Q&A with Chris Matthews, MSNBC host, author

Q&A with Chris Matthews, MSNBC host, author

In between hosting his nightly political talk show, MSNBC’s Chris Matthews found time to write his sixth book, Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero, which comes out this week.

Matthews spoke to The Hill about his lifelong fascination with Kennedy, his writing habits and which modern-day politician he thinks most resembles the former president.

Q: Why did you decide to write this book?

Back in the early ’90s I wrote Kennedy & Nixon, and I had begun to develop a lot of the sources, and a lot of history. I have about three people that I always want to know more about: Churchill, Kennedy and Hemingway. I guess you call them pathfinders …

These three guys, I want to know more. There are other people that don’t interest me, like Reagan doesn’t quite interest me like that.

 Q: This is your second book on Kennedy. What’s different about this one?

First of all, of all the books written about him, it’s the only one that deals with his development from troublemaker at prep school, who became a war hero in the South Pacific, learned the tradecraft of politics, built a team around him … and ran for president.

It’s a book on character development. I wanted to answer the question: What was he like? I spent a lot of time with his personal friends, people who were close to him who could recall what he was like to be with.

I wanted to know whether he was a “legacy” or a “Gatsby,” and I think he was more of a Gatsby — someone who created himself.

Q: How did your interest in JFK start?

In 1956, most of us had never heard of him … I listened on the car radio the roll call at the Democratic National Convention, where ... Kennedy was forced to concede the [vice presidential] race.

He went up on the stage, and we all [of a] sudden had to pay attention to this fellow. So it was a conversation in our lives, in my family, as it was with every politically attuned family in those days.

Q: What was the hardest part of writing this book?

At one point, I had many feet high of material. A pile you can’t carry. I went to my son, who’s a history graduate from Brown trying to make it as a filmmaker, and I said, “Michael, just try to collate the oral histories, underlining from secondary sources, interviews, and start the process to organize them into each chapter outline that I’ve written.”

And then I had to take that, and then I had to go back into my narrative form and find the quotes that I found valuable at the time.

Q: When did you find time to write?

I just do it. It’s time. And I guess it’s the pickup. I don’t waste time. I write till I fall asleep at night. Today I’m doing a Time magazine piece, and I have to do work on the book, too.

I have to do my job every day. I have to do six shows every week. I have to do a commentary every day; I have to rewrite the script.

When I get up in the morning, I have a very simple pattern. I get up very early and work. And I get going on weekends. 

I get up to Boston, and go wherever I have to …

The first work on Kennedy & Nixon took years and years. This one has been more efficient. I had a scaffolding from the first book, and that really help — a sense of the key events. It’s a brief career. 

Q: How do you think JFK’s life is relevant to today’s world?

I think one of my strengths on the air all these years … is that I do bring a long sort of a personal notebook of history, a knowledge of how we got here. I do think my mind works that way. I don’t think I have a brilliant analytical mind, but I think I have a good referential mind … I always believe that what you experience in life, you have a way of using it.

I think it’s history and politics and political history — it’s the overlay. It’s phenomenal, but there’s also a pattern to things. 

You can look at this Republican primary, for instance, and say, “Boy this is looking a lot like ’64. There’s a lot of uncertainty, unhappiness here.”

Q: Is there any modern-day politician you’d compare to JFK?

No. I think there’s some aspects of Obama — the way he came on with a kind of youthful excitement and transformative promise — and he may still reach it … There he was [at inauguration] with Teddy and Caroline. Yeah, there was a lot of Kennedy-esque quality, certainly. And I think he has that sort of lean, young, Lindberg look, that young look of the guy with the short hair on the sides. There’s no doubt about it. Michelle has some of that Jackie aura. The idea that he’s here the first time out, ahead of schedule. That’s very much Jack Kennedy.

Q: This is your sixth book. Had you always aspired to be an author?

It was coming out of my experience working six years with Speaker [Tip] O’Neill … and having been so lucky to have been a presidential speechwriter, and working with such heavyweights as Ed Muskie … and then having had all the years with the San Francisco papers. I think it’s healthy for a writer to know what he’s talking about. 

Q: What’s your outlook for campaign 2012?

The unemployment rate is 9.1. Let’s just agree if it’s 10, [Obama’s] probably not going to get reelected. If it’s 8, he’ll probably get reelected. This is all conditions-based.

The election will be about him, so he has to make it positive, and the only way he can do that is show us where he’s taking us. And that may be too big a task at this point.

On the GOP side, normally the pattern is it’s Romney at this point. It’s a predictable party … they’re very prone to pick people they’re familiar with. And they don’t usually pick the hard right.