Interlude—Matthews at war: As late as February 1999, Chris Matthews was still defending the character of his friend, Al Gore.
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On February 12, 1999, President Clinton was acquitted in his impeachment trial. Three days later, Matthews conducted two conversations about the likely effects of the year-long mess on the aforementioned Gore.
In a segment with Bill Kristol, Matthews defended Gore’s honesty, comparing him favorably to the loathed figure whose journalistic nickname had been “Slick Willie.”
Kristol agreed with Matthews’ assessment. But he said life was unfair:
MATTHEWS (2/15/99): Do you think there's going to be [candidates] queuing up right now to be the next president whose nickname is “Slick?” Do you expect presidents to run for office who have this problem of dishonesty?Kristol was right. Within the press corps, Candidate Gore would in fact serve as “a referendum” on the loathing our “journalists” felt toward President Clinton.
KRISTOL: Al Gore is going to be—
MATTHEWS: I think Gore probably hasn't, doesn't have the honesty problem.
KRISTOL: He doesn't, but he's like the accountant. You know, when they bust a mob family, when they bust a Mafia family—
KRISTOL: —and the big guys get away, the guys with a lot of blood on their hands, and the accountant goes to jail for 20 years? Al Gore is the accountant. It's unfair, but life is unfair, as John Kennedy said. And Al Gore is going to be the occasion for a referendum on: What do we fundamentally think of the Clinton presidency? Was it OK, or was it something we're embarrassed about?
MATTHEWS: So you see him as what I call “the bathtub ring,” the residue left behind by the mess.
Ironically, Matthews would be the loudest and ugliest voice on cable as this war against Candidate Gore extended over the next two years, sending George Bush to the White House.
Just as Kristol suggested, this war was always about Gore’s boss. Was Matthews’ boss, the near-billionaire Jack Welch, behind the remarkable change in tone his hireling was about to take?
There’s no obvious way to answer that question. But earlier, on that same Hardball program, Matthews had an intriguing exchange with Mike Barnicle, another Clinton-hating member of Welch’s “shamrock contingent” (Sallie Brady):
MATTHEWS (2/15/99): Mike Barnicle up in Boston, what do you see when you look at Al Gore—the bathtub ring or the clean Boy Scout who's an alternative to Bill Clinton's lifestyle?Barnicle seemed to be thinking of Kate Winslet, who actually didn’t go down with the ship in the 1997 film, Titanic. That said, everyone in “cable news” land was able to take his point.
BARNICLE: I see the inevitable going right down like the Titanic. I mean, he—he'll be down there with, you know, Kate Whatever-Her-Name-Is in the bottom of the ship a year from now. I think he's just there to be taken.
Was the still-undeclared Candidate Gore “just there to be taken?” In his segment on this same program, Kristol predicted that Candidate Bradley was going to leave him for dead. (“Bill Bradley's going to beat him [in the primaries] precisely because Gore is so trapped—so wrapped up with Clinton.”)
Kristol was wrong about that. In fact, Candidate Gore went on to beat Candidate Bradley in every Democratic primary and caucus. He thus became the first Democrat to achieve a clean sweep in a contested primary season.
Kristol was wrong about Candidate Bradley; Barnicle erred about Winslet. But as the next two years unfolded, Barnicle served as an honored member of the peculiar East Coast Irish Catholic brigade which drove Jack Welch’s news division.
(We grew up East Coast pretty much Irish Catholic ourselves, so we’re allowed to notice and say these things.)
In October 2000, there Barnicle sat! He was part of the all-East Coast Irish Catholic pundit panel which evaluated the Bush-Gore debates. Truly, this was a panel of pundits made in Jack Welch’s cultural image:
Moderator: Brian WilliamsAll five were East Coast Irish Catholics. Except for the slightly younger Williams, all five hailed from the middle part of the last century—from a demographic which had been extremely hard on Bill Clinton’s sexual conduct.
