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A swing at playing 'Hardball' with MSNBC's Chris Matthews

The Baltimore Sun

I am not a media critic!" said TV commentator Chris Matthews when I asked if he had any thoughts on the Bill O'Reilly-Keith Olbermann "feud," which rages almost nightly on the Fox and MSNBC networks. Chris added: "You can never win criticizing someone in your own business."

Although Chris works for MSNBC, he has high praise in person and in his new book for Fox tycoon Roger Ailes, who did so much for MSNBC before he went to the Rupert Murdoch empire.

In fact, when we discussed ABC's late genius, Roone Arledge, Chris said that Roger is the only person in television who comes up to Roone, creatively.

When Chris sat down to talk to me about his latest book, Life's a Campaign, I felt I was in an electrified presence. He speaks in a rush, he looks around, and he has another appointment pressing. He's a busy, in-demand, kind of guy.

He was teaching me something very valuable - what he calls "the art of seduction" - when his wife, Kathleen, joined us. And it worked; it was very effective - a method whereby the seducer keeps quiet, gazes unblinkingly into your eyes and persists in this listening pose. "I remember that look," said Mrs. Matthews, who has been married to Chris for 27 years.

I remonstrated with Chris over the name of his book, saying that people who aren't hot into politics might not be interested because of the title. He nodded, "Yes, I know. But I subtitled it What Politics Has Taught Me About Friendship, Rivalry, Reputation and Success."

I had already read the book and found it a general primer for how to succeed in life by studying those around you. And it's a whiz.

I complimented Chris on a moment during the recent Democratic debates, when Hillary Rodham Clinton answered Tim Russert's jibe that her ideas on torture don't agree with those of her husband. And the senator answered: "Well, he's not standing here right now."

To this, Chris laughed when interrogated on air: "I'm warming up to her!" But I get the idea that he's not in business to endorse; he's there to question every single candidate.

He treated me to this theory. Hillary may have a hard time because Matthews believes the hidden and open antipathy to a woman candidate reaches deep in this country. He cited the fact that black men were given the vote in 1870, but that women didn't get the vote until 1920. Chris seems to feel this bodes well for Barack Obama. Then he zinged off a quip: "The Republicans want a leader! The Democrats always want a meeting."

I asked what motivated this particular book.

"I spent a third of a century studying politicians and working with some of them, and I was always trying to learn something from these guys."

When I asked Chris his opinion on the negatives of Rudy Giuliani, he said: "I don't think anybody cares that much about his much-married personal life. Nobody cared how many Latina wives John Wayne had in his career - and there was a lot of prejudice then. But he was John Wayne! Rudy also doesn't care what people think of him. He likes making enemies.

"And don't be discounting Fred Thompson. A lot of people's money is on him. Maybe he wouldn't be so bad. As Will Rogers once said of Calvin Coolidge, 'He didn't do much, and we didn't want him to do much!' So, maybe it's time for Thompson?"

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