Since 1997 Chris Matthews has been the host of Hardball, an hour-long political show that airs weeknights on the cable television channel MSNBC. In 2002 he also began hosting an NBC-syndicated half-hour weekly program called The Chris Matthews Show.
Matthews was born into an Irish Catholic family in a blue-collar neighborhood in north Philadelphia on December 17, 1945. He attended Holy Cross College and then served as a Peace Corps “trade development advisor” in Swaziland from 1969 to 1971. This work gave him a draft exemption during the Vietnam War era. He later attended classes in economics at the University of North Carolina.
In 1971 Matthews moved to Washington, DC and took a job as a Capitol Hill security guard. Two years later he went to work for Ralph Nader.
“I was one of the poor people Ralph Nader hired to run the Capitol Hill News Service back in 1973,” he told The American Enterprise in 1999. “I did it for three months and didn’t like it. It was investigative, hard, and negative. I didn’t want to go to politicians and test them on financial disclosure. You’d nitpick and break these little stories that ruin their lives for a month, and maybe end up on the front page. I didn’t think that was interesting. I was more pro-politician. I respect anybody who has the guts to run for office. There’s a big price to pay.”
From 1973 to 1987 Matthews worked for politicians, initially for Senators Frank Moss of Utah and Edmund Muskie of Maine. He became a speechwriter during the Democratic administration of President Jimmy Carter, mostly for Vice President Walter Mondale but towards its end for Mr. Carter as well. Thereafter for six years during the Reagan era Matthews served as the top aide to Speaker of the House Thomas “Tip” O’Neill (D-Massachusetts).
Returning to journalism, Matthews worked as Washington bureau chief for the San Francisco Examiner from 1987 to 2000, and later for a time wrote 100 syndicated columns per year for the San Francisco Chronicle. His on-air passion as a guest pundit on TV talk shows such as The McLaughlin Group landed Matthews his own spots on television, beginning in 1988 as a commentator on CBS This Morning and later on ABC‘s Good Morning America.
Matthews was offered his own show on the small NBC cable channel America’s Talking that was the forerunner of MSNBC. In 1996 he became host of the CNBC cable network program Politics, which in January 1997 metamorphosed into Hardball on MSNBC. (Since February 2004, MSNBC’s President and General Manager has been Rick Kaplan, a close friend of Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton.)
Matthews’ on-air style is distinctively blunt and excitable. He has said that his approach is to look not at which side of a particular issue is right or wrong but to ask which side is “winning” politically and why. “If I am in the company of a lot of conservatives who are all self-satisfied or ideologically secure, I love to challenge them and go to the liberal side of things,” Matthews explains. “But if I am in a group of people where I think that the politically correct point of view is liberal, I will be extremely tough on that view, coming off as more conservative than I am, because I am surrounded by liberals…. I have sympathy for people that tend to be losing, too. I find myself sympathizing with any side that lost a war.”
In 2003 Matthews suggested that he might run as a Democrat against incumbent Republican Senator Arlen Specter in Pennsylvania the following year. Specter narrowly fended off a challenge from a conservative in the 2004 Republican primary. Ultimately, Matthews did not run.
As the 2004 presidential election neared, Matthews exhibited an increasingly pro-Democrat partisanship on his television shows. In August 2004 conservative columnist Michelle Malkin appeared as a guest to promote her latest book, but Matthews asked her instead to discuss ads by the group Swift Boat Veterans for Truth that were critical of Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry. Another guest on the program mentioned, as a way of discrediting the ads that had damaged Kerry’s credibility, an allegation in the ads that Kerry had gotten a Purple Heart for what might have been an accidentally “self-inflicted wound.” When Malkin asserted that this allegation involved a legitimate issue meriting investigation, an angry Matthews threw her off his program.
In 2008, Matthews candidly and passionately supported Democrat Senator Barack Obama for U.S. President, stating, during a live broadcast, that he got “a thrill going up my leg” when hearing Obama speak.
In a February 2008 interview with the New York Observer, Matthews said: “I’ve been following politics since I was about 5. I’ve never seen anything like this. This is bigger than Kennedy. [Obama] comes along, and he seems to have the answers. This is the New Testament. This is surprising.”
On another occasion, Matthews said: “If you’re actually in the room when Obama gives one of his speeches and you don’t cry, you’re not an American.”
“[Barack and Michelle Obama] are really cool. They are Jack and Jackie Kennedy when you see them together. They are cool. And they’re great looking, and they’re cool and they’re young, and they’re — everything seems to be great. I know I’m selling them now. I’m not supposed to sell, OK? But the fact is, I wouldn’t be an honest reporter if I didn’t tell you what the spiritual experience is like of being in a Barack Obama rally.”
In a November 2008 interview on MSNBC’s Morning Joe program (shortly after Obama had been elected President), Matthews pledged to do “everything I can to make this thing work, this new presidency work.” When host Joe Scarborough asked him to clarify what he meant, Matthews stated that his job was to “make this work successfully. This country needs a successful presidency more than anything right now.”
