With the recent furor between Media Matters and Chris Matthews over his on-going attacks against Hillary Clinton and other powerful women, I remembered a tape recorded conversation I had with Matthews about Hillary some years ago. (The conversation was “on the record” and recorded with his permission.)
I spoke to Matthews just after Newt Gingrich & Company ousted the Democratic leadership in the 1994 midterm elections. The conventional wisdom was that Hillary was to blame, primary due to the health care mess. In fact, Matthews and most TV pundits did blame her.
When I called Matthews, I could tell he had a lot on his mind but was fearful of saying too much, too passionately. I prodded. I was patient. Like a good Catholic penitent with a fiendish mortal sin to confess, eventually Matthews let go.
Here’s how I reported our conversation in the Hillary Clinton Quarterly:
If Mort Zuckerman was wetting his pants with joy over Hillary’s comeuppance, Chris Matthews, a new-Democrat type who writes for the San Francisco Examiner and appears regularly on Good Morning America, was doubled over in pain. It’s true: Matthews often looks like he’s about to pass a kidney stone, but the day after the election his anguish was unusually intense.
Matthews regularly faces off against former Secretary of Education Bill Bennett on Good Morning America. On this particular good morning, we thought we heard Matthews proclaiming Hillary the Guilty One during his post-election tete-a-tete with Bennett, so we got Matthews on the phone.
“Are you blaming Hillary?” we wondered, eager not to misquote him.
There was silence on the other end. Then he sighed. “I’m not saying it. I’m trying to be careful. I’m not giving you new material to exploit. The Clintons hate me enough as it is. You gotta give me a break here. I erupt some times and I say certain things. If you catch me, you catch me. But I’m not saying it.”
“We’re not trying to ‘catch’ you, Mr. Matthews. We’re just trying to check out the story. Were you saying that Hillary Clinton was at fault for getting Bill Clinton to drift away from his more centrist positions?”
“That’s not what I said.”
“Fine. OK. You didn’t say it. But what is your opinion? Did she play a role?”
Long pause. Then Matthews erupted, angrily squeezing out every word.
“Bill Clinton is a grown up. He’s the President, and if he wants a left-wing, socialized-sounding health care plan, he did that. If he wants to let his wife do that, he did that. It’s still him. How are we to interpret this? Is Bill Clinton just a caboose on her train? The whole health care thing was too far to the left. In substance and in selling. Both. The old Eleanor Roosevelt approach, the paternalistic ‘we know better, we’re gonna do this for the little people’ stuff is gone. It’s gone!”
Matthews took a breath.
“I am absolutely convinced that the reason the Administration lost every close race, the reason the Democrats were lambasted, the reason every Republican was reelected is because if the election had been held last year, this would not have happened. I know that, you know that. The economy’s gotten better this year, so what’s changed? The year-long push for a socialistic health care program, which was the showcase of this Administration, which gave it its definition as a left-wing Administration.”
While Matthews didn’t have the stomach to say it outright, he clearly believes that Hillary Clinton — directly or indirectly — was responsible for the gang bang of the Democratic Party. The equation, if we follow his logic, is this: Hillary = Health Care Reform = Left Wing Big Government = Crushing Defeat for the Democrats.*
* Frank Rich, writing an editorial in the New York Times entitled “Jo Rodham March,” used the last sentence of our story to explain how Democrats felt about Hillary.