On Hardball, Matthews obsessed over Clintons' marriage

››› ››› JOE BROWN

During the 5 p.m. ET hour of the May 25 edition of MSNBC's Hardball, host Chris Matthews asked at least 16 questions about the state of the marriage between Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY) and former President Bill Clinton.

During the 5 p.m. ET hour of the May 25 edition of MSNBC's Hardball, host Chris Matthews asked at least 16 questions about the state of the marriage between Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY) and former President Bill Clinton. In solo interviews with NBC News Washington bureau chief Tim Russert and Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean, as well as during a panel discussion with Cook Political Report editor and publisher Charlie Cook and Newsweek chief political correspondent Howard Fineman, Matthews repeatedly referenced a May 23 New York Times article and a May 25 column by Washington Post columnist David Broder -- both of which focused on the state of the Clintons' marriage. As Media Matters for America previously noted, the author of the Times story fueled Republican attacks on Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) during the 2004 presidential campaign, by engaging in similar speculation about Kerry's marriage. As Media Matters also pointed out, prior to his May 25 column, Broder had criticized journalists' focus on the private lives of politicians, lamenting that the American public was "choking on a surfeit of smut."

From the 5 p.m. ET hour of the May 25 edition of MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews:

MATTHEWS: Let me ask you about the big news story coming out of The New York Times. Ticklish, and therefore I'd like to start with that one. Bill and Hillary Clinton, probably the greatest soap opera in the history of America since Martha and George Washington. The New York Times, when they make a judgment to put something right at the top of the fold, right at the banner, about the marriage of the Clintons, what do you make of that judgment -- news judgment? You make judgments like this.

RUSSERT: All the time, but this was a very important judgment by the Times that this is a legitimate story. I do think that the role of Bill Clinton in a Hillary Clinton administration or presidency is a very serious story. Remember when Governor Clinton was first running, he would say, "You buy one and get two. Two for the price of one." And I think a lot of people are going to be asking "Exactly what is Bill Clinton's role in a campaign and in a presidency?" And people also would say if he has a lot of free time on his hands in the White House, does that become an issue?

MATTHEWS: I saw a honey bun for sale at a local convenience store this morning. It said two for a dollar. I bought one for 50 cents. A lot of people would rather cut the two in half, wouldn't they? And just take Hillary this time? It's simpler, isn't it?

RUSSERT: Well, but I think Hillary, part of her campaign strategy will be referring back to the, quote, "good old days," about how the economy was, and there was no deficit and there was a surplus and so forth.

MATTHEWS: What do you make of this statement here: Bill Clinton, "Mr. Clinton is rarely without company in public, yet the company he keeps rarely includes his wife." Let me get to the more particular political question. You can answer this one, because this is pure politics. "When the subject of Bill and Hillary Clinton comes up, for many prominent Democrats these days, Topic A is the state of their marriage." My sense is people worry about the future of the relationship because they think it might have a political effect. They don't know what it's going to do if a news story pops up, somebody pops a story that could upset her train off its wheels. You hear a lot of that, don't you?

RUSSERT: Sure. But I also remember when Hillary Clinton ran for the Senate, again, to Rick Lazio. It was on the heels of the impeachment, the whole Monica Lewinsky scandal, and you can make a very strong case that the fallout from that scandal did not hurt Hillary Clinton politically.

MATTHEWS: It helped her.

RUSSERT: It helped her.

MATTHEWS: It helped her.

MATTHEWS: David Broder, who is on your program a lot: "The very fact that the Times -- The New York Times has sent a reporter out to interview 50 people about the state the Clintons' marriage and placed the story on the top of page one was a clear signal, if that was needed, that the drama of the Clintons' personal life would be a hot topic if she runs for president." Do you have a sense that the big news organizations, the big print organizations, the Times, the Post, the L.A. Times, the [Wall Street] Journal, are going to commit resources to this story now that it's popped here? A pure journalistic estimate.

RUSSERT: If, in fact, she runs for president, and I think she will, then everything will be, obviously, scrutinized, and this will become part of the coverage of her campaign.

MATTHEWS: Do you think they know that, the Clintons? They know it's coming.

RUSSERT: Oh sure, absolutely.

MATTHEWS: Scrutiny is coming.

RUSSERT: Absolutely. You know, and don't forget, when Governor Clinton first thought about running for president, he sat down with his aides, and they encountered this whole notion --

MATTHEWS: Right. He hired one of his aides and said "Check me out from the other side." Right.

RUSSERT: And a private eye about, quote, "bimbo eruptions." They were very conscious of it. It was part of their strategy, and at one time, not to run for president and in 1992 he decided to go forward.

MATTHEWS: The old rule was sex plus. It had to be something to do with a lobbyist, some conflict of interest with a staff person. Is there a clear line anymore in what is covered? The New York Times made it a very political story. They were very careful to make it not about gossip or sex or who's dating who, but it's about -- they made it about appearances and about the implications about an incipient presidential campaign. Is that still the rule, you have to tie it into politics, you have to tie it to some significant way, or is there a lot of wiggle room there?

RUSSERT: Well, what's the rule? What's the rule for the mainstream media, what's the rule for cable, what's the rule for talk radio, what's the rule for the Internet? There are a lot -- there's a sliding scale, I would offer, and it's going to be quite interesting to see how that plays out. Also, I think a lot of people have done a lot of reflection on the coverage of the impeachment and some of those extenuating circumstances. This is going to be a lot of grist for conversation in news rooms all across this country.

MATTHEWS: A lot of calls to make, too.

RUSSERT: Oh, yes, and within the Democratic Party, this is going to be a big debate.

