Chris Matthews on Jan. 6, the danger to democracy and what he learned from #MeToo

Longtime political insider and MSNBC host sees something new — there's one party that doesn't want people to vote

Published June 25, 2021 5:50AM (EDT)

This Country by Chris Matthews (Photo illustration by Salon/Simon & Schuster/Brian Sager)
This Country by Chris Matthews (Photo illustration by Salon/Simon & Schuster/Brian Sager)

When it comes to politics, Chris Matthews has just about seen it seen it all. His career has taken him to the White House, as speechwriter for Jimmy Carter to hosting "Hardball" on MSNBC for more than 20 years. He even served as a U.S. Capitol Police officer in the 1970's. But he says he's never witnessed anything close to what we are seeing with today's Republican Party.  

In our Salon Talks conversation about his new book, "This Country: My Life in Politics and History," Matthews didn't hold back on Donald Trump or the Republicans, arguing that the former president has consistently "been trying to undermine democracy," and that a swath of his party no longer believes in it. "I do believe there are a number of Americans, I don't know whether it's 10% or 25%," Matthews told me, "who do not believe in majority rule." 

Over the last few months, we've seen Republicans openly waging an assault on voting access in state after state. Their goal is straightforward, Matthews explained: to ensure that the GOP's opponents — minorities, the young, etc. — can "never vote," which is the only realistic way Republicans can win.

Matthews also made the important point that in the past, when the GOP saw extremists seek to join its ranks  such as anti-Semites or white nationalists — Republican leaders would publicly condemn them, as Ronald Reagan did when he was endorsed by the KKK during his 1984 re-election campaign. With today's GOP we don't see that, which as Matthews notes should concern us all.

In our wide-ranging conversation, we touched on everything from Matthews' teenage past as a Nixon Republican to his resignation from MSNBC after women came forward to say that he had made inappropriate comments about their appearance — which he admits to, and apologizes for again. Watch our interview below or read the following transcript, lightly edited for length and clarity.

It's a great book. First of all, you were a 15-year-old young Republican? You rooted for Nixon over Kennedy? You, Chris Matthews?

Well, it was complicated. I was for Nixon because my family was Republican and I was going along with that. And then I fell completely in love with the glamour of the Kennedy crowd. I also rooted for Nixon because he wasn't glamorous like the Kennedys. He didn't have all the money and the charm and the social confidence. He seemed more like my dad or somebody, a regular guy. And I guess I rooted for the underdog. 

I think my book "Bobby Kennedy" is the most popular because Bobby hits the right chord today. He's a progressive, and also he's tough. He wants people to meet their responsibilities. It's not just about entitlement, it's about duty. One of the things I pointed out in my book is that he was the only one of the liberal Democratic senators back in the '60s and '70s who made a point of saying hello to the Capitol policemen, showing a little dignity, a little, "Yeah, we're in this together. You're protecting me. And I agree with you, what you're doing, protecting the Capitol." 

Most people don't know that about you: You began working on Capitol Hill with the Capitol Police? 

I was working in the senator's office for four or five hours in the morning, at least four hours. And then I'd go over and put on my uniform and my gun at 3 o'clock in the afternoon and work until 11 o'clock at night. So I was putting in a full day and I was learning a lot in both jobs. I was very proud to be a Capitol policeman. I learned a lot of life lessons from these guys. A lot of country guys from West Virginia who didn't get to go to college, didn't get a lot of the breaks we got in life. I learned from them and I was rooting for them, especially when I found out how good a job they did trying to stop the insurrection on Jan. 6. When I got a clearer picture of it and could see that they risked their lives, in some cases lost their lives. And I will never forget that African-American officer who was leading the mob in the wrong direction to save Mitt Romney. Come on. That's a great story. 

Your life has been a remarkable journey.

