Almost a half century ago, I was working in a congressional race in Brooklyn. It was a case of my doing what I was afraid to do. My instinct told me that an election campaign in the old borough might be rough, scary, even life-changing.
Brooklyn electioneering back then wasn’t on the level. It was not the place for the young, clean-cut candidate I was helping make his start. Only later did the campaign’s hard-boiled strategist tell me he could have bought the seat for a “quarter million.” It didn’t shock me. A reporter for a borough weekly had previously warned me that if our candidate wanted any coverage at all, he had better pony up some ad money.
That seedy business in Brooklyn didn’t kill my lifelong romance with politics. Just the opposite. As those harsh winter months of 1974 passed, I made the bold decision to make a go of it on my own. I would head home to Philadelphia and run myself.
On the face of it, the idea made no sense. I would be running against one of this country’s last big-city political machines and an entrenched US congressman who was one of its top leaders.
What gave me hope was what was happening in the country. The Watergate scandal was all over the news. Wasn’t this the perfect time, if there ever would be, to offer myself as an alternative to the old ways?
Who knew? Maybe the voters were in a mood to, in that time-honored phrase, throw the bums out.
What made driving across the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge toward the New Jersey Turnpike that morning so gutsy-crazy were the hard facts. I had no money—really no money—and no political backing whatsoever. I hadn’t even lived at home since heading up to Holy Cross College in Massachusetts at seventeen, and, outside of my family, I didn’t know a single person in the city of my birth who could help me.
The strange thing is, it wasn’t all that strange for me. My life at this point had already begun to etch a pattern: take a leap, live the adventure, learn what I could. Here I was making another dive into the unknown; yet another case of doing what I was afraid to do.
What I had going for me in this instance, perhaps all I had, was a message. It was the corruptive influence of money in politics. To dramatize my crusade, I would declare that I would accept no campaign contributions whatsoever. Not only did this grab the attention of the newspapers, but it also was the heartbeat of the effort—especially among our hearty brigade of young volunteers. It put wind in my sails. While I didn’t come all that close to beating the incumbent, it confirmed some powerful lessons. One is to ask. Just as I’d started in Washington, DC, three years earlier by asking for someone to hire me, I learned that basic willingness to ask is what campaigning for office is all about.
A second lesson is to show up! If you want something, you have to go where it’s available and grab for it. Nobody’s knocking on your door to connect you to your dreams. You have to knock on theirs.
With that perilous decision to drive home and run for office in the winter of 1974 I was diving deeper into the world of politics. It’s a place where, having seen both the good and the bad, I still recognized the essential promise. I knew that the whole process of going out and asking someone to vote for you is the heart of our democracy. It’s how the American people choose not just their leaders but also the kind of country they want to live in.
So much of what I’ve written in newspaper columns and books over the years and said on Hardball for a generation comes directly from such personal adventures as that race for Congress. There were the years I spent in Africa, the campaigns from Utah to Brooklyn, my time serving the US Senate and later as a White House speechwriter for President Jimmy Carter. It was that latter experience that continues to stir golden memories: of writing alone in my grand office in the Old Executive Office Building, having lunch at the roundtable in the White House Mess and hearing the scuttlebutt from other staffers, of working at the typewriter on Air Force One writing the president’s remarks for the next campaign stop.
Next came my once-in-a-lifetime role as a top aide to Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill from 1981 through 1986. Following that were the exciting years of reporting on great historic moments, such as the Democratic and Republican conventions, the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the first all-races election in South Africa in 1994, the Good Friday peace accord in Northern Ireland in 1998, and the funeral in Rome of Pope John Paul II in 2005.
More than anything else, of course, it’s been a life spent watching the people running this country and those who wish they were.
I owe this life and its lessons to a half dozen leaps into the unknown. Africa leads the list.
