Christopher Matthews
Christopher Matthews
Kennedy and Nixon:  The Rivalry That Shaped Postwar America
ISBN: 0684832461
Kennedy and Nixon: The Rivalry That Shaped Postwar America
Mr. Matthews discussed his book, Kennedy and Nixon: The Rivalry That Shaped Postwar America, published by Simon and Schuster. He described the casual friendship between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy which began when they were young members of Congress just after World War II. They admired each other and were casual friends until the rivalry of the 1960 presidential campaign.
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Kennedy and Nixon: The Rivalry That Shaped Postwar America
Program Air Date: June 9, 1996

BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Christopher Matthews, why did you think or when did you think that a book about John Kennedy and Richard Nixon would be read?
CHRISTOPHER MATTHEWS, AUTHOR, "KENNEDY AND NIXON:" I had no idea. I began this project 10 years ago, and I began what we call string collecting digging up stories in 1986, so I had no idea that there would be a movie called "Nixon" or that there would be there would be a Jackie Kennedy auction that would yield $34 million. I had no idea that it would continue. People said to me, `Oh, write about what's happening today,' and I said, `No, I think I'll stick to this one.' This is the story of our century. I think it's the best story since World War II, American politics.
LAMB: When did they first meet?
MATTHEWS: They first met on January 3rd, 1947, swearing in day, and it's a great day for C SPAN, because that was the only day that the floor of the House of Representatives was actually taped or filmed up until the time C SPAN came along in the '70s. It was a unique experiment. They did it one day. It just happened to be the day that both these fellows were coming aboard as US congressmen. They met at a National Press Club reception for returning GIs from World War II who had been elected to Congress. It was just for veterans, who had all come back from the service about a year before. Billy Sutton, who was press secretary to to Jack Kennedy, freshman from Massachusetts, introduced him to Richard Nixon, the freshman from California, and Jack Kennedy said, `You're the guy that beat Jerry Voorhis, aren't you?' And Nixon said, `Yeah.' And Kennedy said he said and Kennedy said, `that's like beating John McCormack up in Massachusetts,' because Voorhis was a big New Dealer. He was a five termer, very respected, probably the most respected member of the House, and it would be like beating Mo Udall, or someone like that, somebody that everybody liked. And Kennedy was so impressed that this guy had knocked off the big guy, and Nixon of course, not very good at small talk says, `Well, I guess I feel great.' You know, that's all he could come up with. But that was their first meeting.
LAMB: Did you, as you went through and I noticed in the back all the notes you read a lot of other books that people had written about this, but there's a lot of interviews.
MATTHEWS: Lots of interviews. I was very lucky, and I think, Brian, my experience working on the Hill all those years, for Tip O'Neill especially, gave me an entree with these other guys people like Haldeman and Erlichman and Colson, even, and all the people that worked and were Jack Kennedy's friends. I think it's easier to approach a guy if you're someone who's been in the business, so to speak. I've been an operative. I think they feel more comfortable with you than they would with a Bob Woodward, a real, you know, hard nosed, outside reporter type, investigative sleuth. They see me as from the from the crowd, you know, and I think they were very open with me, most of them.
LAMB: Which interview would be the most memorable?
MATTHEWS: Bob Haldeman. He gave me an interview the month before he died in his home in Santa Barbara. Bob was I didn't know this was clearly dying. He was a man of great belief. He's a Christian Scientist, who was dying of stomach cancer and was taking no medicine, obviously, and he was dying. All I knew was that he had to excuse himself to go to the bathroom many, many times. I didn't know what was wrong. Something was wrong. He was a man who wasn't an intellectual, as we all know. He was a hard working PR guy who hadn't given a lot of thought to Watergate. He had had he had wrestled with it, obviously, because it had destroyed his life, but he didn't really have any deep understanding of it. It was amazing to talk to Bob, but he really tried to explain it. He thought that this thing had a lot to do with Richard Nixon. He said there was something strange and inexplicable about this relationship between Nixon and Kennedy.
LAMB: What were what were they most alike about?
MATTHEWS: Cold Warriors: I think the one thing they agreed on, and the country agreed on from 1945 to the 1970s and still agrees on is that we had to stop world communism, and I think they agreed about it from different perspectives. When you say the word freedom to Jack Kennedy, I think he had a very clear idea what it meant. It meant girls; it meant fun; it meant the good life. Communists were going to take that away from people. They were going to make them live like robots, like prisoners. Jack Kennedy knew what that meant. He had a very tangible, tactile sense of fun and having to Nixon, I think, it was more of an ideological thing. Nixon saw communism as a threat to the middle class, a threat to the working middle class that he had grown up with, the small grocer, the small businessman. His first exposure to communism was going over in '40 '47 and talking to small businessmen in Eastern Europe, and being impressed by how angry they were about the Communist takeover.
LAMB: When did you learn from Tip O'Neill that he recommended Chuck Colson to Richard Nixon? Mr.
MATTHEWS: Oh, well, one of the many conversations I had in the back room at in in the Capitol Building with Tip O'Neill in that backroom hideaway of his, and we would spend afternoons when nothing was going on in the floor. And I would just find my way in that room and he'd just start, and I would just ask questions. And he was great, and he he talked about that. That was one of his favorite stories that Nixon used to play cards with Tip O'Neill in the late '50s, and they used to get together for I think it was Wednesday night. One time Nixon called up Tip and said, `Can you come a little earlier?' He sent the message the vice president sent the message to the Democratic congressman from Massachusetts to come to the card game a little earlier that night. Well, when Tip got there, Nixon, as always, is programmed. He's very organized. And he said to him, `Well, I understand you know a lot about Massachusetts politics, and I'm going to beat I'm going to win that state in 1960,' and Tip, of course, said, `No way. Jack Kennedy's going to win it.' But Nixon, like everyone else in Washington, thought Jack Kennedy couldn't win the nomination, because he's a Roman Catholic and he was totally too young for the job, and he was a back bencher. He was a nobody. And they all thought that LBJ would win, so he said Nixon said, "LBJ is going to win the nomination, and I'm going to beat him in Massachusetts the same way Eisenhower beat Stevenson up there." In fact, it was a good bet. Nixon would have carried Massachusetts against Stevenson, probably. And so finally, I guess Tip got worn down. He said, `All right, here's some names of some' and Nixon said, `I don't want the old Yankees, the old guys that have been around forever. Give me some hot shot young Republican. I want some new blood up there.' So he mentioned, I think, Bradford Moore, some people who were who were active young Republicans. He said, `Oh, of course, the AA to Leverett Saltonstall' Leverett Saltonstall, who was the senior senator. `Charles Colson, you ought to look him up.' So Tip's very I don't know if he's proud, but he always found it quite curious that he was the one who recommended the name Charles Colson to Richard Nixon.
LAMB: How long did you work for Tip O'Neill?
MATTHEWS: Six years.
LAMB: Did you take notes of the things that he said during that time?
MATTHEWS: Not these kind of conversations. These were kind of like casual and fun, and I never saw them as having any I you know, ambition. I did keep a diary, though, of working for him...
LAMB: And what what...
MATTHEWS: ...which I someday I think I'm going to give to a reporter, because I don't want to write the book. Someone objectively should write the book, I think, about Tip O'Neill.
LAMB: What were the years?
MATTHEWS: 1981 to 19 well, January 3rd, 1987, the last day we were in. I never quit jobs, Brian. I stay to the end. I go down with the ship.
LAMB: I notice that one of your daughters is named Caroline.
LAMB: After?
MATTHEWS: Funny thing, I guess, sure Caroline Kennedy, Caroline Grimaldi, either one. Take your pick.
LAMB: And what was your feeling about...
MATTHEWS: One's named Thomas, too.