Isn't it? Aren't you impressed? Isn't it something? Air Force One, back rooms with Tip O'Neill, Berlin Wall when it's coming down, Cape Town when they're voting the first time, Belfast and the Good Friday Accords, then to the Pope's funeral. I got to see history as it was happening from inside politics in America. And, I'll be romantic here, people in the world who wanted what we have, which is democracy, which we better hang onto. Nelson Mandela, you know what he did for South Africa? He said to the Black majority, "We're going to get to the voting booth. We're going to take over this country with the vote. That's how we're going to do it, by long election lines, not through a war. We're going to do it the right way." 

There's also something else people might not know. You ran for Congress in 1974?

I was running to get the big politics away from dirty money and all this money and buying everything. I could see it on the Hill and you can see it's just going to be with us until we got a better system, but it wasn't so bad 30 or 40 years ago. You had guys like Gale McGee. He was a professor at University of Wyoming who ran for the Senate. You had people like Mike Mansfield, who were academics. Try that today. The self-funders own this process. Except for the really skilled people like Bobby Casey, because of his family name, and Sherrod Brown, because he's so darn good at it, at being a good working-class politician and knowing how to talk to Trump people really.

Why didn't you ever run again? 

Because I didn't have a career in Philadelphia. I had to have a law degree. That's why it's great to be a lawyer. Everybody listening, if you're 22 years old and you want to have a political career, get that law, get that sheepskin. Because then when you lose, and you will lose at some point, you can fall back in that law firm and run the next time.

But it's very hard to do that if you don't have that parachute. My dad was pushing me to pay my bills for the campaign. He wasn't going to pay the bills. It wasn't a lot. It was $1,500 bucks for the literature we had. But he wanted me out of the house basically. He wanted me to go back to Washington. He put up with the campaign. He was all for me. He even switched registration for me. But I think he was happier with me in Washington. He thought that was where I belonged. He said, "That's your city." And he was right. I got to the White House after that.

Well, the reason I went to law school was because I was going to run for office. I ended up not doing it. If you come on the campaign trail, you'll have the fun with the honking and holding the signs up.

Oh, I love that stuff. It gets back to my romance about politics, that you can actually campaign with little money like Ed Markey did up in Massachusetts against Joe Kennedy. A lot of young people, they're excited about issues. You got to get them excited about you and the issues and social media makes a lot of things possible. I'll tell you one thing I know. If I were running, I'd go home at night, I'd sit up in bed or at my desk, and I'd start typing out a message to the campaign workers and the people I know adore me, the No. 1's. I'd be talking to them every night. My dad once taught me, he said, "Get people involved. Tell them what your strategy is. Tell them why you need their help, what their enemy's up to. Bring them in, mentally and emotionally. Share." That's what you can do on social media. You couldn't do that 20 years ago.

In your book, you talk about working for Frank Moss. He was a Democratic senator from Utah. But he lost in 1976, after three terms, to Orrin Hatch. We all try to figure out when the hyper-polarization began in this country. It could be Goldwater in '64. It could be Orrin Hatch winning in '76. You've traced this?

I'm going to say something that cuts across me. I think we all agreed on foreign policy when it was fighting communists globally, because we saw what was going on. It may not have been a right metaphor, but when we saw Yalta and we saw Eastern Europe, we saw China, we saw Ben Bella up in Algeria. We saw countries in Latin America, Castro, and some other countries. You could see them moving toward that red part of the map. And we go, "This looks like World War II coming. This looks like the same spread of the enemy. And appeasement is not the right answer. We got to stop them somewhere."

So Harry Truman tried to stop them, somewhat effectively, in Korea. And then looking at that same model of stopping them in their tracks, our government tried to stop the communists in North Vietnam. But the trouble is nationalism was working on the side of the communists in Vietnam, just like nationalism was working on the side of the countries of Eastern Europe. They saw communism as an enemy of their nationalism. Whereas in Vietnam, communism was the friend of nationalism and we were on the outside.