In June 1968 I sat alone on a public park bench in Montreal a block up from Sainte-Catherine Street and decided where I was going to go in my life. My graduate school deferment had expired. Rated 1-A in the military draft, I now listed on the back of an old business card my limited options regarding a war I opposed. I could join VISTA, the domestic volunteer program; teach high school; or enlist in the army as a public information officer. That last choice, though it required a four-year hitch, would have one big advantage: it would help me really learn how to write. My only moral claim is that I had ruled out becoming an army finance officer and similar routes. If I didn’t face the fighting in Vietnam, I would not act as if I were doing my bit.
Finally, there was another option; a truly positive one. It carried the advantage of being a true adventure: the Peace Corps. The challenge was to get the right assignment. For me, that meant going to Africa and working on economic development.
All this became miraculously possible when a young recruiter showed up that summer at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where I’d been pursuing a PhD in economics. He handed me a colorful brochure about a new program in Swaziland.
That pamphlet became my plan. I would go to Africa and work at something I had been already thinking about doing once I finished my doctorate. It would be doing something good for the country and the world; a positive alternative to what had become this country’s death grip on Vietnam.
So much of my life has arisen from that decision. Those two years of service as a trade development officer took me to a wider world. It allowed me to view my country at a distance. It opened me to a common humanity with people whose lives were separated from us by continent and culture. It was a spiritual experience, too, like being alone in an empty church.
Perhaps as important, it freed me. Before I joined the Peace Corps, I was trudging toward a PhD. I found myself buried in econometric models for which I had neither the gift nor the enthusiasm. My decision to head off to Africa—made the same horrid June week that Robert F. Kennedy, still hoping to be the Democratic candidate for president, was assassinated in Los Angeles—liberated me to explore my hopes for a political life.
The decision to head to Washington, DC, in the winter of 1971 was my life’s second big leap. With $200 left of my Peace Corps “readjustment allowance” in my pocket, I began knocking on doors on Capitol Hill. My goal was to become a legislative assistant to a US senator. It’s the role young Ted Sorensen played for newly elected Massachusetts senator John F. Kennedy in 1953.
This became my route, too. After weeks of strolling the corridors of the Senate and the House of Representatives, I managed to wrangle a job with a senator, and then, thanks to him, with another. I had begun my climb in politics. One successful leap of faith, to Africa, had led to another, to Washington. It was my Northern Irish grandmother who saw the connection. An immigrant in her youth, she knew the strength that emerges when a person is forced to adjust to a distant land. “It was Africa,” she confronted me. “Wasn’t it?”
That first job hunt just back from Africa would become my primer in Washington politics and how it works. Its first, durable lesson was the power of patronage. Every job on Capitol Hill was controlled by a senator or a member of Congress. To get the job, you needed that person’s blessing. Just like my grandpop’s street corner politics back in Philadelphia as a local Democratic committeeman, it was who you know.
To this I would coin a corollary: it’s who you get to know.
My Capitol Hill job search that winter of 1971 meant going from office to office, dropping off my résumé and asking the receptionist if she’d heard of any openings. It eventually yielded unlikely pay dirt. Wayne Owens, a young chief staffer for Democratic senator Frank Moss of Utah, liked something that he saw in me. He had worked on Robert Kennedy’s 1968 presidential campaign and later served for his brother Senator Edward Kennedy in his US Senate leadership position. A devout Mormon, Wayne seemed taken with my being a Catholic who had gone to college in Massachusetts and served in the Peace Corps, as well as the fact that I knew something about economics, which, he confessed, he didn’t.
All that Wayne had to offer, however, was a patronage appointment to the US Capitol Police. I took it. Soon I was beginning my mornings in Senator Moss’s office answering legislative mail from Utah, then reporting for my eight-hour shift at three in the afternoon. For those months, I faced only one real danger: my nightly walk up Pennsylvania Avenue for dinner. Back then there was a lot of street crime on Capitol Hill. Suppose I’d been taken for an actual policeman? What if someone were pulling a holdup? Or a victim yelled to me for help?
