Chris Matthews gets it wrong -- again

From the Kennedy assassination to the Clinton impeachment to the Bush war, the Washington media elite has been consistently boneheaded.

Published May 28, 2007 12:00PM (EDT)

I have a Chris Matthews problem. I want to like the guy, and in fact, in person I do. Years ago, I met Chris at the San Francisco Examiner, where he broke into journalism after serving as a congressional aide for Tip O'Neill. He was the Washington columnist for the Examiner, where I worked as the editor of the Sunday magazine, and I occasionally assigned him political features. Chris is an utterly charming guy to hang out with, a voluble and genial political junkie, in that Irish-American way, who can babble away forever on the ins and outs of the great electoral game. The problem with Chris, I found out, is that when you try to edit this babble, you quickly discover there is not much there, except for the fleeting Beltway wisdom of the moment. I discovered you don't go to Chris for deep thoughts -- he's a skitter-across-the surface, ADD kind of guy, with a knack for channeling the insta-commentary of the bars on Capitol Hill.

This sort of Washington chatter is fine when it comes to jawing about polls and campaign personalities and other ephemera. But when it comes to the major issues of our day, Beltway pundits like Matthews -- and the guests he stocks his show with -- have been consistently wrong, again and again and again.

When lynching Bill Clinton for a consensual sex act was all the rage in Beltway circles, Chris was among those baying the loudest for his blood. When Iraq seemed like a cakewalk, Matthews got all weak in the knees over Bush in his flight suit. (Of course, when the war didn't look like such a slam dunk, he shifted with the political winds.)

Matthews revealed more of his bone-headed Beltway-think on Sunday, when he devoted a segment of his CNBC talk show to the book by his "friend David Talbot." (Note to Chris: "friends" don't blackjack friends on national television without giving their pals a chance to respond.) Turning to his panel -- which included the inevitable Howard Fineman and Gloria Borger -- Matthews puzzled aloud how any journalist in his right mind could question the Warren Report. He suggested that I just couldn't accept the fact that "a loser like Oswald can kill a Kennedy." This prompted equally inane musings from Fineman about how assassination is the "price we pay for living in the chaos of democracy." And Borger offered something about the American need to believe in "grand conspiracies" rather than accepting the fact that JFK was "felled by a confederacy of dunces." Whatever that meant. But the most idiotic remark was offered up by another of my "friends" (in the way that word is loosely used in Washington) -- Andrew Sullivan. He revealed that he was only 3 months old when JFK was killed, and his generation just doesn't really give a damn about the assassination.

The show's only voice of reason was that of Josephine Hearn, a 20-something reporter for The Politico, who sharply disagreed with Sullivan, saying that she has been fascinated with the mystery of Kennnedy's death ever since she saw the film, JFK, at age 13. Perhaps Sullivan's 40-something generation (or more likely, jaded representatives like Sullivan) find the subject a dreary bore, but it's reassuring to hear that young people like Hearn find something such as, well, a violent regime change in an advanced democracy of some interest. Hearn also set Matthews and his nit-witted duo, Fineman and Borger, straight. Americans are not obsessed with Dallas because they are prone to dark, primordial thoughts. It's because we still "don't really know" what happened in Dealey Plaza, since Oswald was conveniently silenced before he "had his day in court." This clear and bright thought lingered briefly in the air, before being promptly ignored.

It was the confederacy of dunces who had the last word. Matthews let fly another blast of conventional Washington wisdom. JFK was a Cold War hawk, he insisted, so Brothers must be wrong to suggest that Kennedy was the victim of a conspiracy that came out of hard-line national security circles. (This militant version of JFK is held with religious-like conviction inside the Beltway -- including among conservative Democrats like Matthews -- which is one reason the book is causing so much consternation in these circles.) Fineman, for his part, scratched his head over the fact that most Americans reject the lone-nut theory of Dallas, and lamented the loss of public faith in "the powers that be." (And, he left unsaid, in media windbags like him.)

When Chris says, as he did on his show, that Vincent Bugliosi has settled the case and journalists like me should just pack it in, that's just the old Matthews I know -- winging it, not knowing really what he is talking about. He just picked up this bit of wisdom in a couple book reviews he read somewhere, and believe me these critics were just as conventional in their wisdom as he is. Matthews hasn't read Bugliosi's gargantuan masterpiece of sophistry. Even journalists with infinite more patience than Chris haven't accomplished this Herculean feat. He hasn't read my book either, which he also demonstrated on his show. The fact is, pundits like Matthews and Fineman and Borger keep playing their endless loop -- Americans like conspiracies, Oswald was a lone nut, the conspiracy would have been revealed long ago if it existed (by aggressive journalists such as these three bloodhounds, no doubt) -- because it's easy and safe to do so. They can play the part of the wise, level-headed commentator, without doing any real investigation into the crime. An investigation that would soon disturb their deep complacency.

In the ad for his talk show, a gritty Matthews promises "not to let anything get by me." But the Beltway press has let EVERYTHING of importance get by it -- from assassinations to wars to assaults on the Constitution. Plagues of locusts could befall us, outbreaks of boils, black rains of toads falling from the skies, the dead could rise from their graves -- and still, Chris and his panel would be jabbering away about Hillary's poll numbers in Iowa and John Edwards' haircut. While these "watchdogs" of democracy have been busy congratulating themselves on their vigilance, the henhouse has been reduced to a whirl of bloody feathers.

By David Talbot

David Talbot, the founder of Salon, is the author of New York Times bestsellers like "Brothers," "The Devil's Chessboard," and "Season of the Witch." His most recent book is "Between Heaven and Hell: The Story of My Stroke."

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