LAMB: After?
MATTHEWS: Could be.
LAMB: Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill?
MATTHEWS: Sure. You always name people even if you don't think about it, you name it after people you respect without thinking about it.
LAMB: And and what do you think of...
MATTHEWS: Thomas Moore, another Thomas I respect a lot, of course.
LAMB: What do you think of today of Jack Kennedy and Richard Nixon? Just personally, what are your thoughts?
MATTHEWS: Well, that's that's something I tried not to deal with in the book. I tried to just report on what I found, because the story is so novel and ironic. I think Jack Kennedy was a leader. I think the country saw him as a leader. I think when you met him, your first instinct was to try to get this guy to like you. People wanted Jack Kennedy to to shine on them, and that's just an instinct. He made people he made people do more work in that department than he did. He didn't make any effort to to try to win people over, I don't think. He wanted them to win him over, and so he was a leader. He was the kind of guy that would be the club leader anywhere. In high school, he was the guy who organized the Muckers Club, to raise hell up at Choate, to bring down the old order of this of the prep school. I think he's a leader, but he's also a troublemaker, Jack Kennedy. He was the kind of a guy that loved taking on, you know, the Capitol Hill establishment or the old streetcorner gang in Cambridge, Massachusetts, that Tip was part of, or the labor unions. He was very independent, so he was a combination of a leader and a troublemaker, which is very interesting, and I think his presidency reflected both of those. I'm not sure he would be nice to people. That's my hunch, that Kennedy I have a sense that unless you were among his blessed circle of friends a very narrow a very small circle of friends Ben Bradley, people like that, Charlie Bartlett you were not really of interest to him. I thought he was Nixon, on the other hand, I think, comes across in history certainly as the only president to ever be forced to resign and, therefore, disgraced. I think Nixon was probably, based upon all the interviews, a nicer person to be with, and this is a great irony, because everybody watching will say, `How can you say that? That's revisionism.' I'm just saying, based upon talking to people who worked for him Bill Safire, reading what he had said about working for him as a speechwriter all the people that worked for Nixon Stephen Hess, who's over at Brookings now, who you know all these fellows that worked with him all found Nixon to be personable and generous and caring, and keeping up with who your family was and how they're doing very ironic, very ironic.
LAMB: There's a one quote in here from Ben Bradley, and it almost screams off the page, `He hated the liberals.'
LAMB: Jack Kennedy hated the liberals?
MATTHEWS: He never had much time for them, no. Jack Kennedy was ran for office in 1946 as a fighting conservative. He was more Irish than he was a Democrat, and that's I mean, I shouldn't say that more Irish than he was a Liberal. I think that if you look at the Democratic Party in the 1950s, there was the regular, organized people from the big cities Irish, Italian, black or whatever and then there was the sort of the intellectual elite led by Adlai Stevenson I thi and Eleanor Roosevelt. There is no doubt in my mind that Jack Kennedy was not part of the Roosevelt Stevenson crowd; he was part of the the regulars. He was also very fond of Southerners. His best friend in the Senate was George Smathers of Florida, a segregationist. He was very comfortable with Southern members, and I think he did very well in 1956, when he ran for the vice presidency with the South. The Texans all came out for him. I think he was a Conservative by Democratic standards of those days, yeah. And and he once said in a letter, `Would you please tell the people' he said once said, when he was getting too many letters from people saying, `Why don't you be a real liberal?' he said, `Why don't you just tell them I'm not a liberal and to stop bothering me?' I mean, he he never really was a liberal. If you look back on Jack Kennedy, he was a tough Cold Warrior, fiscally responsible, and even even Bobby, I think, carried on that tradition: Tough law and order guys. Ted Kennedy's a liberal. I think we make that mistake. Ted Kennedy is a 100 percent, ADA, down the line liberal. Jack Kennedy, I think, was first and foremost a pragmatist and a Cold Warrior.
LAMB: There are some letters on page starting on page 294 that you got, according to your notes, from the Richard Nixon Library from between Jacqueline Kennedy and Richard Nixon...
LAMB: ...and the kids.
MATTHEWS: Well, they're Jackie's letters.
LAMB: And the kids.
MATTHEWS: I read the letters. They're definitely hers.
LAMB: Have those ever been published before? Mr.
MATTHEWS: No. They were in the Nixon Library. A lot of those letters, I think, are so surprising that people wouldn't know what to do with them.
LAMB: Let me read let me just read a little bit here so this...
LAMB: This is 1971.
MATTHEWS: Handwritten.
LAMB: Handwritten letters?
LAMB: You've seen them?
MATTHEWS: Yes. They're all written in Jackie's style, with sort of a backwards sloping style, using dashes instead of punctuation. Her punctuation was her own unique way of punctuating, which was all dashes very unique.
LAMB: I'll just start off on one, and then you can tell the story. It says, `Dear Mr. Dear Mrs. Dear Mr. President and dear Mrs. Nixon, you were so kind to us yesterday. Never have I seen such magnaminity and such tenderness.'
LAMB: `Can you imagine the gift you gave us, to return to the White House privately with my little ones while they are still young enough to rediscover their childhood, with you both as guides and with your daughters such extraordinary young women?'
MATTHEWS: Amazing story, yeah. This is where I got the idea for this book, actually. You've leapt into the into the vortex here, Brian. Back in 1971 Richard Nixon was president. He was still in pretty good shape. Watergate was well ahead of him. He was looking forward to his re election campaign, but it fell to him the responsibility to hang the first Jackie and Jack pictures in the White House. They were had been painted, those those incredible pictures we see today of jackie looking like almost a stem of a flower and and Jack looking very ponderous and serious those pictures were about to be hung in the White House, and and Jackie was, of course, invited down and didn't feel comfortable coming in a big crowd, so the Nixons invited her for a special showing and dinner afterwards. And they sent the little Jet Star, the small presidential plane, up to get her and and John Jr. and Caroline, and brought them down. It was a wonderful evening, I guess, because the two daughters the Nixon daughters, Julie and Tricia met them at the White House elevator in the family quarters and took them on this great tour, and Pat took Jackie on a tour and showed her what she had done with the White House since Jackie had restored it, and and then Nixon joined them for dinner. And there was a great story John Jr. told me this for the book, that he had made a bet with his sister, Caroline, that she had bet him that he was going to spill something. He was eight years old. So lo and behold, John Jr. spilled his milk on Richard Nixon's lap right on his lap during dinner and, of course, Nixon was was the gentleman and and didn't make much of it, but John lost his bet. But what I thought was really the grabber and which convinced me there were a lot of levels to this relationship between John Kennedy and Richard Nixon, was after dinner Richard Nixon took the two Kennedy kids back to the Oval Office, where they used to play. Of course, we've all grown up seeing those pictures of John Jr. playing under the desk, pee you know, playing peekaboo sort of out the front of the his father's desk. And he wanted them to see where they used to play with their dad. Now the Nixon daughters made a point of not joining them. They left Nixon alone with the two Kennedy kids, because they knew how powerful this was to him. Now my hunch and all we have when you write these things is a hunch if Richard Nixon did not have a reservoir of regard for John Kennedy, no matter what had come between them between '60 and '63 if he didn't have a reservoir of of regard for the guy duri from their first 14 years of having a relationship, 1946 to 1960, he couldn't have done this. I think he really liked Jack Kennedy. I think he wanted Jack Kennedy to like him. Sure he envied him. Everybody envied Jack Kennedy. Everybody felt that Jack Kennedy didn't give them the attention they deserved and was cruel to them. A lot of people felt that. But I think Nixon was as smitten with Jack Kennedy as anybody on Earth, and that's the great irony of history, I think. And it's all through this book, you keep getting the evidences of that: Crying when Jack Kennedy was undergoing his operation in 1954, '55 almost near death, and there's Nixon crying, and I have a Secret Service agent who was with him, who saw it and who has no reason to make this story up in fact, to this day doesn't want to tell anybody to this story because he doesn't believe anybody will believe it, but it happened.
