Primary Scream

A few hours before going on the air, Mr. Matthews sat at the table and flipped through his notes from the morning. He held a letter in his hand from the daughter of Tip O’Neill (for whom Mr. Matthews once worked for six years). She was endorsing Mr. Obama. He would break the news on his show. Gradually, he began to sift through his notes, and using a black felt pen, he wrote out his thoughts from the morning on a stack of pink note cards. “Psych war,” he wrote (abbreviating psychological). “Expectations. California. Who won?”

He moved on to a fresh card, speaking out loud as he wrote. “Clinton vs. Obama.” He pondered out loud whether voters might be getting tired of Mr. Obama. “Like a sitcom in it’s fourth season.”

Among the many political topics that really get the blood pumping through Mr. Matthews’ head (Winston Churchill, Nixon-Kennedy) is the challenge of comparing and contrasting the Democratic front-runners. Mr. Matthews uses various wide-ranging analogies to explain the Clinton-Obama dichotomy, including one from Vienna in the 1780’s.

“I really think there’s a Salieri-Mozart thing going on here,” said Mr. Matthews. “Salieri was the court composer who did everything right. He was impressive. Along comes Mozart. And everybody couldn’t get the music out of their heads. Hillary is really good at doing what she is supposed to do. She’s impressive. He’s inspirational. That’s the difference. One’s the court composer. And one is the genius. There’s something he does. I don’t know what. Oprah said it. It’s not that he’s black. It’s that he’s brilliant.”

Mr. Matthews offered another musical anecdote about the Clintons. This one taken from closer to home. “Remember Buster Poindexter?” said Mr. Matthews. “His big song was ‘Hot, Hot, Hot.’ Not a great piece of music but it was all right. So Poindexter goes to a society party, east side or something. A very hoity-toity woman says, ‘Do you do private affairs?’ ‘Well, yeah,’ he says. ‘How much will that be?’ He says: $5,000. She calls at 7 o’clock the next morning. She’s says, ‘Oh, last night I forgot to tell you that there will be no mixing with the guests.’ He said, ‘Okay, in that case it’ll only be $3,000.’”

Mr. Matthews grinned.

“That’s sort of my view of the Clintons,” he said. “It’s better to have less than to have more.”

A producer ducked her head into the room. It was time for Mr. Matthews to write his opening for Hardball. “Someone get me a typewriter,” bellowed Mr. Matthews. Joking! In a hallway connecting the control room and the studio, the megafauna of NBC News rumbled here and there. Mr. Olbermann, dressed in a pink tie, talked about campaign staffers organizing get-out-the-vote efforts in neighborhood Starbucks. Election guru Phil Alongi flew by, buzzing about the Clinton camp’s announcement that they would participate in more debates in the coming weeks. Political director Chuck Todd blew by at a near-sprint.

At 3 p.m., two hours before airtime, Mr. Reiss joined Mr. Matthews and a couple of subordinate producers (one in person, one patched in on the phone) to work on a final script for Hardball.

Mr. Matthews grinned. His shoes were off, and he’d kicked his feet up on the table. His blue socks rested atop a grid, showing what time the polls closed in each of the 24 states. Mr. Matthews tossed out a bit of basketball trivia and made a reference to “Pistol” Pete Maravich. “All great players have nicknames,” he said.

A producer tried to keep the meeting on point. Didn’t Mr. Matthews want to do a segment called “Sum of All Fears,” exploring what each candidate was most afraid of on Super Tuesday? He did! The conversation darted from state to state, candidate to candidate, worst-case scenario to worst-case scenario.

All afternoon, rumors of an Obama groundswell flew around the media. But Mr. Reiss preached caution. He compared the situation to the Monday before New Hampshire’s primary, when everyone in the media got caught up in the Obama-mentum. Mr. Reiss pointed out that John Zogby’s latest polls had Clinton regaining her lead in New Jersey. Then again, the ubiquitous pollster also had Mr. Ob
ama up 13 in California, and …

Mr. Matthews erupted in laughter. A wide grin spread across his flushed red face. “If that happens, everything else will be forgotten,” he said. “Make no mistake.

“People think this thing is going to be over,” said Mr. Matthews, beaming. “But this is the only sport where the playoffs come first, and then the season.”