'Chris Matthews' Turns 5

Political talker reaches Sunday-morning milestone

Chris Matthews' syndicated political talk show has its fifth anniversary next month. His MSNBC program Hardball may get more buzz, but The Chris Matthews Show, from NBC Universal Domestic Television Distribution, is a force as well. During the week ended Aug. 13, Matthews averaged a 2.0 household rating. That trails Meet the Press (2.6) but is even with Face The Nation and bests This Week (1.6). Matthews spoke with B&C's Ben Grossman about competing with Russert, rooting for Couric, and picking fights with Cheney.

Sunday mornings elicit thoughts of Tim Russert and George Stephanopolous, but the name Chris Matthews doesn't always come to mind.

We are very competitive with those guys. The quality of the show is beating the PR. My hope is that, if everyone watched it once, they'd keep watching it.

Does it frustrate you that they're better-known?

Yeah, I'd like more people to know about the show. It takes people a while to discover things, but we have the electoral cycle coming up, and we should be at the top of this game. Getting [Dan] Rather on the show regularly now is fabulous. People are going to hear a lot of the thoughts he hasn't been able to express over the years.

Who else would you like to get on the show regularly?

[CBS'] Lesley Stahl—she's tough as nails. But it's tough to get people from other networks. I love [The New York Times'] Frank Rich, but he's in New York, and it's hard to get him to come down.

How about Katie Couric?

Katie would be great, but I think she's going to be very careful about expressing opinions over the next few months. I'm rooting for her in this whole thing. I think it's great to have youth and change and a little spark there.

Who is your viewer?

I imagine our viewer is someone sitting on the West Side of New York with his O.J. and the Times. Or is it the assistant professor at the University of Iowa? The assistant professor would be my ideal audience. It wouldn't break my heart if they were all liberals, but they're not. People tell me [VP Dick] Cheney watches it, which isn't by invitation. Just kidding.

How is the syndicated show different from Hardball?

I trust the basic honesty and facts of the people on [the weekend show]. They are not advocates; they are fact-driven reporters. I feel no need to argue with what they are saying. The weekday show is much more naturally contentious because I am trying to get truth out of people who don't want to give it.

You've said Chris Matthews is inspired by The McLaughlin Group. How does it differ?

People seek [host John McLaughlin's] approval. It's a Jesuit classroom where the person who runs the class is basically an autocrat [who] decides what is right. He's not just the moderator, he's the judge and jury of the truth. We do not engage in any forced hostility. All those personal shots, I think that's yesterday.

What's your take on the Keith Olbermann-Bill O'Reilly feud?

Olbermann is very smart to pick this fight. You should always fight up. You pick a fight with someone higher up the system, and then they respond, and you are equals.

So who will you pick your fight with?

Dick Cheney. I'm going very high.