Professor Brian Weiner
Master of Public Affairs faculty
Chris Matthews, host of MSNBC’s daily news commentary series HARDBALL, political journalist and author, is returning to USF and the Leo T. McCarthy Center as a Visiting Professor in the Masters of Public Affairs program.”
In 2014, through a series of serendipitous connections, Chris Matthews spent nearly a week on our campus. Matthews had met Father Privett and expressed an interest in teaching, and his connections to the city (Matthews had written for both the SF Examiner and SF Chronicle) and to Jesuit education (he earned his undergraduate degree from College of the Holy Cross) made USF a good fit, and the Leo T. McCarthy Center the perfect home for Matthews’ foray into teaching. I was slated to teach one of the core courses in the Masters in Public Affairs program (MoPA) entitled, “Public Affairs and Applied Democratic Theory”, and jumped at the chance to host Matthews (a fellow Philadelphian) in our seminar. This course aims to bridge the disciplinary gap between practical issues of public policy and normative questions of political theory, asking students to reflect both on pragmatic questions of what can be done as well as ethical questions of what should be done to meet our most pressing policy dilemmas.
In brief email conversations with Matthews prior to his arrival on campus, we decided to have students read Matthews’s best-selling book, Hardball (for which, of course, his daily news commentary series on MSNBC is named) and to use the book as a jumping-off point for our four seminar discussions. Hardball describes a political world full of grey—while naïfs tend to be hoodwinked in this world, those without morals are ultimately exposed and fail to achieve their self-serving aims.
We explored this vision of politics with Matthews, challenging him to clarify for us the distinction between what he calls, “clean, aggressive Machiavellian politics,” and politics that goes beyond “hardball”, becoming “dirty” politics. We also asked him to reflect on whether the lessons of Hardball are still applicable to contemporary Washington. Students wondered whether our politics has become so fractured, polarized, and mean-spirited that many of the lessons of the book – preaching the virtues of compromise, working with members of the other party, and deal-making – may have become outdated. Matthews seemed inspired by his time in our seminar (and the students definitely had a blast), and in fact, he spoke of his experiences in our class on one of the Hardball shows taped in San Francisco that week.
Notwithstanding the success of Matthews’ first experience teaching for us in MoPA, when outgoing Leo T. McCarthy Center Director Corey Cook asked me to invite Matthews to return to our classrooms, I harbored little hope for a positive response. Not only, of course, are we in the midst of (a ridiculously early) campaign season, which takes Matthews around the country, hosting post-presidential primary debate shows, but his wife is running for Congress. I had underestimated him—or possibly the pleasure he had experienced engaging with our students—for he accepted our invitation and once again will be leading seminar discussions with our MoPA students.
This time he will visit our core seminar in Applied American Politics, where discussion will center around another of his books, Kennedy and Nixon: The Rivalry That Shaped Postwar America. This book provides MoPA students with Matthews’ lively first-hand account of American politics, chronicling his time working in the Senate, running for Congress, serving as a speechwriter for President Jimmy Carter, and as a top aide to Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill.
We excitedly await our opportunity to engage with Chris Matthews in our attempts to understand American politics more deeply, to reflect on the continuities and discontinuities between American politics and culture, 1946-1970s, to the contemporary period, and to glean his insights as to how one can engage effectively in American politics without losing either one’s soul or one’s sense of humor.