Part 5—The greatest flip of all: MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, the Nantucket burgher, has staged some remarkable flips.
He’s still engaged in his current reversal, the one involving Hillary Clinton. At least through 2008, Matthews was a raging attack dog against the woman he repeatedly derided as “Evita Peron” and “Nurse Ratched”—the woman he found to be “witchy.”
Today, the Nantucket burgher is Hillary Clinton’s most devoted “journalistic” sycophant. His ridiculous fawning has kept him in line with his channel’s new corporate policy.
Such reversals may help a burgher pay his rather steep bills. Matthews summers in a Nantucket home he purchased for $4.35 million back in 2004.
In the spring of 1999, Matthews had engineered a similar mega-flip. All through 1998, right into the start of 1999, he had vouched for the good character of his friend, Al Gore.
Suddenly, he flipped! He spent the next two years savaging Gore in truly remarkable ways. This brought him in line with the political stance of his corporate owner, General Electric’s Jack Welch.
According to press reports, Matthews’ salary went through the roof during this very strange time. By 2004, he was able to buy his way into The Houses of Nantucket County.
Whatever! Today, we’d like to review the cable talker’s greatest flip. It occurred on October 5, 2000 and helped send George Bush to the White House.
No doubt, this reversal pleased Boss Welch. Here’s a quick bit of background:
On Tuesday, October 3, 2000, Candidate Bush and Candidate Gore staged their first debate.
The mainstream press had spent several weeks “lowering expectations” for Bush. On NBC’s cable arm, a somewhat peculiar pundit panel had been assembled to offer its views about the upcoming debates:
Moderator: Brian WilliamsBy happenstance or by design, the all-East Coast Irish Catholic panel was made in Boss Welch’s image. The panel certainly hadn’t been picked to favor Candidate Gore.
Doris Kearns Goodwin
Matthews had savaged Gore for two years. On his own cable program, Williams had been less insane, but his tilt had run the same way.
Noonan was a standard conservative voice, and a bit crazy to boot. Barnicle was a long-time Clinton-hater.
Goodwin was best known for a lazy instinct to agree with everyone else.
That said, a very strange thing occurred this night. After Bush and Gore debated, the panelists all agreed: Gore had cleaned Bush’s clock. The main debate among the panel involved a search for the reason why Candidate Bush did so poorly.
The pundits were badly off-message. Two nights later, this would produce a truly remarkable flip.
Back to October 3. After the debate concluded, Williams suggested an instant framework. After that, he threw to Matthews.
Here’s what Matthews said:
WILLIAMS (10/3/00): Good evening. There was a collision this evening in Boston, Massachusetts, between two formidable men and two competing ideologies. We should probably stress at the outset there were no major injuries. Both men walked away from it.Say what? For whatever reason, Matthews had abandoned a preference he had pimped for two years.
Chris Matthews, the host of Hardball, is with me here tonight. Chris, your assessment of what went on tonight.
MATTHEWS: Not long ago I saw Al Gore in a marathon—a 26-miler.
Tonight was a marathon event. He was in training for tonight, he was overpowering, he had the stamina, he had an encyclopedic ability to talk about an issue for almost hours at a time. George W. Bush came into a format that he tried to avoid, for weeks he tried to avoid this kind of format because it’s not his format. He’s not able to sustain an argument over a long period of time. He can make a quick statement—he’s a sprinter. He can make a statement quickly and concisely. Unfortunately, he cannot dominate the time in the way Al Gore could tonight.
Al Gore didn’t sweat, as I thought he might. Al Gore was effective in dominating the format, he dominated the time, and I have to say he dominated the debate.
Instantly, Williams tried to impose the idea that Bush had “held his own.” In response, Matthews offered a wildly inaccurate assessment—an assessment which showed had thoroughly he thought Gore had dominated the proceedings:
WILLIAMS (continuing directly): If you're going to give the victory to Gore, what can be said here about George W. Bush, that he held his own?Just for the record, what was “the lump assessment by the American people?” On all five overnight polls, voters judged Gore to be the winner of the debate, by an average margin of ten points.
MATTHEWS: That he'll do better next week in a format which is sitting around a table like this where, if you don't talk too much, you're considered a gentleman.