We should have realized that the people are still going to be in that country when we come home, and we will come home eventually, and they will be calling the shots. And we should have understood that when we went into Afghanistan. You can only temporarily control a country with military force. Eventually you leave and the natural spirit of the country takes over and we got to deal with the Taliban. The only example I can think of was that the Brits did a darn good job of selling democracy in India. Whatever else they did in their history, the Indian people are a democracy and they learned it from the Brits, the idea of Westminster-style democracy, parliaments built by different political parties, coalitions that lead to cabinets and prime ministerships. Find another example. We've never been good at it. Maybe the Philippines, I don't know. But it's very hard to sell a form of government.

We have a hard time right now keeping the democratic spirit in this country. I do believe there are a number of Americans, I don't know whether it's 10% or 25%, maybe in that range, who do not believe in majority rule. They want to reduce the size of the electorate. They don't want everyone voting. In fact, it used to be in the good days of politics, and we did it on MSNBC, you spend months saying to people, "Get out and vote. Get out and vote. Everybody." Vote, vote, vote. We always said, the more the merrier to vote.

Only lately has a political party pretty openly said, "No, not the more the merrier. The less the merrier. The fewer people, the fewer minorities, the fewer young people. Just have the older usual white voters show up and that'll be good for us." I think it's the first time a party has so openly said that, as they're saying right now in politics. The party was the segregationist party under Roosevelt. Let's face it. That was the deal. The New Deal was for white people, right?

Yes, exactly. The policies actually matched that. Home loans to the GI Bill, Black veterans coming back from World War II did not get the same benefits as white veterans.

Well, people like me and my family lived entirely on the fact that my dad got to come back and went to engineering school on the GI Bill and became middle-class. That's how we grew up middle class as opposed to working class. That's the fact. The GI bill created the large American middle class. That was wonderful. That was Roosevelt's wonderfulness, that he thought of that as being a No. 1 priority coming out of the war.

You have people right now who don't view each other as fellow Americans. They're enemies almost. How concerned are you for the future?

I am very concerned about Michael Flynn. But you can see the pattern. And back in the '60s the pattern was the antiwar movement was getting more bitter from '68 to '70, much more bitter than it was when I was marching around the Pentagon. Right now you can see that, first off, Trump wins the presidency by losing by almost 3 million votes. It doesn't seem to bother him. In fact, he thinks it's cute. It's neat. I would think that if I got elected president, or somebody I cared about got elected president, and lost by 3 million votes, I'd feel a little humiliated by it, a little humbled. I'd be saying things, "I got to be careful here. A lot of people voted against me. I don't quite have a mandate yet." And then this time he loses the Electoral College and says he didn't lose, like he's in Zimbabwe or Pakistan. "No, no, it was rigged. It was rigged." 

No it wasn't. We have honest elections in this country. Usually elections are decided by 20,000 or 30,000 people anyway, so luckily there's room for a little margin of minimal corruption here and there, but very little. And the margins are always well beyond any hanky-panky that went on. For him to walk around and say, "These elections are rigged," that's rotten. That's anti-American. And he knows it. He knows he lost. Look at him. The Democrats didn't like Trump, but they knew he was damn well president. You know how they knew it? They tried to impeach him twice. 

How do you think Democrats should be framing Jan. 6, to be effective? You've got some Republicans now literally saying, "Oh, it's a tourist visit."

They came in to kill. They came in to kill. I used to say about Watergate, suppose Nixon got away with it. That would have been much worse, if he'd gotten away with it. What would the second term had been like with his secret operatives and all this stuff he was pulling? It wasn't just screwing around. Some of the idiots with their clown costumes on and hanging from the rafters. There was some menace in that crowd that was stopped by law enforcement.

You faced early retirement last year because of some comments you had made. You don't defend them, you've been very clear about that. How much do you think we are learning, you are learning, from the MeToo movement? 

Well, there was a great line in a cult film years ago. I watch movies, I love cult films. "We only truly believe what we discover ourselves." You can hear about a rule. You can generally obey the law. But you don't have a personal connection to it. And when you get involved like I did, by making too many comments about appearance on and off the air — I made too many, certainly one too many, and I was wrong. When I think back on it, and I did give a lot of thought to this over the last year and a half, why should an average looking person, a woman, have to put up with somebody talking about how somebody else is good-looking? Why do they put up with this walking Miss America contest? Why should anybody put up with it? Men don't generally have to put up with it. "Joe McGee and his lovely wife have just arrived." Why do we talk like that? We don't say, "Mary McGee and her lovely husband."

