Primary Scream

gillette cover 020508 Primary ScreamChris Matthews woke up on Super Tuesday at the Ritz Carlton on Central Park South. For breakfast, he tore into a bowl of Raisin Bran with skim milk, slurped down a cup of coffee (no cream, no sugar) and attacked a stack of newspapers. Moving from story to story, he scribbled notes directly onto the newsprint, circling important facts and figures and jotting down the occasional exclamation points. He particularly liked an article in the Daily News by Rich Cohen suggesting that Barack Obama should be president, and Hillary Clinton his chief of staff.

Mr. Matthews underlined the phrases “flag burning illegal,” and “her vote was politically motivated.” He tore out the article to review later that day.

Afterward, MSNBC’s prizefighter—the political pundit who knows more and filters less than anyone else in the business and who with his manic emotional odes to a certain senator from Illinois has become a fascinating sideshow attraction in this crazy primary circus—had hoped to go for a morning constitutional. Surviving Super Tuesday would take stamina, he knew. Adrenaline would be the key. And a little exercise wouldn’t hurt. Twenty-four hours earlier, he had gotten lost during a walk in Central Park, ending up on the West Side, thinking it was the East Side, thinking up was down. He was amazed at how disorienting it was. Not like the stomping grounds of his youth in Philadelphia. The streets reminded him of a campaign he had worked on in 1974 in Brooklyn.

But this morning, in lieu of going for a walk, Mr. Matthews, who is 62, called the South African embassy. Recently, MSNBC announced that Super Tuesday would be broadcast live in South Africa, and Mr. Matthews, who spent two years in the Peace Corps, “spreading capitalism in the bush,” wanted to greet properly his faraway viewers. The nice woman at the embassy signed off on Mr. Matthews’ phrase of greeting: Sanibonani! Mr. Matthews planned to use the phrase later that night.

In the meantime, he continued to ponder the big factors in the campaign. History. Courage. Change. Hope.

“I’ve been following politics since I was about 5,” said Mr. Matthews. “I’ve never seen anything like this. This is bigger than Kennedy. [Obama] comes along, and he seems to have the answers. This is the New Testament. This is surprising.”

For days, in a black, palm-size book, he had been gathering items that he wanted to bring up on the air. Already he had more than two dozen. The list was expanding. “If I don’t get to use them, I don’t get to use them,” Mr. Matthews had explained to NYTV over lunch a day earlier. “I can’t just burp them out. I can’t just say, oh, that reminds me … BURRRRRRRRP. I’m not going to sit there without thinking ahead. It’s not totally spontaneous. I care. I think about it.”

One idea in the notebook was something a congressman had told Mr. Matthews years earlier. The congressman had said that every so often in life, the galloping horse of history comes by and you have to make a decision. “You have to jump on that horse or you miss your turn,” Mr. Matthews had said. “The country is facing that. Do I want to jump on the horse, or not? It’s too tricky. It’s too scary. It’s moving too fast. I’m not ready.”

The galloping campaign, in Mr. Matthews’ estimation, was that of Senator Barack Obama. He had the momentum, was in the saddle, was holding the reigns. But had Mr. Obama become the avant-garde candidate? If so, he was in trouble. The middle-class workers would pull back in suspicion. Who was this Ivy League guy on his, um, high horse? They wouldn’t get on board. The galloping horse of history might pass them by.

They would be left with the Clintons. Again. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Age would benefit Ms. Clinton in a general election against Senator McCain, Mr. Matthews thought. Sometimes, on a good night, she looked great. She sparkled. Voters would see her standing on the stage next to Mr. McCain and they wouldn’t even need to hear the candidates speak. The image would convey all.

Personality mattered less. Americans, according to Mr. Matthews, had voted for President Bush because of his personality, and look how that had worked out. Picking someone you want to have a beer with had lost its charm, he thought. Charm had lost its charm.

But who knows? It was the morning of Super Tuesday. Everything was still in play.