[Illustrations by ALEX FINE]
BY JONATHAN VALANIA We got the former Nor’easter and current Hardball host on the horn to discuss his recently-published Kennedy bio Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero. Discussed: Joseph Kennedy’s Nazi apologia; the largely unheralded basic decency of Richard Nixon; why Chris Matthews’ mother was rooting for Joe McCarthy; why JFK banged everything that moved; who really killed Kennedy and why; how the Vietnam war would not have happened Kennedy had he lived to serve a second term; and why the myth of Camelot continues to make a chill run up the leg of the nation. Plus, who will win the presidency this fall.
PHAWKER: Thank you very much for taking the time to come on the blog today. Let’s start with the father – Joseph Kennedy, a Nazi apologist?
CHRIS MATTHEWS: Yeah, I think so. I think the sad story there is that he never really saw the moral evil of a guy who was out to kill people or basically eradicate people that he didn’t like, whether they were Jews, gypsies, gay people, or whatever the heck group he tended to have in mind. He liked Aryans, Germans, Nordics, Northern Europeans – everyone else was less than human, and I mean that. So Joe Kennedy was a bigoted guy who didn’t like Jews all that much and certainly had no problem with Hitler’s terrible policies towards them. It’s just a fact, and he basically sided with Chamberlain in terms of appeasing Hitler. He didn’t want to fight. He just really wasn’t a nationalist guy. He wasn’t really a patriotic American, regular American guy. He didn’t feel something for this country the way most people do and his kids did. His kids were real patriotic guys. I compare him to like The Godfather where the old Don in the movie just didn’t feel American, and the kids did.
PHAWKER: Interesting. Do you agree with the generally accepted narrative now that the Chicago vote was in fact purchased by Joe Kennedy when Jack ran against Nixon in 1960?
CHRIS MATTHEWS: Well, I don’t know if it was purchased
PHAWKER: Okay, I’ll take that as a “No.”
CHRIS MATTHEWS: Well, what proof do you have?
PHAWKER: I don’t have any, beyond the fact that it has been repeated ad nauseum of just about every account of the election I have read. And since I’ve never seen it batted down, I can only assume it is true if such an incendiary claim is left to stand.
CHRIS MATTHEWS: Well, listen. The vote in Illinois didn’t decide the election. It didn’t decide the Electoral College, first of all, and secondly it wouldn’t have been decisive, Nixon still would have lost. Kennedy won the election – I mean, I know in my first book I wrote about Kennedy and Nixon, I wrote that dead people voted in Chicago. The machine put in some dead people, but there is a question about some of the wards and whether they were controlled by the mob, and when [Chicago Mayor Richard] Daley said to Kennedy that night of the election, ‘With the help of a few good friends, we’re going to win Illinois’ whether he’s talking about the mob who knows? But, I don’t think Illinois was decisive if you look at the numbers in the Electoral College. Money played a big part in the election, clearly, and the old man’s money was central. There was also apparently some mob money that filtered its way down to West Virginia, so it’s all part of the story, there’s no doubt about it. But it’s pretty murky. Pretty murky.
PHAWKER: In your telling, Nixon comes off as a more decent man than I would’ve expected.
CHRIS MATTHEWS: Yeah, well I tried not to get into certain conventional wisdom. I tried to tell the story from the evidence. You know, Nixon was the underdog. He wasn’t a good looking guy like Kennedy, he was a poor guy, he grew up pretty rough, he didn’t have the best of an upbringing, he went to school on scholarships, he got to Duke Law on scholarships, he had a scholarship to Harvard as a kid, but he didn’t even have the money to pay expenses. So he was sort of a hard-knocks guy, whereas Kennedy had pretty much the road ahead built for him. So I sort of looked at it from that point of view. I tried to tell the story, when I did bring up Nixon, and I also pointed out that Nixon and Kennedy were friends all the way up until they ran against each other, which always happens – you get mad at each other. But Kennedy called one of his closest friends, Charlie Bartlett – he’s still alive – that if he had lost the primaries to Humphrey and the other guys back in ’60 he was going to vote for Nixon, so that relationship was really not fractured until they ran against each other.
CHRIS MATTHEWS: Back in ’47, they went up to Pennsylvania on a train – that’s how they got around in those days – so they took the train back that night and they shared a sleeper car on the way back. They slept in the top and bunk and they talked all night about the Cold War. So they were friendly enough to do that.
PHAWKER: Moving on. Joe McCarthy was a Kennedy family friend and somehow JFK conveniently missed that Senate vote to censure McCarthy.
