Understanding Chris Matthews’ criticism of Cory Booker

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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Over at the Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf has written an interesting critique of Chris Matthews’ comments about Cory Booker on MSNBC’s “Hardball” last night. But while I generally agree with Friedersdorf’s larger points regarding intellectual honesty, I have to quibble with some of his specific conclusions about the game of politics.

Personally, I find surrogates boring. They are not intellectually honest. I’d much rather watch an analyst or a journalist on TV than a spokesman. That’s just me.

At the same time, if you agree to wear a “surrogate” hat, it is reasonable to expect you to act like a surrogate. This is sort of like joining the army — you check your personal opinions at the door. If you want to express your opinions, that’s fine; don’t join the army. But once you do, you no longer have an opinion. That’s how it works (I’m told.)

This sort of scene, of course, isn’t my bag — which is why I would make a lousy surrogate (or soldier). But being a surrogate is like getting on an airplane. Once you get on, you’re on until the plane lands. Even I get that.

Cory Booker, by agreeing to appear on TV as an Obama surrogate, entered into a tacit agreement with the president to spout the party line. It is clear that Obama’s plan is to play up the class warfare argument and to attack Romney’s time at Bain Capital — so he should have understood that it would be unacceptable to disagree publicly with Obama over that issue.

Now personally, I agree with what Cory said — that this sort of class warfare attack is both destructive and deceitful. But I’m not an Obama surrogate. If Booker was morally opposed to acting like a surrogate, he should have simply declined the role. That would have been the honorable thing to do.

This brings me to Chris Matthews. The man was once brilliant. He has lost a step. Sadly, we have witnessed his slide from truth-teller to what Conor describes as a defender of “partisan hackery.”

Matthews may pose as a journalist these days, but the value he adds (or added) comes largely from the things he learned while working for Tip O’Neill and Jimmy Carter. Matthews understands — and loves — the game of politics.

“What’s a surrogate?” Matthews asked incredulously. He has a point.

What Cory Booker did might have been intellectually honest and admirable. But it most certainly was not how the game is played.

Matt K. Lewis