right-wing view is consistent with the view toward Iraq. It's the same policy and the same people. The conservative media world, the Bill Kristols, they're all saying, "Don't deal with Arafat, and push regime change in Iraq." It's all the same policy, and that's the policy that's destroying this administration.

And then what? On to Iran, on to Syria? If you talk to the conservatives who come on my show, they want to squeeze Iran and Syria, maybe Lebanon too. And I don't know how much of this is the president's policy himself. You don't know whether he's thought through how this is going to affect the Middle East. I mean, they contend we're going to be received as liberators, not aggressors or colonizers. Well, how do they know? I mean, somebody honest like Ken Pollack will say, "You know, we don't really know." We're taking on a billion people. A battle for Baghdad could ignite a war with Islam. I think people in the Muslim world are going to see this as the Second Crusades. Every geography book in the world is going to say "American-occupied Iraq" over the map of Iraq. That's going to be the most glaring indignity the Arabs have ever faced. Every school in the Arab world will be a madrass school.

The way bin Laden points to the U.S. military bases in Saudi Arabia

Right. And nobody ever explained to me why we kept troops there all these years, when we know it drove them crazy. We're not even using them this time around. So why not get them out? Why didn't we recognize how much it bothered them spiritually and politically?

I know one thing: There are a billion Islamic people in the world today, and there will be about 2 billion by the time we're dead. They're not going to give up their religion. Five years from now, 10 years from now, there's going to be a huge Islamic population in the world, they're going to be nationalistic, they're going to be religious, and they're going to be militant. The question will be, "Do they hate us or not? Do they have a grievance?"

Well, do they?

Well, they will after this, won't they?

But don't they already have a grievance, with our policy toward Israel and the Palestinians?

I don't understand how we can justify the occupied territories. It serves no goal, except the political goal of Sharon within Israel. It doesn't serve an American interest. It really doesn't really serve Israeli interests -- it serves the interests of the political party that's getting the votes of the settlers on the West Bank.

You're one of the few mainstream American commentators or journalists who'll take on these questions directly -- openly question our support for the Sharon approach, oppose the Iraq war. Why do you think that is?

Yeah, who's with me? Nobody's with me, on television anyway. I think there are several factors here. Most people agree you have to stop weapons of mass destruction -- the question is how. Then there's the emotional response to 9/11, there's an emotional demand for payback, which a lot of journalists are reluctant to question. And then there's Israel -- a lot of people support Israel, and it's important to Israel to take out Iraq. So it's all mixed together. It's a combination of motives.

What's driving the president?

With Bush, it's probably a combination of oil, the father, the politics of the evangelicals in the South, who support Israel, and Jewish voters. It's very dangerous to speculate about motives, though. It doesn't get you anywhere. All it does is agitate people. I believe the president. I believe the words that come out of his mouth. I believe he wants to be a liberator. I think he believes the neo-conservative tracts -- he's adopted the lingo of this crowd. "Weapons of mass destruction." "Regime change." They own the Op-Ed pages. I keep wondering: Is there such a thing as a neo-conservative who doesn't have a column? I'm serious about this. Is it required to have a column to be a neo-conservative? I don't know anybody who doesn't have some kind of column who's a neo-conservative.

You've never run into one of them just sitting in a bar

No! Never! And here's the thing: I traveled in the Third World with the Peace Corps. I've never felt anything but hospitality around the world. I don't think they hate me. I don't feel the hatred a lot of these right-wingers assume. I just don't have the problem a lot of these people have. Most Americans don't travel much -- some of these guys never leave the country. Still they say, "They hate us already. It doesn't matter what we do in Iraq." But nothing's more dispiriting than saying there's nothing we can do. It's a matter of immense degrees of difference between not liking your secular lifestyle, and killing you -- or killing themselves to kill you, which is even a step beyond that.