CHRIS MATTHEWS: Well what he was getting was his back operated on – he couldn’t walk anymore. He had to be in a wheelchair, and in the fall of ’54 he went into the hospital to get this life or death operation that nearly killed him. He had the last rites for the third time in his life. Nixon was crying that night because he thought that Kennedy was dead – the Secret Service agent told me that. The people of Massachusetts were hanging the black crepe, they thought they were going to name a successor, the governor up there was going to pick a new one soon because Kennedy was going to die. So, a really serious operation, but you’re right – it did come at the time of the vote on McCarthy. Jack Kennedy did not want to vote on it, but the sad thing is that Jack did not want to vote against McCarthy. McCarthy was enormously popular up in Massachusetts. I point out that even the guys up there, the Irish guys that were anti-Semitic and didn’t like Jewish people, they were all rootin’ for Roy Cohn, who was McCarthy’s guy against Bobby Kennedy because they were so red-hot for McCarthy. McCarthy was a lot bigger star in the country with the Irish back in ’54 than Kennedy was. Kennedy was sort of a freshman senator, but McCarthy was huge here. I grew up in North Philadelphia, Northeast Philadelphia – I moved up there and I remember coming home from grade school, I’d walk home and there Mom would be watching television, which was a rarity. We just got a TV set and she was watching the hearings. I know who she was rooting for – she was rooting for McCarthy. So among the Irish people back in those days, McCarthy was a real hero because he was taking on the Communists, and we all hated the Communists.
PHAWKER: Early in JFK’s Senate career he tacked to the right to the dismay of liberals and then leftward in advance of the presidential…
CHRIS MATTHEWS: Yeah, it’s fair to say he moved to the left to help him get his chance at running for president in the late ‘50s, sure.
PHAWKER: Well, you know, which is not unusual for a…
CHRIS MATTHEWS: Yeah, you’re right. They all do it.
PHAWKER: But does triple AAA political expediency for a moment, where do you think Jack Kennedy’s ideological compass pointed?
CHRIS MATTHEWS: Well, I think he was dynamite – for any white guy – he was dynamite on Civil Rights, he had the nerve to come out in ’60 and call Mrs. King. He got involved with Dr. King after Bobby got him out of prison, actually, in that ridiculous episode where they threw him in jail for having the wrong driver’s license, basically. His support for the Civil Rights thing puts him right out at the progressive liberal end of things. In the fall of ’62 he gets federal troops to basically take down Ross Barnett and integrate the University of Mississippi against the governor and the white people and everybody – he had to take them on with federal troops. He did the same thing in June of ’63 against Wallace in Alabama when he integrated the University of Alabama. He had to bring Vivian Malone and the others. Vivian’s sister Cheryl Malone is married to Eric Holder. It’s amazing how history changed, but the system or the current attorney general was the young women – a girl at the time – who got integrated into the University of Alabama in ’63 by Kennedy. So he and Bobby were really good on that, on tax cutting – as far as to say they were tax cutters – he was anti-Communist, he had the space program, he had the Peace Corps, special forces…you know, it’s really hard to say if he was left or right. Kennedy, I would say, would be center-left by today’s definition. Or even center. But on issues like being patriotic and anti-Communist, you know, I think he was known most for peace. He arranged the first peace treaty with the Soviet Union on nuclear testing, and ended up cutting a secret deal to get us out of the Cuban Missile Crisis, I’d call him a practical, good guy, centrist. Somewhere in the middle.
PHAWKER: Okay. It’s not clear to me through the book why Kennedy wanted to pull out of the Bay of Pigs invasion before it went down.
CHRIS MATTHEWS: Well, think about it – he didn’t ask the right questions of the military. The military didn’t give him the information and they screwed up, basically. He went in there with fifteen other Cuban exiles. A lot of middle class guys or high-rank caches. They weren’t soldiers, they weren’t street guys, they weren’t tough guys. So they go in there against 25,000 regular Cuban army troops the first day. All Kennedy had to ask was, order of battle. How many people we’ve got to face the first day we go in there. The first day – 25,000 people, to be outnumbered that badly. He had the intel, he had people around the world looking out for him like the head of the CIA Allen Dulles, was really an Eisenhower guy. Yeah, they weren’t loyal to him. They basically took him into a box canyon, they got him on the ground there, then he would have to support bringing in the troops. He was bringing in the Air Force and everything, and basically going to war with Castro. And Kennedy said there’s too many Russian soldiers there, I’m not going to go to war with Russia and Cuba, and you’re not going to trick me into this so I’m pulling out. So basically blew the whistle on the whole Cuban Missile thing he took the hit for it, and he took the blame publicly. He said I’m not going to get tricked or get pushed around by the military or the CIA. So he saw that they couldn’t win with the Cuban exiles, and he wasn’t going to take the American military into that country.
PHAWKER: Do you believe that, as the narratives say of Oliver Stone’s JFK, that Kennedy was on a path towards de-escalating Vietnam and…