I just interviewed MSNBC “Hardball” host Chris Matthews about his new book, “Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero.”
You know things didn’t go well when, a few minutes after the interview concludes, Matthews’ booker emails my producer:
“I wish you would’ve let me know that Larry was planning on attacking Chris. Chris is always up for a good, healthy debate, but that was really not professional or cool.”
To which my talented, hardworking producer, Jason Rose, responded:
“Larry addressed historical accounts directly related to the subject matter of Mr. Matthews’ book. Larry doesn’t agree with the one-sidedness of the book’s portrayal of JFK.
“Mr. Matthews refused to address Larry’s issue with the book. He refused to debate. Larry made no personal attacks on Mr. Matthews, but tried to address the book’s shortcomings. Given Mr. Matthew’s typical on-air demeanor and style, Larry felt that a spirited debate would be more than manageable by Mr. Matthews.”
Matthews’ book ends in 1989 — as the Berlin Wall came crashing down:
“The Iron Curtain was being ripped aside. Communism was in its death throes. The Cold War was ending without the nuclear war we so feared. We had gotten through it alive, those of us who once hid under those little desks of ours.
“Thanks to him, I’d say. He’d come a long way from the kid who caused trouble at boarding school, from being Joe Kennedy’s son. In the time of our greatest peril, at the moment of ultimate judgment, an American president kept us from the brink, saved us really, kept the smile from being stricken from the planet.
“He did that. He, Jack Kennedy.”
Matthews seems to think that Kennedy “kept us from the brink” two times: first, by Kennedy’s valor in rescuing his crew from the PT 109 he skippered; and second, when he stood down Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev and pushed the world back from thermonuclear war.
As to PT 109, Kennedy unquestionably acted heroically after a Japanese destroyer rammed his boat, splitting it in two and knocking most of the crew into the waters now filled with boat fuel. Matthews goes into great detail about what Kennedy did, how far he swam, how he tugged one crewman by a strap Kennedy pulled with his mouth as he swam — all powerful stuff, well told.
But Matthews says nothing about how and why Kennedy’s boat got into trouble in the first place. The History News Network notes:
“In the general election, Kennedy ran as a war hero. This was ironic. Though he deserved praise for his courage in the aftermath of the attack on PT 109, it had apparently sunk because he had been inattentive as a commander, as (Pulitzer-Prize winning author and historian) Garry Wills long ago pointed out. JFK himself worried that the events could justify either a medal or a court martial. In the end, he got the medal — after his father used his influence.”
Many have written about the less-than-movie-mythical opening scene to the PT 109 saga. But not Matthews, not even to dismiss the claims as untrue or as partisan hit pieces.
As to the second, and the ultimate history-shaping event, a question: Did the Cuban Missile Crisis even have to happen?
Matthews details Kennedy’s calm, deft handling of the crisis — with no interest in whether Kennedy’s own recklessness led to it. During the 2008 presidential campaign, then-Sen. Barack Obama promised negotiations with America’s enemies “without preconditions.” Why not, asked Obama. Kennedy did it with Khrushchev. Bad analogy. Indeed, the young president did meet with Khrushchev in Vienna — over the objections of his secretary of state, Dean Rusk, among others. As Rusk feared, it was a disaster. Khrushchev lectured Kennedy and refused to budge on anything. “Kennedy Talked, Khrushchev Triumphed,” an op-ed in The New York Times said:
“Only a few minutes after parting with Khrushchev, Kennedy (said) the summit meeting had been the ‘roughest thing in my life. … He just beat the hell out of me. I’ve got a terrible problem if he thinks I’m inexperienced and have no guts. …’
“A little more than two months later, Khrushchev gave the go-ahead to begin erecting what would become the Berlin Wall. … And while there were many factors that led to the missile crisis, it is no exaggeration to say that the impression Khrushchev formed at Vienna — of Kennedy as ineffective — was among them.”
On Kennedy’s signal economic achievement — making the case for the deep tax cuts passed after his death — Matthews spends less than a page in a 400-page book.
This brings us to the question of why lefties like Matthews fawn over Kennedy — as to policy. He was, after all, a religious man and a cold warrior who deepened our involvement in Vietnam. He believed in peace through strength: The bigger and badder the military, the less likely it will be used in war. He advocated deep tax cuts — and argued that tax cuts mean eventually more tax revenue.
Kind of like … Ronald Reagan. Odd. Very odd.