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Jewish World Review Dec. 2, 2002 / 27 Kislev, 5763

Bill Steigerwald

Bill Steigerwald
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Ten minutes with . Chris Matthews | Chris Matthews, a former political insider turned multimedia pundit, has become one of the rising stars of the nightly TV news-chat circuit. He's best known for his fast-paced, interruption-filled, get-to-the-point nightly show on MSNBC, "Hardball With Chris Matthews."

But the former Carter administration speechwriter and senior aide to House Speaker Tip O'Neill is also a former newspaper columnist and author of political history books like "Kennedy & Nixon" and "Hardball," his 1988 guide to winning politics.

Matthews has a new book, "American: Beyond Our Grandest Notions," in which he discusses the characteristics and values of a country so great and so different. And for the last 11 weeks has been doing "The Chris Matthews Show," a more reflective Sunday roundtable discussion of the week's news that appears in the Pittsburgh market on WTAE at the talk-junkie-testing time of 6:30 a.m. I talked to Matthews by telephone on Wednesday:

Q: If someone met you in a bar and asked what you do for a living, what would you tell them?

A: I think that I'm a kind of, there's a Yiddish word for it, I'm a "tuml," I stir things up. I go get a people together and I try to use them to sharpen the issue and find out where the debate on a topic is raging, and try to get them to go at it so we can learn from their argument what the fight is about.

Q: What's your definition of politics as it's practiced in the United States?

A: Well, it's "What kind of a country do you want to live in?" I think that choice is out there for people. Do you want to live in a society where there's more government activity or less? Do you want to have more freedom or more conformity? Do you want to have more rights or more equality?

Q: Do you think there's too much politics in American society in the sense that too much of society is controlled by government and political forces and processes, as opposed to market forces and processes?

A: Well, I think that's always the question. I could argue I guess that if you don't have antitrust enforcement you won't have free markets, you'll have a restraint of trade all over the place and collusion and all the things we studied in school. And if you don't have some kind of a progressive income tax, you're going to have a society which is going to be perhaps very difficult to get ahead in, and probably a lot easier to prevail in and to keep money rather than earn it.

These are all choices you have to make in society. Obviously, there's a tipping point when you have too much regulation and too much taxation and you lose the natural enterprise that's in the individual. Then there's the value question, whether a person who earns money should be taxed to death or not. Somebody will say, "Somebody's got to pay for the health care systems and we'll tax the people that have the money." That's kind of a socialist attitude and I think you have to look at it through the prism of your own philosophy. I'm pretty much free market and I'm pretty much for independence and freedom of people. I'm fairly libertarian.

Q: How do you define your politics, or did you just do that?

A: If you went through a pecking order of issues, I'd probably be a liberal. In terms of pro-abortion rights and pro-gay rights, the usual things people argue about. Whether I'm for gay marriage or not is probably not an issue. I don't think I've turned that corner.

But when it comes to the general notion that this is the free society, that people came here to not be subjected to repression by government or by class distinction - I've just written a book about it. There are two key elements at the top: One, we're a society where you should make yourself, just like the United States made itself in 1776, and in making itself, it recognized the right to pursue happiness. Which I think is the overlooked American freedom. If somebody wants to pursue happiness by living in a windmill, that's their decision. If somebody wants to be an odd duck and live in Haight Ashbury, that's their decision. I really do think we have to be a little more nonconformist.

But I think the second reason our society has been so successful was the recognition in the beginning that we should be a country where it didn't matter if you were somebody famous's son. I've written a lot about that in my new book. I want to keep that part of America where a guy or a woman with guts and a risk-prone mentality is going to make it here.

Q: Is that the main message of your book?

A: The message of my book is that there are 10 American notions, which, if we didn't have, we wouldn't be American. They separate us from the Canadians and British and the Argentines and everyone else.

One is that we're very much a self-made people, like Jay Gatsby, we're the product of our own platonic conception. We imagined our country and we wrote it on a blank page - just as they designed the U.S. Capitol in an empty field above the Potomac just as Madison, following Jefferson, created the nation on a blank page.

Second, we're a country in constant rebellion. We do not recognize the state as superior to us. We recognize ourselves as superior to the state. We believe in constant rebellion. As Jefferson said, a little rebellion now and then is a good thing. And I'd argue that the third thing in my list that we are reluctant warriors. We fight when we have to defend the turf of this country. That's why I'm very skeptical of this war. I wonder about it - why we are doing it. What are the motivations that are leading us to it? Why are we breaking with our great tradition of being a reluctant warrior? What's this about? I'm not satisfied with the answer. I don't think it's just weapons of mass destruction, a term coined by those who want this war to happen. I don't think it's regime change.

It's some kind of deep ideological drive to confront, to see the world in Manichaean terms, to forever be at the vanguard. The trouble is, the people who are leading have had no military experience and their kids will never have any.

Q: Is there a politician out there you'd like to clone about 535 times?

A: I think Ed Rendell, right now. At the governor level - I'm not saying as president yet. Service. A real feel for people. A real commitment to serving them. Balanced the budget. Brought back the bond status of the city. He did a job.

I think that's so rare in politics. When you can point to a politicians and say, "What did you do? I don't care about your litany of liberal proposals or issues. What did you do?" I think he's got an answer.

Q: Do you think Al Gore is OK - in the head?

A: Well, that's a strong question. I'll say to you, I don't think he knows who he is. I think he has a Nixon problem. I wrote a book about Jack Kennedy, who used to say about Nixon that he didn't know who he was. Kennedy said it must be very trying for Nixon, because every time he'd meet somebody he knew he didn't know which Nixon to be.

Here's Al Gore. We've seen three Al Gores in the debates. Before he began the last campaign he said "Let 'er rip." Now he's saying "Let 'er rip" again. Does anyone honestly believe that? That he's out behaving spontaneously?

Q: There are people who say you are going to run for Arlen Specter's seat in 2004.

A: Well, I'm not doing that.

Q: You're a Pennsylvania guy

A: Well, I love it. I love the attention. I love the support. I was at a speech (Tuesday) night at the World Affairs Council in Philadelphia. They had a huge crowd. For several minutes there I felt like a rock star, with all these people running after me trying to get my autograph. It was an amazing burst of euphoric support for me.

I tell ya, I feel wonderful about the support people - especially in Philly - show for me whenever I bop around there.

All I can tell you is, I love the attention. I love the possibility of it, but I'm not doing it. I'm not going to run for the Senate (from) Pennsylvania.

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JWR contributor Bill Steigerwald is an associate editor and columnist at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Comment by clicking here.

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© 2002, Bill Steigerwald