Clearing the air on ambitions

Friday, June 22, 2001 at 12:00am

During a contentious question and answer session at the New School in New York City, where I was speaking recently, a woman lobbed a verbal grenade onto the stage. "Would you go back to Pennsylvania and run for office? And if so, would you run as a Democrat or a Republican?"

For a moment, I was uncharacteristically speechless. I paused before giving what I thought was a pretty smart response to the two-part query. "I don't know, and I don't know."

The media buzz triggered by my double-barreled answer indicates the need for a fuller airing of my ambitions at age 55.

When I was a kid, I dreamed of leading a cavalry charge across the plains of Russia. My saber raised high, my horse galloping, I was single-handedly defeating the Communist enemy.

As a fantasy, it's still hard to beat.

When I grew older, my heart stirred to other notions of glory.

As a Philadelphia high-schooler, I wanted to be a U.S. senator. I read "Advise and Consent" with fascination. On a band trip to Washington, I thrilled at the sight of Hubert Humphrey standing before a Capitol elevator. When the Democrats had their convention in Atlantic City, I waited in the crowd to see and shake the hand of the future anti-Vietnam War hero Eugene McCarthy.

I had caught the Senate bug while still in grade school, watching Republican Hugh Scott win his upset in 1958, beginning his long career as the distinguished gentleman from Pennsylvania. In my first national election, I voted for his Democratic colleague, the great liberal reformer Joseph Clark.

But in college, I watched the power of Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Joe McGinniss. Three mornings a week, he jolted the city's breakfast tables and car pools with his 800 words of a.m. audacity. Radio talk-show hosts would open by asking listeners, "So, what do you think of McGinniss?"

In grad school, I made a habit of catching CBS' Eric Sevareid deliver his big-picture reflections on the Vietnam debate. One of Edward R. Murrow's boys from World War II, he spoke with the crisp authority of someone who'd been there. I could not think of anything grander, more vital to the Republic, than to be a TV news commentator.

Judging by my career, those dreams have been powerful. Coming home from Africa in the Peace Corps three decades ago, I came straight here to learn about politics and government. I worked for the estimable Edmund Muskie, wrote speeches for President Carter and served Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill in his daily philosophic battles with President Reagan.

A decade and a half ago, I made my insider's knowledge my ammo in exposing the political system to newspaper readers. I've tried to do the same, a tad more raucously, on TV with "Hardball."

Today, I love what I do. Unlike the elected official, I get to tell the whole truth, not just one side of it. Unlike the politician, I can argue positions honestly and without fear that I might offend a loyal constituent group. Name a politician, president or senator -- Republican or Democrat -- who can honestly claim the same.

I get to write and speak both freely and passionately in a free country, and I get people to listen to me. Short of driving the next Joe Stalin off the map, I can't think of a better thing to do with my life.

Chris Matthews, a nationally syndicated columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, is host of "Hardball" on CNBC and MSNBC.

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