I have a granddaughter. She's very smart. She just turned nine, Juliette, very smart. And a friend of mine came by the house and said, "Your granddaughter's so pretty." So I went up to Juliette and said, "That guy came by in the car just said how pretty you are." And she said to me, right to my face, "Grandpa, I'd rather he said how intelligent I was." And then she said it to me in French. There's a real cultural change about this among young people. They don't want to hear it anymore. It's not just the rules at work that are ascribed to them by their bosses. People don't like it. I was wrong. What used to be seen as a compliment is not taken that way. I can go on on this because I've been thinking about this, Dean, for so many months.

You finish the book by talking about your hope for America. What is your hope for this country going forward?

Well, I've been lucky to have had a life where I have been on the political inside. I've been up there in Air Force One with a president fighting for his second term. I've been up with Tip every morning, with the legendary speaker fighting with Ronald Reagan, trying to get things done and trying to beat him politically. I've been overseas watching people at the Berlin Wall, waiting for the wall to come down and asking them about freedom. And they said, "Talking to you is freedom." I've been in South Africa watching people get to vote for the first time in their own country. I've seen people that want democracy. They really want it, and they know that it's better than anything else. Nothing's perfect, but they want to be able to decide whether we have capitalism. East Germans said, a lot of people I interviewed there at the time in '89 said, "We want capitalism. We want socialism. Let us decide. Let us make these decisions." They weren't able to make them under the communist rule.

But I worry now, as we were talking about a few moments ago, I do worry about Americans because they think their side, especially if they're conservative white people, they feel their side's losing demographically. So, oh, we're going to change the rules. We're going to make it harder for other people besides white people to vote, we're going to make it harder for young people to vote. We don't like the way young people are thinking. But you can't change the rules of democracy.

We talked about the founding fathers because even though that's hundreds of years ago, we believed they were right. We're all created equal and being able to speak freely and being able to vote freely are tied together. If we lose the ability to speak, like you don't have in Cuba today, for example — I don't mind bashing the communists because I don't like them — but if you can't speak, you're unlikely to win the vote. And if you don't control the vote, you're unlikely to keep your rights because the vote guarantees your rights.

You can knock people down like Nixon when they blow it on rights and undermining people's democratic freedoms. I think freedom and democracy are intertwined. I think we've got to be vigilant, and we got to call these conservatives out. God, how do you say "Put on your big boy pants" to Kevin McCarthy? OK buddy, are you a leader or are you a front man? If you're a front man, we get it. But if you want to be a leader, say, "Biden won." Say it loud. Say it every morning when you go to the House. You want to be speaker, act like the speaker. Say, "We have a constitutional system."

If you're Michael Flynn, remember your oath to the Constitution and remember what you owe, loyalty to this country and its Constitution. It's what you sign up for when you become an officer. And he was a flag officer.

Anyway, I do worry. Steve Scalise ought to stand up. I have talked to these guys. They're normal people. They're Americans. They're one of us. They should be able to say, "Here's where I draw the line." Back in the old days, when the Republican Party was joined by the John Birch Society and the antisemitic stuff, people like William F. Buckley said, "No, you're not here. You don't belong here if you have those attitudes. Go away." The John Birch Society was a real bad shadow of the Republican party. They should clean it up today and hope they can win some elections positively. 

By Dean Obeidallah

Dean Obeidallah hosts the daily national SiriusXM radio program, "The Dean Obeidallah Show" on the network's progressive political channel. He is also a columnist for The Daily Beast and contributor to Opinion. He co-directed the comedy documentary "The Muslims Are Coming!" and is co-creator of the annual New York Arab American Comedy Festival. Follow him on Twitter @DeanObeidallah and Facebook @DeanofRadio

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