MSNBC host and former Tip O’Neill aide Chris Matthews entertained a packed house at Wednesday night, Nov. 9, with stories from his new book Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero. But the audience cheered the loudest for his snappy remarks about current political conditions and imitations of public figures.
The biggest laugh came when Matthews did a spot-on imitation of Bill Clinton, arguing that compared to Obama the Clintons have a wealth of political alliances and loyalty to draw on. Imagine, he said, Bill calling up old political allies and saying about Hillary, in his trademark southern drawl, 'Come on, she’s ready to go.’
Matthews was on a book tour promoting his Kennedy biography that he had been working on for years, gathering interviews and recollections of the president.
The talk was co-sponsored by Dominican’s Institute for Leadership Studies and . Matthews started out by commending the independent bookstore.
“Little bookstores are saving our country,” he said.
Matthews' new book is largely glowing about the popular president, using previously untranscribed oral histories with top campaign managers, interviews with people that knew Kennedy as a child and young man, notes from an interview with Jacqueline Kennedy immediately after Kennedy’s death and more in-depth research.
And he drew on that research to tell stories to the crowd about Kennedy’s childhood at his up-scale boarding school, where he may have gotten the inspiration for the line ‘ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.’ Matthews went on to detail Kennedy’s actions during World War II after his PT 109 boat was smashed to pieces and he and his men had to swim to safety.
But it was the president’s cool actions during the Cuban Missile Crisis that Matthews said saved the country. The fact that Kennedy didn’t bomb Cuba, despite urging from his generals to do so, just proves, said Matthews, that “war’s too important to be left to the generals.”
To illustrate the point that many of the generals were too trigger-happy, Matthews said that General Douglas MacArthur wanted to implement holster-mounted nuclear weapons for every solider in order to boost morale. The idea seems obviously crazy to us now.
Matthews came back to the anti-military sentiment as the crowd quizzed him on current events.
Calling the current crop of Republican presidential candidates a “clown act,” Matthews said that it was important for whoever was president to be ready to make a serious decision about sending troops into a war or pulling them out – instead of simply saying that they would ask the generals on the ground. The generals on the ground, he said, do what they’re told to do by the president.
Though Matthews said he had a number of lessons Obama could take from Kennedy – a topic about which he wrote in TIME last week – the main difference between then and now was the political sentiment that has swept through D.C. with many of the Tea Party candidates.
“Those Tea Party people are just awful,” he said.
The fundamental problem, Matthews argued, was a basic misunderstanding of the Constitution. Under our representative democratic republic, we elect people to represent us and act on our behalf. “We don’t send them to D.C. to not govern.”
And, that, he said, is the big problem right now. After the Republicans won the majority in the last election, it would have made sense for them to present a budget deal to the Democrats that was favorable to them: a number of large spending cuts with a few tax increases on the rich. That is a deal that the Democrats wouldn’t have liked, but would have accepted.
Instead, the Republican presidential candidates – so eager for Tea Party votes – have all said they would reject even a 10-to-1 deal, with ten times the budget cuts for every tax increase, because they won’t accept any compromise on tax increases.
Even in the current political turmoil, Matthews did call out a handful of office-holders that are true statesmen, work hard, and don’t give into the whims of current trends. Among those, he said, Senator Barbara Boxer is one politician who doesn’t bend with the wind and hasn’t changed much in her beliefs since being a Marin Supervisor. Every year he thinks she’s too liberal to get re-elected and every year she makes it happen.
“I don’t think she’s changed a bit,” he said.