LAMB: Who was the agent?
MATTHEWS: Rex Scouten, who's now archivist at the White House. He's down there, anybody wants to talk to the fellow. Nixon stopping by Jack Kennedy's office almost every night when he was in the hospital, seeing how he's doing, writing a letter saying, `Your staff's really working hard. Don't feel bad'; Nixon going to Ted Sorenson, Kennedy's brilliant young aide, and saying, `Tell Jack not to worry if he's not here for the organization vote on who's going to' because the Senate was very evenly divided then. In fact, it was actually evenly divided `Tell Jack that if anything happens, don't worry, because I'm not going to count his vote against him as as vice president.' Now Sorenson told me that story. I mean, I'm getting most of this from Kennedy people. Ted Ted the late Ted Reardon, who was Kennedy's top aide, told me, `You've got to hand it to old Dick. He kept by he kept coming by the office every night. He really liked Nix he really liked Kennedy.' Dave Powers told me this story that the Kennedy birthday party...
LAMB: Who's Dave Powers?
MATTHEWS: Dave Powers was Kennedy's you know, his his Irishman aboard, you know, his his his sidekick.
LAMB: Still up at the library? Mr.
MATTHEWS: Still up at the library. Sidekick he's retired now, but he's still I think he still hangs around up there. Dave Powers was Kennedy's closest sidekick. Well, he Kennedy loved the guy. He made Jack really feel Irish, I think, because he came from the neighborhoods. You know, Dave Powers told me that here's a great story that every year Jack Kennedy would have his birthday party in the Senate office building the old Senate office building now the Dirksen Building, and Nixon, who was vice president, was located right across the hall that's where his office was was the only guy invited to the Kennedy birthday party every year, the only outsider. Now all I can say is, as we say today, you figure it, because that's all I can say when I get these stories. I mean, these guys are supposed to be enemies. They don't act like enemies. Why did Jack Kennedy deliver bring a $1,000 check over to Richard Nixon when he ran for the Senate in 1950? Why did Jack bring the money over? That's maxing out by today's standards, $1,000. Why did he do it? Well, he told Red Fay, his Navy buddy, that he was rooting for Nixon. He told a Harvard class he thought it was off the record he was so glad Nixon had beaten Helen Gahagen Douglas in that race. Part of it was he didn't like lefties like Helen Gahagen Douglas, who he considered too far over on on the Cold War issue. The other part of it is he was rooting for Nixon, and so was the old man.
LAMB: You know, back to these letters for a while: Did did you find those on your own, or did they help you at the library?
MATTHEWS: I went down to the library and I found them. They had a little exhibit out there about four or five years ago, Brian, on the on the on the showed the correspondence between the two of them, and it was just in the in the lobby out there, in Yorba Linda, and I may have been the only person to notice that, but I said, `This is a gold mine.' No one has this stuff.
LAMB: You've got one you've got one here, when John Kennedy was 10 and he had just gone to the White House you just explained.
MATTHEWS: Right. Right.
LAMB: It says, `I can never' this is a 10 year old writing this. `Dear Mr. President, Dear Mrs. Nixon, I can never thank you more for showing us the White House. I really liked everything about it. You were so nice to show us everything. I don't think I could remember much about the White House, but it was really nice to see it again. When I sat on Lincoln's bed and wished for something, my wish really came true. I wished that I would have good luck at school. I loved all the pictures of the Indians and the ones of all the presidents. I also really liked the old pistols.' He goes on.
LAMB: Did you ask young John if he could remember that?
MATTHEWS: Oh, he remembered. He remembered about the bet he had made with his sister about not spilling the milk. He remembered how nice Nixon was to him. You know, you've got to hand it to Jacqueline Kennedy, the way she raised these people I mean, coming out of the horror of Dallas and having to come out whole as really nice people I don't know Caroline; I know John a little bit and they're really nice, normal people, I mean, given their amazing background, and I think she look at this. Here's the great mother who encourages her kids to write a thank you note within 24 hours. This is good upbringing, Brian. This is the real thing. You know, when you have Jacqueline Kennedy as your mother, she teaches you how to do it right. And those kids wrote all those nice letters back the President Nixon and Mrs. Nixon within What? a day a day, they're dated.
LAMB: This struck me, the letter that Richard Nixon then wrote back to Caroline after she had written him a letter, and in the middle he says, `I can recall that you told us your favorite subject was history' this is Mr. Nixon writing Caroline Kennedy `but that a poor teacher this year had somewhat dampened your interest. I know a teacher can make a great difference, but I hope your enthusiasm for history continues. History is the best foundation for almost any profession, but even more important, you will find the really most fascinating reading as you grow older is history and biography.'
MATTHEWS: Well, that's Nixon. He's told her his tru his secret truth, which is that's all Nixon read was history and biography. He loved it, especially Churchill and De Gaulle and the big guys.
LAMB: Speaking of reading and writing and all that, you do deal with "Profiles in Courage."
LAMB: And Ted Sorenson's wife had something to do with that?
MATTHEWS: No. Ted Sorenson and and and, actually, Mrs. Kennedy's law professor at George Washington had a lot to do with putting toge pulling together the stories.
LAMB: And I must have misread it.
MATTHEWS: Jules David, yeah. There was a lot of collaboration on that book. It was almost like a movie, in the sense that a movie producer would put together a movie with lots of people participating, lots of professors. Like each chapter came from a different source, a different professor of history. And then basically Kennedy was the producer of the book. He said, `Well, I want this in. I want something in about Bob Taft. I want something in about John Quincy Adams or whatever,' and then Ted Sorenson did the did the actual writing, I believe. He did the drafting.
LAMB: What was "Profiles in Courage"? Have you ever read it?
MATTHEWS: Sure. I read it in high school, I believe. It's a book about it's a it's a series of stories of of US senators who stood against their constituencies at home and had the guts to take on, say, a popular position. An extraordinary example, of course, was Robert Taft, who questioned the legitimacy of the Nuremberg trials. I mean, by today's standards that's an incredible statement, I mean, to question what were was a very popular judgment against the Nazi war leaders and the and the leaders of the Holocaust. That would be an example of somebody who did something that had no political gain attached to it, which is certainly an ironic one.
LAMB: What about the whole issue of the Pulitzer? Did he...
MATTHEWS: Well, the great story is that that I got from Evan Thomas, whose father was Jack Kennedy's editor and, of course, we know Evan Thomas is now bureau chief of Newsweek and a great writer himself. His father was editor of "Profiles in Courage" for John Kennedy. And and Evan shared with me the great story of when his father got called by John Kennedy, to tell him that, `Well, can we move the publication date?' He wanted to move it for some reason. And and the editor, Evan Thomas, said, `Why do you want to move the publication date?' He says, `Well, because we got the Pulitzer,' which is an extraordinary statement, isn't it?
LAMB: How did they get it?
MATTHEWS: Well, I think if you look at the letters I was able to dig up from the Princeton Library, you see the lobbying campaign that Joseph Kennedy, John Kennedy's father, had undertaken using his crony, Arthur Krock, of The New York New York Times; working through Robert Choate, a member of the Pulitzer committee who was from the Boston Herald, the publisher of the Boston Herald. He had inroads everywhere, Joe Kennedy. He had a way to get into any organization, including the mob. I think Joe Kennedy could get into any group he wanted to get into. And he had inroads into the Nixon campaign. I mean, Joe Kennedy could penetrate just about anything, and he penetrated the Pulitzer committee. It's clear from the evidence that he was lobbying, and he succeeded. His son's book, "Profiles in Courage," was not even recommended by the juries for either biography or history, and it managed to win. Rose Kennedy explained it rather well later. She said, `It was just simply a matter of getting in touch with the right people on the committee.' I mean, she she is totally open faced about the whole thing, just said, `That's how my husband did business.'
