Chris Matthews’s Philly Pride Will Send a Thrill Up Your Leg

That's a good thing

Lots of people blame TV punditry for the fix we’re in, and it’s hard to argue they’re wrong. Analysis today is instant: the stronger the opinion the higher the ratings. All instant punditry does is fracture dialogue even further.

Best to shut it off, and read instead. You get much smarter and thoughtful political insights reading the Times, the New Yorker and Matt Taibbi in Rolling Stone, just to name a laudable threesome. Read, and you don’t have to put up with all the shouting and general racket that’s become the trademark of the 24/7 news stations.

I get that, and more or less live by it. With one exception—Chris Matthews.

No one’s going to accuse Matthews, the weeknight host of Hardball on MSNBC and the author of a new book on JFK, of being erudite (he once said of an Obama speech that it sent a “thrill up his leg”). And when it comes to making a racket, his show can send the shout-o-meter into the red zone.

Still, you can’t help but admire his chutzpah.

It helps, of course, if you agree with his political views—which, of late, can be summarized thusly: the Republican field is made up of a bunch of bozos who could care less about the average worker and President Obama ought to take a page out of the Bobby Kennedy playbook and start knocking heads.

Sounds pretty spot on. But simply agreeing with Matthews much of the time wouldn’t be enough to get me snapping on the TV at 7 to watch; it’s his proud strutting of his Philly roots that seal the deal.

Matthews, doughy and Irish as a genuflect, grew up in Philly and went to LaSalle High School. He’s a cross between Bob Brady and Ed Rendell. Like Brady, he’s a promoter by instinct of the rowhouse working class; and, like Rendell, he’s both hot-tempered and a loyalist to those he considers friends. It’s probably no coincidence that he frequently name-drops both guys.

For Philadelphians, part of the fun of Hardball is catching the Philly asides: his numerous mentions of the Phillies and the Eagles and Tastykake and Frank Rizzo. It can send a thrill up your leg listening to Matthews recount, as he often does, the glory days of North Philadelphia, back when manufacturing put jingle in the pockets of those who lived in the nearby neighborhoods. Why, he often pleads, can’t we make anything anymore?

But what keeps me coming back to Matthews and Hardball is his brand of Philadelphia Irish-Catholicism. Part of it feels familiarly genetic: the tough and acerbic sides of his personality, his love of debate and the frequent explosions of laughter. But here’s the most winning part: he has none of the hand-me-down white flight resentments that seep out of many Philadelphians of his generation. Not even a flicker. He got beyond it.

Lately, if you’ve been watching, Matthews has been all over Mitt Romney. He seems to sense that Romney may be the Republican nominee. Are you kidding me? How can this be? The guy’s flipping and flopping his way to the top. You can’t see that? What’s the matter with you?

Spoken like a real Philadelphian.