Chris Matthews has spent more than a quarter-century as a TV pundit, and over that time he’s developed a reputation for brashly distilling even the most complex political arguments into the type of blue-collar language he grew up hearing in Northeast Philadelphia.
The Hardball host, who is celebrating his 20th anniversary with MSNBC this week, took the same head-on approach when discussing a recent brush with prostate cancer that forced him off the air for two weeks.
Before his Tuesday show, Matthews discussed his diagnosis with The Inquirer. He said his endocrinologist was worried over a blood test that showed a rising PSA number, a potential sign of prostate cancer. After consulting with other doctors, Matthews underwent an MRI that ultimately narrowed the issue to one problem area on his prostate.
“It had a Gleason number of nine. That’s bad, because 10 is the top. So it meant it was aggressive,” Matthews said. “And it was near the edge, and you don’t want it to jump into another organ.”
So Matthews had surgery, which seems to have been a success. According to the 73-year-old host, he underwent multiple tests “to make sure it’s not anywhere else,” and so far he’s in the clear.
“It didn’t go anywhere else. Cancer can pop up anywhere. But there’s nothing there now. I’m lucky,” Matthews said.
Back to work at full speed
Since returning to work on Oct. 21, it’s been business as usual for Matthews, even as he continues rehab following surgery. He’s running Hardball from a makeshift office — his other studio space is being repaired after an electrical fire — where discarded broadcast equipment litters the hallways. The host focuses on the history of Hardball’s current studio, which was the site of the storied second debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon in 1960.
In his small, decorated office, a framed Inquirer from Nov. 9, 1960, reporting Kennedy’s presidential victory, rests on the floor. It’s a nod to both his roots as a Philadelphian and his early career in politics, which includes time in the White House as a speech writer and on Capitol Hill as a top aide to legendary leaders like former Speaker of the House Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill.
Talking to him is a lot like watching his show, where his love of political history is matched by a tendency to jump from topic to topic. He answers a question about attempts to book President Donald Trump (who appeared on Hardball in 2016) by expressing his desire to “duke it out” with former Vice President Joe Biden, who also has avoided his show as of late. A question about Nationals fans celebrating the World Series victory quickly drifts to his childhood spent watching the Phillies play in a “sweltering” hot Connie Mack Stadium.
“The Chris you see on the show and the Chris we see all day are the same person,” said Tina Urbanski, Hardball’s executive producer, who has worked with Matthews since 2002.
‘You’ve got to grab and hold that audience’
Matthews shows up around 11 a.m. to discuss early ideas for that night’s program. He claims he leaves a lot of the show up to his production staff, saying that Urbanski and senior producer Robert Zeliger run the show with his “occasional input and course correction.”
“I would say that’s true to a point,” Urbanski said, who supervises the initial script-writing process alongside Matthews, Zeliger, and the show’s segment producers. "There are certainly days we debate more as we put the show together. He challenges us every day, just like he does the guests.”
Starting around 5:30 p.m., staffers enter and exit the tiny office for rapid-fire meetings with a surprisingly sedate Matthews, who quietly offers his final thoughts on how to punch up segments. Needless adjectives are quickly removed. The most animated he gets is during a discussion about impeachment with segment producer Will Rabbe, where Matthews opts to focus on the bigger picture — rather than the ever-increasing cast of characters — in an attempt to keep the segment focused.
“You’ve got to grab and hold that audience,” Matthews said. “You’ve only got an hour.”
Following the meeting, Matthews does one final pass over the script before a quick stop into makeup and onto the show’s set. Once onstage, Matthews instantly becomes energetic and talkative, and jokes about history and politics right up to the moment the show goes live with NBC reporter Josh Lederman, PBS Newshour’s Yamiche Alcindor, and former federal prosecutor Glenn Kirschner. The hour goes by quick, with one group of guests replaced by another as he works through each block.
Matthews still has several years on his contract, meaning the longtime pundit will have the opportunity to cover at least one more presidential election. But even though he’ll be in his mid-70s when it comes time to decide on his future at MSNBC, Matthews already seems to know which direction he’ll be leaning toward.
“I want at least one more contract,” Matthews said. “I don’t want to leave. I love it.”