Fortunately, before summer was over, Wayne brought me into Senator Moss’s office as a full-time legislative assistant. Soon, I was drafting legislative amendments on minimum wage, government spending, and other matters. One afternoon I found myself sitting on the Senate floor amid the men I’d heard about for years. The issue was President Richard Nixon’s call to freeze federal salaries. “I’m stickin’ with the president,” I could hear old Senator John Stennis of Mississippi muttering. Such die-hard loyalty, and the fact he was partly deaf, would explain why Nixon later selected him, and him alone, to listen to his incriminating Watergate tapes.
I soon had my eyes opened to the Democrats’ own shenanigans. One favorite was a bill called the Ironclad Ceiling on Federal Spending. It was, I would discover, nothing of the kind. Thanks to a series of unnoticed amendments, it was no “ceiling” at all. Its sole purpose was to give cover to Democrats from folks back home worried about out-of-control government deficits.
When my job in Senator Moss’s office ended, he urged me to “dip a little deeper into these political waters.” While following that advice in 1974 didn’t make me a fellow officeholder, it must have earned his respect. Senator Moss now persuaded his colleague Edmund Muskie of Maine, who had run for president two years earlier, to hire me for the new Senate Budget Committee he was chairing. That appointment put me on the road to the White House, to becoming a presidential speechwriter, and then to becoming top aide to the Speaker of the House of Representatives, the legendary Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill Jr. My half dozen years with O’Neill would accord me in itself an on-the-job doctorate in American politics.
When the Speaker retired in 1986, I took a job as president and CEO of a big Washington consulting firm. With a staff of fifty, many of them policy experts, we serviced large corporations wanting an edge in knowing what they were talking about. Though it was a highly credible think tank, it wasn’t for me. Like my time in economics grad school, it was another case of finding myself in the wrong place. That summer, fortunately, brought a better offer. Far better. Larry Kramer, a friend from the Washington Post, had been recently named executive editor of the San Francisco Examiner. After I’d moonlighted writing some columns for him, Larry called and asked me to become the newspaper’s Washington bureau chief. Known as the “Monarch of the Dailies” since the late 1880s, it was the flagship of William Randolph Hearst’s empire—the Citizen Kane newspaper. With my wife Kathleen’s agreement, I quit the high-paying consulting job with its impressive title and took my friend’s offer. Larry predicted that my column would quickly be syndicated nationally, and I’d find myself appearing on television as a political commentator.
Larry was right. It all happened quite soon. Some thought too soon.
For the next fifteen gutsy years, I knew the excitement of covering historic events.
Having experienced the early Cold War as a boy, hiding under my desk at St. Christopher’s School, I got to cover the beginning of its end in West Berlin. As a former Peace Corps volunteer working across the border from South Africa, I got to watch the first election in which its black majority could vote. As an heir to Irish immigrants both Catholic and Protestant, I saw the end to the armed struggles—the Troubles—in Belfast.
Just as important was the feeling of having just the right position for me: newspaper columnist. It was the great New York writer Jimmy Breslin who encouraged me to go for it. He’d won fame writing about the unfamous: the working people of his city’s neighborhoods. Instead of sharing the spotlight with the news-making elite, he became legendary writing about those too often overlooked.
“Be a columnist,” he said, walking up Sixth Avenue from our meeting at a midtown bar. “You’ll walk taller.”
My next leap was to anchor a political news show. I christened it Hardball, after the book I’d written about real-life politics in 1988. When the program debuted, cable television wasn’t the opinion showcase it would eventually become. People in Washington had gotten their political excitement Saturday nights from The McLaughlin Group, which I loved and eventually joined as an occasional panelist. There were other programs offering commentary like I was doing for CBS This Morning and then ABC-TV’s Good Morning America, but nothing like the big prime-time shows that came later.