Doris Kearns Goodwin
When Election 2000 produced the Florida recounts, Barnicle took to cable to insist that Candidate Gore call the whole thing off, so upset were the pundit’s grandchildren with the uncertainty and the disorder. Barnicle’s service to this general line began right there on that Hardball program, as he told Matthews that Candidate Gore was “going right down like the Titanic.”
Ironically, no one worked harder than Matthews did to bring that shipwreck to pass. On this evening, Matthews was still vouching for Gore’s lack of an honesty problem. But starting in March 1999, a very large flip would occur.
From March 1999 through November 2000, no one would insult, savage and slander Candidate Gore to the extent Matthews did. We documented his conduct in real time. We’ve continued to document this deeply consequential “journalistic” history down through the years.
There were many parts to the lunatic war Matthews waged against Gore. There were the endless insults—the endless, crazy comparisons to various cartoon characters:
MATTHEWS (7/29/99): Is Al Gore just incapable of putting, like, one foot in front of the other in this campaign? He’s a professional politician who acts like an amateur.Where did this new Matthews come from?
JOE SCARBOROUGH: Yeah. He’s awful.
MATTHEWS: I don’t get it. [Watching tape of Gore speaking] Did you ever see the movie “Altered States?” I mean, his face is, like, getting contorted in some of these—
SCARBOROUGH: And there—
MATTHEWS: There’s bubbles coming out of his forehead!
MARY BOYLE: Listen, the vice president was in Cleveland today. I want to tell you just very briefly about it, because you probably would like covering the news.
MATTHEWS: What mode was he in? Was he in, was he in the quiet mode, or that sort of Clutch Cargo craziness he gets into? Or was he—
SCARBOROUGH: Did he scream?
BOYLE: No. No, but he was—
MATTHEWS: Or was he in the “Altered States” where the head starts to bubble? What state was he in today?
In 1998, Boyle had been the Democratic nominee for the U.S. Senate in Ohio. On this occasion, she seemed to think she was appearing on an actual news program.
Sadly, Boyle was wrong about that. Insults of this type, with cartoon references, became quite common on Hardball.
There were the endless crazy attempts to analyze Gore’s body language. In November 1999, Matthews presented one of the craziest segments in cable news history—a segment built around the troubling fact that Gore was wearing three-button suits:
MATTHEWS (11/12/99): You know, there's been a lot of talk about the new costuming of Al Gore. You know, he used to wear blue suits, like I do—or gray suits. Now he's wearing these new olive suits. [Gore had worn one such suit.]”How does my mind work that way?” Matthews was asking a very good question. That said, ”body language expert” Jo-Ellan Dimitrius just kept playing along.
He's taking up something rather unconventional, the three-button male suit jacket. I always—my joke is, “I'm Albert, I'll—I'll be your waiter tonight.” I mean, I don't know anybody who buttons all three buttons, even if they have them. What could that possibly be saying to women voters, three buttons?
DIMITRIUS: Well, I—I think that—
MATTHEWS: Is there some hidden Freudian deal here or what? I don't know. I mean, Navy guys used to have buttons on their pants. I don't know what it means. Go ahead.
DIMITRIUS: No, I—I—I think actually that Al's probably read the—our second book that's about to come out that talks about the different colors, that, particularly males can wear in their suits. We talk about how olive green, dark green is, is much more approachable, whereas, your dark blue and your black—
MATTHEWS: Right. Is that why Peter Pan wore green?
DIMITRIUS: Could be. Could be.
MATTHEWS: How does my mind work that way?
We’ll suggest that The Houses of Nantucket County may play a major role in the answer to that question. We’ll guess that those houses may perhaps have been involved in Matthews’ astonishing conduct, which involved a remarkable flip.
There was the gender-trashing of Gore, an offshoot of the sick gender-trashing Maureen Dowd has made a basic part of the standard pundit vernacular. (Dowd is an East Coast Irish Catholic from the middle part of the last century.) On Hardball, this too became quite common:
Just for the record, “the three-button male suit jacket” was not “unconventional” in the fall of 1999—such jackets were completely conventional. That said, this claim provided another chance for Matthews to make weird remarks about the “Peter Pan” who was wearing his buttons as “Navy guys” used to do (on their pants), to send weird signals to women.
