Quick Book Review: Hardball – How Politics Is Played Told By One Who Knows The Game by Chris Matthews

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Hardball – How Politics Is Played Told By One Who Knows The Game

Chris Matthews – a former Democratic staffer for House Majority Leader “Tip” O’Neill and speechwriter for President Carter – has written a contemporary version of The Prince. It is a handbook for staffers, aspiring candidates and ambitious “pols” which aims to give practical advice on how to “make it” in Washington. While leaders come and go, the political staffers remain – and it’s probably the ambitious staffers who will get most out of this book.

Matthews now has a MSNBC show – also called “Hardball” – and appears as a political commentator on numerous other cable shows. The book was written in 1988, but was updated to take into account the Clinton Administration.

Although he worked for the Democrats, since going to TeeVee-Land, he has been criticised by many Democrats for promoting conservative panelists and views on his show. He has said, “I’m more conservative than people think I am. … I voted for George W. in 2000.” Certainly, he expresses admiration for Republican leaders in this book, especially Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon. And to read his account of how he came into the political profession, it comes across as though he is willing to work for anyone and just stumbled across the Democrats.

As a relatively short political “primer”, Hardball does a good job of revising and updating The Prince by Machiavelli (who is quoted occasionally) through the prism of US Capitol Hill politics.

Hardball by Chris Matthews

Hardball by Chris Matthews

Like The Prince, each chapter heading is a “rule”, made up of a quote from a notable US politician. Some of the quotes are very good, while others are a bit obscure. The chapters are divided up into categories, such as “friends”, “enemies” and “deals”.

The rules are:

Alliances

  1. It’s not who you know; It’s who you get to know
  2. All politics is local
  3. It’s better to receive than to give
  4. Dance with the one that brung ya

Enemies

  1. Keep your enemies in front of you
  2. Don’t get mad; Don’t get even; Get ahead
  3. Leave no shot unanswered

Deals

  1. Only talk when it improves the silence
  2. Always concede on principle

Reputations

  1. Hang a lantern on your problem
  2. Spin!
  3. The press is the enemy
  4. The reputation of power
  5. Positioning

The chapters and categories are well done and afterwards I felt that all of the important points and major ground of politics was covered.

“Hardball” politics is politics where winning is everything and the purpose is to climb the greasy pole. Just like The Prince portrayed Renaissance Italian politics as brutal, bloody and without traditional virtue, Matthew’s “hardball politics” is not where people go to Washington because they are idealistic and pure.

The Good

Since Hardball amounts to a book of political anecdotes, it’s as well at Chris Matthews is a great story teller. Even if the anecdotes and quotes are not 100% accurate or have been retold to be more entertaining, they are insightful and fun to read. Whether discussing the foibles of Nixon or FRD, or the successes of LBJ and “Tip” O’Neil, Matthews has a pleasant, conversational tone.

Matthews also does a good job of making you feel like he is taking you (the reader) into his confidence and drawing back the curtain on Congress to show what really happens. He relates an anecdote of telling a Congressman that he “was writing a book about the rules of politics, including all the tricks I had overheard in the off-the-record hideaways”. The Congressman replies “with dead seriousness, ‘Why do you want to go and give them away?’” I’m not convinced that this was a real conversation, but it does do a great job of making you feel like you are reading a secret manual or “how to” filled with winning strategies and tactics.

I should also say: Much of the advice is good, not just for politics, but more generally. Although Hardball is “Machiavellian” in that it is “how politics is” rather than “how politics should be”, many of his rules emphasise the value of loyalty, service to your constituents and conflict resolution. Matthews has a good understanding of human nature, and his advice is applicable to more than just politicos.

Matthew’s advice on dealing with the media is good. His advice of “only talk when it improves the silence” is excellent media management advice for almost any organisation. He compares Tip O’Neil to Newt Gingrich, who gave a regular media briefing and ended up being asked about every minor “story of the day”, no matter how trivial. Eventually Gingrich became associated with bad news and his own propensity for saying stupid things meant that there were plenty of quotes for the Democrats to hang him. O’Neil on the other hand only briefed the media when he had something important to say.

Books like this are like mini-history books. I’ve never followed US politics or history that much. What I know about the Clinton Years I know from Primary Colors (book and movie) and the Alastair Campbell diaries – i.e., not much. The same goes for Jimmy Carter, Bush Snr or Nixon – or any of them. I especially didn’t know anything about the Senate or Congressional leaders. Thanks to Hardball, I now know a little bit more than I did, as well as understanding how the crazy US system works.

The Bad

A week is a long time in politics, so the fact that this book was written in 1988 (and updated in 1992) means it can’t help but have dated. Since 1992 was before the Internet

  • Not every anecdote relates clearly or directly to the “rule”. Sometimes Matthews just reverts from anecdotes to autobiography – interesting but not necessarily relevant. Because Matthews failed to win his bid to get into Congress, his own reflections on his life are not good examples of “how to win” at politics.
  • Some chapters feel short.
  • The Clinton revisions seem “tacked on”. This is a shame, because the more recent anecdotes seemed more “real” to me. The anecdote relating to spin and Clinton’s “comeback kid” status is excellent (although I get the feeling that each round of primaries sees the “comeback kid” line trotted out.
  • There’s plenty of cliches, like “keep your friends close and your enemies closer”. Thankfully, most of the cliches have an entertaining or illustrative anecdote to go with it. In this case, Matthews has two: one about how Reagan appointed a Republican rival to be his Chief of Staff, and another about how Carter failed to take this advice by putting a rival at arms length in a powerful Cabinet position. In the first case, the success of James Baker, Reagan’s COS was “tied” to Reagan’s success. In the second, Carter was unable to rein in his Education Secretary who created a fiefdom.

Matthews also refers to politics as “the game” – or “the contest” – which is not to my liking. While I understand why people would use sport metaphors (they are marginally more palatable than military ones), it does disservice to how politics is actually important. With serious consequences to peoples’ lives as a result of political decisions and public policy, it’s a bit immature to refer to it as a “game”.

The Verdict

Hardball has been the subject to political science papers using his “rules” to assess political leaders like Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. To this extent, it does succeed at being a handbook or toolkit for aspiring “pols” – and much of the advice is worth following. It is a great primer for US politics. Hardball could well do with another update, to take into account more of the Clinton era as well as Bush and (now) Obama.

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