[...]

MATTHEWS: Well, I now want to bring up to you a topic that I thought would be something that might come up six months from now or a year from now; it's come up, as you know, yesterday. The New York Times, at the top of the page, of the front page, ran a big story on Bill and Hillary Clinton, and it led with the question of this: "When the subject of Bill and Hillary Clinton comes up, for many prominent Democrats these days, Topic A is the state of their marriage." Is that a true statement?

DEAN: No. I think that's ridiculous. That's just gossip, and I would expect that to be in the New York Post, not The New York Times.

MATTHEWS: What's the gossip in saying that party leaders are worried about the marriage?

DEAN: I think it's untrue.

MATTHEWS: They're not worried? You don't talk about this?

DEAN: No, I think most people are interested in what kind of a senator Hillary Clinton is and I think they admire --

MATTHEWS: Are you standing here -- sitting here and telling me that when you sit down with the big machers in the party, the guys that have to make decisions about big campaign investments in this campaign of Hillary Clinton, don't whisper back and forth, "Is everything OK? Are we going to get embarrassed next year by something with regard to that marriage?" You're saying this story is essentially not true?

DEAN: First of all, I don't sit down with those people because I don't get involved in presidential primaries either. Should Senator Clinton decide to run for president at some point, which is not a done deal, as much as everybody thinks -- I think she's focused on running for re-election and I think that's a good thing. Secondly, yes, what I'm saying is that is not Topic A on anybody's list that I talk to. That is gossip. I think most people are not going to vote on gossip.

MATTHEWS: Well, let me tell you what I -- my observation is -- I talk to a lot of people in politics, in and out of it, journalists and everyone else, and they talk about it, because they want to know what will be coming next year. People try to figure out what's coming next in American politics.

DEAN: I -- don't you think --

MATTHEWS: And one of the --

DEAN: -- most people are worried, Chris, about gas prices, how we're going to get out of Iraq --

MATTHEWS: No, they're worried about who's going to get elected. Governor, you know the questions: who's going to get elected president and what things along the way are going to affect who gets elected. It's not gossip; it's trying to figure out the lay of the land, politically. Let me read you something from a man I know you respect, David Broder of The Washington Post. Quote -- in today's column: "The very fact that The New York Times has sent a reporter out to interview 50 people about the state of the Clintons' marriage and placed the story on the top of page one was a clear signal, if any was needed, that the drama of the Clintons' personal life would be a hot topic if she runs for president." Is that a fair statement?

DEAN: I think that's also gossip. Listen, I'm going to be tough on this stuff. I think gossip and silliness like that, in the long run, do not overcome the fact that somebody's got to do something about gas prices, that we've sent a ton of jobs to China, that we have a budget that's so far out of balance that our kids are in debt -- those are the issues that matter, not salacious gossip. And I don't care who writes it -- I have a lot of respect for David Broder and The New York Times -- it's still gossip.

MATTHEWS: OK, thank you very much for your clear statement.

DEAN: OK, Chris.

MATTHEWS: Howard Dean, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, which does not engage in gossip.

[...]

MATTHEWS: Let me get out of Washington politics for a second to something that's much more fascinating. Hillary Clinton is married to Bill Clinton, the former president. Hillary Clinton, everyone believes, is running for president. The question is, according to The New York Times yesterday, a big front-page story, top of the fold. "When the subject of Bill and Hillary Clinton comes up, for many prominent Democrats these days, Topic A is the state of their marriage." Is that right? Is that a true account?

COOK: Privately, yes. I mean, that is -- any serious conversation about the Democratic presidential nomination, it comes up in about the first 10 minutes.

MATTHEWS: Howard, the question is -- I'll say it indelicately. The question is whether he is going to cause trouble in the news for her. Not what he's going to do, but is he going to cause her trouble in the news by his personal behavior? That is the question.

FINEMAN: That's the question, and that's what that story was designed to take a look at. What's his behavior been as a way of judging what his behavior may be like. Charlie is right. But it's a little larger than that. The question that you hear among Democrats is, yes, we can nominate her. She may even be inevitable as a nominee. But can she really win? And as you go down the list of questions under can she win, Topic A is Bill Clinton. Her own character, her own record, are others, but Topic A under that.

MATTHEWS: OK, let me follow this, we only have a minute here. If he becomes part of the news with his private life, does she have to end the relationship, the marriage, to win the presidency? Does she have to be that brutal, that much of a butcher? Can she simply forgive him again?

COOK: I don't know about that. She'd have to say something pretty good. But we did a poll, Cook Political Report and R.T. Strategies and asked Democrats only: "If Hillary Clinton is the Democratic nominee for president in 2008, do you think she would have as good a chance as any other Democrat to win the general election or do you worry that she cannot win a general election?" Forty-seven percent says she has a good as a chance as anybody, 46 percent worried that she cannot win a general election. And that's part of what's sort of baked in that cake: the party's evenly split on "can she win."

MATTHEWS: And the worries come from a combination of factors, being a female, being Bill's wife and having to deal with Bill is the third question, right?

COOK: Yes. She has an 80 percent approval -- favorable rating among the Democrats. It's not that they don't like her. But can she win?

FINEMAN: And the hard part is there's a lot of people who are on that negative side of Charlie's poll are people who otherwise would be with Hillary big time on the issues. It's kind of paradoxical. A lot of people who agree with her on the issues are the ones who are most dubious about whether she can win the general.

Network/Outlet
MSNBC
Person
Chris Matthews
Show/Publication
Hardball
Stories/Interests
Attacks on Bill Clinton, Propaganda/Noise Machine, Hillary Clinton
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