- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 15, 2002

In the 20th century, America had Eric Hoffer, the longshoreman philosopher who, in his many books, enjoyed tweaking the establishment and the elite intelligentsia. Americans loved it.

Now comes Chris Matthews, America's 21st-century pundit-philosopher. Like Mr. Hoffer, Mr. Matthews doesn't suffer fools gladly, he joyously bashes the self-important, the self-absorbed and the self-aggrandizing (Sen. Clinton, please take note).

Having endeared himself to cable audiences and Washington opinion leaders alike, not to mention achieving immortality by being parodied on "Saturday Night Live," as a columnist and host of "Hardball," Mr. Matthews is out with his third book, "Now, Let Me Tell You What I Really Think," published by Free Press (2001).

Having read Mr. Matthews' previous books, "Hardball" (naturally) and "Kennedy and Nixon," this newest effort is not the series of political war stories of the former, nor a serious historical effort like the latter. This book is precisely what its title says.

So if excessive use of personal pronouns is a pet peeve, you may not be interested. On the other hand, even the better rhetoricians and writers too often start a sentence with the phrase, "I think." But this is what Washington punditry is all about, isn't it? ("I think, therefore …I'm a Washington talking head?") As with his television program, Mr. Matthews enlightens us with his views on a number of topics from the current president's popularity to gay rights and the gender gap. He even explains to all annoyed viewers why he constantly interrupts his guests on his show.

But clearly the issue most dear to his heart is what he thinks about America. Mr. Matthews prefaces the book with a section he named in honor of President Harry Truman called "This Country," which he wrote in the days immediately following the terrorist attacks. His sense of patriotism reflects a country that he says has "risen to the challenge" every time it has been attacked. "In the days following September 11, 2001, the optimism of 200 years began shining through the wreckage," Mr. Matthews writes.

Even though he's spent most of his life inside the Beltway (hobnobbing with the liberal intelligentsia), Mr. Matthews reveals that in his heart, he is just a middle class, blue-collar guy who loves his country as much as the firefighter knocking back a few beers with his buddies.

These views were shaped by his childhood in Philadelphia as the son of a Republican father and devoutly religious mother and by the events in his life. The book details his feelings over the death of President John F. Kennedy, his tour with the Peace Corps, his work with Speaker Tip O'Neill and his admiration for Winston Churchill and President Ronald Reagan.

Not surprisingly, Mr. Matthews' political bent sometimes shows through, as he goes easy on most Democrats including Bill Clinton, whom he barbecued during the year-long Monica Lewinsky scandal and impeachment.

He also mistakenly claims in the chapter "Common Ground" that American conservatives were AWOL in the debate over the Vietnam War. Actually, both Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan led the charge in fighting communism from the initial stages of the war. Bill Buckley and virtually every conservative leader in the country were also vocal in their support for the war.

Mr. Matthews is a little shaky on his history of the Cold War as well, when he claims that "Ronald Reagan did not 'win' the Cold War but he belongs in the roster of those who did." Granted, Harry Truman launched our country in the policies that led to our eventual victory, but does Mr. Matthews really believe Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford and Richard Nixon had as much to do with defeating the Soviet Union as Mr. Reagan? If memory serves, those presidents did much more to sustain the "Evil Empire" than bring it to its knees.

For people who take their politics straight, the book is an enjoyable read especially when Mr. Matthews gives his 2000 election analysis and predicts the future for Al Gore. He shares his regret that Bill Clinton, "blessed as he is with extraordinary political skills, did not use those same political skills to become not just president, but a great president. Instead, he contented himself with a reign as the country's prom king" (or did he mean "porn king?").

There are but a few people in the Washington chattering classes who are truly interesting, informative or just fun to watch or read. Brit Hume of Fox News can always be counted on for the pithy comment. So too can George Will, mainly because you can see his intellectual contempt smothering just beneath the surface of some backpedaling, backflipping guest on ABC's "This Week."

Likewise, Chris Matthews is both entertaining and interesting, and, as always, eager to tell America "what he really thinks."

Craig Shirley is the president of and Diana Banister is the vice-president of Craig Shirley and Associates, a Washington-based public affairs firm.

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