Charlotte Alter: “If Barack Obama is a writer stuck inside a politician, Chris Matthews may be a politician stuck inside a writer.”

From a Washington Post review by Charlotte Alter headlined “Chris Matthews’ new book catalogues his front-row seat to history”:

If Barack Obama is a writer stuck inside a politician, Chris Matthews may be a politician stuck inside a writer.

In his new book, “This Country: My Life in Politics and History,” Matthews offers a thorough firsthand account of the major political events of the past 50 years, interspersed with the events of his own life. As Matthews grows from young Catholic boy in Philadelphia to Peace Corps worker in Swaziland and weaves through staff positions in the Senate, the White House, the House leadership and, finally, makes it big in the media, the world changes around him. He goes from watching the Kennedy/Nixon debates on TV to grilling presidential candidates on MSNBC; from watching the Reagan Revolution as a Carter speechwriter to narrating presidential elections as a cable news host. He visits Berlin after the fall of the Berlin Wall, he was in South Africa during the end of apartheid, and in Rome for Pope John Paul II’s funeral. He is a more pugnacious version of Forrest Gump. The book’s main point is that whenever anything momentous happened since 1970, Chris Matthews witnessed it.

But history is not a roll-call, and a near-perfect attendance record at the major events of the past 50 years does not make a memoir. And the book, while capably written, offers neither new historical insight nor true personal intimacy. Reading it can feel like shuffling through a bunch of postcards from the past, pictures of famous monuments accompanied by a jotted note saying “I was there!”

Matthews is something of a political monument himself. He has built a decades-long career in journalism as one of the most widely respected political minds in Washington, renowned for his sometimes facile ability to spot comers, recall obscure political factoids and ask abrupt, interrupting questions about how the sausage gets made. His bestseller “Hardball: How Politics Is Played, Told by One Who Knows the Game,” and his MSNBC show of the same name helped define American politics for a generation. His columns were good, his analysis was sharp, and the reader knows it, because he quotes himself throughout the book. Nobody was better at identifying the political currents and predicting where they were going — he twice won the Washington Post’s “Crystal Ball” awards for successfully predicting presidential elections — which he also makes sure to note.

But while Matthews proved an able historian in his three books about the Kennedys and one about political opponents Ronald Reagan and Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill Jr., his memoir fails to convey the complexity and nuance of being a real person living through a historical time. The book seems to be written for political junkies like himself; it feels at times like a string of names and dates, descriptions of long-forgotten bills and long-gone political operators, a yearbook for Washington insiders, meant to be read index-first. The problem is that Matthews was often straddling the line between politics and journalism….

Although he was never successfully elected to office himself (he worked as a Senate aide, a top deputy to Speaker of the House O’Neill, a speechwriter to President Jimmy Carter, and ran for Congress in 1974) it’s clear that Matthews is a political creature at heart. He has a politician’s recollection for obscure names and banal anecdotes, a relentless forward propulsion and limitless confidence, a firm grasp of the political upsides and downsides of any situation. He also has a politician’s lack of introspection, aversion to showing any weakness, and general lack of curiosity about anything unrelated to the machinations of power. The book reads like a 300-page stump speech in a one-man campaign to be elected Guy Who Knows the Most About Politics….

His book is best read as a snapshot of a certain kind of player in a certain kind of game. He saw his share of plays, he knows the strategy better than anyone, and when history happened, at least he can say he was there.

Charlotte Alter is a senior correspondent at Time magazine and the author of “The Ones We’ve Been Waiting for: How a New Generation of Leaders Will Transform America.”

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