LAMB: The line that I was referring to and I found it in the book, `Kennedy had enlisted Ted Sorenson, wife Jacqueline, and what amounted to an entire faculty of historians
LAMB: a book project about members of the Senate who had taken principle courageous positions at odds with their constituencies.' That's where I got the...
LAMB: That's where I got the that Ted Sorenson's wife was involved.
MATTHEWS: Right. Jack Kennedy basically produced "Profiles in Courage." It was his book, his concept. He I'm sure he read it. I'm sure he he had a hand in writing the introduction. If you read the introduction to the book, it has a nice there's a certain texture in it that suggests Jack Kennedy wrote parts of it, that that wasn't done by a staffer, but I think it was largely the work of Ted Sorenson. In fact, if you were to have Ted Sorenson you'll probably have him on in the next couple weeks the way he phrases it, I believe, is, `That was Jack's book.' And you'll say and you'll say, `Who was the author?' And Ted Sorenson will say, `Well, the person that puts his name on the book is the author.' OK, fair enough. That's the definition. Lots of politicians have books drafted for them, lots of politicians, and we will never know the limit of them. They're almost all ghost written, and it's just a question of to what extent? To what extent did Hillary Clinton get help? To to what extent did Tip O'Neill get help? Some of them admit it on the cover, as Tip did with putting Bob Novak or Bill Novak's pictu name at the bottom of the front page; some of them make it real small; some say `as told to'; some don't say anything, but it's someone else's writing.
LAMB: Did you write this?
MATTHEWS: Yes, Brian, I can tell you, I wrote every word. I don't have a ghost writer.
LAMB: And what how do you do it with all the other things you're doing?
MATTHEWS: Late at night, real late.
LAMB: Late at night?
MATTHEWS: I write until I fall asleep. That's literally my practice. I wI'll stay up to one or two and fall asleep writing, and then go to bed. That's how I know it's time to go to bed.
LAMB: And when did you start the actual writing of "Kennedy...
MATTHEWS: I signed the contract with Simon & Schuster this just about this time four years ago. It was right after the Democratic Convention in 1992, but I had done two drafts before that. I had been working very hard on this book before 1992. This is a 10 year project.
LAMB: And how how is writing for you?
MATTHEWS: I have to tell you that when I read it after it's done, I go, `Did I really write that? That's really good.' I mean, it really does have a kind of a lilt to it that took so many drafts, you know. You read you know, you listen to Robert Frost and those people in the old days, when everybody asked, `is it inspiration?' They'd say 90 percent perspiration, and do you really have to look for the words in the thesaurus to get them just right? Yes, I do really have to look for the words, but occasionally the great phrase does manage to come out, you know.
LAMB: Do you write fast, slow?
MATTHEWS: I think I write my column for the newspaper for The San Francisco Examiner fast. I can write fast. I think even those are better than they would be if they were slow. History is impossible to write fast, because it has to be right, and so every time you can't even get to the polishing and to the literary quality till you've got all the facts straight, and even then you're making little typos and finding things that you you thought you had just right and checking and realized it wasn't quite right, or your source wasn't quite good. So you're always re you're always not just polishing, but checking facts. That's why I think it's much more fun to write these books on what's wrong with the press, these sort of wide open essay books, because they're basically made up as you go along. History, you've got to go back and find it. It's a reporting challenge. And that's where...
LAMB: Where did you get your interest in history?
MATTHEWS: I've always had it.
LAMB: Where did you get it, though?
MATTHEWS: I guess it's love of politics.
LAMB: Where's your home, originally?
MATTHEWS: Philadelphia. I always give credit to my parents and the dining room table after dinner. I think that is the great Matthews family institution was after dinner, when my parents had their coffee, they'd sit around and talk about what was happening, and we got to listen, and we got to talk.
LAMB: What did you...
MATTHEWS: And my father's favorite question was `Where did you get that idea from? Who told you that?' Which was a bit insinuative, but it worked, you know.
LAMB: And are they alive?
MATTHEWS: Yeah, my mom and dad are alive.
LAMB: And you dedicate your book to them.
MATTHEWS: That's right.
LAMB: Where do they live now?
MATTHEWS: New Jersey.
LAMB: What did they do for a living?
MATTHEWS: My father was a court reporter. He was the guy that wrote down what happens in court, verbatim. He had to be right, every word, under the law.
LAMB: For what court?
MATTHEWS: Philadelphia County Court. He was the senior guy. He was the dean for years, and so we would hear him dictating the most amazing domestic relations I mean, gross stuff, amazing kind of descriptions, graphic descriptions of domestic relations problems, divorce cases, criminal cases. And we would hear him dictate it because he would dictate it into a machine, and then he he would type it or somebody else would type from his dictation, because he would do it in shorthand and then dictate it. It was the old, you know, low tech method. It was the basic Perry Mason method.
LAMB: How about your mom?
MATTHEWS: My mom helped him. She used to type for him.
LAMB: Do you have brothers and sisters?
MATTHEWS: I have four brothers. They all live in Philadelphia. No, three live in Philadelphia and one lives in Ohio. He's a pipeline engineer for the Buckeye Pipeline Company. He's actually he does something for a living. Unlike us, he actually does things. You know, he runs a a big pipeline operation.
LAMB: Did you write in high school?
MATTHEWS: I was on the school paper. I was associate editor. That was a big opportunity, and I wrote for the literary magazine, the Gazebo, Lasalle High School in Philadelphia.
LAMB: Why did you pick Holy Cross?
MATTHEWS: Best Catholic school. How's that for a tribal statement? I didn't think beyond that in those days, Brian. Today I would think beyond that, probably, but in those days I just wanted to go to the best school. It was either Notre Dame, which I got into rather quickly in those days, or or Holy Cross, and I picked Holy Cross.
LAMB: And what impact did Holy Cross have?
MATTHEWS: My high school teacher said it's better for liberal arts; Notre Dame is better for science. I was operating in a very narrow universe in those days. I got into Georgetown, too, but we never considered Georgetown that serious in those days. We thought it was for sort of rich people from Latin America, you know, with their horses and their polo playing, but we never we thought of it as a serious school. Of course, now it's a serious school.
LAMB: So you went to Holy Cross, and what impact did that have on your further interest in history?
MATTHEWS: I guess New England. It probably had a lot of influence on that. I majored in economics, but I really wanted to study political economy. What i what happened to me in graduate school at North Carolina Chapel Hill was I realized that economics had been converted, as you know, in the '60s from being a literary and and an intellectual and philosophical undertaking, political economy the kind of things we argue about on television all the time and in columns to being a highly quantitative, almost an engineering school. And I lost I said, `This isn't for me.' I mean, I liked economics because you could argue about John Stuart Mill and John Locke and Adam Smith, and I loved those arguments you know, the the social organization and and the market and the role it should play and the rights of man. That's economics to me. But when it became, you know, end space, this incredibly complicated linear algebra, it lost me. And I said, `Well, I think I'll go back to to politics.'
LAMB: What year did you graduate from Holy Cross?
LAMB: Then what?
MATTHEWS: Then I went to graduate school at North Carolina Chapel Hill. I had a nice deal there. And then I went in the Peace Corps and I did was an economic development fellow in Swaziland. I was trade development officer for the government of Swaziland, which is in southern Africa, right between South Africa and Mozambique. And I was out in the out in the boonies, basically. I was out in the bush, and I had a motorcycle and I would drive around and teach people how to run their small businesses.
