'Hardball' host a softy with guests off-camera

Think Chris Matthews always employs a serious and aggressive stance toward his guests? Once you’ve seen him off camera, you might think differently.

As Matthews, 59, walks into the Northwest Washington television studio to kick off his anniversary week on “Hardball,” his face is devoid of emotion. He is poised and well-prepped. When he sees his guests — seven United States senators — he just lets go, emitting an entirely unrestrained smile. He is beaming.

Rebecca D'Angelo/MSNBC
Chris Matthews (center, with Sens. John Warner [R-Va.] and Mary LandrieuMary Loretta LandrieuProject Veritas at risk of losing fundraising license in New York, AG warns You want to recall John McCain? Good luck, it will be impossible CNN producer on new O'Keefe video: Voters are 'stupid,' Trump is 'crazy' MORE [D-La.]) learned about verbal spats growing up in Philly.

These two sides of Matthews — the reserved journalist and the jovial political junkie — might seem to be complete contradictions. But taken together, they have helped solidify Matthews as one of the nation’s enduring cable anchors.

Programs such as tonight’s, during which Matthews brought together many of the senators who forged the compromise that stopped the “nuclear option,” are the host’s favorites. Matthews later explains, “I really enjoyed it, and I wish I could do more of it.”

Perhaps Matthews’s long political history is at the root of his fascination with hardball politics. After graduating from Holy Cross College in 1967, Matthews served in the Peace Corps before joining the staff of Sen. Frank Moss (D-Utah). He made a brief bid for elective office, unsuccessfully running for Congress in 1974, then returned to an advisory role, first for Sen. Ed Muskie (D-Maine) and then for President Jimmy Carter.

In 1981, House Speaker Thomas “Tip” O’Neill (D-Mass.) tapped Matthews to serve as his administrative assistant. Here, Matthews honed the skills of political suasion. Knowing the tricks of the trade has helped him cut through the machinations and obfuscations of many politicians in his role as a journalist. It also can make guests uncomfortable. He occasionally annihilates a guest for saying something that sounds too coy or too smooth. Matthews can come off as obnoxious, but it’s all part of his TV personality.

Matthews entered the media realm in earnest in 1987 as Washington bureau chief for the San Francisco Examiner, a position he held for 13 years. He later spent two years as a national columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle. As he recalls, “it took a long time to make this transition. It wasn’t even a transition. It was 15 years of political work and then 15 years of print.”

As if print journalism were not enough to sate Matthews’s political appetite, the adviser-turned-reporter began appearing as a pundit on various national television programs. Beginning in 1988, Matthews was invited onto “The McLaughlin Group” about 10 times a year, a fitting entr饠into TV since it’s a show that involves yelling and interrupting. Later, he served as a political analyst for each of the major broadcast networks.

After frequent on-air appearances as a guest and an author, he penned four best-selling books, and in 1997 CNBC gave Matthews a chance to anchor his own show. “Hardball” was later shown on MSNBC beginning in November 1999 and has been a staple of the network’s lineup ever since.

Matthews’s wife, Kathleen, is an anchor on Washington’s ABC affiliate. The couple has three children.

Matthews is known for taking complex political issues and making them accessible to watchers while doing the issue justice. Finding the balance is difficult. “You don’t want to get too inside,” he remarks, “but you want to share something of the real life in Washington that reaches a broad audience.”

His combative interview techniques have helped him bring in a broad audience as well. In one of the most often replayed moments of the 2004 election, Matthews drew the ire of Sen. Zell Miller (D-Georgia), who challenged the host on air to a duel. As Matthews puts it, “It was a moment. There’s no doubt it was a moment.”

Verbal spats are nothing new for Matthews. As a child in Philadelphia, he recalls, arguments turned physical. “I remember beating a kid who was two grades ahead of me when I was in third grade. And I got him around the neck. He was so scared I was going to rip his head off.”

But Matthews can just as easily drop the truculent tone during the commercial breaks. Off-camera, Matthews reveals to Sen. John Warner (R-Va.) that the studio they are in was the site of the second Nixon-Kennedy debate. Chuckling, he notes that Robert Kennedy came in “to get the heat up, because it was too cold in here and Nixon wasn’t going to sweat.”

And it pleases Matthews to no end to hear the old-time political stories. After the show, he describes his exchange with the senior Republican: “Senator Warner has such a good history. … It’s great stuff. I love the stuff.”

When the cameras go back on, the mood takes a turn. Matthews finds the balance between charm and his journalistic tone and says his famous line: “Let’s play hardball.”