Matthews touted "maverick" McCain, "Kenny Boy" Mehlman, and "charming" Bush
In covering the straw poll of Republican presidential hopefuls at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference, Chris Matthews characterized Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) as a "maverick," "kind of a party renegade," and a "lone gun," despite McCain's request that conference attendees cast write-in votes in support of President Bush.
In covering the straw poll of Republican presidential hopefuls at the March 9-12 Southern Republican Leadership Conference  (SRLC) in Memphis, MSNBC and NBC host Chris Matthews characterized Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) as a "maverick," "kind of a party renegade," and a "lone gun," despite acknowledging that McCain was "moving in towards" President Bush by requesting that conference attendees instead cast votes of support for Bush. Cook Political Report editor and publisher Charlie Cook also referred to McCain as a "maverick." Responding to Matthews' question about why the "Republican base ...don't like McCain," Cook said, "[T]he party regulars in general and Republican Party regulars in particular don't like mavericks or independents." Neither Matthews nor Cook explained how their characterization of McCain as a "maverick" was compatible with McCain's efforts to align himself with Bush -- efforts that Matthews explicitly contrasted with those of other prospective candidates who "are running very much all on their own." Matthews made his remarks on the March 10 edition of MSNBC's Hardball and on the March 11 edition of NBC's Nightly News.
Additionally, in covering the SRLC straw poll on MSNBC's Hardball, Matthews lavishly praised President Bush as "charming," referred to Republican National Committee (RNC) chairman Ken Mehlman as "Kenny Boy" and said Mehlman was "very smart," and remarked on the "generosity of spirit" of Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), who "fits his Senate seat like a glove." Matthews also uncritically referenced Republican talking points while offering his Republican Hardball guests several open-ended opportunities to criticize Democrats.
From the March 11 broadcast of NBC's Nightly News, featuring anchor Lester Holt:
HOLT: Chris, there's been a lot of buzz about Senator John McCain. What kind of reception is he getting there?
MATTHEWS: Well, I think that's always a question with John McCain. He's always been a maverick, and, of course, this is a convention of very much strong regulars or activists in the party, and they've always been a bit suspicious of him. But this time around, he really made a case for President Bush. He, of course, supported him on the Dubai ports issue last week. And here he is again saying, "Hey, look, don't vote for me, vote for President Bush on this straw vote." So he's clearly moving in towards Bush, while the other people, I think, are running very much all on their own.
In a conversation with MSNBC Hardball correspondent David Shuster during the 5 p.m. ET hour of the March 10 edition of MSNBC's Hardball, Matthews also referred to McCain as "kind of a maverick":
MATTHEWS: So I was going to ask you, now you have answered my question. Is the issue here more finding a comfort level with someone like Bill Frist, who is going to be on in a minute, or George Allen, the up and comer, or even John McCain, who has kind of been a maverick here? It's all about fear -- [Sen.] Hillary [Rodham Clinton (D-NY)] is coming.
Later, during the 7 p.m. ET edition of Hardball, which featured Sen. George Allen (R-VA), Cook Political Report editor and publisher Charlie Cook, MSNBC political correspondent Tom Curry, and Sen. Trent Lott (R-MS), Matthews again characterized McCain as "a maverick," someone "who's still seen as a maverick by people here [at the SRLC]," the "maverick Republican, the reformer, the lone gun," and "kind of a party renegade":
MATTHEWS: Do you think if it comes down to a conflict between a cultural conservative like [Sen. Sam] Brownback [R-KS] or [Senate Majority Leader Bill] Frist [R-TN] or a maverick like McCain, you're some kind of compromise?
ALLEN: Oh, gosh, Chris, I majored in history. I didn't take political science at Mr. Jefferson's university [the University of Virginia ].
MATTHEWS: It seems to me that you don't think Brownback can win either.
COOK: No, no. But I think --
MATTHEWS: I want to -- I like the way you're going here, you're opening -- because usually you hold back on who you think is going to win. It seems like you've narrowed it down in your mind two years out to McCain, who's still seen as a maverick by people here, to a real centrist Republican -- conservative, I should say, George Allen, is Frist still in the running?
