For nearly fifteen years, television viewers have watched politico-turned-journalist Chris Matthews deliver his impressive lungpower on the talk show Hardball, first on CNBC, then MSNBC. Probably every block in the country has at least one resident who can do a reasonable Matthews impression. Whenever Darrell Hammond makes a return visit to Saturday Night Live, a re-creation of his Hardball takeoff is usually in the cards.
Over the last decade Matthews has published several books in the current-affairs field. But what younger Hardball viewers may not recall is that the TV host has fairly solid credentials as a popular historian. In 1997, just when his show was getting under way, he published Kennedy & Nixon: The Rivalry That Shaped Postwar America, which is not only still the most widely-read study of the relationship between the two Presidents, but also one of the most fair-minded assessments of RN between covers. (Here, it is worth pointing out that, while Matthews’s political career was spent on the Democratic side of the aisle, working for the late House Speaker Tip O’Neill, Senator Edmund Muskie and other legislators, he was raised in a Republican household and has said he voted for George W. Bush in 2000, which helps explain why his book was so well-balanced.)
Yesterday, Matthews published his latest book, Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero, a 500-page biography of the thirty-fifth President. Of course every year since 1961 has seen at least a few new books about JFK, but with this year through 2013 marking a half-century since the Kennedy Administration itself – soon to be followed by the centennial of his birth in 2017 – there will be new titles aplenty about all things related to the years of Camelot. (Indeed, historian Tim Naftali, after four years as director of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library & Museum in Yorba Linda, is leaving that post this month to work on his own book about Kennedy.)
This week at Politico.com, Chris Matthews is interviewed about his book. Many a comparison was drawn in 2008 and 2009 between President Obama and the man who sat in the Oval Office when he was born in August 1961, but Matthews informs the site’s James Hohmann that he sees a different parallel:
“Obama is very brilliant, but that’s not leadership necessarily,” Matthews told POLITICO […]
The liberal commentator believes the president’s personality is more like Richard Nixon’s than Kennedy’s in at least one key way.
“He and Obama are detached, very cool customers, but Jack didn’t like to be alone, and I think Obama does,” Matthews said. “Obama is more like Nixon that way. He likes to be alone or just with his family or just with his pals from Chicago, and that’s hurting him politically.”
“You have to enjoy the company of other politicians to be a good politician,” Matthews added. “If you don’t like playing cards with these other guys and women, if you don’t like hanging out with them and shooting the breeze with them, you’re not going to be friends with them. They’re not going to be loyal to a guy they don’t hang out with. Why should they be loyal to you if they don’t spend any time with you? It’s not human behavior.”
Matthews’s analysis of the President’s personality is highly interesting. The Kennedy with whom the Hardball man spent the most time was the generally cheerful, extroverted Ted. By contrast, JFK, though he could put across passionate oratory when the occasion demanded it, had a highly developed sense of irony and an ability to see the other side of the partisan picture – to a much greater degree than President Obama, whose amiable and joking manner with reporters masks an impatience with those who disagree with him that brings Woodrow Wilson or Jimmy Carter to mind. There’s a difference between using the ironic sense to step back and use distance to look at a situation in a cool way, and being detached and having trouble engaging with an issue. John F. Kennedy knew that, but it’s not that clear that President Obama always keeps that in mind.
The comparison of the current Chief Executive and President Nixon, made by Matthews, has some truth to it, but doesn’t tell the whole story. When it comes to family matters, it’s obviously more natural to compare the two still quite young daughters in the White House to Caroline and “John-John,” as the media insisted on calling him. (I still sometimes picture the late John Kennedy Jr. opening The Andy Warhol Diaries and wincing as he learned that the Pop artist, to his dying day, referred to him by that name.) But the love and affection RN had for Pat, Julie and Tricia was just as strong as JFK’s or President Obama’s for their families – one look at those YouTube videos of Tricia’s wedding or that farewell to the White House staff on August 9, 1974, will serve as a reminder.
It’s also interesting to find Matthews saying that the President spends too much time with “his pals from Chicago.” This is a perennial Beltway complaint – indeed, often a specifically Georgetown complaint: Why does he (or the First Lady) have to stay in the White House all the time? Why can’t they come over and say hello to us? Why do we only see them here when it’s time for fund-raisers? Even the Clintons used to be the subject of these gripes. The one case in recent years where a President came to town unfamiliar with the local social bigwigs and made a meticulous and thorough effort to befriend them was in 1981, when Ronald Reagan was inaugurated and his wife Nancy, with remarkable aplomb and skill, won over all the most important sectors of Washington society. That was a major reason why the Reagan White House scored one spectacular legislative success after another in its first term even without GOP control of the House.
Matthews’s comparison of RN and the President misses one essential point: for all his tendency toward being an introvert in the extrovert’s world of politics, Richard Nixon was a consummate political pro. When he reached the Presidency he had been in the game, not just since 1946 when he first ran for office, but for three decades – he did some local campaigning for Wendell Willkie back in 1940. Through the 1950s and 1960s he had crisscrossed the United States by rail, plane, and car, visiting every state and thousands of cities, towns, sometimes even crossroads. He knew countless local politicians by name and face. It is true that when he reached the Presidency, the duties of his office, and his approach to organizing the Executive Branch, meant that he stayed put in Washington and most of his traveling was done overseas on affairs of state. But if he needed to reach out to a local figure to help get an initiative through, he could certainly do it, and on these occasions, as the White House telephone recordings of the early 1970s show, usually included a reminiscence of a rubber-chicken lunch or a local Chamber of Commerce appearance of days past.
President Obama does not have this resource. His political career began less than fifteen years before his Presidency and for its first eight years was almost completely confined to Illinois. He was a familiar figure in Springfield and part of Chicago, but not that widely known in the rest of the state. On a national level he was known primarily to those who had been his classmates in Harvard Law School. Even in the rather tightly-knit world of African-American politics, he had made little impression. Even when serving on Capitol Hill as a Senator, he built only a handful of close ties, most notably with Indiana Senator Dick Lugar, the man RN once envisioned as Presidential timber. His main focus, from his arrival in Washington in 2005, was running for the White House in 2008. When Richard Nixon traveled around America in election years as Vice President and as Republican elder statesman in 1964 and 1966, his object was to help elect candidates and thereby help build support for his Presidential bids in 1960 and 1968; Barack Obama’s focus in 2006, when doing the midterm speech circuit, was essentially focused on looking for support for 2008. This approach meant that once the momentum that brought him to victory in 2008 dissipated, what support he had in the Democratic precinct and county-level organizations across the land has proved not to be very deep.
Of course, this means that 2012 is going to be a highly atypical year in the history of the Democratic party. Usually, an incumbent president goes into a re-election year with the almost monolithic support of his party. Although President Nixon faced two challengers in the early primaries of 1972 – Rep. Pete McCloskey who opposed him on Vietnam, and Rep. John Ashbrook who primarily took issue with the opening to the People’s Republic of China – their candidacies amounted to sideshows at best. By contrast, it seems likely that if any major Democratic figure was willing to challenge the incumbent in the primaries two months from now, the results, if not as serious as Ted Kennedy’s challenge to Jimmy Carter in 1980, would still be enough to weaken the President’s chances during next fall. In the meantime, Chris Matthews’s new book should offer some useful tips when re-examining the first Obama term.