Chris Matthews' never-ending inaugural jib-jabbery.

Media criticism.
Jan. 21 2009 7:19 PM

Chris Matthews' Inaugural Jib-Jabbery

The MSNBC motormouth talks a lot, says nothing.

See all of Slate's inauguration coverage.

Chris Matthews. Click image to expand.
Chris Matthews 

Nobody in TV news stir-fries his ideas and serves them to the audience faster than MSNBC's Chris Matthews. Drawing from a larder filled with old anecdotes, unreliable metaphors, wacky intuition, and superficial observations, the always-animated Matthews steers whatever's handy into the hot wok that is his brain. The sizzling free-associations skitter through his limbic system, leap out his mouth, and look for a resting spot in the national conversation, where they steam like fresh lava in untouchable heaps.

Anything can set Matthews to cooking, but nothing summons his inner chef like a National Event of Great Importance such as yesterday's inauguration. If you watched MSNBC's coverage, you understand why Keith Olbermann wears a body apron and totes a fire extinguisher whenever they co-host: to keep the flying grease from setting his suits aflame.

A couple of hours before the oaths were given, Matthews and the MSNBC team of Olbermann, Eugene Robinson, and Rachel Maddow were chatting, and they spotted Muhammad Ali in the gallery. After Olbermann had his say, Matthews butted in.

"Well, and can I point out something else about him? He beat Sonny Liston," he said.

Both Olbermann and Robinson agree, but that doesn't deter Matthews, who is looking for a TV argument.

"Nobody can beat Sonny Liston, and he beat him. And he couldn't fight again after that," Matthews ejaculated.

If Matthews meant to say that Liston "couldn't fight again after that," he's wrong, because Liston entered the ring at least another 16 times.

If Matthews meant that Ali "couldn't fight again after that," he's also wrong, as Ali fought Liston a second time and defended his heavyweight title eight more times before the sport temporarily banished him after he refused induction into the armed services.

Olbermann retook the conversation and attempted to sketch Ali's place in the pantheon of American heroes. But Matthews snatched it back with a pointless bit of personal recollection about a ride on a Senate elevator when he was a congressional staffer. 

"I was much younger, and [Ali] was much younger, and he was still in great shape," Matthews said. "And it's one of those magic moments where the elevator door opens and he just happens to be there. And opens the door, and there I am. I'm a kid, practically. I go, 'Wow!' And there's Muhammad Ali in the doorway."

Matthews' colleagues laughed at his story, and taking that as encouragement, he continued: "And he gives me one of those things that only a great jock hero can do, those great winks. Great jocks can do, because they know you're a fan."

Olbermann did the only thing a sane man can do in a case like this. He said, "Right," which Matthews took as an invitation to repeat the "kicker" to his inconsequential brush with Ali.

"And he gave me one of those great Muhammad Ali winks. I'll never forget that," Matthews said.

Later, Matthews ejected a more recent memory when the topic turned to Chief Justice John Roberts. Matthews, from the transcript:

You know, Keith, this country is not as monarchical as it sometimes seems to the outsiders. I was at the shoe store the other day to get my shoes fixed, and sitting next to me—standing next to me at the cobbler was Jane Roberts, the wife of the Supreme Court justice. I was at a Georgetown game the other day, watching them beat Providence, and sitting next to me is the chief justice. I keep saying to myself, That's the chief justice of the United States sitting there next to me. He's a sports fan. There is some measure of democracy that comes to mind here.

Imagine that—the chief justice of the United States has a wife who ferries worn shoes to the cobbler for repair, just like you and me, and the chief justice enjoys college basketball like a normal person. Take that, you hoops-hating monarchists!

After noting the many smiling faces in the assembled inauguration crowd, Matthews took a shot at explaining the happiness. Sure, it's the festivities, but it's also the proximity of the crowd to the MSNBC booth, he insisted.

"This is the network that has opened its heart to change, to change and its possibilities. Let's be honest about it. These—these people watch this network out here," Matthews said.

MSNBC is the "it" network for the Obama masses? That's news to me. Olbermann approached his colleague like a teetotaler trying to talk down a drunk, offering the opinion that people might be smiling about the shared experience of the Obama inauguration. But Matthews wasn't having it.

Matthews: No, this is the network of the 21st century, MSNBC. And I think we're open to it. And that's why this crowd knows us. And I think—

Olbermann: He's Chris Matthews, and he approved that message.

Matthews: We're not crotchety about change, stuffy.

Matthews' galvanic mind twitched again as President George W. Bush became visible and the crowd booed.

"Don't do this," Matthews said to nobody and everybody at the same time.

"Surprised we are hearing … booing," said Maddow, attempting to put the noise in context. "And that is a surprise."

"Don't boo. Bad form. Bad form here," Matthews repeated, as if he's the political sphere's Miss Manners.

Matthews finally packed himself up for delivery to his own show, Hardball, where there's nobody with Olbermannian authority to block—or explain—his fast-food observations. It's not easy filling TV's dead air, as Matthews proves every time he sits down with a microphone. From last night's Hardball transcript:

The scene we're watching today would have been very different had McCain won, had Hillary Clinton won. …

You know, every president that gets elected is a solution to the mistakes of the guy he succeeds. …

I gave Val Kilmer a ride home last night. I met—let's go through the names of who I met, John Cusack. I love—I always wanted to meet him. He said he always wanted to meet me. That's kind of cool. And Ed Harris. And Robert De Niro, I met him last night. …

[Sen. Edward Kennedy] didn't get that hat from Ireland, I'll tell you that. That is one hell of a hat he had on today. He reminds me of Don Corleone going around with the bug spray in the vines of the movie. He looks—I say that with the greatest adoration. …

Who's running the country? Barack Obama. Who ain't running the country? George W. Bush. Something of a change in one day, wouldn't you say? …

And so the hot-buttered Matthews nuggets continued to ricochet through the evening, denting television ether with their inanity and slopping a trough for the consumption of the nation's undiscerning viewers.

******

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Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.