Like Jason, I pretty much agree with every word of Hendrick Hertzberg's recent defense of Matthews. I think Matthews is as earnest, well-informed, and well-intentioned as Hertzberg gives him credit for, which is why I tune into him much more often than any other tele-pundit.
The only thing I'd add is that even some of Matthews outsize flaws speak well of him, relatively speaking. Hertzberg writes that:
The profile that ran in the New York Times Magazine a few weeks ago captured some of Chris (the insecurity, the self-promotion), but some is not all. The insecurity without the huge appetite for life, the self-promotion without the empathic social conscience that lurks somewhere behind all that love of the political game—these give a distorted impression.
True enough. But I've always appreciated how transparent Matthews is with his insecurities and ambitions--there's no pretense to him whatsoever. Compare that with a guy like Tim Russert, who's every bit as self-absorbed and status-obsessed but would have you believe he spends his days on some mountaintop doing the brutally unrewarding work of handing down judgments.
Watching the two of them interact during MSNBC's primary-night coverage is always a treat, with Matthews panting like an over-eager labrador retriever and Russert doing his best Edward R. Murrow impression. My favorite moment came after the Cleveland debate in February, when Matthews kept nudging Russert to admit he'd hooked a "marlin" by getting Hillary to say she regretted her war vote. Every muscle on Russert's face screamed self-congratulation, but he knew it wouldn't be dignified to officially take a bow, and so he just sat there and beamed. Had the roles been reversed, Matthews would have yapped about it all night long--he practically did that anyway. And I, for one, would have preferred it. I'll take Matthews's honesty about who he is and what he's doing over Russert's absurd self-righteousness any day of the week.
P.S. For what it's worth, not only am I not a Matthews friend like Hertzberg, I'm not even an especially disinterested observer like Jason. I wrote a piece about Matthews and Bill O'Reilly and their fellow Catholic populist-pundits back in 2001 (no longer online), for which I interviewed Matthews at his home in Chevy Chase. (I cringed when I read Mark Leibovich's Times magazine profile because it made me realize how much more I could have gotten out of that material if I'd known what I was doing back then.) The piece wasn't especially negative--more anthropological than polemical--but I later heard through various not-so-back-channels--like TNR colleagues who appeared on "Hardball"--that Matthews took it pretty badly. Which, with the benefit of hindsight, is what you'd expect. Frankly, I'd like him less if he'd done a better job repressing his reaction.
Update: Here's that old Matthews piece.