Chris Matthews is well known for his stints on TV news as a political commentator for MSNBC and the host of the NBC news program The Chris Matthews Show. Politics runs in his blood. In addition to working as a political journalist, he has served as a police officer on Capitol Hill, a staffer to Tip O’Neill and a speechwriter to Jimmy Carter, among many other jobs inside the Beltway.
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Matthews can add storytelling to his list of gigs. In Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero, he revels in his accomplished gift of gab and well-timed blarney that enlivens the pages of this personal portrait of John F. Kennedy, that, he says happily, captures “the Irish thing, the class thing, the Harvard thing, the whole package.”
We spoke with Matthews from NBC’s bureau in Washington, D.C., about the new book and his future projects.
It’s been said that apart from Abraham Lincoln and the Founders, more books have been devoted to John F. Kennedy than any other president. How did you go about making your book different from all the others in that vast library?
I wrote Kennedy and Nixon back in 1996, about those friends who became rivals, and one of the things I did there was to try to talk with the people who were closest to them. I made a lot of progress with people such as Billy Sutton and Mark Dalton, early on in Kennedy’s political career, and interviewed people like Chuck Spaulding, his close friend, and Charlie Bartlett, who introduced him to Jackie. I got close to Nixon’s people, too.
I had a lot of the groundwork done, and I was able to use that to do a different kind of biography, a kind of bildungsroman. I love Jon Meacham’s book Franklin and Winston, and I decided to apply that intimate approach to Jack Kennedy’s life. What I wanted to do, again, was to get up close to people who themselves knew Kennedy up close, day to day, and learn from them what he was like. So I was able to write a book based on people I came to know and trust—not drive-by witnesses, but people who had spent many, many years in Kennedy’s company. I also did a lot of archival work, listening to tapes, examining handwritten notes.
We all know the pictures of Jack and Jackie, those beautiful people. I think they’re distractions. I wanted to get at what he was really like. He was a very thoughtful, very cautious man, very compartmentalized, very careful to separate one relationship from another.
A striking motif in your book is Kennedy’s intellectualism, his constant reading. Yet the image is widespread of Kennedy as being rather insubstantial. Why is that?
I think he came across that way to some people—like Tip O’Neill. I worked for him for six years, and I have memories of O’Neill and the old guys dismissing him as a good-looking guy with a lot of girlfriends. Jack Kennedy didn’t betray who he really was to a lot of people. I write about the two Jacks: the good-time Charlie and the sick kid who was lonely and who was always thinking about war and death, pretty gothic. That sick kid, that other guy didn’t get exposed very often.
Jackie was also dismissed as someone who was just guarding the flame, but she understood him deeply in that way, as someone who was a public charmer but went to bed thinking hard and worrying about things. The bifurcation, the duality—she was able to see all of that, the deep and the superficial.
Having gathered so much detail about his life, so many anecdotes and recollections, what single moment do you think is most revealing of who Jack Kennedy was?
Kennedy was irascible. And he was great to be around. But he was also able to distance himself from his own emotions and the emotions of others. I tell a story about him meeting with a friend of his and that friend’s wife. The two were about to get divorced, and you could see it in their faces. JFK looked at them and said, “The agony and the ecstasy!” That wit, detachment, and a kind of coldness all at once speak to his ability to distance himself from his own emotion.
That turned out to be very important at Kennedy’s worst moment, the Bay of Pigs. The Russians had soldiers and missiles ready to go. Khrushchev even reserved the last missiles for New York City in case the U.S. tried an invasion. Kennedy’s generals, such as Curtis LeMay, were urging him to go in. Kennedy drew himself back from all the heated talk and decided, “I’m not going to have a nuclear war over this. I’m not going to start World War III.” That was his greatest strength, I think. He had to make a deal, and he had to do it against all of the emotions around him.
Of course, this disconnect would make it impossible to have him as a marital partner. I think it all goes back to that sick, lonely youth.
He was an interesting guy. He’s still an interesting guy.
Now that you’ve written about Jack Kennedy, is there any other biographical subject beckoning to you?
Part of me wants to write something about Ernest Hemingway. I’m not a literary critic. I’m looking more at the giant shadow Hemingway cast, his role as the arbiter of what was cool. And then there’s Churchill, another fascinating character. You’ve got to find the spine of a book, that thing that no one else has gotten to.