Following Monday’s sudden retirement/pushing out of longtime MSNBC pundit Chris Matthews after a plethora of recent negative headlines, Hardball still needed someone to see it through to the end. Frequent fill-in host Steve Kornacki was left to soldier on and, while he did, emotions were high.
Matthews’s alleged indiscretions were inappropriate and unacceptable. Then-Daily Caller reporter Amber Athey reported one disturbing allegation after another in late 2017. And yet, MSNBC stayed away and kept Matthews aboard.
That aside, Kornacki handled Monday night with command, genuine (and heartbreaking) emotion, and honest professionalism.
After the first commercial break, a stunned Kornacki appeared only for a few moments before tossing to another one, but not before telling viewers that he was struggling:
Um, that was a lot to take in just now, I'm sure, and I'm sure you're still absorbing that and I am, too --- Chris Mathews is a giant. He's a legend. It's been an honor for me to work with him, to sit in here on occasion and I know how much you meant to him and I know how much he meant to you, and I think you're going to miss him and I know I'm going to. We’re not going to have any bells or whistles here. We do have to fill the rest of this hour. We’re going to take a quick break and come back with the day’s news.
Throughout the show, panelists prefaced their takes on the other news of the day with thanks to Matthews.
Kornacki reemphasized at the end of his first panel that he wanted to “just level with the audience” that “I know where your mind is” and where “my mind is as well.” But he would carry on because “[t]hat’s how the world works.” Again, the epitome of professionalism.
Voto Latino’s Maria Teresa Kumar told of how “[i]t’s almost to the day ten years ago when I first appeared on Super Tuesday and he interviewed me and he wanted to talk about the Latino vote and I have to say his veracity for wanting information, for his curiosity, and for giving this kid a shot, I --- I’m forever grateful to him.”
And then there was both Kornacki and The Washington Post’s Eugene Scott (click “expand”):
SCOTT: Within weeks of starting at The Washington Post, Chris had me on Hardball to about identity politics issues related to race and, quite frankly millennials as well. So it's really important and valuable for him to acknowledge that a generational shift has happened and a new day has come and wanted to provide more opportunities of politicos and journalists and media analysts to have an opportunity to tell the story of where our nation is going.
KORNACKI: Just as a viewer for years, I was a viewer before I was a guest anchor for this show and I just --- he --- he loved bringing new people on. I could see he loved hearing different stories and just trying to understand people. It’s what always came through to me. Okay, the other thing that came through with me with Chris was he loved politics and politics is in the air tonight, so let’s --- let’s talk a little about that.
But it was Kornacki’s closing, a career eulogy that was emotional and heartbreaking as he spoke about a man he’s looked up to.
He started with some truths, which was that “[w]hat I've loved about Chris Mathews is how much he loved politics” and while “[h]e knew the dark side politics…that rightly turn off so many Americans,” Matthews “could see something beyond that” in “the possibility that politics could also be used for something noble, even amidst all that human frailty.”
“The game of politics is always changing, it's always evolving, but what never changes is the force that drives all of it. Human nature, human beings trying to gain power, hold power, use power,” he added.
Between those of us that work in politics for a living and those who some of us like to think have real jobs in real America, there’s statements in there (and below) that we could all latch onto. Libertarian, conservative, moderate, or even socialist, politics stirs something in all of us and, yes, thrills us.
And for his bloviating nonsense, boorish behavior (on- and off-camera), conspiracy theories, delirious guests, far-left views, and the “thrill up my leg,” Matthews loved politics like a lot of us have and still do.
By the end, the normally vibrant and Tony Romo-like Kornacki was near tears as he shared what Matthews has meant to him dating back to when he was a teen (click “expand” emphasis mine):
He is a heck of a writer. He's punchy, he's funny, he's deeply insightful….I still got the copy. This is from my office, 32 years ago. Hardball: How Politics Is Played, Told by One Who Knows the Game. That was the book that launched it all. And, boy, did it live up to its title. Lessons about loyalty, about ego, about ambition, about risk. You can pick up this book today and you can learn just as much about politics, just as much about people as someone 30 years ago picking up the book could. This is what Chris brought to television too. He also brought his boundless energy and curiosity. I first watched Chris when I was a teenager in the mid-1990s. The show wasn't even called Hardball back then. It was called Politics with Chris Mathews. MSNBC didn't exist. It was on CNBC when I first watched it. But I saw it right away, the passion for politics, the love of history, the deep patriotism, the quest for purpose and the fascination of people. It always struck me watching Chris. The people he disagreed with, the people he sparred with, he seemed like he was trying to figure them out, trying to make sense of them, trying to understand them on some level and it was riveting television then and now.
Chris Mathews has plenty of intellect, but he also wasn't afraid to wear his heart on his sleeve. It was what made him so compelling. It is what created such a deep bond between him and you, the viewer. I've seen it. I've witnessed it and the scene has always been the same. I'm at some big political event, a debate, a convention, a big political speech. Chris is there, too, and there is a huge crowd there for the event. Chris walks out, and the crowd goes wild. Chris doesn't just smile and wave, he dives in. He shakes hands, he talks them up. He jokes with them. They love him and he loves them back. Of all the television personalities I've ever known as a viewer, Chris is the most human, and I say that as one of the highest compliments I can pay to someone. I'm sorry. I think you got him, and I think he got you. And all of us are going to miss him. That's Hardball for now. Thanks for watching.