Chris Matthews’ abrupt resignation at the beginning of MSNBC’s "Hardball" Monday night came after several weeks of blunders that prompted the network to take action, say people familiar with the matter.
Mathews spoke to part of the controversy in an on-air apology, saying that "compliments on a woman's appearance that some men, including me, might have thought were okay were never okay...and for making such comments in the past, I’m sorry."
MSNBC had no comment, but people familiar with the matter say the timetable for a planned retirement was suddenly accelerated after a series of mistakes and missteps by the onetime Jimmy Carter speechwriter and Tip O’Neill aide.
But for Matthews, a passionate political junkie, to bow out the day before Super Tuesday, rather than at the end of the primaries or even the end of the week suggests he did not control the timing.
His sudden departure is being portrayed by insiders as a matter of mutual agreement with the network that has employed him for two decades. He told viewers it’s time for a younger generation to take over. But there is no question that the recent spate of self-inflicted wounds rendered him a liability at the left-leaning network.
While people familiar with the matter say Matthews’ retirement had been imminent, they were unable to say whether that meant in weeks, months or after the 2020 election.
Matthews went to break immediately after disclosing his resignation, and the substitute host, Steve Kornacki, looked visibly shocked as he praised his colleague as a legend. But insiders say Kornacki had in fact been notified in advance.
The most high-profile embarrassment in a shaky month came when Matthews likened Bernie Sanders’ victory in Nevada to the Nazi invasion of France in 1940. After a weekend of intense criticism, he apologized to Sanders at the top of “Hardball” last Monday.
The final straw may have been a piece in GQ magazine Saturday by Laura Bassett, who described being a guest on his show in 2017 and was naming him for the first time.
Bassett said the host looked at her in the makeup chair and said, “Why haven’t I fallen in love with you yet?"
Matthews looked over at me in the makeup chair next to him and said, “Why haven’t I fallen in love with you yet?” She says he then told the stylist, “Keep putting makeup on her, I’ll fall in love with her."
Another time, Bassett wrote, Matthews told the makeup artist: “Make sure you wipe this off her face after the show. We don’t make her up so some guy at a bar can look at her like this."
Bassett tweeted moments after the Matthews announcement that “this week has been really rough. The harassment has been invasive, cruel and personal. And it’s all worth it if he will never have the platform to demean and objectify us again."
Matthews has been making such comments about women, on and off the air, for many years, frequently resulting in negative publicity. But there has been no accusation that he tried to touch or to date any of the women. He is married to Kathleen Matthews, a former Washington television anchor and Marriott executive.
Among the other recent incidents that contributed to Matthews’ departure were remarks he made last month after a Democratic debate in New Hampshire. It was a diatribe against socialists:
"I have an attitude about them. I remember the Cold War. I have an attitude toward [Fidel] Castro,” he added. “I believe if Castro and the reds had won the Cold War there would have been executions in Central Park and I might have been one of the ones getting executed. And certain other people would be there cheering."
He added: “I don’t know who Bernie supports over these years, I don’t know what he means by socialism.” Sanders has repeatedly complained that MSNBC treats him unfairly.
In another screwup last week, Matthews confused Jaime Harrison, an African-American candidate for Senate in South Carolina, with another black politician, Tim Scott, the incumbent Republican senator in the state. Harrison corrected him, but Matthews seemed confused before apologizing for the “mistaken identity."
Matthews has always had a verbose, stream-of-consciousness style that was at the heart of his appeal as a political commentator, while also creating awkward and even cringe-worthy moments. Even some of those who like him say that, at 74, he has lately been misspeaking more than usual and sometimes seeming out of touch.
"I aim for the chalk line," Matthews told me in a 2008 interview, during an uproar over his comment that Hillary Clinton owed her political career to her husband’s infidelity. He continued with the tennis analogy: "You try to keep it in. If it hits the chalk line, that's perfect. People have that little gasp and say, 'I can't believe he said that.'"
In the end, Chris Matthews wound up missing the chalk line too many times.