Chris Matthews on…Chris Matthews (and JFK)

By Christopher Matthews

Sharing a name with a media celebrity can, well, suck.

The Other Chris Matthews

And ever since Chris Matthews, the political pundit, author,  journalist and one-time staffer for Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill,  hit the air waves with his political talk show,”Hardball”, in 1997, I’ve had to put up with the references. Repeatedly. And especially, as I’ve been involved with media myself. “You look very different off camera” (yuck, yuck, yuck), or “What happened to your accent?”, are but a few of the quips I’ve heard.

Over the holidays, my serial gift-giving sister-in-law got in on the act, at least indirectly, when she sent me the latest book by, you guessed it — Chris Matthews. And while I’m sure the name gag wasn’t lost on her, his new book, Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero, is certainly no joke. In fact, it’s a highly readable, illuminating biography (in a crowded field) that really delves into the question that Jack Kennedy, biography and history buff himself, liked to ask: “What was he like?”   

Before turning to the book, though, back briefly to the Chris Matthews thing.

I’ve addressed this publicly (and humorously) in The New York Times. Responding to an Op-Ed by journalist and professor Russ Baker, who lamented that his by-line had been forever taken by the NYT’s famous former columnist, Russell Baker, I wrote in a Letter to the Editor:

Hats off to Russ Baker for articulating the frustration of sharing a famous name (”I’m the Other Guy,” Op-Ed, May 6), especially when it applies to people in similar fields. As a former journalist who works in media and communications, I have experienced a fate not unlike Mr. Baker’s: I am the ”other” Chris Matthews.

Imagine the relish of the CNBC producer I called on recently as he said, ”Love your show.” Or the standard phone line, ”Oh yeah, the guy from ‘Hardball’!” (even though I have no trace of that signature accent).

Still, there is an upside: being favorably confused for the more famous one can lead to, say, an answered phone call, or that elusive dinner reservation.

A nice New York Times moment, for sure, courtesy my namesake. But now, back to the book.

"Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero"

A Catholic kid from a Republican family in Philly, Matthews was a politically precocious youth (and history/biography nut…a shared trait between us!), for whom JFK, despite his political party, was a magnetic figure and hero. Clearly he remains a fan: he has previously penned a book about Kennedy and Nixon, and he takes a “my friend Jack” approach towards explaining one of our most enigmatic figures in his new work.

And he digs deep into Kennedy’s life for answers, through exhaustive research and interviews with the remainder of the Kennedy circle — an impressive feat from someone outside the clique. He explores JFK’s sickly, but rebellious, formative years as the “second son” at Choate prep school (where his easy charm and charisma won him loyal, life-long cronies); his early (and lasting) political independence from his isolationist father Joe, pre-WWII; his harrowing experiences in the Pacific with PT 109 (when he came to hate war); the “hard ball” politics he learned and pursued to achieve the House and Senate seats in Massachusetts, then to win the Democratic nomination and Presidency in 1960; and finally, the detachment and wisdom to avoid nuclear confrontation with the Soviet Union, going against the grain of the “experts” during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the crowning glory of his too-brief career in Matthews’ eyes.

Despite his affection towards the subject, he doesn’t sugar coat the darker edges of Kennedy’s personality, acknowledging the “girling” and infidelities, his multiple illnesses and debilitating physical problems (which no candidate today could dodge, or overcome), as well as his preoccupation with death. But he doesn’t dwell on them either. For Matthews, Kennedy’s precarious health — he had last rites given to him four times during his life — led him to speed up his political timetable, to take greater risks and to “live every day like it was his last”, without complaints.

One person who doesn’t get too much ink in the book is Jacqueline Kennedy, but that’s in step with the compartmentalized reality of JFK that Matthews presents: she, and later the kids, only got so much alone time with him, and were glamorous images that benefitted him while distracting others (and the media) from his much more complex reality.

Matthews sums up well what he has achieved with the book: “What I discovered…was an inner-directed self creation, an adult stirred and confected in the dreams and loneliness of his youth. I found a serious man who was teaching himself the hard discipline of politics up until the last moment of his life…In searching for Jack Kennedy, I found a fighting prince never free from pain, never accepting the world he found, never wanting to be his father’s son. He was a far greater hero than he ever wished us to know.”

Given the current political scene, which is decidedly bereft of heroes, Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero reminds us that great leaders are made, not born, and can actually make a difference. It is a welcome addition to the crowded JFK canon, and an engaging, worthy read.

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