MATTHEWS: I have been thinking about -- being down here today, like people want to feel comfortable with who they nominate.
MATTHEWS: But they also want to deal with the fear of Hillary.
MATTHEWS: So does that mean they are more likely to think about -- it may come that they might nominate a McCain, who's kind of a party renegade?
CURRY: I remember back in 2000 when McCain was running against Bush up in New Hampshire, a bitter cold night in Bedford, New Hampshire, I was there with Lindsey Graham, who was famous at that point for his role in the Clinton impeachment, the judiciary hearing -- the House Judiciary Committee, but he was there campaigning all over New Hampshire for John McCain. So they go -- you know, this alliance goes back a long way.
MATTHEWS: What's the mood in the room tonight as John McCain, the maverick Republican, the reformer, the lone gun, walks into that room tonight? What kind of a room is he walking into?
Cook also referred to McCain as a "maverick" during a special March 11 edition of Hardball. When Matthews asked Cook why members of "the Republican base ... don't like McCain," Cook replied, "[T]he party regulars in general and Republican Party regulars in particular don't like mavericks or independents":
MATTHEWS: I have heard for years now that the Republican base, by which I mean not the people who vote Republican but people who show up for these things -- this is a bizarre thing to show up for -- most people don't show up for something like this, because you have to come on a bus to get in the door. They do it because they're professional politicians. They don't like McCain. We've known that for a long time. Charlie, I want to ask you the tough question. Why don't they like McCain?
COOK: I think that party regulars in general and Republican Party regulars in particular don't like mavericks or independents. They like team players. But I also think reform doesn't sell with party regulars. And I don't care if you are a Republican or Democrat. They are ideologues. They don't want reform. They love politics.
Further, during an interview with RNC chairman Mehlman in the 5 p.m. ET hour of the March 10 edition of Hardball, Matthews lavished praise on both him and Bush. When Mehlman asserted that Sen. Clinton had "divide[d] us along racial lines" by comparing the Republican-run House of Representatives to a plantation in a January 16 Martin Luther King Jr. Day speech, Matthews called Mehlman "very smart," adding: "Kenny Boy, I think you know what you're doing, and I think what you're doing is drawing her out as a candidate way ahead of her schedule." Matthews later praised President Bush, stating: "I am still amazed that he's not popular, personally. I think he's fine personally. When you're with him, he's a charming guy." He closed the interview by again praising Mehlman, stating: "You're doing a great job, Kenny Boy."
From the 5 p.m. ET hour of the March 10 edition of Hardball:
MEHLMAN: Well, I thought it was just so surprising when -- Martin Luther King Day, it's one of the great days we can all come together. One of the great things about America is that heroes like Martin Luther King, like FDR, like Ronald Reagan, lions of the 20th century, we all come together behind. We don't say, "I agree with this person on this or that person on that." And so instead of using that day as a way to say, "Let's about what unites us," she used it to divide us along racial lines. I thought that was very wrong.
MATTHEWS: See, I think you're very smart, Ken.
MEHLMAN: You're very kind.
MATTHEWS: Kenny Boy, I think you know what you're doing, and I think what you're doing is drawing her out as a candidate way ahead of her schedule. And getting her into a petty argument whether she's angry or not, it makes her small. It also puts Bill [Clinton] in play, because the more you talk about Hillary as an actual candidate, then her husband becomes part --he's fair game.
MATTHEWS: Let me ask you about the president of the United States. I am still amazed that he's not popular personally. I think he's fine personally, and when you're with him, he's a charming guy. His numbers are way down, not just for approval but personal favorability. Why do you think the personal favorability has gone down?
MATTHEWS: I've got to ask you a news question. What happened to [Secretary of the Interior] Gale Norton since she resigned today?
MEHLMAN: I don't know. I know that she has served a long time. She's a very effective lawyer, was the attorney general of Colorado.
MATTHEWS: No issues differences with the president?
MEHLMAN: My sense is she probably, having spent six years in a very hard job, wants to go home with her family and have a continuing good career.
MATTHEWS: You're doing a great job, Kenny Boy.
MEHLMAN: Thank you. Thanks a lot.