And yes, the gender-trashing of Gore was widespread on Hardball that month, as Matthews and the rest of the “press corps” engaged in their two-year war.
On November 4, 1999, Matthews had called Gore a “man-woman.” On November 5, he had said that Gore “doesn’t have his gender straight.”
On November 3, Jane Wells, one of Matthews’ endless string of gruesome guests, had volunteered this helpful idea: “I hope he won't start encouraging women to embrace their shadow sluts.” So it now went on Hardball.
Nor was Matthews lying when he said that he “always” told his “Albert the waiter” joke. In fact, he told this dim-witted “joke” five times in the month of November alone (November 2, 4, 10, 12, 24). And he kept telling his Viagra “joke”—the one in which he said that Gore had “conducted an assault on his masculinity” by hiring Naomi Wolf, “who I call the political equivalent of Viagra” (November 5).
This joke had debuted on November 2. “He's got this—I call it his political Viagra,” Matthews said. “Now he's got a woman telling him how to be a man.” This sort of thing went on and on as Matthews conducted one of the strangest pundit flips of all time.
Starting in March 1999, the claim that Gore was “the bathtub ring” took on a purely insulting cast. Matthews began to offer another pungent insult from the depths of his low-class, disordered mind—his claim that Gore “would lick the bathroom floor” to become president.
On Hardball, the bungled facts were aggressive and endless: In December 1999, as Matthews worked to extend the claim that Gore had said he discovered Love Canal. In March 2000, when he endlessly misstated basic facts about the invented pseudo-scandal concerning the Buddhist temple.
He was trashing Candidate Hillary Clinton all through this period, too. And who can forget the half-hour sponge bath he performed on the ludicrous Gennifer Flowers in August 1999?
(Matthews: “I gotta pay a little tribute here. You’re a very beautiful woman, and I—and I have to tell you, he knows that, you know that, and everybody watching knows that. Hillary Clinton knows that. How can a woman put up with a relationship between her husband and somebody, anybody, but especially somebody like you that’s a knockout? I don’t quite get this relationship...It’s an objective statement, Gennifer. I’m not flirting.” For the record, there is no evidence that Clinton and Flowers ever had a relationship. Flowers discussed the Clintons’ many murders during her ludicrous half hour on Hardball. Matthews referred to Hillary Clinton as “Nurse Ratched,” saying she was offering herself “to the cuckoo’s nest here.”)
A full-length book could (and should) be written about Matthews’ repellent, disordered behavior during this twenty-month war against Gore. Tomorrow, we’ll show you his final and greatest flip, the one he engineered in October 2000.
For today, we’ll leave you once again with a few obvious questions—questions you have never seen a single “journalist” ask:
We start with a blindingly obvious question. What explains the astonishing flip on Matthews’ part, the flip which occurred in March 1999?
All through 1998, Matthews had vouched for the character of his friend, Al Gore. He was still cast in this mold in February 1999.
Suddenly, everything changed. What made that happen?
Let’s add a second question. How does such a remarkable flip go unmentioned all through the rest of the press corps? Beyond that, how does the ludicrous conduct displayed in passages like those we’ve cited go completely unremarked in the rest of the press?
Matthews played the fool for two years, about Candidate Gore and Candidate Hillary Clinton. No one said a word in real time. No one has commented since.
When we see behavior like this, we think its explanation is fairly obvious. We’re inclined to think it involves The Houses of Nantucket County.
Matthews finally entered those houses in 2004, shelling out $4.35 million for the chance to join “the Nantucket NBC crowd, one of the cliques that fuels the isle’s social engine.” According to Sallie Brady, Boss Welch was “still a power magnet” among that group at that time. That said, “Russert’s boss, NBC CEO Bob Wright, [was] also on the scene.”
What explains Matthews’ remarkable flip? We have to think the answer leads us to The Houses of Nantucket County, and to the powerful code of silence which encases those mansions in fog.
Tomorrow: The greatest flip of all