This Country: My Life in Politics and History
“It’s difficult to share the finite details that rise to the surface as Matthews takes the reader from his youth through his life experiences. The bottom line is this is a book that should be read and shared and enjoyed.”
Whether your politics travel on the left, the right, or somewhere in between, Chris Matthews’ recent memoir, This Country: My Life in Politics and History is one that you will not want to miss.
An often repeated saying that Matthews uses in the book is “It’s who you know.” It is that belief that moved him through the successes of his life—and there are many.
Matthews presents his story in three parts: Book I covers his personal history including his family (parents, grandparents, siblings), and his education. In this part he provides details about his two years in the Peace Corps and the time spent in Swaziland helping local businessmen learn how to develop strong businesses. “The Peace Corps has three goals for its volunteers: help develop the country, represent your own country positively, and come home with knowledge of the host country.” It is clear that he met these three objectives.
Book II takes the reader through his beginnings in politics including his unsuccessful campaign for Congress. He shares the lessons he learned from his friends and mentors.
Book III moves him out of direct politics and into his writer’s life as a journalist and television host. In this book he shows how he moved from Washington journalist to DC political outsider to DC political insider to full-time journalist.
Through each of these books, Matthews’ chapters are, for the most part, short, but his clear, concise, and tight writing gives the reader the idea that nothing has been left out. He presents a positive attitude toward all of his experiences, even those disappointments that could have stopped him cold.
In his introduction, Matthews’ contemplates his future, beginning with the Peace Corps, “In June 1968 I sat alone on a public park bench in Montreal a block up from Sainte-Catherine Street and decided where I was going to go in my life.” And it is from that introspection that his worldly wanderings began with Africa.
He credits his Peace Corps work for leading him to take the step and break into politics. “If I hadn’t driven a Suzuki motorbike into all those villages in Africa as a stranger, I doubt I could have broken into politics as I did or later, what I did as a journalist. It was my rite of passage.”
He explains, “The decision to head to Washington, DC, in the winter of 1971 was my life’s second big leap.” To accomplish this, he began his job search by going from office to office dropping his resumé for anyone who would take it. His first success appeared in the form of Wayne Owens, “a young staffer for Democratic senator Frank Moss of Utah.” The only position available was with the US Capitol Police . . . but it was a start.
Throughout the book, Matthews credits his successes to the many people he encountered as he wove his way through politics and journalism. His relationship with Senator Frank Moss clearly provided the guidance he needed to survive in the world of DC politics.
His interactions with senators and presidents are paramount to his successes on the Hill and in his journalistic adventures. Matthews explains his relationship with Tip O’Neill, Speaker of the House, “And so my life as Tip O’Neill’s guy began the education by fire that would break me or make me. “
Matthews discusses the two strengths he got from his experience with O’Neill: character and commitment.
In six years with Tip O’Neill, Matthews learned about character. “Tip O’Neill showed his [character] by getting up each morning and doing battle even on those inauspicious day, months, and years when he knew his old-style liberalism was taking a pummeling. He never quit.”
On commitment: “he was in daily contact with regular people and their problems. Tip O’Neill’s liberalism wasn’t top-down; it was bottom-up. It was less than ideology than the learned recognition of other people’s problems.”
Throughout the book Matthews covers the multitude of mostly positive moves that continued to develop his life’s record. But as he states, “For whatever reason, I had this early curiosity about politics.” And it is safe to say that this curiosity has served him well.
There are many discussions in which Matthews shines a light on what he saw firsthand in the world of DC politics. One of the most fascinating is his views on the Nixon-Watergate debacle. For those who did, and even for those who did not, live through that event, Matthews clearly expresses his observations and shares political candor about how that investigation moved along.
Matthews’ political education, he soon discovered, was “centered on the word patronage.” All work on the Hill was granted based on that word. It goes back to “who you know.”
It should be noted that while his story is based primarily on the many journalistic and political experiences, there is a poignancy to his writing when he talks about meeting Kathleen, his wife, and the deaths of his parents. The closeness of family is an underlying foundation to this story as he shares the importance of the people closest to him and how their support moved him forward.
While Matthews acknowledges the many important people who provided him support and encouragement through his many endeavors, it is most important to recognize that he spends many words on the people who were behind the scenes; those we do not hear a lot about, but who are the important cogs in the wheels that keep the government moving, who provided immense support and guidance as he climbed the ladders to his success.
It’s difficult to share the finite details that rise to the surface as Matthews takes the reader from his youth through his life experiences. The bottom line is this is a book that should be read and shared and enjoyed.
As one finishes reading This Country, one is left with the sense that the story is not over yet— and we should all stay tuned to this station for the next chapter of Chris Matthews’ experiences.