The format tonight rewarded the most loquacious person at the table. Al Gore—he didn't even wait for Jim Lehrer to give him time. He just took it.
On occasion, he'd say, "Jim, I need more time," and just took it then. He— I would like to see the, the word count tonight. I'd say it's about at least 3 to 2, maybe 2 to 1 Gore, and that's only going to work in a format where it's like a college classroom situation where the kid who stands up and has all the answers it the winner.
In a sit-around-the-table or sitting-along-a-bar kind of conversation and, certainly, an after-dinner conversation in most American homes, the person who is cogent and short and responsible to use their time with limited amounts of time looks like the winner.
I think tonight gave the benefit to the guy who talked the most. I think next week will give the benefit of the doubt to the guy who talks the least.
WILLIAMS: That certainly gives the edge to Gore in the science of debate, of the debate. Whether or not that was the lump assessment by the American people, especially the undecideds watching around the country, will wait to be seen.
Meanwhile, Matthews had completely misjudged the word count. In fact, Gore spoke fewer words than Bush at this first debate. Matthews thought Gore had spoken possibly twice as many, so thoroughly did he think that Gore had dominated the session.
Matthews was way off message. Relentlessly, he had been trashing Candidate Gore for the previous nineteen months. But as he answered Williams’ next question, he searched for reasons why Candidate Bush had done so poorly this night.
Williams played tape of one exchange, then offered another debunking framework. Matthews kept refusing to run with the proffered scripts:
WILLIAMS: That was pretty much the way that topic went, back and forth. More, more heat than light, do you think?Matthews inserted the unsupported claim that Gore’s charges had been “unfair.” But by now, he was looking for the reasons why Candidate Bush had performed so poorly. He even dropped the ultimate bomb: Bush had resembled Dukakis!
MATTHEWS: I thought that a couple of times— In fact, three times tonight, there were unanswered charges by...Gore towards Bush.
I don't know whether he's tired tonight. People say he had a cold. People say he goes to bed normally before this time of night at 9:30. Whatever it was, he wasn't quick and acute enough to respond to these charges.
There's a little bit of Michael Dukakis out there tonight, and that's very dangerous in politics. Let no unfair shot go unanswered. He let three shots that I know go unanswered tonight.
For what it’s worth, the other panelists agreed with Matthews. In her first statement, the conservative Noonan said this:
“Well, Brian, I think Gore dominated from the get-go, to tell you the truth. As he stood and gave his statements, I think he seemed to be a person of greater sophistication, greater stature, greater subtlety. He was in his zone. Bush seemed to me, I must tell you, unfocused, a little bit tired in time, a gentleman who forgets the predicate of the statement. He gives you little bursts of sound as opposed to a seriously, thought-out few sentences that make very clear his point of view…”
Barnicle meandered thusly:
“One of the marvelous things about this country, Brian, in terms of its election, the way we elect a president, it's the one thing that we all do together, perhaps the last thing we all do together. And if tonight was a job interview…and I think that perhaps many of [the voters] were looking at this program tonight as it was—if it was a job interview, and they are going to, they're going to hire the person that they saw tonight, one of them was much more dominant than the other: the vice president of the United States.”
Despite Williams’ valiant attempts to give each candidate a trophy, no one thought Candidate Bush had held his own this night. That said, we’ll focus on Matthews’ statements.
Those statements would lead him, two nights later, to the greatest flip of all. The rest of the panel would join him.
On Tuesday, October 3, Matthews gave his instant assessment: Gore “dominated the debate.” Bush looked like he had a cold. Perhaps he’d been up past his bedtime.
By the following night, October 4, waves of pundits were declaring that the debate had been a draw. In response to this group assessment, Matthews broke every rule in the pundit rule book.
On the October 4 Hardball, Matthews spoke with the late Christopher Hitchens, another inveterate Clinton/Gore-hater. As they discussed the debate, Matthews and Hitchens accused their fellow pundits of refusing to tell the truth about Gore’s obvious dominance.
“I can't believe what I'm reading this morning,” Hitchens said. “...I mean, there was no real contest. The vice president did everything but kiss Governor Bush's wife for him, it seemed to me. It was—he didn't just eat his lunch, he regurgitated his lunch...But there was absolutely no contest.”
