Part 3—What made Chris Matthews run: To what extent was the late Tim Russert friends with Jack Welch and Bob Wright?
We haven’t seen much reporting on that somewhat abstruse topic. In November 2000, one small suggestion appeared.
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In November 2000, USA Today’s Peter Johnson wrote the very rare profile of Russert—a profile which seemed to be slightly skeptical concerning Russert’s well-known moral greatness. (We can find no public link to Johnson's fascinating profile.)
Using several comical anecdotes, Johnson noted Russert’s long-time vaunting ambition to be a major player in Washington. Along the way, he cited unnamed colleagues of Russert who “say he shares a Catholic bond with NBC president Bob Wright and General Electric chairman Jack Welch.”
There would, of course, be nothing wrong with such a bond, until such time as there possibly was. This brings us to a slightly comical aspect of the news division which came into being under Welch, during the years when General Electric owned NBC News.
In a slightly comical turn, the news division assembled under Welch and Wright took on a strongly Catholic cast. More specifically, the division was heavily peopled with Irish Catholics from the East Coast, the demographic from which Welch and Wright hailed.
Obviously, there’s nothing “wrong” with hiring Irish Catholic broadcasters who grew up on the East Coast. Just for the record, we ourselves grew up (somewhat) Irish Catholic on the East Coast during the same time period which will be at issue here.
There’s nothing “wrong” with hiring East Coast Irish Catholics! In fact, Welch and Wright hired some very capable people, with Russert himself as the prime example.
That said, there was something comical, and a bit odd, about the cast of the news division Welch and Wright assembled. Because her profile was so intriguing, let’s return to Sallie Brady’s portrait of the Nantucket social scene in the summer of 2003:
BRADY (8/03): Russert is part of the Nantucket NBC crowd, one of the cliques that fuels the isle’s social engine. It was Jack Welch, the story goes, the 20-year chairman and CEO of NBC's parent company, General Electric, who drew network folk to Nantucket.As of 2003, Matthews had been the political face of NBC’s cable arm for five years. The following year, he purchased a $4.35 million summer home on Nantucket, joining Welch, Wright and Russert among the NBC crowd.
Russert and his wife, Vanity Fair writer Maureen Orth, began summering on Nantucket in 1992. Russert has said he can go days without leaving his house except for a bike ride to get the newspapers. Then he'll sit in his rocking chair and watch the grass blow in the breeze.
Russert does make it back for Meet the Press, the show that made him and that helped finance the Nantucket hideaway he acquired in 1999. The sprawling gray-shingled house, with rooftop sundeck and cutting garden, lies down an unmarked dirt path through a secluded forest. Hanging over the portico, a wooden sign bearing the cottage's name says it all: SUNDAY MORNING.
Russert’s boss, NBC CEO Bob Wright, is also on the scene...
Although Welch retired in 2001, he's still a power magnet. He holds court from a massive gray-shingled home festooned with window boxes, near Sankaty Head Golf Club.
"We try not to do too much fundraising in the summer because we do so much of it the rest of the year," says Elizabeth Bagley, who in her early days worked for another Nantucket regular, Ted Kennedy. "But there are exceptions: Hillary's Senate campaign, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, and the American Ireland Fund."
Bagley founded the Nantucket chapter of the American Ireland Fund and annually hosts a cocktail buffet for several hundred that draws in the shamrock contingent: the Russerts, Kennedys, Kerrys, and MSNBC host Chris Matthews and his wife, Channel 7's Kathleen.
That meant that four members of NBC’s “shamrock contingent” were summering in The Houses of Nantucket County. As of 2008, Russert’s home on the swell-infested island was valued at $7.2 million.
There’s nothing wrong with sharing a Catholic bond, until such time as there possibly is. There’s also nothing wrong with sharing an Irish-American bond!
There’s nothing automatically wrong with being wealthy enough to purchase such summer cottages. But in the reign of Welch and Wright, NBC News took on a slightly comical Irish Catholic cast. Consider:
Given his role at Meet the Press, Russert was pretty much king of the roost. Matthews was the political face of NBC’s cable arm.
