Saturday, November 27, 2004

The Politics of Cable: Chris Matthews

I've come to terms with the fact that I have rolling obsessions. When I'm into something, it consumes me until the itch is scratched, and then I can leave it for a while and move onto something else. I try to keep these obsessions in check -- rein them in as best I can -- and live my life as normally as most humans (at least pretend to) do. I'll dig on books and lock myself in my apartment or a coffee shop until the three or four books I have to read get read. I'll watch three seasons omnibus fashion on DVD because that's the best way to find out what happens next (big love/hate shout-out to Netflix for this). Check-off the same for movies, and less so for sports or the occasional video game, and you get a pretty good picture of what it's like to be me on a day-to-day basis. Throw in a hot/cold obsession that I'm trying to wrestle to a happy medium, and you get nary a boring day.

Politics is one of my biggies as well. Since I spent about 10 of the last 10 months obsessing over the "most important election in our lifetimes" (please say it wasn't so...) I'm more than happy to spend a little down time rocking out my first novel, amping up Dumpster Bust: The Blog, hanging out with the wife, family, and dog, etc.

Nonetheless, when I want the occasional political fix nowadays, there are several ways to go. Online is among the best, as it's possible to scan many different points of view and get a read on what the big (and little) stories are with the right (read: left) click of the mouse. Newspapers are still great, though why pay when you get almost everything out there (with updates!) online. As sad as it is to say -- I grew up in a coffee and paper household (Newsday, Long Island edition) I'll only buy a newspaper when I'm at a coffee shop or on the road and in real need of a fix.

I find a lot of news on television to be a waste of time. Either it's trite and watered down (the Networks) or Talking Heads yapping so that you wish your head would explode as in Scanners (most of cable).

All in Dumpster Bust land now cry in unison:

Get to the bloody point, man!

Okay. I've always had an odd affinity for Chris Matthews, host of Hardball on MSNBC. First, the program focuses solely on politics, which is a rarity nowadays (see: the billion programs where you can get all your Kobe/Michael Jackson/celeb infotainment/regular infotainment/Mike Tyson/Laci Peterson news). Second, and most important, the guy has an unabashed, boy-like enthusiasm for politics as game and politics as (deadly serious) sport.

There's a great line from an old episode of The West Wing, where President Bartlett (the best President ratings can buy) has a momentary pause from the apocalyptic crisis of the moment. He greets a newly elected Congressman and says, with a twinkle in his eye, "Welcome to the show (or was it circus?) that never ends."

Matthews has a similar sensibility, and so do I. It's a fascination with the Machiavellian intrigue that affects everyday lives, and with the players who seem larger than life and who, every now and again, actually are. (That's why guys like Matthews worship at the alter of Winston Churchill, and you can put me squarely in the middle of that choir).

He's not always great, and occasionally he's a bit of a buffoon, as this recent Slate piece describes (though I would argue he's at his worst when the stakes are low). Matthews is at his best when the stakes are high, when a close election is coming down the wire, or a new star is on the rise.

Matthews has developed professional friendships with enough political heavyweights that you can at times feel as though you're eavesdropping on a substantive but fun conversation between two people in the know. John McCain, Joe Biden, and Ed Rendell fall into this category. He has a great camaraderie with his many political analysts: Ron Reagan, Howard Fineman, and (even) Pat Buchanan are among my favorites (I have a lot to say about the political leanings of cable talkshow panels, but I'll save that for a different post). He can also drop the hard questions from time to time (dropping the hammer on Michelle Malkin this summer in the midst of the Swift Boat Veterans insanity was classic) though I'll be the first to admit that he can do more of this. There are also some great moments of laughter (if you're a big political geek like me, that is) or lunacy: if you've never seen the clip of the Matthews / Zell Miller "duel" you owe it to yourself to check it out.

If you have a passion for politics and stomach cable news (or cable, or news) check out Hardball.


SciFiDaily said...

I used to like TV's Chris Matthews, but he fell out of favor with me over the course of this year. He used to be really tough with everyone, pushing them ALL up against the wall. However, during the course of this year, he frequently ended interviews with Republicans by saying things along the lines of, "Yeah. I agree with you 100%." Now I know his show is opinion, but he really used to have a fairly objective viewpoint (even though he was an aide to President Jimmy Carter!). Nowadays, though, he bites too easily at garbage like the Swift Boat Veterans for (So-Called) Truth and offers easy outs to politicos who clearly are speaking from a galaxy far, far away. What's worse, his interrupting has gotten chronic, rarely allowing people to actually complete a thought. I'll admit, though, I still tune in on occasion. But usually I'm watching The Newshour With Jim Lehrer (ol' black eyes), which in Chicago is on at the same time as Hardball.

Eric Berlin said...

SciFi -- thanks very much for your thoughts. I agree that Matthews has been a little bit trying at times this year. I must admit that I turn to him at times because of a lack of a choice -- the competition is, in most case, much worse.

Overall, Matthew's enthusiasm still wins me over, even with the interruptions and occasional capitulations to guests (I suspect he makes nice to some GOPers because, as the new majority, many have very little reason to want to go on a "hard hitting" show).

That's forgivable to an extent. What really drives me nuts is that many programs (at least on MSNBC, the one cable news net that I get) present a skewed-to-the-right guest panel. For example, they'll have two "analysts": on the right will be Pat Buchanan, a strident conservative and on the left will be Howard Fineman, a Newsweek journalist who, while perhaps a liberal, attempts to present himself as his billing suggests: an objective analyst. So you have a partisan and a reporter sitting there duking it out, show-after-show. This must, on some level, be intentional, but the purpose of this is beyond me. I'm going to devote a more lengthy post on this topic at some point.

About Lehrer: I do enjoy him... but call me strange on this: I much approve his program on the radio, which comes through on NPR during the afternoon on the West Coast. Maybe I'm a sucker for a spicy intro? That being said, the recent promotional campaign for Hardball, in which they turned the set into a rock concert a la KISS in their hey-day, was a blatant example of society in decline.

Finally, great job over on your blog -- SciFi Daily -- very enjoyable!