Chris Matthews, host of MSNBC's Hardball, is on the phone the day before his 69th birthday. Professionally, the Philadelphia native is celebrating 20 years as a cable news anchor, a milestone that MSNBC will note somewhat belatedly next month, around the same time he guest-stars as himself on The Good Wife. That's a remarkable tenure, considering that TV is Matthews' third career, after stints as a political aide (including chief of staff for Rep. Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill) and as a newspaper columnist (for the San Francisco Chronicle).
Q: So you're a Christmas-season baby, born on Dec. 17. Good or a bad thing?
It's great. People all sympathize with your plight. You get the two biggest events of the year - bang, bang. I still remember in grade school getting on that bus from Somerton and riding down Bustleton Avenue with my cowboy birthday gloves on. They had rawhide tassels. I was so proud of them.
What spurred your interest in politics?
My grandpa Charles Shields was a ward leader in Nicetown. We talked politics all the time. Every day, he walked five miles down to Tioga to buy the first edition of The Inquirer.
The first time I ever voted was for Arlen [Specter] as a reform candidate for mayor. Even then, it was tough for a Republican to win that office. But I think he only lost by 27,000 votes.
Roger Ailes is known today as the mastermind behind the Fox News Channel. But didn't he also give you your first shot in TV on his short-lived spin-off from CNBC, "America's Talking"?
Yes, [former Inquirer columnist] Joe McGinnis introduced us. Roger and I got on wonderfully. He hired me even though Will Hearst was my publisher [at the Examiner and Chronicle]. It was 20 years ago and we covered the O.J. trial every night for two hours. It had the celebrity factor and the sex factor. That was the best television ever.
You can be relentless in interviews. Is that something you pride yourself on?
Yes. I always liked the way Michael Jordan played basketball. He was a regular Dean Smith-coached player, very disciplined. But every once in a while, he would jump out and go for it. If someone isn't answering one of my questions, I'll stay on them. On Meet the Press, they might ask twice before giving up. On Hardball, I'll ask it four times. Of course, that scares off the better-caliber guests [laughs heartily].
CHRIS MATTHEWS' MEMORABLE ON-AIR MOMENTS
"I had J.F.K. Jr. on for an entire show. It was a great interview. He was a very un-elite guy."
"I thought our five weeks of [Bush-Gore] recount coverage was spectacular, the best thing we ever did on the network."
"I was reporting live from Herald Square, traffic going by in both directions, and a guy who was protesting Abu Ghraib jumped me."
"I thought covering [Pope John Paul II]'s funeral in Rome was the most wonderful experience of my life."
"In 2008 I was at West Chester University as part of my college tour and there was a mood of racial harmony [after Obama's election] on campus. It was sublime."