Tom Brokaw was still anchor of NBC Nightly News, but fresh-faced Brian Williams, another East Coast Irish Catholic, had been placed in line as Brokaw’s successor.
Pat Buchanan was the cable arm’s all-purpose go-to political pundit. Meanwhile, the network employed so many O’Donnells that they practically had their own page in the company phone book.
There was nothing “wrong” with any of these hires or assignments. But consider the slightly comical state of the casting when Candidates Bush and Gore debated each other for the White House in October 2000.
Their first debate was held on October 4, 2000. For this and all subsequent debates, this was the lineup as NBC’s cable arm assessed the hopefuls’ performance:
Moderator: Brian WilliamsAll five were East Coast Irish Catholics. After each debate, the first outside presence to join the crew was of course Russert himself.
Doris Kearns Goodwin
Given the standards of cable news, there was nothing obviously “wrong” with the use of any of those pundits. That said, the demographics of this group were highly improbable as a matter of chance and thus somewhat comically odd.
All five of the regular panelists were East Coast Irish Catholics, like their bosses Welch and Wright. Excluding the somewhat younger Williams, each pundit hailed from the middle part of the last century.
Does this apparently trivial point matter in some journalistic sense? Not necessarily, no. On the other hand, it had been quietly noted, once or twice, that the most aggressive pursuits of the Lewinsky scandal had perhaps maybe possibly seemed to come from the large Irish Catholic contingent within the national press corps.
In his unusual profile of Russert, Johnson offered these thoughts about Russert’s pursuit of the Lewinsky matter, which had struck some observers as maybe possibly odd:
JOHNSON (11/1/00): [T]he past few years have been pretty good for Russert, who took a leading role in questioning President Clinton's behavior in the Monica Lewinsky scandal.Johnson was being kind when he referred to Russert’s “pointed questions” to Hillary Clinton about the Lewinsky affair. Russert’s behavior in that Senate debate created one of the very rare occasions when his journalistic conduct was actually challenged by one or two others within the mainstream press.
This fall, Russert has established himself as perhaps the nation's best-known political talking head. He almost usurped the presidential debates when George W. Bush initially said he would accept only Russert as moderator. That led to sniping at NBC that Russert is pro-Bush, which Russert, Democrat-turned-independent, calls "absurd."
Then, hosting the first debate here in September between Senate candidates Hillary Rodham Clinton and Rick Lazio, Russert's pointed question about the Lewinsky affair seemed to rattle Clinton and prompted her husband to defend her. Her supporters cried foul, but privately her staff said the incident may have won her sympathy.
Russert, a Roman Catholic, refers to his religion on Meet the Press and speaks reverentially about moderating. "If there's such a thing as a non-religious vocation, this is it." Colleagues say he shares a Catholic bond with NBC president Bob Wright and General Electric chairman Jack Welch.
And others. After a 1984 trip to the Vatican, Russert brought back a rosary blessed by Pope John Paul II for influential Washington Post TV columnist John Carmody to give to his mother. Carmody spoke about it for years.
Russert's sense of morality, colleagues say, may partly be behind his relentless questioning of the president's behavior in office. And, they say, it may have contributed to why Russert felt the need to zing the first lady about her defense of her husband in the Lewinsky affair during the debate.
"Morality shapes all of us," says Today producer Jeff Zucker. "Tim has a deep sense of it. That's a big part of who he is.”
Did Russert’s “sense of morality” shape his reaction to Bill Clinton? Presumably, every journalist’s “sense of morality” (or lack of same) will shape his or her conduct.
That said, East Coast Irish Catholicism of the past century was sharply conservative in matters involving sex and gender. During the Lewinsky chase, it was very occasionally softly suggested that this might imaginably start to explain the overwrought reaction which animated some of the East Coast Irish Catholics within the mainstream press.
