why I will never read Chris Mathews’ new book Jack Kennedy: “Elusive Hero”

by nikki meredith

Chris Mathews on The Daily Show

I’m tempted to say I won’t read Chris Mathews’ new book, Jack Kennedy: The Elusive Hero because Mathews fawns and fawning is not a quality I desire in a biographer. If you don’t watch his show Hardball on MSNBC regularly, it might surprise you to learn that the in-your-face, swashbuckling, braggart is a world class fawner. Since Kennedy is a hero of his, I can’t help believing the book is chalk full of fawning.

I’m also tempted to say that I won’t read it because I question whether the book is totally truthful. One example: Mathews is taking credit for a scoop that isn’t a scoop. On Jay Leno the other night he said he had discovered that the origin of the famous quote: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country” was not JFK himself nor Teddy White, Kennedy’s speechwriter who everyone had heretofore believed wrote it. The originator of the quote was the headmaster at Choate, the boarding school Kennedy attended.  (He had implored young Jack and his cohorts to: “Ask not what Choate can do for you, ask what you can do for Choate.”)

But it wasn’t a scoop. When I heard Mathews talk about it on Leno, I had just finished listening to the recently published Jacqueline Kennedy: Historic Conversations on Life with John F. Kennedy and in those interviews Jackie told Arthur Schlesinger Jr. that the headmaster was the source of that quote.  Hold on, you might say in Mathews’ defense, those interviews were under lock for 50 years and not available to the public until a couple of months ago. But two books have been published – one in 2004 and one in 2005 – that identified Choate’s headmaster, Seymour St. John, as the originator of that section of the speech.  (Ask Not: The Inauguration of John F. Kennedy and The Speech That Changed America by historian Thurston Clarke and Sounding the Trumpet: The Making of John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address, by Richard J. Tofel, respetively.)

But it’s not the fawning nor the falsely claimed scoop that’s keeping me away. Rather, Chris Mathews’ egomania and shameless self-promotion has reached a tipping point, my tipping point, of unseemliness. Since the book was published 13 days ago Mathews has taken up blocks of time on his show Hardball to pitch and tease, tease and pitch, pitch and tease, the damn book. Does Obama want to be reelected? If so, he better stay tuned for lessons he can learn from Jack Kennedy, the elusive hero, the one I just wrote the book, Jack Kennedy: The Elusive Hero about. Do you want Obama reelected? You’ll want to stay tuned to hear about lessons learned from Jack Kennedy, the elusive hero, the very same Jack Kennedy I just wrote a book about. If you care about your country, you should stay tuned for lessons Obama can learn from Jack Kennedy, the elusive hero.  What can we learn about Jack Kennedy that applies to the 2012 presidential race?  Read, Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero and find out.   Stay tuned, David Gregory will be on the show to discuss with me lessons learned from Jack Kennedy, the elusive hero. Did I mention that I just published, Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero — a book I’m extremely proud of?

He milked the what Obama can learn from my book question dry in the first few days so he’s now turned to other issues. “Viagra not working? Read my book. It will potentiate the effects. You might not even need Viagra after reading what a stud the not- so-elusive-in-the-bedroom Kennedy was.” Okay, I made that up, but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that our Chris figures out a way to introduce a connection, no matter how tenuous, to his book, Jack Kennedy: The Elusive Hero, into every conversation he has these days.

When he’s not discussing the book’s content, he’s bragging about its sales.  “It’s on many best seller lists but it’s number three and climbing on The New York Times list!!!”

When he’s not promoting the book on Hardball, he’s hawking it on the standard late night shows – Jay Leno, Bill Maher, Charlie Rose — but I don’t object to those appearances. That’s what you do to sell books and it seems entirely different to me than tooting…no wait, not tooting, blasting your own horn on your own show. Do you remember the scene in Jerry Maguire where he makes his grand exit after just being fired? He says to the roomful of cubicles and people standing on the sidelines,  “there’s such a thing as manners.”

Yep, basic manners. That’s all I want. But that may be asking too much of a man who, when he has guests on his show, presumably to have a back-and-forth discussion known as dialogue, asks a question such as, “Why don’t right wingers love Mitt Romney?” Then turns to his guest, “Your thoughts?” In the seconds that follow, guest takes a breath, “ Well….” Which is our host’s cue to cram the airwaves with his own blatherings. (I’ve always wanted to use the word bloviate and here’s my chance. Mathews is a bloviator of the first water.) The guest has a choice, try to get a word in — uh, uh, uh, uh – and risk sounding like a car starter on an icy morning with a dead battery or he can forge ahead, steamrolling over Mathews or, even better, confronting him. “If you want my thoughts, shut up a God Damn minute.” But the guests never do because they want to be on his show and though I don’t know the man, I suspect that he’s a brittle son-of-a-bitch. (When I first saw his show I felt as though I were watching the political version of Edward Albee’s “Get the Guest” from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf…though there’s no sex involved…that I know of.)

I once found his boyish exuberance a bit endearing and a bit pathetic. Endearing because it’s as if he looks around when he’s on one of those network shows and says, “Holy shit, this is little Chrissy Mathews on the Jay Leno show. WOW.”  Pathetic because much of the time he seems like an oaf who doesn’t know any better. But, he’s almost 66 now, so whatever manners his parents neglected to teach him, I have to believe others — his wife, his producers, his kids, his barber — have tried to fill in the gaps. Being a rude and blatant self-promoter is not attractive.

I forgot to discuss the fawning. You’d think it would be a contradiction in a guy who barely lets other people speak so sometimes I think it’s his clumsy way of compensating. After he cuts them off, the guest is:  a genius, the smartest guy the room, the smartest guy in politics, the smartest guy in the world…(I haven’t counted but I think men get more of these superlatives that women.)

If he had a touch of irony or a smidgen of an observing ego, it would be easier for me to stomach this stuff. He has neither.

A few years ago I was talking to a friend at a cocktail party, let’s call him Bob. He’s a good-looking, cheerful, self-centered architect. He told me a long story about a client, a client who told him he was the greatest architect in the country if not the world. At some point, thinking we were on the topic of architecture, I started telling him about a local architect I’d written a profile about. Bob listened to me for about 30 seconds and then said, smiling. “You know, I hate to interrupt, but I’d really rather talk about me.”

I later related this to his wife and she said, “You know, he wasn’t kidding.” I knew he wasn’t kidding but he was funny and that made all the difference. If Mathews made a joke about his self-promotion every once in a while it would make all the difference. But his hardball is a blunt instrument.

This was never more apparent than when he appeared on Jon Stewart in 2007 hawking his last book, Life’s a Campaign: What Politics Has Taught Me About Friendship, Rivalry, Reputation, and Success. That book was about how normal people can succeed – win the girl, get the job, make a lot of money — if they apply in their everyday life, the methods politicians use when they campaign. Stewart said he thought the book was not a self-help book but a self-hurt book and it made him sad — sad because if you lived your life that way, your relationships would be strategic and your life would lack a core of soul. Mathews was aghast: “I can’t believe you’re trashing my book.”

“I’m not trashing your book,” Stewart said,  “I’m trashing your philosophy of life.” Mathews was completely flummoxed.  “This is the worst interview of my life.” He was clearly uncomfortable and kept erupting in his famous maniacal laugh. He practically begged Stewart to come on Hardball so he could even the score.

But humorist Stewart missed the comical aspect of the book. The number one method on the list politicians use that we should all emulate if we want to be successful: listen to people. Now that deserves a Chris Mathews’ hoot.