Extra-Cheesy

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POLITICS DECEMBER 16, 2008

Extra-Cheesy

Did you know Chris Matthews was from Philadelphia? I’ll bet you did.

Even those who can’t quite place the MSNBC star’s accent would have a hard time remaining ignorant of his roots in the Keystone State. For years, Matthews’ books and columns and endless gusts of airtime have featured his reminiscences of growing up in the City of Brotherly Love--a sepia-toned place of ruler-wielding Catholic-school nuns, hard-working blue-collar dads, and burly, unglamorous pols like the former mayor and current governor, Edward G. Rendell, a Hardball regular who to Matthews is often just plain “Eddie.”

Until this fall, Matthews’ penchant for on-air evocations of his hometown seemed like a mere televisual shtick. Like Tim Russert’s adoration for Buffalo, it was an easy way for a well-connected and -compensated D.C. figure to cast himself as a working-class outsider. Sure, he may eat canapés with the capital’s prissy VIPs, but he’d rather be wolfing down a soft pretzel with Eddie and the guys at Frankford and Cottman. Same goes for guests like Philly-based Michael Smerconish: “This is tame,” the local columnist and radio host interjected during a primary-season discussion about one of Bill Clinton’s tantrums. “You know what a Philly mayor’s race is like? It makes this stuff look like patsies.” Matthews quickly noted that he’d recently moderated one of the bare-knuckled city’s mayoral debates.

So there, you Washington wussies.

Conveniently for Matthews, Pennsylvania’s status as an election-year battleground provided all sorts of legitimate reasons to drop the names of hometown neighborhoods and Keystone State worthies--small-city mayors, veteran Congressmen, a party boss--or, better yet, to invite them on the show to dissect the state’s demographics and opine about how the state would break at the polls. To his credit, Matthews has cited home-state knowledge in speaking about issues like white racism, even the variety of it his beloved Phillies directed against Jackie Robinson. But his own take on state politics mainly involves shout-outs to every possible euphemism for middle-class. “In Pennsylvania, for example, up in Scranton--mostly white people, Irish-Americans, regular people, not rich, not poor, very much in the middle; northeast Philly, where I grew up, regular people,” he said during one discourse about Barack Obama’s purported difficulties. “How does he connect with the average white guy?”

Just a week before the election, the generally preppy Matthews seemed to be trying to look like one of those mythical average types, doing a show clad in a Phillies hat and matching sweater in a tribute to his team’s World Series triumph. On election night itself, after Obama’s surprisingly solid win in the state, Matthews careened through an impressively thorough list of the state’s off-stage political organizers who made it happen. “I think it’s a big victory for the young people who ran the Pennsylvania campaign,” he said. “Craig Schirmer, Sean Smith, unless they know, I feel like the Academy Award giving out the awards here. Of course, the Philadelphia organization led by Bob Brady and, the Michael Nutter, of course, the mayor. And, of course, the big winner here, besides the candidate, Ed Rendell, who delivered.”

I don’t recall any similar acknowledgement to the unsung Democratic foot-soldiers of Indiana or Virginia or Nevada. But such is the genius of the Hardball host’s on-air persona that even then, with rumors swirling about Matthews’ interest in running for the state’s Senate seat, the roll-call of folks he’d be happy to have helping his own potential campaign seemed somewhat less than gratuitous. Matthews may well be a calculating pol stroking potential allies, but the digression still seemed more like an eight-year-old baseball fan, happily reeling off old on-base-percentage stats just because he can.

Since the election, though, the rumors have gained strength and specificity, if not confirmation. Matthews has reportedly been chatting up Keystone State fundraisers and strategists while sussing out the Philly real estate market, and a poll released on Friday showed him handily leading the Democratic primary field. (His pal Ed Rendell called him “the strongest Democratic candidate without any doubt” on a Bloomberg TV interview this weekend.) In the event he decides to take on incumbent Republican Arlen Specter, of course, every political-geek aside and happy-days recollection would start being parsed. For a lot of would-be candidates returning to home states they left behind decades ago, this could present a problem. Nostalgia for California as it existed during the Reagan governorship won’t get you very far with voters of the Schwarzenegger era; ditto the prospects for someone whose hometown New York banter seems stuck in the age of Abe Beame. Luckily for Matthews, Pennsylvania is an easier place to rediscover: With one of the nation’s oldest populations, and a demographic map that’s been little altered by either domestic or foreign migrations, it’s essentially just like it used to be. Even Philadelphia, where Rendell’s administration capped a renaissance that brought sophisticated restaurants, boutiques, and thousands of new residents to the central city, retains a lowbrow political culture largely unchanged since it was ruled by the decidedly non-cosmopolitan Frank Rizzo.

Still, local ties only go so far. Specter, after all, managed four terms in the Senate despite hailing from Bob Dole’s native Russell, Kansas. Rendell, Matthews’ cheesesteak-chomping, Eagles-cheering beau ideal of a Pennsylvania pol, is actually an Ivy Leaguer from Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Whatever they may do for him on the stump, Matthews’ on-air encomia to the days when factory work was plentiful and religious morality was simple are actually not part of these two towering vote-getters’ personas.

In fact, the spectacle of the well-connected celebrity dropping knowledge about his beloved old home isn’t much of a Philadelphia phenomenon. Rather, the public contrasting of the earthy, exotic old home and the corrupt, selfish new one is a tune that actually makes me a little nostalgic for the city of my youth, the one I abandoned when I moved to Philadelphia. Ah, for the days when my parents would pine for a return to the native heath, when town’s great men rushed to embrace their honest roots elsewhere, the better to distinguish themselves from their backstabbing contemporary colleagues. From log-cabin presidents to row-house talk-show hosts, it’s a trope we knew well growing up back home. In Washington, D.C.

Michael Schaffer is the author of the upcoming One Nation Under Dog.

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