LAMB: How long did you do that?
MATTHEWS: It was quite an experience. I had the usual Peace Corps tour. I served the full tour of two years.
LAMB: Two years, and then came back.
MATTHEWS: I came back. I got a very high number in the draft, which meant good number. I got like 304, which meant I wasn't going to be drafted when I came back. And I knocked on doors on Capitol Hill. And I finally after almost running out of money, I knocked on the door of Wayne Owens, who was administrative assistant to Frank Moss from Utah. And I sort of worked down my list of Democrats for the Northeast and and Irish guys I started with them for some reason and then I went to all the moderate Republicans like Chuck Percy and Hatfield, and then I went to some Western Democrats, thinking they were more moderate, because I'm sort of a centrist. And I found and the AA said, `Well, we've got a job for you,' and they got me a job as a Capitol policeman, so I'd work nighttime as a Capitol policeman, on the Capitol detail, from 3 to 11, which is a great shift because you read constantly, and daytimes working in the Senator Frank Moss' office. And then I did that for three months, and I said, `All right, how about a real job? I want to work full time.' And so I became a legislative assistant. And this is all this all happened in a few months in 1971.
LAMB: And how long were you with Frank Moss?
MATTHEWS: For two years, and then I went for three years with the Senate Budget Committee, with the great Edmund Muskie, who just died, and then four years with Jimmy Carter the last year and a half as a speechwriter to him, traveling around with him, which was a fabulous job. I mean, you don't owe any nothing but only you only should feel gratitude about working at the White House. When I hear about how tough it is to work there, I go, `right.' What an opportunity. And then six years with Tim.
LAMB: Back to the book, Dick Tuck...
MATTHEWS: Well, Dick Tuck was the original trickster in politics. He was the the guy who did you can call these dirty tricks, clean tricks, depending on your on your level of of political hardness. Back in 1950, Richard Nixon was running for the Senate, and Dick Tuck was a student at a University of California campus. And when Nixon was arriving to give a speech, he agreed to be his advance man, and he and he he broke all the rules of political advance. Now the normal rules, Brian, you know, is get a real tight room, move the walls in, make it really crowded and and advertise like mad. So you have as many people as possible, with a bunch of people outside trying to get in. That is a perfectly advanced event. What he did was get the biggest room he could get on campus and make no advertising. There was nobody there. And he also billed it as a speech on international monetary policy by Richard Nixon, which is the most deadeningly boring subject you could think of. He got there; Nixon walks in the room, there's nobody there. There's a few people who showed up from the student union. They're just hanging around, and Nixon said, `Tuck, this is your last advance.' So this was the first dirty trick that I've been able to to detect played on Richard Nixon by Dick Tuck. Of course, there were other dirty tricks before him, like all of Nixon's literature was stolen in his first campaign by somebody who broke into his office. Then, of course, Dick Tuck is most known for that famous scene in in the Los Angeles Chinatown everybody thinks it's the San Francisco Chinatown in the 1962 campaign. This is when Nixon is running for governor of California, having lost the presidential race to John Kennedy, and he goes to a Chinese community event, and there, the big sign in Chinese letters or Mandarin or whatever it was Nixon thought it was some wonderful greeting. And an older Chinese guy came running up and started ripping it up in front of Nixon, saying, `You've got to get rid of this.' I'm sorry, he warned Nixon to get rid of it. Then Nixon started to rip it up. And it had said, `What about the Hughes money, Mr. Nixon,' which had been the big scandal that had bothered Nixon in both 1960 and 1962. It was a $200,000 loan to Nixon's brother, which Nixon could never explain why he was get able to get basically an unsecured loan at that amount.
LAMB: You trace that all the way through to Lawrence O'Brien, and to Watergate, and the whole thing?
MATTHEWS: It was always a part of Nixon, the the sense that he was vulnerable, because a brother who wasn't particularly smart had taken a loan from this big defense contractor, Howard Hughes, and had never really paid it back, had never had adequate security. It was always a big question mark around Richard Nixon and, of course, Larry O'Brien, who was Kennedy's top aide in 1960, turned out to be the chief lobbyist for Howard Hughes and, therefore, Nixon was always afraid that O'Brien might have something on him.
LAMB: By the way, is Dick Tuck still alive?
MATTHEWS: Yes, he is. I saw him on one of your C SPAN broadcasts about two months ago.
LAMB: George Smathers still alive?
MATTHEWS: He's still walking proudly up and down the street on Connecticut Avenue, practicing law, looking like a million bucks. And he was a senator starting in 1950; he was a congressman with Nixon and Kennedy back in '47.
LAMB: Now did they did did did George Smathers get along with both both men?
MATTHEWS: Yeah. He was particularly close to Jack Kennedy. I think they used to enjoy the company of women together, I think would be a nice way of putting it. Smathers was a playboy; so was so was Jack Kennedy in those days.
LAMB: All through the book, you have this kind of parallel. You do the Mozart and Salieri. And what why did what what who was Mozart and who was Salieri?
MATTHEWS: Well, Jack Kennedy let's just talk about Nixon, because he's more understandable to most real people. I mean, Jack Kennedy is almost impossible for us to imagine what it was like be Jack Kennedy, but we can all imagine being Nixon: Extremely hard working, was could have easily had a scholarship to Harvard or Yale when he was a kid in high school, but didn't have any money, even to pay for transportation to come back East. Ends up going to Whittier College, works like mad there, works like mad through Duke Law it's a great law school gets out of Duke Law, third in the class, I believe, hard working all the time. Finally gets into Congress, very hard worker, catches Alger Hiss red handed, the only guy to ever catch somebody that big. McCarthy never caught anybody. Nixon actually caught a real Communist and succeeded with that, became a household name, became a US senator by the age of, you know, 30 in his 30s. He was a vice president of the United States, a re elected vice president by the age of 43, an incredible suc political success story by his mid 40s. John Kennedy was a guy who had been very sickly most of his life. He had Addison's disease. His skin would change color radically. He always looked very ill when he was a congressman and a senator. People like Johnson used to say, `Sickly, sickly, yaller, yaller, how can this guy be president?' Nixon never thought that Kennedy would overtake him. And so in a way, it's like the tortoise and the hare, Brian. Nixon is the tortoise who's working his way up slowly to be president by 1960, and Jack Kennedy is the hare that just comes out of nowhere. Nixon was Salieri, the court composer. If you remember the movie Mozart "Amadeus," he was the hard working guy who knew what the public wanted, who knew what the aristocracy wanted to hear, and always basically composed according to the conventions. He was a very talented composer. Along comes a genius, a fop, who chased women under tables, you know, like in the movie, you know, this incredible Tom Hulce character, just chasing sort of a idiot in a lot of ways, but a genius. Jack Kennedy: No one thought he was a genius to talk to, but when he got on a platform and gave a speech when he spoke, he spoke like Churchill. And they said this is this is genius. So it's a battle between talent and genius, Nixon being talent, Kennedy being genius. To this day, you hear Kennedy's speeches, you're hearing Mozart. "Ich bin ein Berliner," "Ask not what your country can do for you" when those words ring through us, even today, they have power. You can't think of a line Richard Nixon ever spoke.
LAMB: Is this the cover you wanted for this book?
MATTHEWS: They they I wanted it to be like that, but I have to tell you, that was a wonderful idea. Actually, I wanted the back of the book to be the cover, the picture on the back of the three of them together, if you can look at that close up. That was a meeting among Jack, Jackie Kennedy and Nixon at the Chicago Airport in 1959. There's Jack reading it. You can't really make it out, but he's reading a copy of "Advice and Consent," which was the great political best seller at the time. And they're just chatting as friends. And I thought that was a great way of showing them, sort of as people before they became, you know, deadly rivals.