Hitchens said he was “puzzling over the stupidity, which I think is willful, of the pundits this morning.” He speculated that pundits weren’t being honest about the debate because they didn’t want to be accused of liberal bias.
Matthews then gave his own assessment. He said Gore “cleaned his clock:”
MATTHEWS (10/4/00): Could it be that the punditry class is the only profession in which you're allowed to simply take a pass and say, “I'm not going to be a pundit tonight?”Matthews acknowledged the distaste for Gore which he’d spent two years affecting. (Hitchens had already said that he was “no fan” of Gore.)
I couldn’t believe the number of people who chickened out last night. It was clear to me—and I’m no fan of either of these guys entirely, and I can certainly say that about the one who I thought won last night, that’s Al Gore—I thought he cleaned the other guy’s clock, and I said so last night. All four national polls agreed with that. In fact, the ones with the—the one with the largest sample, which was CBS, found a 14-point spread of those who thought that the vice president really leveled the other guy.
I don’t understand why people are afraid to say so, because it's simply a judgment as to performance, not as to values and principles.
But now, Matthews not only said that Gore “cleaned Bush’s clock” in that first debate. Like Hitchens, he directly accused his fellow pundits of refusing to tell the truth about that obvious fact.
Matthews’ assessment could hardly have been any clearer. In real time, on October 3, he said Gore “dominated the debate.” On October 4, he said that Gore had “cleaned his clock” and that pundit were lying about it.
Then came the greatest flip of all!
It started on the Hardball program of Thursday, October 5. In am extremely unusual booking, Matthews spent the whole first half of his show speaking with Rush Limbaugh, who lectured Matthews about how well Bush had done.
For the record, Matthews didn’t have his arms pulled back like a Chinese convict, at least not while on the air. Weirdly, though, he actually seemed to be agreeing with Limbaugh’s assessment of the debate!
And sure enough! That evening, Brian Williams assembled his pundit panel to discuss the Cheney-Lieberman debate, which was occurring that night.
In the hour before the debate began, Williams did something extremely peculiar. Rather than discuss the upcoming debate, he played a lengthy excerpt of Matthews’s session with Limbaugh.
As part of the lengthy excerpt, viewers saw Matthews play a brief clip from the October 3 debate. They then saw Matthews start to engineer the greatest flip.
The transcript shown below is from the October 5 Hardball. That evening, this clip was replayed for Williams’ viewers, who were in the process of being propagandized.
Matthews trashes Gore in this clip. This represents the start of an astounding flip:
MATTHEWS (10/5/00): Let's take a look. Here's Bush going at Gore on that very issue of character.All of a sudden, Matthews had a new attitude. Returning to his rancid behavior of the previous years, he pictured Gore getting punched out in school, so offensive had he been at Tuesday night’s debate.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, 10/3 DEBATE)
BUSH: I think the thing that discouraged me about the vice president was uttering those famous words "no controlling legal authority." I felt like that there needed to be a better sense of responsibility of what was going on in the White House.
GORE: You have attacked my character and credibility and I am not going to respond in kind. I think we ought to focus on the problems and not attack each other.
[END VIDEO CLIP]
LIMBAUGH: Who does he remind you of? He's trying to look like Reagan. Now, all you Gore supporters out there, you've been told for 20 years what a low-down, dirty rotten skunk Ronald Reagan was. Here is your nominee doing his best to make you think that's who he is.
MATTHEWS: I'll tell you one thing—
LIMBAUGH: I would be offended if I were you.
MATTHEWS: He couldn't get through the schools I went to with that kind of face. He would have been punched out so early in life.
LIMBAUGH: Absolutely not, condescending and all that head bobbing and doing all this talking down to people. But Bush didn't attack. He answered a question from Jim Lehrer.
MATTHEWS: I know.
Waiting for that evening’s vice presidential debate, Williams played that clip for his viewers. Soon afterward, he helped his panel rethink the terrible things they had said only two nights before.
Back on October 3, they all agreed that Gore had dominated the debate. They’d searched for reasons to explain why Bush had been so awful.
The pundits could all see clearly now! Suddenly, that October 3 debate was looking quite different.
