Hardball By Chris Matthews Essay, Research Paper
Review of HARDBALL (by Chris Matthews)
Before I started reading the book Hardball, by Chris Matthews, I had a preconceived idea of what the content of this book would be. From the title of the book I drew the conclusion that Matthews would write more about the darker side of politics and how it is ‘really’ played. I don’t really know much about politics, and frankly, I don’t care much for politics. However, when I hear the word hardball in the context of politics, I think of blood shed. I think of dirty tricks and blackmail and money changing hands in dark places. I even think of the mafia to some degree when I hear the word hardball. Perhaps my notion of hardball was a bit more than what Chris Matthews describes in his book. After reading the book, I think I understood Chris Matthews’ meaning of the word hardball. Maybe I had the wrong idea, or my idea was too exaggerated. Hardball, as I understood after reading this book is “hard-politics”, or “raw politics”. If every instance of the word ‘ball’ in the book would be changed to “politics”, the meaning would remain intact. Therefore, this book describes the art of playing “ball” in Washington and being successful at it. My first impressions of the book were that it was easy to read, made very interesting by the anecdotes Mathews includes, very informative, very logical and understandable. Just as I found out after reading the first book by Susan Guber, the strategies involved with politics can be seamlessly applied to life in general. The book teaches a series of axioms that all politicians ought to learn to be successful. There’s a lot to be learnt from the different tactics described and I can see how someone following these strategies would have an easier time ‘getting ahead’ in life. However, I must also make mention that some of the methods he talks about are not exactly worthy of respect. The content of this book is best described on page 17 where Matthews describes speaking to a congressman in the Democratic cloakroom about writing the book. “Quietly, I confided to one of the members that I was writing a book about the rules of politics, including all the tricks I had overheard in the off-the-record hideaways like this. He look at me, a crease of pain crossing his forehead, and said with dead seriousness, ‘Why do you want to go and give them away?” By describing the concern of this individual, Matthews conveys to the reader that he’s actually going to give detailed accounts of how politicians operate in Washington. The congressman is concerned about what the public would think if they had detailed knowledge of how politicians operate, and that’s actually the most compelling reason for reading this book.
Matthews relates a myriad of examples of how some of today’s most successful politicians rose to the top. The successful politicians are those who learned how to play hardball. They learnt that there were other people besides themselves on the playing field and that when you throw ball in the game of politics, someone is going to be on the other side to catch it and throw it back, and you must be ready for it. This is perhaps most evident in the section of the book called ”Enemies,” where Matthews describes “the rule of power: Keep your enemies in front of you,” as President Reagan did by appointing James A. Baker his first White House chief of staff. Baker had fought Reagan very effectively while working for Gerald R. Ford and George Bush. Keeping your enemies closer even closer than your friends may seem like just another old clich? but in retrospect, it is an important aspect of the politician’s arsenal. In the chapter on loyalty, there’s another important lesson on playing ball. This chapter is entitled, ”Dance with the one that brung ya,”. Among other things, Matthews recalls how fatally John V. Lindsay of New York and John B. Connally of Texas were hurt by switching party allegiances. There’s another lesson on playing ball in the chapter on the art of accepting favors, ”It’s Better to Receive Than to Give,” where he reviews how JFK became President by asking his country what it could do for him. In chapter called “Spin!”, Matthews states that “to mass, uninformed and unanalytical audiences, the moral imagery always outdazzles the scientific.”(pg 178) This is quite a sad statement about the public, but I suppose it’s generally true and it’s all a part of playing ball in Washington, or any place for that matter.
The book seems to be intermittently based on the author’s own 17 years experience (up to that time) in Washington as, among other roles, an aide to Senator Frank E. Moss of Utah, a speechwriter for President Carter and, for six years, chief spokesman for former House Speaker Tip. O’Neill. Although the book is more anecdotal than autobiographical, most of its material seems so fresh and original. I am having a hard time believing that this book was actually written in 1988. But then again, I guess the tactics of politics are timeless. In chapter 4 he describes a scenario that makes it seem like he wrote this book sometime in the last two months. It says, “Did you ever notice that swings in the economy nearly correspond to the political calendar? Recessions usually occur in the first year after a president wins an election. Recoveries are timed to reach full vigor as the country is poised for a new political season. A president knows that he must complete his term on an economic upswing. If he is going to squeeze out the inflation and cut some benefit programs, he’d better do it right up front so that the pain is forgotten by the next election.” (pp. 83-84) That point really stood out to me because it seems to fit right into the current situation of the economy. I’ve been hearing a lot of talk lately about the dreaded ‘R’ word – recession. And it’s so ironic that the president has just taken up his office. As I read this book the ‘game’ of politics seems to become less vague. This is not to say that I’ll soon be ready to enter the political arena, but I am being taught to recognize that there is more to politics than meets the eye, so to speak. I guess this book is really a contemporary version of ”The Prince” by Niccolo Machiavelli. I found one of the most penetrating section of the book, in terms of playing hardball, to be Matthews’ analysis of how Reagan made himself seem what he was not. That is, how he had distanced himself from his office so that he would not seem responsible ”when disaster struck, when programs failed, when his appointees did embarrassing things.”
I am not very familiar with the world of politics and I found myself stuck sometimes with some of the terms he used in the book. One of the first of these terms was the “spin,” which Matthews states as “defining the events in the most self-serving way possible.” (p. 171) I understood this best with his description towards the end of how Clinton anointed himself ‘the comeback kid”. Matthews also explains a couple of political maneuvers were unfamiliar to me. “Lowballing” is the method of manipulating the public’s expectation about an upcoming election result or poll with an articificially low estimate for possible future political gain. Matthews also explains the related technique of “sandbagging.” He says, “One of the most effective means of diminishing your opponent’s stature is to advertise his strengths, to set unreasonable expectations of his potential.” (p. 201) Matthews sums up these latter two techniques thus: “In both lowballing and sandbagging, the principle is the same: create a handicapping system that makes any success of yours seem bigger than it is and your opponent’s victory much smaller.” (p. 202)
Politics is a game that not everyone can play, as was made evident in this book. One has to have certain qualities and be able to do certain things that the average person would never do. One has to follow a certain set of rules and look to the past for instruction on what to do in certain situations. Matthews writes “To get ahead in life, you can learn a great deal from those who get ahead for a living…People are jockeying for position, all the while keeping an eye on the competition. There’s a magnetism to this world of make-or-break.” According to Matthews, there are certain ways in which people can get a head in politics, and he gave many examples of the past to support these tactics. The four main areas in which these tactics lie are alliances, enemies, deals, and reputations – the titles he so appropriately gave to the different sections of the book. Matthews does a great job of explaining the game of politics to even I, who doesn’t know much about the game, or even care much for the game. Through the use of understandable examples that have occurred throughout this century, Matthews enables anyone to see the tactics that politicians use in getting ahead in Washington. The language that Matthews uses sometimes is not understandable, but this is only to those like myself who aren’t too familiar with political vocabulary. Although the title threw me off a little in the beginning, I was able to get the full sense of what Matthews was talking about. I will no longer look at Washington as a place full of dull, boring old men. Washington is all politics and only those who can play hardball will survive.
Hardball, Chris Matthews