On Inauguration Day in January 2009, Matthews celebrated the supportive role MSNBC had played for the Obama campaign, calling it “the network that has opened its heart to change, to change and its possibilities.”
On December 23, 2009, Matthews, during an interview with the openly socialist U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (D – Vermont), spoke in glowing terms about the famed radical organizer and communist fellow-traveler Saul Alinsky. Matthews referred to Alinsky as “one of our heroes from the past, from the Sixties,” and added: “I always try to remind myself of Saul Alinsky when I get confused.”
In an October 25, 2011 exchange with Newsweek editor Howard Fineman, Matthews described the Republican Party as follows: “Here’s a party that — I’m just keeping the list. They want more people to fry. They love executions. They want people that don’t have insurance to die on the gurney in the hospital bed. They want that to happen. They want — forget about illegal aliens. Gay soldiers, forget about them. They’re not — they’re to be booed. If you’re homeless, foreclose — if you have a home, foreclose on the people. If you’re a teacher, fireman or a cop, get rid of the guy! I mean, this attitude of causing cruel pain on people and getting cheers for it, what’s that about, Howard?”
On August 28, 2012, Matthews condemned what he considered the racial undercurrent of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s campaign ads alleging that President Obama had removed the work requirements that had been a key part of the 1996 welfare-reform law. After having repeatedly insinuated that racism lay at the heart of the Republican ads, Matthews stated that he himself knew better, in part because he resided in the District of Columbia, which has a large black population:
“Welfare has been a classic tool to pry apart working-class whites from working-class blacks. It’s brilliant because everybody sees it who wants to see it. Certainly blacks can’t avoid seeing it ’cause they see the prejudice involved. Whites can deny it because it isn’t technically racial or sectarian, but everyone knows what’s going on here…. Say ‘welfare,’ [and] people think ‘black,’ because politically they’ve been taught to say so. I go back to living in D.C. all these years. I’ve lived there 40 years, a black-majority city, and anybody who wants to get up early in Washington and drive down North Capitol and drive past Florida Ave., sees nothing but young, but black people up at 6:30 in the morning going to work. That’s where they’re going, to work, and not at big-wage jobs and not to get a welfare check, they’re out working hard all day and not coming home with a fantastic paycheck. So this notion of blacks live on welfare and whites live on work is a brilliant political ploy, but it’s not true …”
But in fact, Matthews did not live in the District of Columbia. His home was located in Chevy Chase, Maryland, an affluent suburb of DC. According to census data at Maryland-Demographics.com, as of 2010, only 10 of Chevy Chase Village’s 1,953 people were black.
In July 2012 Matthews praised Barack Obama as follows, suggesting, in the process, that the President’s critics were motivated by racism:
“Based upon the rhetoric, you’d think the president was a radical lefty and not the center-left politician he actually is based on the record, but then do people care on the right about reality?… He’s raised his family right. He’s fought his way all the way to the top of the Harvard Law Review … Everything he’s done is clean as a whistle. He’s never not only broken any law, he’s never done anything wrong. He’s the perfect father, the perfect husband, the perfect American. And all they do is trash the guy. And it’s impossible for me to believe they would have said the same things about a Walter Mondale or a Jimmy Carter or a Bill Clinton. There’s an ethnic piece to this. It’s very hard to nail it down because they always cover it in ideology. But I’ve never heard anybody in this country call its opponent regularly anti-American or non-American.”
In October 2012, Matthews condemned what he characterized as the many “racist” things conservatives say. For instance, he took issue with a Sarah Palin Facebook post stating that President Obama’s “shuck and jive ends with Benghazi lies” — a reference to Obama’s deception about the actual cause of a September 11, 2012 attack against the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. “A dog whistle is a dog whistle,” said Matthews. “A trumpet call is another,” he continued, explaining that “shuck and jive” has an “ethnic connection.” Adding that racism “trickles out” from Republicans on a regular basis, Matthews angrily cited former Republican Senator John Sununu’s suggestion that Obama had never learned how to be an “American.” “As a white person, I think it’s a statement against the white people to talk like this,” said Matthews. “It’s a sickness by the white people. Anyway, they ought to be ashamed of themselves.”
In April 2013, Matthews said that the prototypical supporter of the Second Amendment is “mostly the guy, the white guy, mostly, who is gun absorbed.”
