The Lip-Music Artist

The bio note that accompanies Christopher Matthews' twice-weekly op-ed column in the San Francisco Examiner bills him as the newspaper's "Washington bureau chief." This is somewhat of a misnomer, since it creates the illusion that Matthews heads up a swarm of journalists busting the pavement to unearth federal government news.

In fact, Matthews is the only Examiner reporter in D.C., "chief" to nobody. And calling Matthews a reporter is a tad generous, because unlike the many talented and industrious Examiner scriveners here, he doesn't report. He ponders. He parties with notables. He reads the same papers as you and I, and then he writes off the top of his head, pontificating for 650 vapid words at a time. Phoning a source in pursuit of a hot story or plowing through a stack of documents to find the truth is beneath Matthews, and it has been since he joined the paper in 1987.

How exactly, then, did Matthews rise from a political back-shop operator (he worked for President Jimmy Carter as a speechwriter and Speaker Tip O'Neill as a spokesman) to become the Examiner's Man in Washington -- and a huffer 'n' puffer on both TV talk shows and the lecture circuit -- without going through the intermediary step of becoming a journalist?

According to Los Angeles Times reporter Thomas B. Rosenstiel, Matthews did it by design, hatching his scheme as he completed his well-regarded book on politics, Hardball (1988). Matthews was vocal about wanting to transfer his minor talent for concocting soundbites, which he had perfected while working for O'Neill, into a paid presence in the media arena. But having no journalistic credentials to speak of, he needed a publication to conjure some up for him, and Examiner Executive Editor Larry Kramer obliged him.

"He needed to be a journalist," Kramer told Rosenstiel, "to have the kind of respectability to be on TV. That's what we brought to the table."

The Ex gave Matthews a column with his face on it. In return, he gave the Monarch of the Dailies visibility from "any one of the 50 shows he is on morning, noon, and night with our name under his picture," as Kramer put it. In other words, the Examiner didn't hire Matthews to break stories or lead coverage -- a bargain that he has faithfully kept -- but to appear on TV under the San Francisco Examiner credit banner.

The Kramer/Matthews plan worked. Over the years, Matthews has flown the Ex flag on The McLaughlin Group, Fox's Front Page, Face the Nation, and during regular gigs on Good Morning America and The CBS Morning News. Matthews' lust for his own lip-music venue was finally satisfied last year when he won a nightly slot on the America's Talking cable network. Tune in to Viacom Channel 19 at 6 p.m. if you're in the mood for banality.

Or read him in the Ex. When the points of Matthews' columns aren't painfully obvious -- he attends the Million Man March, praising the marchers but damning Farrakhan; he remains suspicious of O.J. after the verdict; he thinks recognizing Hanoi was the right thing to do -- they're ridiculously safe. How many people outside the tobacco industry think cigarette advertising is wonderful? Who cares about the meaning of Clinton's image switch from jogger to golfer? A 30-minute audience with Colin Powell might be worth one thumb-sucking column, but two?

To call his prose style wooden is to defame trees. Just taste this Oct. 29 lede: "Halloween brings out the spookiness in politics. Imagine the horror of a Republican Party galloping headlessly from here to next November."

But instead of regarding Matthews' columns as pro-Democratic Party hackwork stitched together in a free-associative frenzy, maybe we should be grateful that his columns are as good as they are. The Ex job is only one of his many outlets, leaving him spread thin. He told the Washington Post last year that the Ex pays him $71,000 a year for his jottings, and that he collects another $13,000 to $15,000 in syndication fees for the 50 or so papers that run his column. His big money comes from the $5,000-a-pop he gets for the 40 or so speeches he makes annually. And he receives $900 for each appearance on Good Morning America ("I was on 29 times last year," he told the Post).

You won't hurt Matthews' feelings by criticizing his work -- he's ready to beat you to the punch. In Hardball, he authors a whole chapter on the importance of dissing yourself, titled "Hang a Lantern on Your Problem." Describing his talk show methodology for the Washington Post, Matthews could as easily be discussing the careless way he writes his columns: "I don't spend any time thinking about it before I get here. ... If anything comes into my head, I basically can go with it. It's first draft. You've gotta work the chalk line, which means you occasionally go over the chalk line."

Matthews' temerity -- and his financial success -- have earned him the animus of many in the Washington press corps. But their fears that he might outshine them on the order of those other non-journalist journalists, hypersyndicated George F. Will and the New York Times' William Safire (who really knows how to work a phone), are unfounded: His column is so lowly regarded in Washington that it runs not in the liberal Post but on the op-ed page of convicted felon Rev. Sun Myung Moon's conservative daily, the Washington Times. The Times' purpose is two-fold: to indicate that it is open to all ideas and to demonstrate via Matthews that all liberal Democrats are dolts.

Although Matthews is an embarrassment to the profession, there is hope for him yet. When he learned through the grapevine that I was preparing this appreciation for my column, he did something he almost never does for his own. He picked up the phone to make an inquiring call. Unfortunately, the call was to me.

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