Even after nearly 25 years, it's a memory that makes Chris Matthews smile. Matthews, the top aide to former Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill in the 1980s, spoke with President Ronald Reagan at an evening gathering of political rivals.
"Welcome, Mr. President, to the room where we plot against you," Matthews said.
"Oh, no, not after 6," Reagan replied. "Tip says we're all friends after 6."
Matthews, host of Hardball on MSNBC and The Chris Matthews Show on NBC, shared that story and more before an estimated crowd of 1,500 at the Alumni Sports and Fitness Center Wednesday night. His main focus, however, was the current political landscape and the administration of President Barack Obama.
The news anchor and political commentator opened the evening by providing a whirlwind tour of personal history and his experiences in late 20th-century politics. He grew up in the rowhouses of Northeast Philadelphia during a time "when everyone was getting born," he says. "There were 102 kids in my first-grade class."
Matthews then embarked on an analysis of the Obama presidency. He believes that the president's "team of rivals" philosophy, following the model of Abraham Lincoln, is smart.
"I think his coalition with the Clintons is profound," Matthews says. "If he's going to get any deal done in the Middle East, he'll need the Clintons. It's important that they not be out there as a lightning rod. He had to bring them in. I think Joe Biden had a lot to do with that."
Obama's penchant for focusing on far-right Republicans fascinates Matthews. "He never talks about Mitch McConnell or John Boehner, he talks about Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck," Matthews says. "He loves troublemakers, like the birthers and (Sarah) Palin. He wants to say, 'It's a choice between us or the wingnuts.'"
Matthews posed a series of questions he thinks Obama has yet to answer. "What would Obama lose a bill for, or an election for?" he asks. "He needs to discern what he can and can't do. Why did he get involved with the professor (Henry Louis Gates) in Boston, and the Olympics? Are we definitely getting out of Iraq? Are we really getting rid of Gitmo?"
On health care, Matthews says Obama must decide if the public option is essential. "I'm not sure if he's figured this out. Here we are, nine months in, and I'm still waiting to hear the answers."
Following his talk, Matthews joined Stanley M. Brand, Esq., '70 in a discussion moderated by Terry Madonna, director of the Floyd Institute's Center for Politics and Public Affairs. A question-and-answer session with members of the audience followed.
Afghanistan was one of the hot topics of the question-and-answer period.
"We're crazy if we think we can make it our country," Matthews said. "These guys who attacked us on 9/11 learned to fly in Florida, planned in Hamburg, and recruited Saudis. We need to recognize we're not fighting Nazis or charging our way to Berlin.
"At some point, (Obama) has to make up his mind. Take the heat from the left if you believe in it. That's your job as commander in chief, and I don't sense a decision yet."
Franklin & Marshall students who attended the event came away with positive impressions of the political commentator.
"He was eloquent and articulate, and gave a fair view of the presidency," says Elizabeth Meley '13. "He doesn't seem to be favoring Obama the way a lot of the media does. And he tried to answer all the questions fairly."
Marc Schilder '11 also enjoyed the event. "I thought his answers were really candid. He obviously had political opinions, but his responses didn't seem to be too biased or out of line."
Robert Gray, The Honorable and Mrs. John C. Kunkel Professor of Government and chair of the Department of Government, opened the evening by welcoming Matthews to the College.