Chris 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.
Around 10:30 a.m., Mr. Matthews dialed into MSNBC for a conference-call meeting with John Reiss, the executive producer of Hardball, to chew over some logistics for the night ahead. Mr. Matthews was set to host Hardball from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. on MSNBC. Immediately afterward, he would hop in the anchor chair, alongside Keith Olbermann, in a studio deep in the bowels of Rockefeller Center and host MSNBC’s coverage from 6 p.m. until at least 2 in the morning. Maybe longer.
Shortly after noon, Mr. Matthews arrived at Rockefeller Center. He was wearing a gray sweater and carrying a handful of new ties, still in their plastic wrapping. During a typical week, Mr. Matthews films both of his shows (Hardball and his NBC-syndicated Sunday morning talk show) closer to his home in Chevy Chase, Md., at a building on Nebraska Avenue, in Washington, D.C., that also houses Tim Russert, Tucker Carlson, and fellow Saturday Night Live inspiration, John—“WRONG!”—McLaughlin.
In D.C., the studio’s blue background made wearing blue shirts all but impossible. You practically disappear on the screen. But in New York, the lighting was much better. Blue was an option. But Mr. Matthews had decided to go with two combinations: a pastel tie against a pink shirt, and a blue tie against a white shirt. He would change sometime during the night.
On Tuesday afternoon, Mr. Matthews sat in a small windowless room in NBC studios and took another look at the rundown, which producers had cobbled together in recent days, mapping out the marathon coverage. “Lester w/ exit polls: 2 minutes, 6:04.” “Brokaw & Russert: 3 minutes, 8:26.” “Guest Governor Haley Barbour: 3 and ½ minutes, 10:39:30.” And on and on.
“It’s kind of like the map of the world before they found out that the New World existed,” said Mr. Reiss, who would be working the control room for the duration of the night. “It’s kind of like crossing the Atlantic in the 15th century hoping to find China. It’s very good to map out a plan. But we’ve had plans now every Tuesday or Saturday. And not one of them has survived an hour.”
Luckily for Mr. Reiss, Mr. Matthews isn’t much for maps anyway. “Some people like to be scripted or planned,” said Mr. Reiss. “That’s great. That’s what works for them. That’s not what works
for Chris. There may be moments where I’ll be like, let’s talk about race or gender or about conservative voters. And he’ll turn on a dime and do that. That’s part of the fun of it. You don’t even have to wind him up. He’s already wound up. All you have to do is point him in a direction and he’ll get you there.”
Which is not to say that Mr. Matthews doesn’t prepare. On Monday morning, he spent an hour in the studio, practicing reading the big board of results. Too close to call. Too early to call. Projected winner. He wanted to make the important calls without relying on anybody talking into his ear. It was a mechanical process. But each incoming set of data would signal a direction, a pattern, an opportunity for a story.
Mr. Matthews made sure he had state-appropriate anecdotes lined up ahead of time. For Massachusetts, a Dunkin’ Donuts vs. Starbucks riff might work. For Connecticut, perhaps the fact that Jerry Brown won the state in ’92 based on—savvy voters!—his flat tax proposal. For the South, mental maps of African-American demographics in the old cotton states would come in handy.
For California, Mr. Matthews was considering digging into his vault of personal memories. He had a killer firsthand story at his disposal about seeing Bill Clinton appear in Santa Monica, years earlier, in front of a crowd of Birkenstock-wearing baby boomers who had greeted Mr. Clinton like the Messiah. Should the opportunity arise, Mr. Matthews would use it. They still loved Bill out West.
One of Mr. Matthews’ main assets as a political anchor is his memory, which is prodigious. He has quick recall and the references spring eternal—from the particulars of Mrs. Doubtfire to the politics of Ulysses S. Grant to the sayings of Winston Churchill. In particular, Mr. Matthews likes one saying by Mr. Churchill, which he used as an epigraph in his most recent book, Life’s a Campaign. “I like a man,” said Mr. Churchill, “who grins when he fights.”
Across town, Mr. Matthews’ competitors at CNN were holed up in the Time Warner Center, likewise game-planning for the night ahead. So far this election season, on the big primary and caucus nights, CNN and Fox News have significantly topped MSNBC in the ratings. Even so, Mr. Matthews was not overly impressed by the political acumen of his competitors. He grinned at CNN’s 2008 tag line. “Best Political Team on Television.” Ridiculous, he thought. MSNBC and NBC were the real deal. He envisioned taking on and crushing Anderson Cooper and Wolf Blitzer in a game of Jeopardy. They could do it for charity!
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.”