When Matthews’ wife, Kathleen (a former news anchor and Marriott hotel executive), announced in June 2015 that she was running as a Democrat for the open U.S. House seat in Maryland’s 8th Congressional District, the broadcaster stated that he and his program would treat the candidate no differently than any other. “As a journalist,” said Matthews, “I … know how important it is to respect certain boundaries on my support for her both in my public role and here on MSNBC. And while most of you know that our show doesn’t typically cover congressional races, I will continue to fully disclose my relationship with her as part of MSNBC’s commitment to being transparent and fair in our coverage.” Over the ensuing nine months, however, Kathleen Matthews received a total of $79,050 in campaign contributions from prominent political figures who made appearances on Hardball, and Matthews never told his audience about any of those donations. Among the individuals who gave money to Mrs. Matthews’ campaign were: (a) the political action committee for Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), which contributed $10,000 on June 20, 2015 — two days before Gillibrand was interviewed on Hardball; and (b) Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), who contributed $1,000 on January 11, 2016 — one day before she appeared on the program. Moreover, Mrs. Matthews received at least 11 donations from Hardball guests after they had appeared on her husband’s show. Those donors included: (a) Paul Pelosi, husband of Rep. Nancy Pelosi ($1,000); (b) Jackie Clegg-Dodd, wife of former U.S. Senator Chris Dodd of Connecticut ($500); and (c) Dick Blum, husband of Sen. Dianne Feinstein ($2,700).
While discussing the political influence of President Donald Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, during a June 29, 2017 broadcast of his program Hardball, Matthews remarked that Benito Mussolini, the fascist Italian dictator of the 1920s to 1940s, was justified in having executed his son-in-law, Gian Galeazzo Ciano, in 1944. Said Matthews: “And now we find Kushner, in the Middle East, brokering the Middle East peace process, whatever it is, among the Arabs and the Israelis and Likud and everybody else. Meanwhile, [Secretary of State Rex] Tillerson’s sitting around doing what? He can’t even appoint his own deputies. The power seems to have gone to the son-in-law. This is the Romanovs. Just a thought, the Romanovs. Is it?” Matthews later added: “And then you find out, in all these investigations that Jared was opening up a tunnel to Moscow, so that he wouldn’t have to deal with the State Department. So, the son-in-law — you know, one good thing Mussolini did was execute his son-in-law. … I know that was an extreme measure. But this was — this is a strange situation.”
During MSNBC’s coverage of a Donald Trump rally in South Carolina on February 28, 2020, Matthews conducted a remote interview with Jamie Harrison, a Democrat who was running against South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsey Graham. As the interview commenced, the video monitor in Matthews’ television studio showed an image of Republican South Carolina Senator Tim Scott standing alongside Senator Graham, and Matthews mistook Scott for Harrison, as both men were African Americans with bald heads. Below is a transcript of the exchange:
Matthews: “Jamie, I see you standing next to the guy you’re gonna beat right there, maybe, maybe maybe, Lindsey Graham.”
Voices, Off-Camera: “That’s Tim Scott, Tim Scott.”
Matthews: “Jamie? Who is that?”
Harrison (smiling): “That’s Tim Scott.”
Matthews: “Oh, I’m sorry. Oh, the other senator, Tim Scott. What am I saying? Big mistake. Mistaken identity, sir. Sorry. Tell me how you’re gonna beat Lindsey. Everybody knows Lindsey.”
On February 28, 2020, GQ magazine published an op-ed in which journalist Laura Bassett accused Matthews of having repeatedly used “sexist” language with her when she would visit the MSNBC studio for guest appearances on his show. As Fox News reported:
“[In her op-ed, Bassett] recalled Matthews looking at her in an adjacent makeup chair before an appearance in 2016 and asking: ‘Why haven’t I fallen in love with you yet?’ Bassett said she laughed nervously but Matthews kept making comments to the makeup artist. ‘Keep putting makeup on her, I’ll fall in love with her,’ Matthews allegedly said.
“She said he made another comment about her makeup during a separate appearance. ‘Make sure you wipe this off her face after the show,’ she wrote he said to the makeup artist. ‘We don’t make her up so some guy at a bar can look at her like this.’ […]
“Bassett said she wrote a similar op-ed in 2017 without naming Matthews because she was afraid to publicly accuse him at the time, but wrote many women reached out to her saying they knew who she was talking about….
“In 2017, it was reported that NBC paid $40,000 to a producer on Matthews’ show who claimed he sexually harassed her…. An MSNBC spokesperson said at the time that executives were told that Matthews made inappropriate jokes and comments about the woman in front of others, that the matter was reviewed and it was determined the comments were inappropriate and made in poor taste but were never meant as propositions.”
On February 29, 2020, Matthews was absent from MSNBC’s coverage of the Democratic presidential primary in South Carolina. Two days later, during the March 1 airing of Hardball, he announced on-air that this would be his final broadcast and he was retiring. According to a CNN report, “a person with knowledge of the situation” said that “Matthews was told by management to step down” in what was “a firing that was masked as a retirement announcement,” while “a different source disputed that and said it was ‘truly a mutual decision.'”
Matthews has authored four books: Hardball: How Politics Is Played Told by One Who Knows the Game (1988); Kennedy & Nixon: The Rivalry that Shaped Postwar America (1996); Now, Let Me Tell You What I Really Think (2001); and American: Beyond Our Grandest Notions (2002).