We've got to recognize that when we march into Iraq, we're setting up the card tables in front of every university in the Arab world, the Islamic world, to recruit for al-Qaida. Why don't we just go set up the card tables ourselves, right now? Sign them up to commit suicide. And you never hear anybody talking about this. It would be helpful if there were someone telling the president, well, yes, there is this danger from Iraq, but there's almost a certitude of inflaming the world against us if we intervene.

That used to be Colin Powell's role.

Yeah, what happened to him? I really don't understand that.

I loved all those stories about "Well, he really got mad at the French."

Yeah, who was floating those stories? They were everywhere. I mean, c'mon. Are we going to have a dither? A war over personal pique? Who put that out? Someone needs to talk sense to the president. But these people are not world travelers. This president, much as I like him, had all the opportunities in the world. I mean, if somebody said to me, junior year of college, you can go anywhere, your old man's paying for it, I'd have been gone in a flash. But I had to work. Every summer my mother would say, "Get that job and hold on to it until August 30." I mean, the idea that Bar could have sent him off on a Grand Tour

But he wasn't the least bit interested

Why? Why isn't he interested in the world? Because here's the bad news for him: He's in the world now.

But I have to ask: Why did you preface that by saying you like him? It seemed reflexive. Why do you like him? I mean, I'm not saying you should hate him, but c'mon, do you really like him as a president -- and how can you, when you say all that critical stuff about him, and all of it is true?

You know why? Because if I was with him, I'd try to change his mind. I wouldn't pee in his mouth. That's why. And there are certain people in politics I just don't like, and I wouldn't try. I just think they're arrogant, they're

Like Clinton

Ugh  yeah, yeah, right. I mean, when I'm with him, I'm as charmed as anyone else. It's hard not to like him. But

You don't.

Well, I've come to like Hillary a lot.

Yeah, I noticed -- you guys had a lot of chemistry on the "Hardball College Tour," Chris! What's up with that?

Look, she's going out there, she stuck her neck out, she took a risk running for Senate, she had the balls to do it, she took on the job and she won. And she's a good senator -- in fact, she's probably going to be the next Senate majority leader. I mean, I think what she ought to do is forget this frickin' presidency idea, because she'll never be able to bring him back with her, the American people don't want him hanging around upstairs, hanging out with Hugh Rodham in front of the refrigerator, making up lists of pardons. C'mon. He'd be embarrassing upstairs at the White House. So I think she'd have a hard time. I think a woman president would have to be very conservative to get elected.

She probably couldn't have the Clinton kind of marriage, that's for sure. But as we sit here and talk about what's facing the country under the Bush administration -- the rush to war, the threat of terror -- do you ever regret the amount of time you spent on your show talking about impeachment, or how critical you were of Clinton?

[Ten-second pause.] Well, faced with the possibility of a catastrophe in terms of our history  Yeah. I do. I mean, if I had to put those two things up against each other, if I were forced to make that juxtaposition

And I guess I'm forcing you

I still think I could defend myself by pointing to the value of the presidency. I don't think the Democrats protected the value of the presidency. I mean, Bill Clinton has a problem, but the fact that [Clinton Cabinet members] Billy Daley and Donna Shalala allowed him to use them as part of his protection I thought was really awful. Somebody should have stood up and said, "Mr. President, I'm turning in my resignation. I care about your policies and what you came here to do, but I cannot defend my role in a coverup of your obvious misbehavior." I mean, when Clinton went out and he had Feinstein sitting in another room waiting and he said, "I did not have sex with that woman" -- that woman! -- he used the presidency to cover for his personal behavior.

I don't believe he had a responsibility to even answer that question -- you have no responsibility to answer personal questions that people have no right to ask you. I don't know why his lawyers didn't tell him, "You don't have to answer any questions about your private life, Mr. President. Let them sue you. Take the heat. You don't have to answer." But he decided to take advice from Dick Morris, and if you want advice to lie or cheat, you go to a guy who lies and cheats. And then he lied, and he used the office to do it. He used [Secretary of State] Madeleine Albright, for God's sake. And now it's a problem for the Democrats even though he's not there any longer.

You think the Democrats should have censured him.