Later that evening, during the 7 p.m. ET hour of Hardball, Matthews praised Graham, a Republican who has backed McCain, stating that "[T]he generosity of spirit of a guy endorsing a fellow senator is so unusual, Tom, I'm taken aback by it. Usually these guys are so self-serving, and here's a guy saying, this guy John McCain can do it":
GRAHAM [video clip]: If you are a Bush person and you want it to turn out well for the president in history, the next Republican nominee needs to believe in the Bush policy when it comes to the war as much as Bush does. John McCain and George Bush are inseparable on the signature issue of fighting terrorism.
MATTHEWS: That's Lindsey Graham from South Carolina, a man who fits his Senate seat like a glove. This guy has learned how to be a senator, and the generosity of spirit of a guy endorsing a fellow senator is so unusual, Tom, I'm taken aback by it. Usually these guys are so self-serving, and here's a guy saying, "This guy John McCain can do it."
Lastly, Matthews echoed Republican talking points while granting Mehlman and Frist open-ended opportunities to attack Democrats. Matthews asked Frist whether Tennessee is "more representative" of the country as a whole than Democratic-strongholds Massachusetts and Vermont, remarked that Sen. Clinton is "perceived as a liberal," and asked Mehlman whether Clinton played a "racist -- racial card" with recent comments and whether "there's a pre-9-11 thinking among Democrats."
From the 5 p.m. ET hour of the March 10 edition of Hardball:
MATTHEWS: These states are very important. The Republican Party is increasingly centered in the South in its intellectual strength. The Democratic Party only wins when they have got a Southerner on the ticket. Why do you think the South is so dominant now in American politics after years of being the Solid South of the Democratic Party -- the weak end of the Democratic Party?
FRIST: Chris, I think in part -- and I don't think all elections are run on either economic issues or values issues, but I think the south is very much in touch with mainstream America, people who do care about individual security in terms of health, in terms of education, in terms of economic security, securing America's prosperity. And I think those values are reflected by those 2,000 people who are here today.
MATTHEWS: So as goes Tennessee and Memphis, so goes the union?
FRIST: Well, we will have to wait and see.
MATTHEWS: As opposed to Massachusetts and Vermont, you mean? Are you willing to say that this part of the country is more representative than Massachusetts and Vermont, the home of Democratic Chairman Howard Dean?
FRIST: I think absolutely. I think right now if you get the contrast between Howard Dean and the Republican party, we know where we stand, we know what we believe, we know where we're going. And Howard Dean and their party represents the party of no. This whole culture of criticism and running on platforms of pessimism is not where Tennessee is or Mississippi or Georgia or Texas or most of America.
MATTHEWS: So you're talking about her comment that the House of Representatives, which is Republican-run, is a plantation?
MATTHEWS: And that was a racist -- racial card.
MEHLMAN: Well, I thought it was just so surprising when -- Martin Luther King Day, it's one of the great days we can all come together. One of the great things about America is that heroes like Martin Luther King, like FDR, like Ronald Reagan, lions of the 20th century, we all come together behind.
MATTHEWS: Karl Rove, who is the president's deputy chief of staff and his political adviser, has said there's a pre-9-11 thinking among Democrats. They don't get what you just said. Is that what you believe? Democrats don't get the world you described?
MEHLMAN: I think [Sen.] Joe Lieberman [D-CT] does. I think a lot of the Democratic leaders don't. Let me give you some examples they don't. Why else would [Senate Democratic Leader] Harry Reid [D-NV] brag politically, "We killed the Patriot Act"?
MATTHEWS: Hillary Clinton, she's a woman. Maybe could be the first woman president. She's the wife of Bill Clinton, and she is perceived to be a liberal. What's her biggest weakness?
MEHLMAN: I said it before, I think that the weaknesses she has going forward are one, the record, out-of-the-mainstream record on taxes, out-of-the-mainstream record on the judges' votes, talked about the need to reduce the number of abortions but 100 percent NARAL rating, National Abortion Rights Action League. I also think again the typical American who looks to see what kind of person this is it isn't going necessarily to want to vote for somebody whose response on Martin Luther King Day is to divide Americans along racial lines.