This book is about learning from history, from life, sometimes the hard way, as it takes place around you. Hardball spanned more than a generation. My ambition with the program was to drill down to the truth, especially in those cases where I suspected something was being withheld. It was a vital position to hold, and I refused to abdicate it by pitching softballs. I sensed there were many viewers out there with a hot question in their heads, perhaps even on the tips of their tongues. What they hate is when the person sitting in my chair won’t ask it. Nothing is more maddening to know that a politician is hiding something, and the person tasked with getting it out of them doesn’t even try. My job is doing what the viewer can’t.
“What I like about you,” people would tell me through the years, “is you don’t let them get away with anything.” Those occasions when I was able to deliver were points of pride.
That and my obvious candor. What you heard from me on TV is what you’d hear sitting next to me at dinner or in an airport waiting area. I called it as I saw it. There was no calculation on what would sound right, no filter. That goes beyond asking the tough, uncomfortable questions. I have this compulsion in me, evidenced through the years, to try to enliven the moment, to entertain those I’m with, to shake things up. That penchant for relentless commentary with no punches pulled has been part of my success on TV. It’s also been getting me into trouble since I was supposed to be sitting quietly at my desk in St. Christopher’s grade school.
As I retrace my steps in this book, I want to display the same candor. These pages are a celebration of this country and of the rich role I’ve enjoyed in sharing its politics and history. I got a lot of it right, but not always. I’ll try to do better here in this book. Sadly, there’s no Delete button for live television or for a career lived largely in public. In those cases where I wish I’d had such a button, I’ll try to get it right here. That includes all the intriguing details of how everything fit together, the backstory to what you saw on television.
As you will read in these pages, there are things I’ve said on Hardball that, upon reflection, I shouldn’t have. Some are simply embarrassing: such as, after hearing Barack Obama speak with patriotic fervor in 2008, I reported that I “felt a thrill up my leg.” Or when I signed off at three in the morning following the 2012 presidential election results and quipped, “A good day for America. I’m so glad we had that storm last week.” I was focusing on President Obama’s well-celebrated handling of the cleanup following Hurricane Sandy, which had pummeled the Northeast just days before the country rewarded him with a second term. In eyeing the politics, I was ignoring its tragic effects on people’s lives. Rachel Maddow—thank God!—was there to try to rescue me and return the focus sharply where it belonged. I will get to some other episodes, on and off the air, where I sincerely wish even now that I’d had that Delete button to hit.
One message I’ve managed to get across crystal clear over the decades is my passion for this country and its politics. Like Hillary Rodham Clinton, I grew up in a Republican family and carried a youthful torch for Barry Goldwater. Then it was my anti–Vietnam War hero Senator Eugene McCarthy; still later it was Barack Obama. With every twist and turn, I have reveled in the democratic contest itself. The great Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee best captured the personal excitement in my writing. “Matthews writes about politics with relish,” he once observed, “the way sportswriters cover boxing.” He got me. At age seventy-five, it’s not a politician or a philosophy that drives me. It’s my concern for our American system of self-government. That’s what holds my political heart. I want this country’s vigorous, back-and-forth competition of ideas and ambitions to serve a great democracy and keep us together.
I finished this book in the shadow of a president who refused for critical weeks to accept popular and Electoral College defeat. It never occurred to me that our system of self-government, ruled by elections held predictably and reliably since 1788, could be challenged by a serving chief executive. Perhaps this makes it an important time to look back on how we found ourselves here, from my earliest memories, born just after World War II, on through the Cold War, the civil rights and Vietnam War crises, as well as the high ideals of the 1960s to the spectrum of competing movements of this twenty-first century—from Trumpism to Black Lives Matter.
The narrative traces my political interest from the time I reached, as we said in Catholic school, “the age of reason.” It captures all the great moments of our times as I witnessed them.
You might say writing this book is my latest leap of faith. It is my bet that you the reader will be intrigued, even inspired, by seeing this country’s modern history as it charged its way through one American’s life.