Thrill of a Lifetime

REVIEW: 'This Country: My Life in Politics and History' by Chris Matthews

May 31, 2021

The world wasn't exactly clamoring for a Chris Matthews memoir, but it's getting one on June 1. The former MSNBC host has had plenty of time on his hands since abruptly resigning in March 2020 amid allegations of sexual harassment. This Country: My Life in Politics and History is the result.

Those eager to know, or simply curious, what Matthews has to say about the allegations that forced him into early retirement will be disappointed. The answer is: Not much. Buried in the last few paragraphs of the book's penultimate chapter, "Hardball," is a vague reference to "instances over the years when I have made reference to a person's appearance," and his newfound appreciation for "the need to recognize women on the basis of their talent and performance."

The reader can't help but wonder if Matthews, given his addiction to politics and thirst for attention, regrets ending his career in such a knee-jerk fashion. Over the course of writing This Country, for example, he must have witnessed Gov. Andrew Cuomo's (D., N.Y.) defiant response to similar allegations of sexual harassment—not to mention his blatant efforts to conceal the slaughter of nursing home residents. Cuomo remains in office, $5 million richer thanks to a ludicrous book deal, and might even get reelected.

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Perhaps Matthews just doesn't care anymore. He knows how the media work. If he wanted to generate buzz for This Country, he would have followed Cuomo's lead and devoted more than a few paragraphs to bashing Donald Trump. If he cared about being canceled by obnoxious libs, he probably wouldn't have included "the slave quarters at George Washington's Mount Vernon estate" and the "Doric columns of General Robert E. Lee's mansion" on his list of "unforgettable sights that won me over."

The book's prime focus is Matthews's early life as a politics-obsessed overachiever who dreamed of becoming a congressional aide or government consultant. His story will serve as inspiration to ambitious young sycophants hoping to find success in Washington, D.C., by way of relentless networking and lucrative patronage. Matthews writes most enthusiastically of his "vivid experience of having thrived abroad" during his stint as a Peace Corps adviser in Swaziland. "Those two years taught me valuable truths: how people even in small countries treasure their national independence," he muses, condescendingly.

Matthews's path to success—from Democratic propagandist to corporate consultant to prominent journalist—is a familiar one by now. He is the Boomer generation's version of the "Obama Bro," from sitting alone in a Capitol Hill basement "trying to exude the spirit of John F. Kennedy" to helping constituents identify tax shelters; from waging "war" on Ronald Reagan in the 1980s to earning millions as a professional pundit.

One of the book's main takeaways is how much America has changed since Matthews's childhood. The Cold War is over, and school boys no longer dream of "leading a cavalry charge across the fields of Russia" or pray for the salvation of Godless commies. You're not even supposed to call them "boys" anymore, much less condone the "ransoming [of] pagan babies," whereby students who donated $5 were "celebrated throughout the day as a liberator of an unbaptized child in Red China."

Matthews makes clear in the book that neither his love for America nor his loathing for communists has ever wavered, and confesses his "bias toward the rights of the individual"—views that are increasingly at odds with today's version of the Democratic Party. His former boss, Jimmy Carter, won a Democratic primary and general election by promising to "make government more efficient and less aggravating," a vision increasingly few Republicans are committed to these days.

The former Hardball host may be something of an anachronism, but he was certainly a pioneer when it comes to forging the political and media environment that prevails today. He cut his teeth orchestrating cheap publicity stunts as a top aide to House Speaker Tip O'Neill (D., Mass.), and utilized those same talents as a journalist with a self-described "penchant for relentless commentary." It's no surprise that Roger Ailes, then president of CNBC, was the one who offered Matthews his first TV gig in the early 1990s. The rest is history.

Matthews barely attempts to reckon with his role in transforming the national news media into a partisan circus. He writes fondly of his capacity for "drilling down to find the truth," and just as fondly of the various celebrities he interviewed on Hardball, including Trump, who first appeared as a guest during the Clinton administration, and was great for ratings because he "knew how to make news." He does not appear to recognize the contradiction.

The closest the author comes to a genuine revelation is a few throwaway lines about how "liking politicians was more to my taste than investigating them," and the "recurring quandary" of his journalism career: "the urge to tell the full story versus the allure of partisan combat, which inevitably involves pushing only one side." The allure was strong enough for Matthews, and will be even stronger among the activists-turned-journalists who will take his place, for whom the concept of "objectivity" is as crass and outdated as his come-ons in the workplace.

This Country: My Life in Politics and History
by Chris Matthews
Simon & Schuster, 352 pp., $28.99