LAMB: Where was do you happen to know where these two pictures are from, right here?
MATTHEWS: Well, the one with Nixon was was was traced I traced it. It was 1953, when I guess he was a US senator at the time. I'm sorry, he was a new vice president at the time, 1953. Jack Kennedy, I would place that late '50s, just based on his looks. What's interesting about the picture is that he's wearing his glasses. He's holding his his glasses in his hand. Jack Kennedy never appeared with those glasses on. That was a unique shot of him.
LAMB: When I know, when I saw that, I thought, `I don't ever remember seeing him.'
MATTHEWS: What was that that sort of vanity of the '50s, where men didn't for some reason, didn't want to be seen wearing glasses? I don't know why he would carry today, if you go to an Academy Awards benefit or something, every time they ca every movie star has to have their glasses on. It's like a sign of being serious, you know. I mean, I don't think people it's just different styles in those days.
LAMB: Let me read you something that you quoted if your book on page 138, and this is Eric Sevareid. And I as I was reading, I was thinking about what's happened since then in politician...
LAMB: This is Eric Sevareid, 19 What would you figure? 60?
LAMB: During the election. The CBS commentator said, `The case that there is no real difference in the election begins with the personalities of the candidates themselves. They are both "cool cats,"' and that's in quotes. What do you think he meant by "cool cats"?
MATTHEWS: Not good, meaning they lacked passion. They weren't the kind of guys who cared deeply about things.
LAMB: He goes on to say, "We are told men devoid of deep passions or strong convictions, sharp, ambitious, opportunistic, with no commitments except to personal advancement. They are junior executives on the make, political status seekers, end products of the age of public relations. Their genius is not that of the heroic leader, but of the astute manager on his way up. They represent the apotheosis of the organization man.' I'm finally I'll be finished in a moment. `The managerial revolution had come to politics, and Nixon and Kennedy are its first completely packaged products. The process politician has finally arrived' Eric Sevareid. What where did you find that?
MATTHEWS: Well, it it was something that Sevareid had written in a column right before the 1960 campaign. He didn't like either of these guys. Now Sevareid was an old liberal who came up with, you know, rooting for the loyalists in the Spanish Civil War. He was of that very strong minor youth group of the 1930s who came up during the Depression for whom ideology meant an awful lot, and being on the left meant an awful lot. And I guess he couldn't place either Kennedy or Nixon. This, to me, is another indication that the left was never happy with Jack Kennedy, and he wasn't happy with them. They saw him as a centrist or a non idealogue. But you know, I think Sevareid missed something there. I think Jack Kennedy and Nixon had a strong belief, and that was they believed in freedom and the West, and they did not they they were not going to stop until communism was at least thrown back. Now Sevareid may not have shared that passion with them, and didn't see it, but I'll tell you, Nixon and Kennedy were legitimate, true believing Cold Warriors. They had that belief system which, to me, was more powerful and more appropriate than than Sevareid's old liberalism for the '50s. I mean, what good was old liberalism doing the world in the '50s and '60s? It was the tough guys like these guys who took the Communists on. The old liberals were always saying thing like, `Well, you know, socialism isn't that bad. And and maybe there are some bad economic problems in the world, and maybe we should see their side of it. And maybe the Third World should have the' no. Nixon and Kennedy had none of that. They said, `Look, these guys have to be taken on and beaten.'
LAMB: Speaking of foreign policy and all that, the the Bay of Pigs plays a role throughout your entire book, too.
MATTHEWS: Well, I think if you look at this campaign campaigns matter not just who wins, but what is said during a campaign. And during the 1960 campaign there was a real bidding war between Jack Kennedy and Richard Nixon over who was going to be the toughest on Fidel Castro. Now Jack Kennedy won that debate. He said, `I'm going to basically support the freedom fighters.' Well, he won and he did. And when they when he took the office, he backed the Bay of Pigs invasion in the worst way. He backed it halfway, which is the worst way. He backed them, got them in there, and wouldn't give them air cover. I've never gotten an adequate explanation about why Jack Kennedy backed the Bay of Pigs. I've heard all the arguments from his friends, `Well, if he hadn't backed the Cuban nationals, they would have gotten mad at him.' Well, they would have gotten mad at him. Why did he back it if he didn't believe in it? And, you know, he blamed it on the military; he blamed it on the CIA. But I've never understood how anyone could believe that 1,500 middle class guys from Cuba who are we we had trained in Guatemala would be capable of overthrowing the Castro government. What were we thinking? Fifteen hundred guys without air cover up against what you know, the entire Cuban army and and and military power of Castro with no signs of revolt? I mean, here's Castro What? 30 some years later, still in power. What made them think he was ready to be toppled then? I never understood that Ke that that enterprise. It was a bad move by Kennedy. Now he can blame it on Eisenhower, because Eisenhower did begin the process of planning that, but he was the chief the the commander in chief, and he co he said, `Let's go.' I never understood that.
LAMB: Of all the books you read, which ones would you recommend?
MATTHEWS: Oh, that's fairly easy. I think the more recent book I would definitely recommend, Richard Reeves' "President Kennedy," which is a wonderful book. I think I relied on it in a number of cases here, particularly around the Bay of Pigs and the killing of President Diem of South Vietnam. All that period from 1960 to 1963, I think he's the best. I think he had the best access to the materials, the most open minded person. He was no Kennedy hagiographer. He was no Kennedy hater. He was a down the middle writer, and I think President Clinton was very impressed with that account. I think "Jack," by Herbert Parmet, is the best book ever written about Jack Kennedy, from my perspective. I read it many years ago. It affected me. Parmet really covered the early period of Kennedy up until 1960. I think he's fabulous and I think he's open minded. He's a great professor, and I think Herbert Parmet wrote the best book on Kennedy.
LAMB: What about the best book on Richard Nixon?
MATTHEWS: Well, that's a hard one. I think the best biographer is clearly Stephen Ambrose, who wrote a three who's written in fact, you can probably get anybody who wants to really read the definitive work on Richard Nixon, Stephen Ambrose's three volume set, the Nixon biography, which is all you can imagine. But I also think that Garry Wills' book, "Nixon Agonistes," which I read many, many years ago in fact, when I was a Capitol policeman, I used to sit down in the tunnel guarding our our nation from from trouble. I remember reading "Nixon Agonistes" and being very overwhelmed by it. I think Garry Wills is a great writer, and I think he got at Nixon's liberalism, which is one of this things people who are real liberals today say, `Well, how can you say Nixon was a liberal?' In his own way of thinking, he was fighting for the individual.
LAMB: What makes this this book a success for you? At at what point do you say, `Yeah, that's exactly what I wanted to happen'?
MATTHEWS: Well, I think that it's fair. I think that if you go into most people's houses who watch this program and I mean this you could find a collection of Kennedy books, and you will find a couple of books on Watergate and maybe an odd book on Nixon. But you'll never have it put together in a fair way, put the whole postwar American story together. I think these two guys define it. I mean, just think about this: From 1952 through 1972, the whole 20 year span, the the shank of the Cold War, the heart of it, Richard Nixon was on the Republican ticket in all but one of those years, an astounding run. People try to deny Nixon's role in history. I mean, the other part of it is Jack Kennedy. I think you have to put Kennedy in perspective. He had people working for him who played tricks politically. He had hardballers working for him. He was a tough political customer. He was not a flower child. He was a Cold Warrior and a tough as nails politician. And I think if you look at the Oliver Stone treatments, for example, which are, I think, ludicrous, of Jack Kennedy as some sort of flower child from the '60s, some sort of guy who was anti war which he certainly wasn't he was a warrior, and he was also a tough politician. He was not a victim. Sure, he ended up getting shot by by Lee Harvey Oswald, or someone helping Lee Harsey Harvey Oswald, but no one will tell me that Jack Kennedy was a victim in life. He was a winner. And I think Watergate has to be put in perspective. The the the deeds that led to Watergate, the motives behind it and the actual conduct of the Nixon presidency did not jump out of this from nowhere. This was an escalation in American politics all through the '50s and '60s and '70s. It was getting nastier and nastier and nastier, and the stakes were getting bigger. And what presidents were willing to do from wiretapping to whatever was getting worse. And Nixon ended it, because I think he showed that it had gotten out of hand. I mean, Nixon did more more and worse than anybody had ever done before, but it was an escalation. It wasn't something out of nowhere.
