To his boss, Chris Matthews has become a statesman. His critics probably have other words.
The MSNBC host raised his profile as much as any member of the television commentariat during the presidential campaign. His 5 p.m. "Hardball" show has seen viewership jump by 24 percent this year from 2011, 17 percent for the rerun two hours later.
Matthews symbolized MSNBC's growing comfort in being a liberal alternative to Fox News Channel. He engaged in an uncomfortable on-air confrontation with Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus, seemed nearly apoplectic when President Barack Obama flubbed his first debate and had to apologize for appearing grateful that superstorm Sandy might have helped Obama's re-election effort.
With Keith Olbermann out of sight, Matthews essentially replaced him as the commentator that most annoyed conservative viewers. "During the run-up to the Iraq War, he just became really, really partisan and became even more so when MSNBC decided to become the anti-Fox," said Geoff Dickens, who used to watch Matthews as a fan and monitors him as part of his job with the conservative Media Research Center.
Matthews is not afraid to say what he thinks. He's a former newspaper columnist and onetime aide to a 1980s era Democrat, House Speaker Tip O'Neill. He seriously considered running for the U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania a few years back, where he probably would have been asked to explain why he voted for George W. Bush in 2000. He's a motor-mouth infused with a love of politics that borders on pathological.
"He's as good as he's ever been," said Phil Griffin, MSNBC president. "He's at a place in his life where he's really comfortable in his own skin. He's a statesman. He has so much knowledge, and I think he understands it better. He's always been great, but I really think he's been at the peak of his game."
Iraq turned Matthews against Bush. He said war and peace, and civil rights, are the issues that drive him most and explain his enthusiasm for Obama.
Matthews seemed personally offended by efforts in states to tighten voter registration and identification laws. Republicans called it an attempt to curb voter fraud; Matthews said it was to suppress voters friendly to Obama. He said Republicans would use welfare and other issues to subtly appeal to white voters uncomfortable with a black president. "The number of African-Americans who have come up to me in the last three to six months has been unbelievable," Matthews said in a recent interview. "They come up, six inches from my face, and say 'thank you.' A lot of the times, they say 'we can't do this like you do it.' It's harder for them because it sounds like complaining." He's disappointed that more whites didn't express gratitude.
His repeated attention to the issue "irritates some people, because they can't stand being called bigoted. It drives them crazy. And I agree, it would drive me crazy."
The issue drove his confrontation with Priebus, which occurred on "Morning Joe" during the GOP convention. Matthews challenged Priebus about playing the "race card" during the campaign and for references to Obama's birth certificate. It devolved into an insult match.
"He should have kept it together in terms of tone," Griffin said. "But in what was said, going back and forth, it was a legitimate point." Priebus later called Matthews "the biggest jerk in the room." Matthews doesn't seem to have any regrets.
"I'd been talking like that for awhile," he said. "He didn't like it. I didn't expect he would. I felt that I had in my presence the guy who represented the party, and it was an opportunity I shouldn't let pass. It's one of those moments in the campaign that's going to have endurance."