Chris Matthews: “I Would Argue for a Higher Position for Myself.”

By Jack Limpert

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Tim Russert was ranked number one. Chris Matthews wasn’t happy ranked 37th.

Matthews has an attuned sense of pecking order—at MSNBC, at NBC, in Washington, and in life. This is no great rarity among the fragile egos of TV or, for that matter, in the status-fixated world of politics. But Matthews is especially frontal about it. In an interview with Playboy a few years ago, he volunteered that he had made the list of the Top 50 journalists in DC in the Washingtonian magazine. “I’m like thirty-sixth, and Tim Russert is number one,” Matthews told Playboy. “I would argue for a higher position for myself.”

—From the book Citizens of the Green Room, by Mark Leibovich.

That pecking order assessment of Chris Matthews was first published by Mark Leibovich in 2008 in the New York Times; Matthews was complaining about a Washingtonian article, published in 2001, about DC’s 50 top journalists. In it the author, Kim Isaac Eisler, rated DC journalists from one to fifty. The top 10: Tim Russert, Bob Woodward, Ted Koppel, David Broder, Maureen Dowd, Brian Lamb, Tom Friedman, Mark Knoller, Jim Lehrer, and Alan Murray.

Dropping down into the 30s you would have found Matthews at 37, sandwiched between George Will at 36 and Katherine Boo at 38.

The 2001 Washingtonian piece leads with a big picture of Russert; the caption: “Tim Russert was trained in law and politics, not journalism, but he combines the instincts of a reporter with the mind of a prosecutor to create the most interesting and important political hour on television.”

Matthews ranked 37th was described this way: “As a Washington columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, Matthews is no Herb Caen. But the former aide to Speaker Tip O’Neill and speechwriter for Jimmy Carter has become the TV-news equivalent of Jerry Springer. Matthews is smart, articulate, emotional, opinionated, enamored of his own voice, and often rude to his guests. Surprisingly, it works. ‘We don’t waste the listener’s time,’ Matthews says of his show, Hardball, on MSNBC. ‘Our show’s about a quick and relevant response, otherwise we don’t want you.’ Matthews’s shtick has made him one of the most famous newspeople in the country; he’s recognized at airports and parodied on Saturday Night Live. ‘We give the people a good political story filled with suspense,’ he says.”
In the Washingtonian’s top 50 journalists story in 2005, written by Garrett Graff, Matthews was included but the journalists weren’t rated one to fifty. In the 2009 story, also written by Graff, Matthews was not mentioned. Russert, sadly, also was off the list—he died in June 2008.

As for Leibovich, he made the top 50 list for the first time in 2005 and repeated in 2009.
Ken DeCell, a Washingtonian senior editor, and I had lunch with Matthews back in the 1990s before he went into TV. He then was the DC bureau chief for the San Francisco Examiner, and we talked with him about doing something for the magazine. Ken and I remember him as maybe the fastest talker we ever sat down with. He wasn’t much of a listener; he seemed almost manic, but full of ideas and a lot of fun.

A few years later, along with Chuck Conconi, one of our writers, I had lunch with Tim Russert. A great talker but also a great listener, and you walked away from Russert smiling and feeling good about the world.

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