LAMB: There was a one line I wanted to ask you about, if you could elaborate on this. It says, `He first heard the news while in the midst of taking a special CBS course in how to use television.' Now...
MATTHEWS: Isn't that something?
LAMB: What was that was Senator Kennedy or Senator...
LAMB: I mean...
MATTHEWS: This was Congressman Kennedy at the time.
LAMB: Well, what was CBS telling people how to I mean, were they telling people how to use television?
MATTHEWS: Jack Kennedy had enrolled in a course which apparently the CBS people had made available to non CBS people, on how to use the new medium. You know, in 1950, only one in 10 American homes had a TV set. Everybody can remember the neighbor they used to go watch television at. I mean, you know that, Brian, growing up. You found somebody in the neighborhood who had a TV, and you all went over there for us, it was the O'Learys you went over their house and watched TV. That all came about by 1960, nine in 10 American homes had a TV set. Jack Kennedy was smart enough to recognize this new medium and to learn how to behave on television in the early part of that decade.
LAMB: Another this is this is an odd thing. I want to have to hold it up in front of the audience so they can see it. I remember reading several two, three months ago in the New York Post, a big headline something to the effect, `Kennedy supplies Nixon with names of from Paris.' And I found this in your book then. At only it's it's only three lines at the end of a chapter. How did that end up being a headline in the New York Post?
MATTHEWS: Well, because Vanity Fair excerpted a big chunk of this 8,000 words of this book, and the New York Post obviously read that 8,000 word account and found this delicious little chapter, and and put that in.
LAMB: Did did you did you feel it was worth that big a story? Was it...
MATTHEWS: I can understand the New York Post.
LAMB: But when you when you...
MATTHEWS: It's a tab. You know what they said in the movies? `That'll make wood. That'll make the front page.' Sure.
LAMB: But when you read that when you wrote that, did you think it was going to pop out at somebody?
MATTHEWS: I had no idea, but I did think it was juicy. I think it's a great story.
LAMB: It contains...
MATTHEWS: It shows the relationship better than a lot of other things would show it.
LAMB: At what at that time, were they across the hall from one another or was this...
MATTHEWS: No, they were still in the House together. They were in their first year. Kennedy was on the third floor of what's now the Cannon Building, and Nixon was on the fifth floor. He used to call it the attic, his office up there, one of those little low ceiling offices. And and Jack Kennedy apparently stopped by the office. He knew Nixon had gotten was about to go on his first ever trip to Europe as a young man, and he he dropped off some names of some people he might look up in Europe. One of them was his sister, but then there were three other women he gave the names of, too, which apparently completely amazed Nixon. He didn't ever call them up.
LAMB: And what about the when they lived across...
MATTHEWS: But that's how Jack Kennedy behaved. I thought it was a wonderful way of describing their relationship. These two guys, you know, `Hey, you going to be in Paris? You got to look up, you know you got to look up, you know' it's just real.
LAMB: And they where What? how many years apart were they?
MATTHEWS: Well, at that time Jack was 29 and Nixon was 34.
LAMB: Five years apart.
MATTHEWS: It varied between four and five. It was four and a half years apart.
LAMB: Both congressmen, both senators, and at one time, when Richard Nixon was vice president, Mr. Kennedy was senator. They were right across the hall from one another?
MATTHEWS: This is one of the ironies. You know, back in the '50s, the vice president had no clout. You know, under Eisenhower, Nixon had no clout. It's only recently that vice presidents have had an office in the West Wing and all that, that sort of influence. In those days they were basically the presiding officer of the US Senate. That was their job under the Constitution, and it was it was Nixon was a transitional vice president. More recently, our vice presidents have become deputies to the president. Nixon wasn't a deputy. He was somewhere in in between a member of the legislative branch and the executive branch, but his office was on 362, 361. They were right across the hall from each other. We were talking about earlier, it's the vice president's office now. Al Gore has has those two offices, both of them, Kennedy's and Nixon's. But people would tell me...
LAMB: He's got both their offices?
MATTHEWS: Yeah, they they they've got a bigger suite, I guess, for the vice president now. It shows he has more clout. But Bob Thompson, who was a Hearst reporter who had spent a year working for Jack Kennedy's staff in in 1959, told me how it was odd. Nixon would he used to see this happen like a ritual. Nixon would come out of his office, the vice president's office, and almost like God had said, `Let's see them come out of the offices together,' Kennedy would come out of his, and Nixon would be kind of deflated, because here's this gleaming, you know, Adonis that Kennedy had become in the late '50s. He'd gotten to be his back problem had been solved; his cortisone shots had filled out his face. He looked great. He never looked better, in fact, than he looked in 1960. And there's Nixon, you know, `What's this? Do I have to confront this every time I come out of my office?' And I think it was an amazing physical intimidation that went on.
LAMB: And then you have these two pictures here.
MATTHEWS: Aren't they great?
LAMB: Again, Lieutenant Commander Richard M. Nixon, and then Lieutenant or Ensign Jack Kennedy.
MATTHEWS: Yeah, well, we all know the story of PT 109. Of course, Jack Kennedy was the hero of that, because he he was this fabulous swimmer who saved his crew after the their PT boat had been cut in half by a Japanese destroyer. Well, only a se only about 100 miles, away in the Solomon Islands, at that time Richard Nixon was a supply officer in the Navy, in the South Pacific, running what was called Nick's Canteen, which is where Nixon used to play poker. And Nixon was so successful playing poker at his canteen that he came back from the Navy with $10,000 in his kitty. Nixon was this sort of, you know, Beetle Bailey I'm sorry, he was sort of a Sergeant Bilko character, you know. You know, he had his card games, and there's Jack Kennedy out, you know, saving his crew. It's quite a comparison.
LAMB: Train ride, McKeesport, Pennsylvania. The two of them debated.
MATTHEWS: My favorite story.
LAMB: What what year?
MATTHEWS: 1947, April. What happened was that they were both freshmen, as we've talked about. They were the two hottest shots in the US Congress. A Pennsylvania congressman, a Republican named Frank Buchanan, who actually stayed at the Mayflower Hotel back then because he didn't have a room and Nixon couldn't find any place to stay he could afford, so he was staying at the Mayflower Hotel invited was asked by a local group, sort of a civic group in western Pennsylvania, McKeesport, to invite the most promising young Democrat and most promising young Republican to come up and debate the hottest issue of the day, which was Taft Hartley, which was labor reform. And they both went up together, and Nixon debated just like he had done in school, man to man, took on Kennedy point by point. Kennedy ignored Nixon and talked directly to the hall, just like he did 13 years later in their national TV televised great debate. Kennedy was a charmer. Nixon got the audience very angry, because he took the side of business against labor and got all the labor guys mad at him. They were heckling him. But what was interesting was, afterwards they went off to for a snack at the Star Diner, which was right next to the railroad tracks, and they had this late dinner together. And apparently, according to the guys who were there, they were really friendly. And what really struck these guys was, first of all, here was the one aristocrat, Jack Kennedy, and the other guy who was sort of a, you know, middle middle class sort of guy, and yet you couldn't tell them apart, who was the rich guy and who was the who was the well born guy, and who was not the well born guy. And they were really friendly. That's I got I dug this up in the old newspaper accounts. Now what's interesting is, when they came back on the train, they flipped a coin for the top bunk. Now here's a here's a picture, Brian, we'll never get for history, but imagine this scene in 1947. It's almost right out of "North By Northwest." In the top bunk is Jack Kennedy, lying there. In the bunk below him is Richard Nixon, talking about the coming threat in Europe that had just been given its name the week before by Bernard Baruch, the Cold War. Two Navy officers who had both fought in this Pacific and didn't want to see it happen again; both had seen Hitler's march through Europe, didn't want to see Stalin's march through Europe; both Cold Warriors before the term was even coined or had just been coined, arguing about what should be done. These two guys, I just I think about the greatest political poster of all times, Brian, a picture of those two bunks, with the one guy sitting up there talking and the other guy having a bull session as the train rolled on to Washington, the the Capitol Limited.