The Democrats just never ruled on this. They should have come together and said, "We're gonna censure this guy." They never did. They never went to him and said, "Stop lying. Stop lying right now." They let the Republicans do it through impeachment. You know, there were 29 [Democratic] votes for censure in the Senate. And if the Republicans had any sense, they would have censured him before the '98 midterm election, and they would have won the election. The problem was, what was provable wasn't impeachable, and what was impeachable wasn't provable. You just couldn't prove obstruction of justice, unless Betty Currie and Vernon Jordan or Monica Lewinsky talked. All Lewinsky had to say was: "It was clear to me they were buying my silence by trying to get me a job and get me out of town." She didn't say that. Betty Currie didn't talk. Vernon didn't talk.

I want to change gears for a minute and ask, What's going on with cable news? Why is Fox so successful?

Because there's a percentage of Americans, 5 to 10 percent -- who feel alienated from secular culture, from television, from the movies, who feel the media is just liberals on the coasts

But is the media liberal?

Well, read the last chapter of my book

Give me the short version.

OK, quickly: Just look at who won the third debate between Bush and Gore. I knew Bush won, because people liked him more. People just didn't like Gore. But all the journalists thought Gore won big, he cleaned the guy's clock. Everybody was saying that, even [conservative New York Times columnist William] Safire

But if Safire says it, then it isn't a "liberal" point of view

Well, OK, he's a conservative, but he looks at a lot of things the way elite liberals look at them. The media elite thought Gore proved he knew so much, but the fact was, as they say, Gore knew a lot, but Bush knew enough. People liked Bush.

But that doesn't prove that the media is liberal.

Well, then why did the media choose Gore as the winner in that debate, while the people picked Bush?

Because you're right, they overvalued Gore's being smart, his being quick, knowing details. But that's not the same as saying the media picked Gore because they agreed with his liberal policies. I think it's a cultural divide more than a political one -- you can't lump Safire in there and say it's liberalism...

That's why I can lump him in -- it's not political, you're right, it's culture. That's why they all liked Gore more

OK, but it's not because they support liberal politics

It's establishment vs. anti-establishment. That's why Fox is doing so well. They get this. This demographic doesn't want to see the young, the hip -- they don't want celebrities. I had Mia Farrow and Brian Dennehy on recently -- it did terrible! I love Brian Dennehy, but the audience doesn't. They're angrier than I am. I'm not angry.

Oh, you still seem angry sometimes. But how much do you think about this stuff when you're programming?

A lot. I tell my staff, we're riding a tour bus around, and we're going to stop and look at some weird stuff -- but we're taking our viewers around safely. They're just looking out the window at it. I'm trying to create a sense of comfort for my center audience. My audience is much more center right, or centrist.

Than the rest of MSNBC?

Than what? [Laughs.]

I said, "The rest of MSNBC."

[Laughs.] Uh, I'm not familiar with what you're talking about. I'm just kidding. We're trying to get it together. We're working on it.

Roger Ailes tried to lure you to Fox, didn't he?

Oh, I love Roger.

Did you think about it?

I always think about Roger. He's a pioneer. But we're gonna do it here. We're turning things around here. Besides, I'm not going to pander, or pee all over Jesse Jackson every night just to make a point with the conservatives. The difference between me and them is that I'll look at Jesse Jackson and I'll see four Jesse Jacksons, and they'll just see one, the clown ambulance chaser. There's the historic Jesse Jackson. There's the great orator, one of the best in the country. There's a guy who has a heart. And there's a guy who's kind of an asshole too. I'm not just gonna go after the black Jesse Jackson they all want to make fun of, but I know the wrong people are gonna laugh at that. I don't want to play to that crowd. I don't.

And on the war, I think my numbers would be a lot higher if I were out there beating the drum for this war. In fact, I don't think it, I know it. But I can't be for the war. I can't find a reason to be for this war. I've looked, and I can't, so Im not. The people who are backing this war are more interested in their own ideology than what's good for the country. It's not about America. Which is scary.

By Joan Walsh

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