I couldn't stop thinking about Chris Matthews last night. He has this new book out, Life's a Campaign: What Politics Has Taught Me About Friendship, Rivalry, Reputation, and Success*, which I first saw him plugging a couple of times on Keith Olbermann. I didn't think much about it until I saw him on The Daily Show last night where Jon Stewart gave him what Matthews called, with some incredulous laughter, "the worst interview" of his life. I saw it coming a mile away--it's been a while since Jon Stewart's infamous appearance on Crossfire, where he denounced panel punditry shows--specifically mentioning Matthew's show, Hardball--as being harmful to America and no more than convenient forums for calculated political memes. But plenty of snide half-remarks aimed in the direction of such shows since has informed me that Stewart's opinion hadn't changed, and as if more confirmation was needed, in last night's episode Stewart held a mock panel of Daily Show correspondents called "The Speculatorium", emphasising how frequently the arguing heads on shows like Hardball make wrong predictions and spend a lot of time with useless bickering, where people often seem to take an opposite point of view for the sake of taking an opposite point of view, and no-one's mind is ever, ever changed.
I don't think Matthews is the sharpest guy on television. And lately, his mental faculties seem to be deteriorating as he often seems to get guest names wrong, and he's accidentally said "fuck" and "shit" on live television on two separate occasions (not that I mind, but it shows a loss of self-control, except maybe the former case when he didn't know he was back from commercial), and he seems a little too tickled that the Scooter Libby trial revealed Dick Cheney's obsession with Hardball. That being said, I kind of like Chris Matthews. Mostly because he seems to have a completely earnest love and respect for the political process. And although he might be naive, he's not a sycophant. As the title of his MSNBC show suggests, he's not afraid to vocally disagree with anyone of any political stripe he's talking to. And he's got sort of a big, oversized baby head and his soft, feathery yellow hair is like a halo of down on an infant's scalp.
So watching him venture onto The Daily Show was sort of like watching the Snuggles Fabric Softener bear getting raped on Robot Chicken, especially since I know Matthews loves The Daily Show. I remember when, on Hardball, he gleefully referred to Stewart asking McCain, early in his current presidential run, if he was "going to crazy base land", and McCain said yes. And you can see why Matthews would admire it--always trying to get politicians to tell the truth with a steamroller, Stewart got it out of McCain with his perfect, subtler than it seems, cocktail of humour and candour. But there was nothing subtle about Stewart's approach last night, as he called Life's a Campaign "a recipe for sadness". When Matthews accused Stewart of trashing his book, Stewart said he thought the book was fine, that it was Matthews whole "philosophy of life" that he objected to.
Through all this, Matthews kept his good humour without running from any of Stewart's points. He didn't seem genuinely hurt until near the end of the interview, causing Stewart to seem ashamed of himself--Stewart even agreed to appear on Hardball. Whether or not he was aware of it, Stewart was acting much more like the demagogue he seemed to think he was nailing as he was reduced to calling Matthews a fascist and interrupting him as he tried to support his side. One story Matthews did manage to tell was about Bill Clinton in college, how Clinton's ability to listen enabled him to win over many young women he dated just as it enabled him to succeed in politics. And I realised something; Matthews is right. Life is a campaign. Bill Clinton's extraordinary ability to seem like he's listening to everything you say, internalise it, then spit it back out in a way that demonstrates real empathy that very smoothly converges on Clinton's own agenda simultaneously makes you feel like he respects you, and his judgment is better than yours because he knows how these things connect to larger issues and to himself. Half must be really felt, half is calculated, and together they create something new.
Matthews said he had poor luck with women when he was young because his technique was to "drink a lot of beer and brag". Women--and men--don't want to hear about you. Your perspective is useful only for giving them an alternate perspective on themselves. It's only then that they'll care enough about your perspective that they'll want to know more about it. That's why Matthews came off better in that interview than Stewart, and that's why the average bickering punditry Stewart hates doesn't work.
But just because Matthews is right doesn't mean Stewart's wrong. It is, indeed, sad. Just imagine how many great potential leaders have never emerged, or how many good relationships have been aborted, just because someone's technique was off.
*This is a new computer, I'd never looked at Amazon.com on it before, yet somehow it already had tailored recommendations for me on the opening page. How do they do that?