LAMB: How did you find that story?
MATTHEWS: I dug it up. I went up there. We got the clips from the newspapers. There was a hint of it in Parmet's book, and we got up there and got all the clips on what had happened from the local newspaper.
LAMB: Did you go up yourself?
MATTHEWS: I had a guy go up for me, got all the clips. He went up there and ge took pictures of everything up there so I'd know what the hall looked like, and bought it back to me. Christopher O'Sullivan he's just getting his PhD up at SUNY in New York now did that did that work for me dug up all those pictures, all those newspaper articles. A little bit of an account of it in Nixon's memoirs, a little bit of an account, as I said, in Parmet's book, but we filled it out into a full story.
LAMB: We're running out of time. I've got a little com some names I need to get out of you. Charlie Bartlett comes up here periodically.
LAMB: He's in your book. You said he got tears in his eyes when you talked to him?
MATTHEWS: Well, everybody has a different reaction when you talk about Kennedy. I remember sitting in his office over in Dupont Circle four or five years ago, when I was working on this.
LAMB: He's still here?
MATTHEWS: Oh, yeah, Charlie's in great shape. And Charlie starts talking about Jack, and he said, `I was talking to Eunice the other day, Jack's sister, and and, you know, he was never the most thoughtful guy' they were sort of agreeing on that, he was never the most thoughtful guy `But, boy, he had a way of making you happy, and you just felt great being in his company.' And he starts to get teary eyed. I think he had that impres that impact on people, some people who were allowed into his inner circle.
LAMB: Pat Hillings you talked a lot about him.
MATTHEWS: A great guy.
LAMB: Who is he?
MATTHEWS: An absolutely fabulous guy. He passed away a couple of years ago. Pat was a guy I met because I had mentioned something about him in "Hardball," my first book, that wasn't quite right. And he he wrote me a really nice letter and said, `Well, why don't you correct that in the next edition?' I said, `Fine, I'll correct it in the next edition.' And we got to be friends. And Pat Hillings was the guy who replaced Richard Nixon in the US Congress. Pat was only like 29 when he got elected to Congress. He was in his late 20s, from California from Whittier, California and Pat stuck with Nixon his whole career. And and he was with him during the Checkers speech in 1952. He was with him in 1960, in 1962. And he is my greatest source. He went through the whole thing, and he told me the greatest stories, Pat Hillings. What a great guy.
LAMB: Now Pat Hillings replaced...
MATTHEWS: Totally open, by the way, a wonderful source.
LAMB: ...replaced Richard Nixon, and Tip O'Neill replaced Jack Kennedy.
MATTHEWS: Another great source, Tip O'Neill, which we've mentioned.
LAMB: And you worked for him.
MATTHEWS: That's right.
LAMB: Do you did you ever want to run, and do you still ever want to run for an office?
MATTHEWS: I don't know. I always look at things, but I don't see how I can pull it off. I've become a Washingtonian, that worst thing you can be, Brian. Once you being a Washingtonian, you're kind of you're kind of neuterized in this business, don't you think?
LAMB: But at what point would you do you think you could get yourself interested in that? How old are you?
MATTHEWS: I'm 50. Too old to run, don't you think?
LAMB: What's your what would be your favorite job, if you could get one?
MATTHEWS: Oh, US senator from Pennsylvania, there's no doubt in my mind. I had I had Rick Santorum on my on my CNBC show the other day, and he said,`You'd change jobs with me?' And I said, `In a minute. What, are you kidding me? Being a senator would be great.' Of course, I'm not sure being a senator is as much fun and as delightful as it seems to be, you know, looking at it from the outside like we do. I think it's more fun doing what you're doing, actually, Brian.
LAMB: Where did you...
MATTHEWS: Running C SPAN is more important, probably, than being in the Senate, anyway.
LAMB: Where did you meet Mrs. Matthews, Kathleen?
MATTHEWS: At the radio TV correspondents' dinner in 1978. Remember the remember the scene in that movie, "Broadcast News," where they went to they all went to that black tie dinner together, Holly Hunter and William Hurt?
LAMB: And she does what?
MATTHEWS: She's the anchorwoman here in Washington for ABC. She's on at five, six and 11. She's the top anchorwoman in Washington, and she's the anchorwoman of "Working Woman," a nationally syndicated program which is on the weekends across the country.
LAMB: And if I detected correctly, she wrote did she take this picture of you?
MATTHEWS: That was taken by John Whitman. I paid a lot of money for that picture. That's why I've kept it in the book, even though it was a few years ago.
LAMB: I thought it referred to her?
MATTHEWS: No, she took the picture of the Watergate next to the Kennedy Center, which is one of the great ironies again. There's the building known for Richard Nixon.
LAMB: Oh, this one right here.
MATTHEWS: This is such an amazing notion. I mean, here you have you have the Watergate Building right next to the Kennedy Center. Very few people notice that, this great weirdness of history, that the building known for Nixon would be standing right next to the building that's honoring Jack Kennedy's life.
LAMB: How old are your kids?
MATTHEWS: Michael's 13, Thomas is 10, Caroline is seven.
LAMB: What do they think of all of this?
MATTHEWS: Michael's a liberal to his bones, the most liberal man I know. Thomas is a developing conservative, although with limits. He I don't think he's not as far over as Pat Buchanan. I think he's he always liked George Bush as he grew up. Caroline we haven't really registered her yet, politically. Who knows? Probably like her mother, quite moderate in her views.
LAMB: Your next book?
MATTHEWS: God, I don't know. I don't know. I think I think I want to try to write something about something that nobody's ever written about before, which is being in the Peace Corps. I'll try to write a really good story about that, sort of a 20 something kind of thing, because I think people I think people today who are in their 20s and even older are very curious about the 1960s and what it was like to live in the '60s. Not Vietnam we've seen "Platoon" and we've seen "Born on the Fourth of July," but movies about people who were living in the '60s who did something else, like go over to Africa in the Peace Corps. And and the whole attitude we had about the war and about the '60s and about dope and all that sort of stuff, and music and how powerful those those things were to our lives. And the sense of being the lost generation that we had in the '60s, which was so much, we felt, in common with the Hemingway, Fitzgerald era of the early '20s. We really felt, during the '60s, that the c the establishment was coming down on us, that we really were a counterculture. It's hard to believe today, you know, my you think about us as counterculture figures, but I think it's an exciting I never got over growing up in the '60s. I think it was a fabulous time to grow up and I think somebody ought to write about it in the honest way.
LAMB: But for now this is in your bookstores. "Kennedy & Nixon," Christopher Matthews our guest. Thank you very much.
MATTHEWS: Hey, Brian, you're a great guy. Thank you.
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