That changes the perceptions. But I still remember in the 1950s marching up and down Bustleton Avenue in Philadelphia with American flags in our hands.
“What was all that about? It was an attempt to assimilate, to really become American without hyphenation. We were being taught to be Americans by our Depression era, pre-war relatives. They had seen the other side of it.”
When Senator Joe McCarthy came along in 1954 he was a hero to everybody, Matthews says, in a matter of fact way.
“I don’t care what everyone says now or for all this revisionism. The Irish were all for McCarthy,” Matthews maintains.
“He was anti-Communist, he had the black Irish look, he was rough and sweaty and – to put it lightly – somewhat irresponsible.
“But he was on our side against the Communists. He was against the establishment and the elites. He was classic Irish.”
Matthews remembers coming home from school and looking at his family’s first TV set in the 1950s. The Un-American Activities hearings were on all the time, he recalls.
“My mom was rooting for McCarthy against the Communists at Harvard and Brown. McCarthy was the source of tremendous pride. The Irish stuck with him, and if you read my book it was tough as hell for the Kennedys to handle,” he says.
“McCarthy went too far. He was probably drunk most of the time, and totally irresponsible.”
When JFK came along in 1956 he was something completely new.
“He was aristocratic, he was good looking and charming, he was well mannered and intellectual but he was one of us. He could navigate between those worlds,” Matthews says.
For the Irish of the period, good government meant WASP. Irish politicians meant the old city machine, which meant corruption. JFK helped break that mold.
“He was honest as hell, rich as hell, he was a reformer that could work with the old guys too -- they loved him. He was above us too in a way,” Matthews feels.
And what about his elusive subject? Did he love anybody? Who truly knew him?
“It’s such an interesting question,” Matthews says. “Who did he ever fall for in life? I think he fell for Inga Arvard, the former Miss Denmark, who was a total sexpot, a Scandinavian dream girl.
“I also always thought he was nuts over Mary Meyer (the American socialite, painter and former wife of the CIA official Cord Meyer). She didn’t play up to him but she was a hot ticket, she was fun and aristocratic. I think he liked her the most. He always wanted to be around her when he was really feeling terrible.
“And I always want to know who the guy loves. It reveals him. My hunch is it was her.”
Jackie Kennedy was aristocratic and had the polish that JFK craved. In his own narcissistic way, it was what he wanted to look like, Matthews believes.
“He wanted to be standing next to her. He was focused on the right shoes, the right haircut, he had his head massaged to prevent baldness, and he wanted to look good,” says Matthews.
“He was always mystified how Jackie would rise to the occasion, she would always perform better than he could imagine. The way she looked in Paris, the way she looked in Texas in that last week, she could turn on a crowd with Spanish, French. He loved the that regal part of her. There’s no doubt about it.”
What do the Irish care about more than food and sex and booze? Status, we’re all about status, Matthews contends, and he believes that JFK was no different.
“Where do you stand in the scheme of things? What seat do you have, where are you in the room? That’s what we obsess about,” he says.
Going to the mat over status was the theme of another U.S. presidential campaign over the weekend, when HBO broadcast Game Change, the film that focuses on the fall of Senator John McCain’s fortunes and the rise of Sarah Palin’s during the 2008 presidential campaign.
“I saw it three times over the weekend,” Matthews confesses. “You think I’m crazy? I saw it three times all the way through and I thought that Woody Harrelson was spectacular. He stole that film.”
In Game Change Harrelson, playing McCain’s political director Steve Schmidt, confesses that McCain can’t stop watching MSNBC, even though it’s become obvious they’re rooting for Obama.
“Poor John. I feel so bad about that. That got to me,” Matthews confesses.
“We celebrated John all though his first run against Bush because he was such a better man. We rooted for him like mad in that first race in 2000 and we got blown away. And then Obama came along and grabbed us all.
“So I’m at the Al Smith dinner in 2008 at the Waldorf and McCain comes out and gives one of the best speeches I’ve ever heard in my life. It was a barnstormer.
“Then he says, ‘Chris Matthews used to like me.’ Then he lists my table number way in the back and he says, “I guess Chris just doesn’t like me anymore. I can do maverick, I just can’t do messiah.’