Chris Matthews, the host of MSNBC’s political analysis show “Hardball” and author of several highly acclaimed history and politics books, spoke at Scripps College on Saturday.
Matthews’ recently released book, “Bobby Kennedy: A Raging Spirit,” takes a deep dive into the life of the late, influential New York senator, and currently sits at No. 2 on The New York Times’ bestseller list. Matthews wrote about Kennedy’s upbringing, his family, and his political career.
“His dedication, not only to covering the day-to-day of Washington, but to researching and publishing on politicians like Bobby Kennedy, JFK, and former House Speaker Tip O’Neill is the kind of perspective that we feel both the Consortium and greater Los Angeles community benefit from,” Corrina Lesser, Scripps’ director of public events, wrote in an email to TSL. “By having him in conversation … we were sure we’d get him to reflect on wide-ranging issues.”
Matthews was interviewed by Christina Bellantoni, assistant managing editor for politics at The Los Angeles Times.
“I’ve always been a Bobby girl,” Bellantoni wrote in an email to TSL to explain her participation. “When they asked me, it was an easy choice — I wanted to read the book and learn Chris’ views on one of most important figures of our days.”
Bellantoni said the book is significant because of its detailed portrayal of history.
“It’s really easy to shorthand history: JFK was president, his brother was his attorney general, five years after JFK was killed, Bobby was assassinated too,” she wrote. But “there is so much more to it than that, and “A Raging Spirit” both contextualizes and texturizes the history by being a book about relationships.”
Matthews also spent some time during the presentation critiquing President Donald Trump. He drew comparisons between the two politicians: “[Bobby] is what we don’t have. He is the ‘un-Trump.’”
He said Kennedy could have been a sort of antidote to the Trump administration were he alive today.
“There is no moral compass in the White House right now,” he said.
Matthews said Kennedy was good at uniting people and appealing to different identity groups, adding that unity, empathy, and a good moral compass are needed in American politics right now. He recalled a moment from his book when Martin Luther King, Jr. had just been killed, but – in a time before Twitter – the story had yet to spread. Kennedy learned of it moments before was scheduled to speak to a predominantly black audience, and was forced to be the bringer of the news.
“He had to stand on the back of a truck and tell African Americans in a tough neighborhood that the greatest man you’ve ever heard of besides Jesus has just been shot by a white guy,” Matthews said.
Matthews said the scene was a representation of Kennedy’s efforts to connect with people across racial lines, even if he did it awkwardly.
“It’s about moral authority,” Matthews said. “We need that ability to connect with people across racial lines.”
Matthews didn’t spare the Democrats either. In the questions and answer segment after the interview, he said the party lacks a positive vision to grab the attention of the country. He noted the lack of initiatives like the Federal Highway Act of 1956 during Eisenhower’s presidency; and said Trump took advantage of that void.
“There’s no vision, and I listen to these leaders with their with their staff-written cold-toast statements, there’s no imagination, there’s no leadership. If the Democrats lose to Trump again they deserve to,” Mathews said.
After the event Bellantoni, reflected that “it was a wonderful conversation about an excellent book. The audience seemed captivated by Chris and hopefully left wanting to know more about Bobby and wanting to read the book,” she said.
Not all responses, however, were positive. Julia Gill SC ’20, who attended the event, saw Matthews as a figure from a different era.
“He’s an old school Democrat in a lot of ways,” Gill said. “His work on Capitol Hill decades ago seems to have informed his current political views.”
Gill was critical of what she saw as a positive portrayal of the Kennedy family in his book.
“It seemed to me that his personal admiration and social ties to the Kennedy family influenced his authorial voice,” she said.
But Ethan Ashby PO ’21, whose family actively keeps up with MSNBC, loved the event and Matthews’ commentary.
Ashby “was looking foward to hearing ‘no-holds-barred’ Matthews without the façade of impartiality that his job as a news anchor requires,” and wasn’t disappointed. Ashby found Matthews “witty, outspoken, and feisty when his beliefs are challenged,” but more moderate than he anticipated.
Ashby agreed strongly with Matthews’ exhortation for empathy in politics.
“The Democrats desperately need new, young blood to inspire voters,” Ashby wrote in a message to TSL, agreeing with Matthews’ message.
Gill, though, took exception with Matthews’ response to an audience member’s comment that Trump’s win emerged out of a battle for whiteness. Matthews said he believed “below twenty percent” of the country is racist.
“I think assigning numbers to racism discredits the reality of it in America,” Gill said.
Ashby thought Matthews’ response to the question showcased a different aspect of his character.
“Matthews’ reaction is ultimately a result of who he is: unapologetic, fiercely opinionated, and unwavering in his belief in America’s moral goodness,” he wrote.