Given the last few days he has had with his medals (or is it ribbons?) controversy, John Kerry needed a break. He got one last night on Chris Matthews' program, Hardball. Doing everything he could to not live up to the program's famous name, Matthews lobbed one meaty pitch after another at the presumptive Democratic nominee. If I didn't know any better, I'd swear that Matthews, for some reason, has an affinity for Massachusetts politicians.
A portent of what was to come occurred in the lead-in. A taped congratulatory note from Senator John McCain on Hardball's 7th Anniversary prompted Matthews to begin the interview with Kerry by saying, "And now we have Senator John McCain's good friend Senator John Kerry, the presumptive Democratic nominee for President." He then followed up with the question, "As a man who was in war, and you were in a war, in Vietnam…what do you think you know that the average guy who has been in a war knows?" Mentioning McCain as a friend and that Kerry was a Vietnam vet in the same ten seconds! If FEC regulations were rigorously enforced, MSNBC would have to bill the Kerry Campaign for advertising.
The interview was all the more ironic in that the ad promoting this as the 7th Anniversary week of Hardball (who celebrates 7th anniversaries anyway?) displayed numerous politicians stammering under Matthews's withering questions. Yet the toughest question Matthews asked last night was about the ABC News clip in which Kerry stated he had thrown away his medals. Kerry dispatched it easily, insisting that his he and his cohorts in the military used the terms "ribbons and medals" interchangeably. If Matthews had really wanted to throw a curve he would have asked Kerry whether he really so immersed in the military culture that he didn't realize that most people consider a medal to actually include the metal part attached to the ribbon. Or he could have asked him if he had a responsibility to tell reporters in 1971 exactly what he meant by "medal."
BUT MATTHEWS JUST didn't have those pitches in his repertoire. More typical were the following questions that were the utmost in fairness and impartiality: "Do you think this is a stupid argument that has been going on the other side attacking you [about the ribbons]?" and "Do you think the people around the President have hoisted themselves on their own petard by bring up this issue of your service?" What did Matthews expect Kerry to say, that it was a great argument that would lead to the President getting reelected?
Matthews also posed questions that, one might perhaps suggest, put Kerry in a favorable light: "Why do you think the Vice President who has three deferments, why do you think he is putting his three deferments up against your three purple hearts?" and "Is it relevant that you served in combat and faced enemy fire and the President of the United States did not?"
After the break, Matthews laid out this softball: "The President of the United States was asked by the press the other day if he ever made any mistakes as President, and he said that he hadn't. What do think of that answer?" Kerry, of course, parked it. "I think we've all made mistakes…and I think the President made some colossal mistakes not the least of which is taking our nation to war in a way that was rushed, that pushed our allies away from us, that is costing the American people billions of dollars more than it ought to, that is putting our young soldiers at greater risk than they ought to be, without a plan to win the peace, and broke his promise to go to war as a last resort."
What was most grinding about Matthews' question is that he got it wrong. The President never said that he hadn't made a mistake. In fact, he stated that "I don't want to sound like I've made no mistakes. I'm confident I have. I just haven't -- you just put me under the spot here, and maybe I'm not as quick on my feet as I should be in coming up with one."
THE FINAL PORTION WAS a love-fest on Democratic economics. Kerry was given ample time to give his campaign spiel on how he will provide 10 million new jobs in four years, how he will give 97% of Americans health care, how he will make trade deals "fair," etc. Matthews was all too eager to help Kerry out by relating his recent experience with outsourcing when he called to get his XM radio fixed and was connected to someone in India.
Matthews ended the interview with this gem: "Do you think this Administration and its political handlers like Karl Rove are capable of recognizing they can't beat you on the jobs issue, they can't beat you on foreign policy, so they're gonna drop this nonsensical stuff? Don Evans, the Secretary of Commerce and the President's good friend, said you look French the other day. Are they gonna go after Teresa because she was born in Mozambique? Are they gonna try to build the idea that you're like Mike Dukakis or you're like Al Gore, a little different than most people? You know what they did the last couple of times. Are they gonna try to do that?" I was waiting for him to suggest that conservatives would starve children to boost the profits of Halliburton.
Thanks to Matthew's coddling, last night John Kerry got the good press performance he so desperately needed. And Kerry knew it. The usually dour Senator smiled more frequently the longer the interview went on. By the end, he was beaming as if to say, "What a sweet man this Matthews is."
Indeed, watching Hardball last night inspired me to ask my own question. Who would have thought that Charles Gibson of Good Morning America would be a tougher interviewer than Chris Matthews?
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