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Chris Matthews, MSNBC host of ‘Hardball,’ quits on air after several controversies

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 3/3/2020 Paul Farhi
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Chris Matthews, the long-running host of “Hardball” on ­MSNBC, announced Monday that he is resigning from the program, an abrupt exit prompted by a series of recent gaffes and controversies.

Matthews, 74, made the announcement at the start of his weeknight program. His resignation is effective immediately, MSNBC said.

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Matthews has been a familiar commentator on cable news for a quarter century, and his departure — which Matthews called a retirement — was a surprise. He appeared for about two minutes at the start of his 7 p.m. program and effectively signed off on his television career.

“Let me start with my headline tonight: I’m retiring,” he said. “This is the last ‘Hardball’ on ­MSNBC, and obviously this isn’t for lack of interest in politics, as you can tell I’ve loved every minute of my 20 years as host of ‘Hardball.’ ”

He thanked viewers and added, “The younger generations . . . are improving the workplace, we’re talking here about better standards than we grew up with, fair standards. A lot of it has to do with how we talk to each other, compliments on a woman’s appearance that some men — including me — might have once incorrectly thought were okay were never okay. Not then and certainly not today, and for making such comments in the past, I’m sorry.”

He paraphrased Humphrey Bogart in “Casablanca”: “We’ll always have ‘Hardball.’ So let’s not say goodbye but till we meet again.”

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The network immediately went to a commercial break.

When the show resumed, political correspondent Steve Kornacki had taken Matthews’s seat. “That was a lot to take in,” he said. Kornacki called Matthews “a legend,” adding “I think you’re going to miss him, and I will, too” — and then went to another commercial break. He returned to present an otherwise normal episode of “Hardball,” discussing the presidential election.

MSNBC has not announced Matthews’s replacement, which suggests his resignation was as sudden and unexpected as it appeared to viewers. A series of interim hosts will fill in for him, a spokesman said.

His departure capped a week of embarrassments.

Matthews apologized last week for comparing Sen. Bernie Sanders’s victory in the Nevada Democratic caucuses to the Nazi invasion of France.

He also was criticized for a skeptical interview with Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) last week. Matthews asked Warren why she believes a female employee who sued former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg accusing him of telling her to “kill” her unborn child.

Bloomberg denied making the statement, and Matthews asked Warren, “You believe he’s lying? Why would he lie? . . . You’re confident of your accusation?” (Warren replied: “Why shouldn’t I believe her?”)

During President Trump’s rally in South Carolina on Friday, Matthews mistook South Carolina Democratic Senate candidate ­Jaime Harrison for Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.). Both are African Americans. And on Saturday, journalist Laura Bassett wrote on GQ.com that Matthews made inappropriate comments to her and other women when they were guests on his show.

The timing of his announcement, just hours before the 14 state primaries on Super Tuesday, raised eyebrows because he was a key figure in MSNBC’s coverage of the presidential race. Several employees said they learned about Matthews’s resignation when it was announced on the air.

An MSNBC spokesman said the network and the host “mutually agreed” to the decision. Others at the network, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk about personnel issues, said Matthews’s departure was tied to the negative attention he’s received in the past 10 days.

Voluble, combative and often loud, Matthews carved out a distinctive persona during his many years on the air. His knowledge and love of politics came from direct experience. In the 1970s, he served on the staffs of four Democratic members of Congress, including Sen. Edmund Muskie of Maine, a one-time presidential candidate. He was also a White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter and chief of staff to House Speaker Thomas “Tip” O’Neill (D-Mass.).

He subsequently became a journalist, covering Washington for the San Francisco Examiner and later the San Francisco Chronicle. But it was on TV that Matthews’s bombastic style stood out. A frequent guest on political chat shows, he began his own talk show, “Politics with Chris Matthews,” on the America’s Talking network, founded by Roger Ailes, who later co-founded the Fox News Channel.

In 1996, NBC converted America’s Talking into MSNBC in partnership with Microsoft and moved Matthews’s program to its sister network, CNBC. His show was renamed “Hardball with Chris Matthews.” It moved to MSNBC in 2000.

MSNBC made no official statements about Matthews but released transcripts of his final program Monday night.

Kornacki paid tribute to him at the end of the program. “What I loved about Chris Matthews is how much he loved politics,” he said. “He knew about the ugly and unflattering aspects of humanity that politics can bring out and even reward. The things that rightly turn off so many Americans to all of it, but Chris could see something beyond that. He could see the possibility that politics could also be used for something noble even amidst all that human frailty.”

Matthews, Kornacki added, “has plenty of intellect, but he also wasn’t afraid to wear his heart on his sleeve. It is what made him so compelling.”

NBC News has been rocked by several scandals in the past few years, most notably sexual assault allegations against Matt Lauer, the former host of the “Today” show who was one of its biggest stars. Lauer, who was fired amid the allegations, has denied wrongdoing.

In a best-selling book last year, “Catch and Kill,” former NBC correspondent Ronan Farrow accused top executives of declining to air his revelations about Harvey Weinstein because the film producer had threatened to expose the Lauer scandal. The network denounced Farrow’s allegations as “a smear” and said his reporting wasn’t ready to be broadcast when he decided to leave NBC and take the Weinstein story to the New Yorker magazine.

paul.farhi@washpost.com

Chris Matthews wearing a suit and tie talking on a cell phone: ”Hardball” host Chris Matthews announced his resignation from the program on Monday. © Omar Rawlings/AFP/Getty Images ”Hardball” host Chris Matthews announced his resignation from the program on Monday.
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