What shaped Russert’s view of the matter? We can’t answer that question, but we will say this:
Every demographic group will tend to have its own point of view toward some issue or other. For this reason, it probably isn’t a great idea to create a news division so heavily tilted toward the ethnicity and religion of its (highly conservative) corporate owner.
Once in a very great while, some major pundit would chuckle out loud at this aspect of the Welch news division. When Russert died in 2008, Howard Fineman let himself break the rules of his guild just this one little time:
FINEMAN (6/18/08): I had to laugh when Maria Shriver told the story about when she came to NBC and Tim went up to her and said, “We’re both Irish Catholic and there are not many of us here so we got to stick together.” At that time, NBC was run by Jack Welch at General Electric and Bob Wright. And so it’s basically a Holy Cross conspiracy, from what I can tell.According to Shriver, that was what Russert told her! Fineman saw a bit of absurdity in Russert’s sense that he had to help Shriver negotiate the ethnic prejudice she might find at Welch’s NBC News.
That’s what we loved about it. That’s what we celebrated about. It’s a great gift that he left for America.
MATTHEWS: Howard Fineman, thank you, buddy.
Obviously, there’s nothing wrong with going to Holy Cross. (Matthews went there, as did Wright.) There was nothing obviously wrong with any of the Welch/Wright hires.
On the other hand, it probably isn’t a good idea to build a news division in the way they seemed to do. This brings us to the conduct of Matthews, who moved into The Houses of Nantucket County in 2004.
In the years preceding that ascension, Matthews got wealthy under Welch and Wright. As he did, he produced years of broadcast journalism which was disgraceful, insulting, routinely dishonest and overtly crazy/insane.
In 1999 and 2000, Matthews directed strings of misogynistic insults at Candidate Hillary Clinton, the Evita Peron of American politics.
In later years, Clinton became Nurse Ratchet in Matthews’ diatribes. This paled beside his relentless trashing of the vile Candidate Gore.
The name-calling aimed at Candidate Gore was relentless, reckless and inane—an insult to the national interest. The lunacy of Matthews’ nightly coverage was exceeded only by its real or feigned bile.
On Hardball, if it wasn’t for the fake facts, there would often be no facts at all. Did we mention the serial lunacy of Matthews’ insinuations, insults and charges?
By mid-September 2000, Gore had shot ahead in the national polls. Across the press corps, pundits scrambled to retract the insults they had lodged.
At this point, Matthews retracted one of his many insulting characterizations of Gore. He went on Hardball to say that he shouldn’t have said what he’d often said—that Candidate Gore “would lick the bathroom floor to be president.”
On Hardball, Candidate Gore had repeatedly been mocked as “the bathtub ring.” He’d been compared to every cartoon character in Matthews’ endless playbook.
This went on for twenty months, as the press corps waged its war against Gore. And please understand:
Within the mainstream press, Matthews was more influential then than he is today. There were fewer cable news shows then. Fox News was still a minor player.
Night after night, Matthews presented the definitive pundit show from inside the mainstream Washington press corps. Relentlessly, he helped create the Gore-trashing narratives everyone else would ape.
According to standard reports, Matthews’ salary soared during this period, from $1.1 million to $5 million. Apparently, the cable talker was doing something with which his bosses were well pleased.
But how odd! Matthews’ war against Candidate Gore began quite suddenly, in March 1999. Before that time, he had seemed rather friendly to Gore on the air!
What on earth could explain this terrible person’s sudden flip? And what explains the total silence with which his ridiculous work would be received over the next two years?
Did the beckoning houses of Nantucket County play a role in Matthews’ behavior? Today, he’s Hillary Clinton’s most devoted and fawning fan!
What explains Matthews’ astounding behavior under the rule of Boss Welch? What explains the silence from the rest of the “press corps” as his insults and clowning went on?
We can’t help wondering if the answer lies in The Houses of Nantucket County. In part 4 of our award-winning series, we’ll take a thoughtful look at Matthews’ remarkable flips.
Coming: The three flips of Christopher Matthews