It was a remarkable flip. Barnicle introduced it:
BARNICLE (10/5/00): One of the most fascinating things that has been said here this evening was actually said by Rush Limbaugh when he noted, accurately, that, you know, all of this offense that everyone takes that—supposedly, you know, attacks on people's character—I mean, Al Gore, the other evening when he said that— I mean, my God, it was so lame! And in retrospect, when you look at the TV clips that are shown in our technology today, when you see Bush and Gore matched up in the TV clips, Bush actually comes off better, I think, than Gore does when matched up in TV clips.How weird! Two nights before, this horrible person had agreed with everyone else. (“If it was a job interview,” voters were going to hire Gore, who had been “much more dominant.”)
Now, a new story had surfaced. Barnicle was saying that Bush actually came off better than Gore, if you stuck to the little short TV clips! And in one of the worst group flips of all time, all the other pundits signed on, even including Matthews.
The exchange started with Brian embarrassing himself:
WILLIAMS (continuing directly): It's a television age. You know? And that's a perfect point, really, in this TV age.Just like that, all the standard Gore-trashing was back! Voters were handed the standard old insults about the stiff, fake and phony, two-faced demon, Al Gore.
NOONAN: Yes, it is. Things get cut down to 12 seconds. And in fairness, people who are producers, who cut these things, they try to get the moment where a guy became vivid and said something. In Bush's case, when you cut his sometimes ragged thoughts into six seconds, you are getting the best of him, and he really goes forward in those cuts, whereas Mr. Gore is a somewhat slower, perhaps in a way more—
MATTHEWS: Maybe the governor of Texas didn't know it was a live broadcast the other night. He was just putting together snippets for use later. I mean, I think you're so brilliant on that, Mike, because the fact is that we have seen a better-looking Bush since the debate than we saw in that the 90 minutes on air.
BARNICLE: Yes. Well, you know, when we just saw that clip just a few short minutes ago about Gore posing this famed offense that he took, it was a pose. It was clearly a set piece and he was going to say it. If George W. Bush had said to Al Gore at that moment, “I've always admired the way you and your wife have had this wonderful relationship,” Al Gore would then have gone into, “You've attacked my character.” It's an act! It's a pose!
MATTHEWS: You know what's interesting? Coming up next, looking ahead just a bit to the next battle, the two people we're talking about, is—Doris Kearns knows this, and anyone else who's watched, that there are a number of Al Gores. There is the Al Gore you meet and talk history with, the one you talk about your kids with, there is the stiff you meet, the cigar-store Indian who's occasionally available to you. You know, I bet he presents a new Al Gore next week: unlike the lecturing man at the podium, he'll come in as the friendly guy at the table. Don't you expect that?
GOODWIN: Well, I think he's certainly going to try to. He's already signaled that he's going to do that. But I don't know whether or not he's in control of those sighs and shrugs that seem to come up from inside. I mean, I don't think he meant to be that obnoxious the other night. He claimed that he didn't know that he was being seen on the screen. But that was welling up from inside...
MATTHEWS: He reminded me of a professional bowler who just got a 10-strike and the other guy had hit a gutter ball and he was laughing at the guy. Every time Bush made a slight little mistake or hesitation, he laughed at him.
NOONAN: It wasn't classy. It was poor sportsmanship.
Matthews had been spewing these insults since March 1999, when he produced his previous flip. Suddenly now, he was back on-message, after two days of telling the world what he actually thought.
As it turned out, Gore had been “lecturing” Tuesday night when he had seemed to “clean Bush’s clock.” All the pundits could see it now! Before this, they had been wrong!
From that moment forward at NBC News, Candidate Gore had lost that first debate. The ardent Matthews turned on a dime. We’d call it his greatest flip.
Let’s review the re-engineering of this horrendous person:
On Tuesday night, October 3, he said Gore “dominated the debate.” He searched for reasons which might explain why Bush had done so poorly.
On Wednesday night, October 4, he said that Gore had “cleaned Bush’s clock.” He said he couldn’t imagine why other pundits were refusing to say so.
On Thursday night, October 5, he renounced his heresy. First, someone sent Rush Limbaugh in to lecture him for half an hour. By that evening, he could see that he had been wrong, oh so wrong!
When we first recorded this remarkable business, we asked a fairly obvious question:
Inside the bowels of NBC News, what produced this remarkable change? Is it possible that a phone call came from The Houses of Nantucket County?
Tomorrow: The sounds of silence